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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Gender Hot Topics - Women in Tech Need to Leanin

May be 25+ emails and counting! A job posting for female junior developer internship position erupted a lengthy and pointy multi-way discussion in the San Francisco local Ruby meetup mailing list. How do we make sense of it?


  • A job posting was published as an email, female developers are encouraged to apply
  • The posting was mistaken as only encouraging women to apply
  • Several members lashed out on issues of equality, equal opportunity, discrimination, and sexism against men
  • Several members argue that the posting discriminates, if there is a "men only" posting, women would be upset too
  • A couple of members mentioned that most nurses are female but we don't that that men must be nurses, and they deny the fact that women are oppressed/discouraged/disadvantaged in the programming world. Citing only programming skills to be the criteria
  • Others point out the ignorance, the gender gap is clearly an issue, and the Brogramming, Men in Rails cultures are hurting female engineers' chances of entering the job field Updated 9/12/2013: please see our AB Camp community discussion on this thread, in wich I shared the resources that other members of the mailing list have pointed out as evidence of gender app in Technology in the Silicon Valley: click here to view on MightyBell. Mightbell is also the host of LeanIn Discussions.
  • Several members write that this thread and the negativity it has garnered is precisely what discourages women developers to advance in tech careers
  • Several members have to constantly remind others to stop attacking and "be nice"

This situation has been encountered by many female engineers and engineers-to-be. A gender difference and culture, job opportunity discussion quickly turn mean and pointy, discouraging. Even though these conversations are necessarily, but the quickly soured tone can hurt feelings of many women engineers and dishearten them to believe that the job field may be less equal than ever. One member suggested to take this discussion to a moderated civic format: a conference or event panel. It is a necessary important discussion that needs to be productive as well.

As I am designing a virtual meetup for women, I may soon face the same scrutiny from prospectives why the meetup is designed for women not yet open to all in the nearest future. I tried my very best to reply to this thread with my social scientist hat on: 

1. As Sheryl Sandberg has written in her Lean In master piece, women sometimes need more encouragement to apply because they feel like a "fraud" even when they are fully qualified. 

I wrote

Social scientists have confirmed again and again that equally qualified candidates facing a job posting the women are more like to think they are less qualified and not apply at all, even if they are fully qualified. In fact men are more likely to apply for job postings even if they don't meet the numeric requirements, such as years of experience. Encouragement is really needed in many scenarios

Then I wrote about the special needs of women in the current social expectation and responsibilities

There are special needs that need to be addressed : for example it is possible I argue that women face more danger when leaving a meetup late, and are potentially more sensitive to some jokes and remarks, and also may have some time and family restraints and social expectations - e.g raising a child while pursuing a coding career. Encouragement is special treatment? By definition. But we still need to address these needs and make the tech work place more open for women, and not just women. This work still needs to be done right?

I wanted to stay as objective as possible in my tone so that this message will be read and will not be sucked into the swirl of negativity. I call it my "suicidal" reply (indeed many other replies received constantly lash backs), yet it successfully made it to the mailing list without receiving a single argument. In fact, I received several private responses from women saying they are so glad that someone has said something without adding fuel to fire, but have stand up for the silent women. 


This was a trick that I learnt from Freakonomics, social scientists writing on topics that have mass attraction, writing about controversial topics with equal persuasiveness, generating discussions without victimizing. This will be the tone I adopt as I prepare for building the meetup for women. LeanIn talks about the same thing. For example, women are obviously paid less in many fields as data has shown, we need to fight back, but with the right method, or else the existing social expectation will also perceive women negatively (as Harvard business research has shown): more successful women are perceived as aggressive with a negative undertone, as opposed to successful men are perceived as ambitious and successful with a positive undertone.

The discussion goes on. I urge you all to Lean In with agility and wittiness.

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