Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Women in Technology Part 2

Two decades ago, a friend and I co-taught a graduate software engineering class  at CU (University of
Colorado).  In addition, my friend was also teaching a project management class.

She knew I was good at generating discussions in class, and often came to me for advice on how to do that.  One day, she came to me deeply disappointed.  She had proudly come up with a topic that she expected would engender a lively discussion.  She asked her students, most of whom had been working for several years, what their experiences of sexism had been.  Dead silence.  She wanted to know why.

Laws affect our behaviors in ways we don't expect.  When there were no anti-discrimination laws, people could say to women, "it never occurred to me a female would want this job," and there would be no repercussions.  This did happen to me.  But once the laws were changed, and a few people got sued, people's behavior changed, even if their attitudes didn't.

If a boss, or a co-worker, had trouble with someone because she was a woman, he wouldn't say it.  He'd look for her weaknesses, we all have them, and those would become the "real" source of the problem.  By the time my friend asked her class about their personal experiences, a woman's experience of sexism was invariably, inextricably tied up with those parts of herself, that she was most ashamed of.

I am a very open person, even for an American.   My friend is German and reserved.  For that reason, alone, I had far more experience of this phenomenon than she did.  And, of course, I do have my weaknesses. 

The only prejudice on which I've seen people's attitudes change rapidly is in the area of gay rights.  The speed of that change in the US has been breathtaking.  With women, I could parrot the analyses about our relationships with our mothers, which, for some people, can be fraught, but the truth is prejudices die hard.  Racism in the US is still as virulent, though less socially acceptable, as it ever was.  When a man shot up a black church in S. Carolina, recently, I felt like I'd stepped out of time, and was hearing a broadcast from fifty years ago.

So, I think it's safe to say, that for the time being, sexism, racism, all the isms will continue to be an issue in the world.  We need to support each other, nurture each other, and accept the weaknesses of our co-workers.

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