Last night, I attended a female only event at the Microsoft Research Laboratory – Engineering the Future.
It was slightly recruitment heavy (and I am happily employed), but I figured it would be worth checking out, because they do cool things there.
Now, I’m typically averse to attending female only events – I think in a culture that is attempting to gain more gender diversity, aiming at one specific gender in this manner is probably counter productive. Also, it brings its own issues.
Before I really get into the meat of this – I really enjoyed the event, and the projects that were showcased to us were amazing. It looks like great work to be involved in, and I’m really happy that I got an invite to this.
That said, lets get back to the female only part.
So, there is a drive to attract more women to the Software Engineering world. Last night, that very problem was kind of apparent. In the only Microsoft Research lab in this country, this female only event had only approximately 50-60 attendees.
When you factor in that this is representative of people in a country, not just a city, for a company as huge as Microsoft, it’s easy to see that the ratio of Men : Women in the field is very off. I also factored in after some networking that a significant portion of the attendees were people studying for PHD’s or other degrees – and were somewhat unsure of where they would aim to be employed. In a nutshell – they aren’t quite software developers yet, and some seem undecided as to whether that will be something they are aiming for at all.
This brings us to another consideration – why aren’t women aiming for a career in technology? Events like these are supposed to help, right?
To be honest, I’m not sure if gender specific events are the answer here. At the beginning of last nights presentations, it was noted that non-gender specific events like this had been run before – but 95% of the attendees were male, hence they decided to try a female only event. I can see the logic. The previous way was obviously not attracting any more women, so they switched the format slightly and had another pop at it.
So, let’s examine the presentation content. One of the reasons I tend to avoid female only events is because some gender bias comes into play in terms of what is presented. You will find that less of the ‘we’re working on this because we thought it would be cool to try’ content, and more of the ‘here’s a human interest project that’s all for a good cause’ content instead.
I guess the thing that bugs me here is that there seems to be an assumption that a lack of dangly bits means that women can’t appreciate something that is being done for the sake of seeing if it can be come, and that we should only be enthusiastic about things that can help us to cure diseases, or world hunger, or other worthy and caring causes. It almost sends a message that as women, we’re supposed to only work on serious things, and forego anything that is more typically fun in that sense.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t think human interest projects are not cool and amazing, and can’t be fun – they are, and I love hearing about them – but I also love the cool ‘here’s something we’re trying without being quite sure why’ stuff as well.
I have a suspicion that a non gender specific event would have had a more even balance of both kinds of projects to showcase. Targeted events like this actually put me off somewhat, as the assumption that I somehow cannot be spoken to on the same level as a man in this field is somewhat demeaning. That said, non-gendered events have been around for a while, and they have done nothing to solve the problem of the lack of women in this industry. Maybe this approach is the way forward. Honestly, I don’t actually have a better idea on how to address it.
All I know is that as a female software developer, what really bugs me is being set apart from my peers and treated as if I’m somehow different, or less able to appreciate or understand things, just because I’m female. * To be truly diverse, surely we should be able to ignore things like gender, creed, and colour and speak to everyone the same? Sadly, we still seem to be quite far away from this.
As a final note, this push to bring more women into the field also has another unintended result – it’s very easy to get a job because I tick all the right HR check boxes. This comes with the added bonus that I can be seen as a ‘quota’ hire. I find myself having to work twice as hard, and be twice as good as my peers, just to prove that I’m actually worthy of both the job and some respect. I don’t think either gender gets a win from this, and I suspect the same can be said of other typically minority groups in the field as well.
It’s an interesting problem, and with no easy solution. We certainly aren’t there yet, but I feel that gender specific events and hiring guidelines aren’t actually helping in the way that was intended. I’d love for us to be at a point where the criteria becomes ‘is this person right for the job or event’ as opposed to ‘this person has a characteristic they can do nothing about’.
* Just to add – last nights event did not make me feel demeaned, etc, at all, and was truly enjoyable. I just question the current methods being used to try and encourage women to join this field, as even without a better suggestion, I’m not sure the current ideas are working either!