In my 16 years as an engineer, I’ve been in the professional world while being perceived as both genders. When I began my career, I presented as a man—the gender assigned to me at birth. Years later, I transitioned to live and work openly as a woman. This perspective has given me an appreciation of the difference that gender makes.
As a woman who codes, I’ve been subjected to far more professional scrutiny than I ever faced as a man. Offering “proof” of my technical competency became a new norm. I learned to anticipate the doubt by bulletproofing my work, making sure my methods are airtight, and thoroughly vetting my ideas from every conceivable angle. When I presented as a man, I benefited from blind acceptance and immediate affirmation. This is just one example of how women in engineering invest extra time and energy to get their jobs done. Of course, that’s after they’ve overcome other gender-specific barriers to entry.
Much of the conversation around tech’s diversity problem focuses on how industry leaders can drive progress—from recruiting strategies to significant institutional partnerships to addressing the educational pipeline. Of course, good leadership is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Everyone from interns to the C-level plays a role in shaping the culture, so it needs to take place from the top down and from the bottom up. Creating a better, inclusive industry requires everyone’s participation—not just those in HR and the C-suites. Here are a few ways we can start.
Give credit where it’s due
Whenever I’m in a meeting, I’ve gotten into the habit of taking notes on who proposes specific ideas. Many times, I’ve witnessed people dismiss an idea when a woman proposes it but voice support when a man offers the same solution. This is made worse by evidence that women tend to devalue their ideas and avoid recognition when working alongside men.
Giving credit where credit is due draws focus to the real contributions that are driving value for the team and creates a positive work environment in which people feel valued. Research shows that in addition to boosting morale, recognition can improve productivity and overall job satisfaction.
Assume that women in tech are in technical roles
Another vital way to give credit is always to assume women in industry settings are technical until they tell you otherwise. On one occasion, a developer jumped to mansplain to me how certain parts of software systems worked. It didn’t even cross his mind that I was the engineer who built them in the first place.
I realize that it may sound a bit odd to encourage an assumption. But all too often, people automatically assume that women are in marketing and HR roles. This is incredibly isolating and sends the message that they don’t belong.
Be mindful of company events
When it comes to social recreation, the tech industry falls prey to a common pitfall: majority rule. Though it appears fair on the surface, it falls short when you consider that women and other underrepresented groups frequently feel excluded from the fun. Sometimes the activities may seem innocuous, such as a March Madness official pool or a paintball tournament—but other times, they’re patently ridiculous.
The point here is not to quibble about whether women like gambling or throwing dye-filled capsules at one another. It’s about being aware of how socialization choices affect the group. It’s all too common for hangouts to skew toward male-centric interests and for those gatherings to become repetitive and routine. This goes beyond the question of gender. You might enjoy rock climbing, for example, but is that enjoyable and accessible to everyone on your team?
You can do your part by encouraging social experiences that are more universally fun and that everyone can take part in. Don’t assume what your team wants to do—ask them. Crowdsource ideas from different people, and if it’s a work-sponsored activity, make it a point to ask your leaders and managers for these things. If they hear it directly from their employees, they too can start to recognize what’s more enjoyable for the group.
Don’t shame people in public
Of course, it’s hard to talk about diversity without addressing some of the challenging situations that can arise.
Calling out an individual’s problematic or harmful behavior can be helpful under certain circumstances, but in other instances, it can be counterproductive. When you do it in a tactical, nonjudgmental manner, you can change the tone and the culture of an organization and drive policy changes. But when you shame people in front of their peers, they might get defensive, embarrassed, and less willing to learn about why and how their words and actions matter.
If you identify a coworker whose conduct isolates others or makes them feel excluded, consider calling in instead of calling out. That is, have a private conversation with that person from a place of compassion and patience. Yes, this can be difficult, but you need to meet them where they are if you want them to listen and change.
Advocating for diversity and inclusion is a large and complex challenge, and like any social undertaking, it’s easy to run out of patience and burn out. That’s why we should focus our efforts and energy on doing things that are likely to yield the most impact.
I admit that this isn’t easy to do. But if we all collectively strive to think this way, we can make substantial progress in tackling tech’s diversity problem from the ground up.
Gabrielle Gasse is a Java developer at xMatters.