Never Underestimate the Power of Small Things
The popular idiom says the truth: the devil is in the detail. Usually underestimated and considered a "second class citizen", something superfluous, details have a lot of power. Of course, when isolated, they seem almost irrelevant; but when you look at the bigger picture, with all the little details together, they can really impact an experience - for better and for worst.
Small things that bother us, although irrelevant if looked in isolation, can have a big impact in the long term. Physically and emotionally. Like when you get a new t-shirt and it has an inside label that slightly scratches your skin. As soon as you wear it, you won't care, but after 8 hours wearing it, it will feel so annoying!
In my understanding, the IT environment for women is full of these little things. And we have a tendency to judge incidents and facts in isolation - "that was just an innocent comment", or "everybody uses this term", "it's part of the common sense", and so on, and so on. I recently came across this excellent article from the blog Not a Pattern: Ways men in tech are unintentionally sexist. I particularly don't consider all that stuff specifically sexist, but they are certainly annoying. If you read the article, you will see that it's not only about men. We all tend to behave like this sometimes, unintentionally, and they all look like little and irrelevant things when isolated, but if you consider how it feels to live your whole life being exposed to this kind of stuff, yeah, it has an impact. Eventually, you fed up, even if you cannot explain exactly what makes you feel so uncomfortable.
I grew up used to be part of groups where I was one of the very few girls. I soon learned that the best thing to do would be to just behave in some way like a boy, and everything would be OK - they would let me in the "club". I kept using the same strategy when I grew older and joined the IT industry. I would not bother with the conversations about women and such, I would just ignore (often making use of headphones) the comments when the guys would get together around one of the computers looking at some random girl photos, or when they would be making fun of a women for any reason. Sometimes I could join the conversation to kinda "prove" I was part of the pack - that made me feel safe.
Mind that I had my reasons to force an entrance to the "boys club". There were countless situations where the environment surrounding me made it clear that the boys just had so much more fun than the girls! Starting with toys, and going through all sorts of things that made me hate situations where I would get "stuck with the girls". It was just unfair to miss so many cool things only because I was a girl.
I am aware that the "pack" behavior is something I still do from time to time. It's unconscious, an automatic, self-defense strategy. If I'm equal to them, they look harmless. Problem is that it's not a real solution for the problems we face in our environment. Eventually, it makes you feel extremely confused about who you really are, and what are your true values. The extra effort to "be one of them" and join the "cool IT club" suddenly becomes a heavy burden to carry on. After more than a decade working in this industry, I see that this is what makes many women leave the tech scene to find relief in other careers.
The continuous exposure to the "little details" have a certain and unavoidable result: making us feel unwelcome. Every time we go to a conference and there are only male sized t-shirts; every time we try to find a more equilibrated speakers lineup and we can only find men; these things send a message that keeps being broadcasted all the time: you are not welcome in our club.
It's important to understand that every little thing counts. For worst, and also for the better - if we want to change our environment, we must believe in the little acts, cause they will have an effect in the long term. Thinking twice before making any kind of assumption based on gender; making an extra effort to increase diversity in an event that you organize; having also female sized t-shirts available; having a code of conduct to assure good behavior and accountability. These things are still seen as irrelevant details by many people, but in fact they are important blocks that will help building more diversity and a healthy, welcoming environment for women in IT. Never underestimate the power of small things.
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