The pony tail
When I was in Kindergarten, my dad stopped the practical haircuts at home and I started growing my hair like all the other girls. So mum put my hair into a ponytail most days, especially once dad let go of cutting my fringe (he still offers sometimes, but I politely decline).
We had this pony tail routine down pat, mum and I, and she patiently obliged to do it again and again until it was ‘not lumpy’ and lived up to my expectations. Then one day, she had to go to hospital for a week. I think I was about 5 or 6 and now it was dad at home taking on mum’s role, making yummy lunches and also fixing my hair. Or trying to.
Poor dad got a lot of complaints from me about his pony tail skills, because I expected him to be able to just do it, even though he’d never tied anyone’s hair until that point. Patience having never been my strength meant that I simply decided to do it myself. So I practiced and managed to do my own hair from then on. And I did.
Fast forward to December 2014 and a little bike crash that resulted in a broken right elbow. Again, I was reliant on someone else to sort out my hair. This time it’s a bit more important because I wasn’t spending my days in the kindergarten playground, but working for a bank, so I needed to look somewhat presentable.
My husband, also a pony tail newbie at that point, tried once. It didn’t really work. Again, I decided to find a solution that I could handle on my own. This involved laying down on my back on the bed with my head over the side and my hair dangling down so I could grab it with one hand and tie the hair band around it. It looked comical but it worked and I could do it by myself.
I didn’t give hubby much of a chance to even develop any hair fixing skills. I assumed it would be easy because the concept of grabbing a bunch of long hair and wrangling a rubber band around it seemed very simple for me from a mechanical standpoint, but I have years of experience. Maybe it isn’t easy at all. (how would they cope if I asked for a French braid?)
Women + Data talk in London
But what does that have to do with women in tech?
A lot actually. At least in my view.
A week ago when I was in London, Andy organised a women + data talk for The Information Lab and Exasol staff, where I spoke about my experience from working in Tech for the last 6 1/2 years, some of the challenges, but also the rewards.
The audience was very diverse, respresenting people across technical, sales and management roles from the beginning of their career to established people and company leaders. We all work with various colleagues, customer, clients and partners.
The evening turned into much more of a debate and discussion than I anticipated, but the topics we covered are important ones to talk about and it felt like a lot of challenges, issues, opinions, and questions were brought to light.
What I noticed and what I want to focus on now is the disconnect which is where the pony tail story comes in.
Different levels of awareness
Many women in tech (or in any other industry that is still largely a ‘male domain’) have experienced sexism, sexual harrassment or just behaviour that is plain annoying.
I like to think that many of the men we come in contact with in this industry do not intend to make us feel patronised, belittled, inferior, ridiculed or in any way uncomfortable when they make jokes or comments or act a certain way. A lot of this stuff is simply a habit that was never corrected, which doesn’t mean it’s right, but it just is. That’s the situation we have to work with.
I also think that over the years of our careers us women have accumulated a decent list of situations that have annoyed us or made us feel small, threatened, etc. And it’s not just at work of course. Just try being a woman going for a morning run past a construction site and you will get a sense of the everyday sexual aggression we face.
Having accumulated a list things we want changed and behaviours we don’t want to put up with anymore, is similar to all the practice we’ve had tying a pony tail.
And then comes a time, just like last week’s event or any other similar discussion, when we suddenly have the chance to put it all on the table and say it like it is. At least some of the stuff. And for some of our male peers this is actually the first time they’ve heard about it or have been confronted with the significance of it.
And they’re probably shocked (at least I hope they are). Very likely they are thinking about some of the comments or jokes they have made or situations they’ve been in and yes, maybe they behaved at some point exactly like the people we’re complaining about. That’s not a comfortable position to be in, but awareness and knowledge are important to make change happen.
Awareness is important for change
People know there are certain issues, but some of the topics we discussed last week were probably new to the men in the room. And I assume that most of the women, myself included, are impatient about making change happen. We want people to recognise the problems and immediately put an end to them.
But we’ve had years of being confronted with stuff, dealing with it, thinking about it, talking to friends and peers about it, reading about it, being angry about it, planning how to fight back next time, and deciding to not put up with it anymore. We’ve got practice, experience and a fair bit of knowledge too.
If we want to see changes happen, we need to give the men around us the chance to catch up. Just like my dad and my husband have no idea how to tie the perfect pony tail, there are many men out there in our industry who aren’t aware of the challenges we face.
Yes, people write about it, but that’s not enough. Reading an article by an influential blogger is great, but being made aware of things as they occur is likely more effective for small and lasting changes to happen.
It’s not about removing humor and office banter and having to weigh one’s words. Pointing out situations and comments that are unnecessary even if meant as a joke, could be a good way to raise awareness.
It will take time and patience. And us women need to make sure people know what the problem is so they can act accordingly. This is not to say that the onus is on us, because if men behave inappropriately, then it’s definitely their duty to change it. Some of them need to be told, though, and we need to call things out. Every single time.
For us and those coming after us
When I was a kid I learned to ‘deal’ with my problem by developing a new skill and fixing my own hair. Our professional careers aren’t that simple and we can’t solve all the challenges ourselves, especially when they involve, at the core of everything, the people around us. The people can be the problem, but they can also be the solution.
Rather than developing ‘coping mechanisms’ and putting up with behaviours that are simply unacceptable, I would like to encourage everyone to start (or continue) the conversation, to call things out when they see them and to drive that change with patience and persistence.
Yes, it will take time but it’s worth it. We work in an exciting industry with so much innovation and interesting work to be done. We deserve for it to be a great experience not just for ourselves, but also the girls and young women coming after us.