This is not OK

After the first session at StrangeLoop, I ran downstairs, heading for the side of the lobby with the women’s restroom. I had to pee. Halfway there I looked up; it said “Men’s Restroom.” Turned around: “Men’s Restroom.” Wait a minute.

The venue converted the women’s room into a men’s to alleviate overcrowding. They did not ask the conference organizers. The ushers remarked later that it was the first time they’d ever changed the main women’s room into a men’s, while the other way around was common enough.

Trapped between two men’s rooms, I flipped out. I had to pee and this was NOT OK. An usher pointed me around the corner, where the Family Restroom was relabeled “Ladies.” It was a one-seater.

There was no line.

That day in the Family Restroom I threw a fit. Hurled my water bottle at the wall and screamed, “This is not OK!”

StrangeLoop is the most awesome of programming conferences, with less “you can use this in your day job tomorrow” and more “you can think about this for months and then it will embiggen everything you do.” Seven of the speakers at the conference were women, better than the local conferences I’ve attended this year. Thirty or forty women attended, of over a thousand. 3%.

I exited that bathroom and looked around at the sea of men, and it looked different than ten minutes before. Ten minutes ago it was expected. Now it was NOT OK.

There are women in programming. Usually there are a few other women wherever I’ve worked, something like 15%. (More at Amdocs, which was an Israeli company.) Look at the women who attend conferences, and there are fewer, around 10%. Take a highly technical, serious-about-this conference like StrangeLoop, and we’re down to 3%.  Speakers at technical conferences are somewhere between 3-10%, partly because organizers recognize that women speakers are a good influence on the industry and bring more women attendees.

The rest of the conference, I veered far from my usual mode of operation. Instead of talking among my friends and targeting mostly men to meet, I chased down women in hallways to say hello. Ines Sombra suggested over twitter a gathering for drinks that evening, and it became my mission to invite every woman I saw.

Saint Louis has a vibrant software industry, especially lately. We have a shocking variety of user groups; I’ve spoken at six this year. There’s a group for every ecosystem and favored text editor. Across the board, attendance is 30-50, yet if I see another woman I get excited. At first, people thought I was a recruiter. Extroverted female at a programming group? It was a reasonable assumption.

Monday evening at StrangeLoop, fourteen passionate women programmers sat around three pushed-together tables. We broke into conversations with the people nearest us. I had before never spoken with three other women about technical topics. It felt good! It felt really, really good. We considered starting a group for women in tech in St. Louis.

There aren’t enough women in programming. I applaud those who work to get more girls to choose STEM careers. (shout-out to Atomic Object, who sent a few of my favorite people to StrangeLoop.) There are initiatives to raise awareness of bias and sexism in the workplace. There is encouragement for women to speak at conferences. But what about the level above that?

There are speakers, and then there are respected thought leaders. The keynoters, the language designers, the authors of seminal texts. Where are the women there? Can you name one in this millenium?

Enrollment of women in computer science is decreasing. The women who do program move up to project management instead of architecture. Senior developers go home at five thirty while their husbands lead user groups. Why?

I want to find role models at the very top of our industry. I want to make talking tech with other women  commonplace. I want to encourage women to make programming a career. I want more women at StrangeLoop.

69 thoughts on “This is not OK

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  7. Exceilent blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get advice from other experienced individuaIs that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Appreciate it!

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  8. Friend of mine reversed the gender roles in that he stayed home and looked after their child while she continued her career.1). Women don't like it – he was not accepted by the mothers – not treated badly but was not welcomed either.2). Their marriage is in difficulties now – she doesn't respect him and seems to want him to do traditional male roles (ie suggesting dinner, organising 'dates'. of course she is the breadwinner, and its lowers her estimation of him.It started out fine, but as the years have gone on its no longer fine for them.So I disagree with you basic idea.\”just because of the general outspoken male horniness of our world\”And I have no idea what this means.

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  9. If you want to stop women leaving and get them joining you have to understand why it is happening and not automatically assume sexism.Why for example do women prefer project management to architecture? (your assertion, I do not know if there is any evidence to support it).I find it strange because there were more women in IT when I was a young programmer than there seem to be now, at least in the west – places like INdia and Asia seem to attract women more, as do Stem subjects generally – why would that be?One problem is that IT generally is seen as Geeky, boring, non-glamourous. Western women seem to want to be glamouous, sey, stylish etc, and becasie they don't associate STEM with that maybe they look elsewhere. I see increasing numbers of women in the software business in Business Analysis, management, marketing, sales, recruitment. I also see quite a few in QA roles. But programming and architecture much less. Why is that? I perceive no discrimination, but all the roles mentioned where women seem to drift to are all people oriented. Perhaps women want to feel they are in more people oriented roles and mis-perceive programming and architecture as non-people roles (not really true, but its perception that matters.A lot of women want work-life balance and large corporates are (possibly) more likely to supply that – perhaps that impacts the views of younger women – ie they are less involved in language design (because corporates typically don't do that) and more involved in other areas, thus are hidden at strange loop and the like.I know one university in the US a few years ago was focusing on Python as the teaching language becasue you can focus more on the basic CS, rather than C, Java etc because there is more crud before you get to the real CS. This attracted more young women (and also men who were not extreme geeks). Then when they had mastered basic CS they could move onto the other languages.Whatever the causes if you want change you need to understand what women are looking for and how IT generally matches up.I dont have the answers, but I think there needs ot be unbiased research into what women actually want from life and career and then look at what might change perceptions. Assumptions of sexism alone wont change anything.

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  10. \”There needs to be a good amount of female role models on the highly technical side too.\”Why? Surely it comes down to what people want? Nothing should exclude women (or anyone else) but there shouldn't be anguish of women or anyone else do nto want a career in the hard core techy side. Many men also don't want the hard core techy side, its all about choice.

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