Today is International Women’s Day 2022 and I have mixed feelings about it. The thrust of this post is to say that it’s not just up to men to help women; women need to be better to one another too. Women’s rights are human rights and we can all help one another.
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can i do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther – Legacy, Rupi Kaur
Years ago, I asked one technology leader why he didn’t support women in technology in the tech community and he simply replied ‘Introducing women was when all the trouble in the community started’. I was absolutely aghast but pressed for more details. He said that men, generally, simply do not want to deal with women making complaints because they get enough of that at home and they didn’t want the emotional hassle. At the time, I had to fight my anger or I’d simply be ‘proving’ his underlying point that women were more emotional, more difficult to handle. Now, it is very easy to become labeled as a difficult woman because pretty much anything ‘out of line’ or ‘vocal’ gets you labeled as a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us difficult women!
As time moved on, I realized that there could be a grain of truth in what he was saying, depending on how you interpreted it. In 2020, when I was being bullied as a Microsoft MVP, in Feb 2020, I started to make complaints about an individual who was undermining my community work and I asked to be moved to become an MVP for a different product group to get away from that individual. The response I got back was diminishing and discouraging, focusing on that individuals’ charity work rather than paying any attention to my grievances. Remember, I wasn’t a paid employee – I was a tech community volunteer. If that happened in my company, that would have gone straight to HR services. I told them in April that I was thinking of leaving the MVP Program due to the problems but they didn’t do anything then. I brought it up again in June, just a few weeks before handing the MVP Award back after an MVP made rape jokes on a distribution list, I complained and nobody stuck up for me apart from one other person, and other routes were pretty much silent In the end, I left in late June 2020. I just couldn’t bear it any longer and my complaints and pleas for help were going nowhere. It turns out that they were not being passed on through any proper process, even though I had raised in February that other MVPs seemed to be aware of my complaints even though I’d made them privately to Microsoft staff and I was never given an explanation of that when I questioned it; instead, a deflection. I am not clear why they were not being put forward so I could swap away to a different Microsoft Product Group. I had been led to believe that they were being passed on and escalated, but they were just being buried and it turned out that many people, including other marketing people, didn’t know a single thing about it and I thought that they did.
Now, this was two years ago and a lot of the pain has diminished but the lessons have not gone. The thing is that it was men and women in the community and within Microsoft who were causing me issues, but it was also men and women who were burying my complaints, deflecting, diminishing, and discouraging, and ultimately destroying my ability and commitment to tech community. Men and women could have done something to help over the months of complaining but did not do anything. I was absolutely miserable and it became hard to evangelize for women in tech when I was experiencing such a hard edge of it.
This is why I believe intersectionality is important. It is not just about getting a seat at the table. It is about everyone having a seat, being able to talk equally, and not having to wait their turn to be served dinner. It’s about helping women and non-binary people to bring up their own chair even when other people discourage and diminish other people from sitting at the table – and that includes other women doing the discouraging.
As time goes on, it has become harder to be vocal for women in technology partly because of the lessons I learned harshly – that women are not helping other women, either. If the structures, processes, and safe spaces are in place, then everyone gets their chance at the dinner table to participate. If not, then it looks like the original gentleman was right; women are trouble, difficult, and they ‘started’ the trouble. We can’t get around that thinking unless speaking up and speaking out is normalized, and people do not take the opportunity to diminish and destroy other people rather than do something positive to make a safe space at the table at everyone.
This is why I believe in intersectionality as well as diversity and inclusion. Intersectionality focuses on different elements of a person’s identity and how this can be discriminated against, which has negative outcomes for everybody. It focuses on interactions between characteristics such as the colour of skin, gender, disability, the weight of history, and so on. People are not one-dimensional and these can all interact to produce inequality. Until we discuss these issues, we cannot do anything positive to combat them. All these ways to be disadvantaged can interact with each other to produce even greater inequality in terms of pay, learning opportunities, mentoring opportunities, promotion and other things that data professionals care about. Or perhaps even hand back an award that you held for nearly ten years because it is having such a detrimental impact on your mental health, your home and family life, and your career.
What can we do about it?
1. In any inclusivity initiative, the leadership team will need to set an example. If the C-suite doesn’t prioritise it, then nobody will. Same for technical community. If everyone, without exception, is seen to be striving to help people in need rather than diminishing them, then this will set an example that some people, unfortunately, badly need.
2. Strive to use inclusive language in your company, regardless of whether it is internally or externally facing documentation. Example: use “spouse” or “partner” rather than the “husband” or “wife” to refer to someone’s spouse or partner. I personally prefer ‘partner’ and I just stick to that.
3. Create physical and remote safe spaces. Encourage team members to add pronouns to their email signatures and user names. Invite employees to reserve time for prayer by blocking it out on the calendar. These things can be normalised.
This is a topic that is vital for workplace leaders and staff to understand and put into practice, we are learning all the time, so join me at my session on Intersectionality at SQLBits in a safe space to discuss intersectionality and diversity and get answers to any questions you have. It takes place on Friday 11th March and you can find more details here.
International Women’s Day should not be about telling men that we are good, too. It should also encourage women to be kinder to other women, and especially those who need it most; the non-heterosexual women, the women of colour, the women of different faiths and religions or none of these, the women who experience challenges. Not just the pretty white young women who look good on marketing material. All of us should be included, and it needs to be recognized that the intersection of our characteristics can be used against us.
So everyone needs to be kinder and International Womens Day is a chance for women to reflect, learn and speak up as well as consider the impact when they diminish and discourage other women.