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Technology, Women and Equity at the 2014 Grace Hopper Conference

I am proud of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (@ghc) community this week for raising important issues and grappling with uncomfortable, difficult-to-solve questions.

I appreciate FirstRain’s own Penny Herscher (@pennyherscher) for putting herself out there to moderate the Male Allies Panel, despite the concerns going-in about how to constructively include that perspective.  The fiery reaction to that session raised the level of engagement around deep-seated systemic equity issues in our industry in a way that would not have been achieved otherwise.  And in Penny’s usual way — she engaged those issues head-on, in direct personal and online exchanges with the men & women, leadership & grassroots members of the community.

Satya Nadella’s wrong-headed comment the next morning  (as he has acknowledged), underscored the complacency and problems around gender-equity issues, even among the thoughtful and well-intentioned.  This forced the realization that this is not an simply an issue of perception, interpretation or over-reaction. But will require a real introspection and major change — even from colleagues and leaders who are confident they are already totally on-board and acting as allies for equity.

This was the near-perfect opportunity, timing and forum to examine the truth.  It is remarkable that even given the charged emotions around this,  the discussion started relatively politely, and besides excessive piling on, it remained safe — this in stark contrast to the ugly violent targeting has been simultaneously unfolding around GamerGate.  Which only further highlights the reality of the technology industry’s toxic differences in how men and women are treated.

It is too bad that before Nadella’s KarmaGate comment, he stated one of my favorite quotes of the whole conference — summing up why I’ve loved doing this work, nearly every day for over two decades: 

“[We work with] the most malleable of our resources, software… That’s the rich canvas that we get to shape… paint…”  -Satya Nadella

He nailed it.  He put his finger on that the one thing that probably links all the men and women in that event.  This is a deep-thinker who understands the heart of matters, which is what made his later comment so doubly surprising and disheartening.

I am encouraged to see the after-effects like Alan Eustace trying to do things differently.  And honest conversations with ABI executives about their awareness and struggle with the impossible balance of growing their reach and impact while containing the inevitable, unintended side effect of corporate co-opting.

To all of you “good guys who do care” — Satya, Alan, Mike Schroepfer, Blake Irving, Tayloe Stansbury — less patronizing talk is nice, listening is refreshing, but which of you and your companies is going to commit to results?

==> Here my question to all the “good guys” out there as well as my fellow female leaders:  Who is going to set and deliver specific targets for ratios of women and minorities that reflect the real population — in technical leadership by a specific date… 2016? 2017? Who is going to hack their orgs & companies to solve this problem, rather than running feel-good, look-good “programs”?  

The Grace Hopper Celebration is an inspiring, important and high-quality gathering in an industry that is littered with mediocre PR-flogging events.  

  • The technical and career presentations are given by presenters who truly care about their audience and strive to offer a valuable, nutritious exchanges — not just advance some commercial agenda.

  • The leaders remind us of how our work is linked to important broader social dynamics outside of our privileged community. The ABI exec responsible for this conference, introduced the eye-opening Male Allies Panel with a personal reminder about about how social change is about connecting across communities:

“The Asian community owes a lot to the black community. They opened a lot of doors for us [in the fight for equality].” -Barb Gee

  • From early mornings until late into the night, it was a surround-sound ocean of substantive discussions between old friends, colleagues and strangers about leading-edge technical work, honest and vulnerable personal experiences, deep examinations of culture, inclusiveness, safety, aspirations and disappointments.

  • There is a natural balance of empowering women create change in themselves and their environments. While calling out that real change is impossible without the corporations, managers and executives, and yes the men who make up 80% of our co-workers, to fully own making that change with us.

I’m not going to end this post with some rah-rah “just go get ’em girls!” trope. Because the women technologists are already out there — delivering effort, innovation and results at 120% while receiving 70%… 80%… (to be wildly optimistic) of the recognition and reward.

I will share just one final favorite conference quote, which is how this gathering makes me feel every time I attend:

"… at #GHC14… Just not enough space to desc. Wow. Much women. So much brain” -@michelesliger

It is our industry and companies that need to be fixed, not the women in it. I have to believe it is becoming increasingly obvious to our leaders, managers and co-workers that under-valuing this incredibly intellectual resource is idiotic, bad business, and just plain wrong.

- YY Lee (@thisisyy), COO of FirstRain



Circuit Diagram by XKCD