To be a woman in tech is to be asked to talk about being a woman in tech, regardless of the desires or knowledge of the individual, unique woman in tech in question (see The Unicorn Law). This is a frustrating part of being a member of a marginalized group in any field of endeavor: being expected to speak for, represent, and advocate for your group, regardless of your own personal inclinations. Even women in tech who actively embrace talking about women in tech want to choose if, when, and how they talk about women in tech, and not do so on command by others.
As a woman in tech activist, I’m here to to tell women in tech: it’s 100% fine for you to not talk about women in tech if you don’t want to! It’s literally not your job! Your job is to do tech stuff. If someone really wants you to talk about women in tech, they can darn well offer to pay you for it, and you can still say, “Nope, don’t want to.”
Here are the reasons for you not to feel guilty about not wanting to be an activist, followed by some coping strategies for when you are asked to talk about women in tech. But first, some disclaimers.
This post presumes that you don’t want to harm women in tech as a whole; if you don’t feel solidarity with other women in tech or feel fine harming other women in tech to get ahead, this post isn’t for you. Likewise, if you are a woman in tech and want to talk about women in tech more than you are now, I fully support your decision, speaking as a programmer who became a full-time activist herself. Doing this work is difficult and often unrewarding; let me at least thank you and support you for doing it. If you want to point out that the ideas in this post apply to another marginalized group, or to fields other than tech: I agree, I just know the most about being a woman in tech and so that’s what I’m writing about.
Reasons not to feel guilty
Men should do more for women in tech. Many women in tech feel guilty for not helping other women in tech more, despite the fact that equivalent men often have more time, energy, power, and influence to support women in tech. I once felt guilty as a junior engineer when an older, more experienced woman in my group left, because she had previously asked me to mentor her (!!!) and I refused because I felt unqualified. At the same time, my group was filled with dozens of more knowledgeable and powerful men who felt no personal responsibility at all for her departure. Men aren’t putting in their fair share of work to support women in tech yet. Until they do, feel free to flip the question around and ask what men are doing to support women in tech.
Women are punished for advocating for women in tech. Women who do speak about women in tech are often accused of doing it for personal gain, which is hilarious. I can’t think of a single woman in tech whose lifetime earnings were improved by saying anything about women in tech that wasn’t “work harder and make more money for corporations.” In reality, the research shows that the careers of women and other members of marginalized groups are actually harmed if they appear to be advocating for members of their own group. Feel free to decline to do work that will harm your career. (And if you do it anyway: thank you!!!)
Women in tech already have to do more work. Women in tech already have to do more work in order to get the same credit as an equivalent man. In addition to having to do more of our technical work to be perceived as contributing equally, we are also expected to do emotional labor for free: listening to people’s problems, expressing empathy, doing “office housework” like arranging parties and birthday cards, smiling and being cheerful, taking care of visitors, and welcoming new employees. We are also expected to help and assist men with their jobs without getting credit, and punished when we stick to our own work. Add on to that the job of talking about women in tech, which is not only unrewarded but often punished. While you’ll get pushback for turning down any of this free labor, feel free to wiggle out of as much of it as possible.
Activism is a whole separate job. Activism is a different job from a job in tech. It needs different skills and requires different aptitudes from most tech jobs. Some people have both the skills and aptitude (and the free time) to work a tech job and also be an activist; don’t feel strange if you’re not one of those people.
You can support women in tech in other ways. If you do want to support women in tech, but don’t feel comfortable being an activist yourself, there are plenty of other ways to support women in tech. You can give money to organizations that support women in tech. You can hire more women in tech. You can invest in women in tech. You can be a supportive spouse to a woman in tech. You can mentor women in tech. Feel free to be creative about how you support women in tech and don’t let other people guilt you into their ideas for how you should be supporting women in tech.
You are being a role model for women in tech. Women in tech can help women in tech simply by existing and not actively harming other women in tech. You can speak or write about your tech job. You can agree to interviews with the condition of not being asked about women in tech. You can get promoted and raise your salary. In other words, keep doing your job, and avoid doing things that harm women in tech in the long-term. Avoiding harm is harder than it sounds and takes some expertise and learning to get right, but some rules of thumb are: don’t push other marginalized folks down to give yourself a leg up, do recognize there are many different ways to be a women in tech, do default to listening over speaking when it comes to subjects you’re not an expert in (which may be activism).
Here are a few coping strategies for when you are inevitably asked to talk about women in tech. You can use these strategies if you never want to talk about women in tech, or if you just don’t want to talk about women in tech in this particular situation. I personally find talking about women in tech fairly boring when the other person thinks they know more than they actually do about the topic, so I often use one of these techniques in that situation.
Make a list of other people to pass requests on to. Sure, you don’t want to give the one millionth talk on What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Programming Community X. But perhaps someone else has started a Women in Programming Community X group and would love to give a talk on the subject. You can also make a list of books or websites or other resources and tell people that while you don’t know much about career advice for women in tech, you’ve heard that “What Works for Women at Work” has some good tips.
Suggest that men do the work instead. When you suggest men do the work to support women in tech, you’ll get some predictable pushback. Lack of knowledge: Remind them that the research exists and can be learned by reading it. Feel afraid/scared/out of place: Remind them that that is how women feel in male-dominated spaces. Don’t you feel guilty: No, but if had the power men did I’d feel guilty for not using it. After a few of these annoying discussions, many people will stop asking you to do women in tech stuff.
Point out your lack of expertise. There’s nothing about being a woman in tech that necessarily makes you an expert on how to support women in tech in general. People will often ask women in tech to do things or make statements in areas they don’t have expertise in; get used to saying “I don’t know about that,” or “I haven’t studied that.” Lots of requests to speak for all women in tech or to reassure people that they aren’t personally sexist can be shot down this way.
Change the subject. If people ask you about women in tech, you often have an easy subject change: your job! Tell them about your project, ask them about their project, ask about a controversial research topic in your area of tech – it’s hard to object to a woman in tech wanting to talk about tech.
Practice saying no. For many people, it’s hard to say no, and it’s even harder when you’re a member of a marginalized group and people expect you to do what they say. Practicing some go-to words and phrases can help with saying no in the moment. It can also help reduce the feelings of guilt if you imagine the situation in your head and then go over all the reasons not to feel guilty.
Some examples of putting these coping strategies into practice:
“Will you write a blog post for International Women’s Day?”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I’m focusing on other projects right now. Have you thought about writing something yourself?”
“We need a woman keynote speaker for my conference. Will you speak? We pay travel.”
“I appreciate the invitation, but I’m only taking paid speaking engagements right now.”
“What do you think about Susan Fowler’s blog post?”
“You know, I haven’t had time to think about because I’ve been so busy. Can I bring you up to date on my project?”
“We’re doing great on gender equality at our company. Right?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have enough information to say either way. If you really wanted to know, I’d suggest paying an outside expert to do a rigorous study.”
“Will you join this panel on women in computing for Ada Lovelace Day?”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m taking a break from non-technical speaking appearances.”
“I got approval for you to go to Grace Hopper Celebration! I assumed you wanted to go.”
“Wow, that was really kind of you, but I think other people on my team will get more out of it than I would.”
“Boy, that Ellen Pao really screwed things up for women in venture capital, don’t you agree?”
“That’s not really something I feel confident speaking about. I’ve got to get back to work, see you at lunch!”
“How does it feel to be the only woman at this conference?”
“That’s not something I’m comfortable talking about. What talk are you going to next?”
“We really want to hire more women, but they just aren’t applying to our job postings! What do you think we’re doing wrong?”
“I’m not a recruiting expert, sorry! That sounds like something you should hire a professional to figure out.”
“I’m putting together a book of essays on women in tech! Will you write a chapter for me for free?”
“Why are you so selfish? Why won’t you do more to help other women?”
“I’m doing what’s right for me.”
For more advice on shutting down unwelcome conversations, check out Captain Awkward’s “Broken Record” technique.
Whatever your decision about if, when, and how you want to talk about women in tech, we hope these techniques are useful to you!