Studies have shown that diverse teams are more successful than homogeneous teams. I’m lucky enough to have worked on several teams full of diverse and interesting people. I want everyone to have the opportunity to work with folks whose life stories are similar to theirs and to work with folks different from them.
There is currently a large focus on increasing the numbers of women and racial minorities in tech. It seems at every tech event I attend I hear about a new initiative to fix “the pipeline problem”. I’m increasingly getting asked to attend, speak, or otherwise participate in events solely focused on diversity issues. I think these events can be beneficial but I mostly avoid them. I find them exhausting and I usually feel that there are others who are much more qualified to lead these efforts. In short:
My name is Aja and I don’t enjoy diversity work. And that’s okay.
I’m happiest when I’m making things with computers, talking about computers, or hanging out with other nerds of all sorts.
Several years ago I came up with some rough guidelines to help me decide what events I would participate in and what I would decline.
- Technical talks
- Talks about why STEM is awesome
- Events for kids
- Being the token woman at your event
- Talks about tech culture
- Career advice talks or panels
- Talks or panels about “Being A Woman In Tech”
- Events for groups that believe minorities do not deserve equal pay/opportunities/respect
I like speaking about technical topics. Getting on stage and walking through a pile of code or some complex algorithm is fun. It is even more fun when the audience is full of nerds who understand what I’m saying and politely challenge my ideas.
I also like talking to children or non-technologists about technology. I love when a kid asks a really insightful question or excitedly shows off their current coding project. I enjoy teaching folks how their “Wizard Box” (computer) actually does things. I like dispelling the myth that STEM is only for pocket protector wearing geniuses. These events make me excited about tech on even the most frustrating days.
The “Maybe” list is the things I might do but I’m more selective about. I have done everything on that list. Sometimes it has gone well but sometimes it has gone poorly. For example, “Being the Token Woman” is usually okay but sometimes it turns into being representative of all women and that isn’t pleasant. (See XKCD’s How It Works). I’ve successfully mentored a few people over the years. I’ve also unsuccessfully mentored a few people. I’ve done one talk on tech culture and it was a blast. It was also very stressful. I’m impressed with folks like Ernie Miller who often give culture talks.
I evaluate things in the “Maybe” category on a case by case basis. If my participation as a speaker, attendee, or mentor has a reasonable chance of success I’m more likely to say yes. If something is relevant to my current tech passions I’m more likely to say yes. If I haven’t spoken or taught in a while I’m more likely to say yes. These events aren’t my highest priority though.
I’m just not comfortable doing a talk about being a woman in tech. Truthfully, I’m not comfortable talking to friends or colleagues about being a woman in tech. Luckily, I’m not obligated to talk about things that make me uncomfortable. My preferred interaction at women in tech events is to be an ally. I think one of the most important things an ally can do is to create space for others to speak and then listen attentively.