Sorry I'm so late in posting this - I had too many site management moments this week. It's really about last week's events. :P

So I had a great time at the Microsoft Women’s Conference – it’s an internal, Microsoft-only event that "celebrates the role of women at Microsoft" and has specific themes and sessions tailored to professional development and balancing work-life responsibilities. All of the sessions were the result of polling the attendees ahead of time in terms of prioritization – in addition to negotiation skills coaching and "how to get more executive"- type panels there were things about juggling caring for a family and trying to work fitness and nutrition into the mix.

One of my coworkers asked me in an MSN Messenger session during the conference, why we needed a women’s conference. He asked whether anything I was learning in that current conference seminar (presentations skills) was something that was truly gender specific. I think I went through a couple of the tips with him – use eye contact, speak in certain tones to show credibility, have an elevator pitch about yourself ready to explain to Steve Ballmer if you have to– and he replied that he already knew that. Meanwhile I was sitting in a forest of women who, if not exactly saying "Gee-golly-whiz," were nodding thoughtfully like they had picked up something new or been reminded of something critical they had forgotten.

My coworker is someone who, as he puts it, doesn’t see gender – he just sees ability and talent. But, he also goes to technical conferences where he just accepts that there are going to be less women there and doesn’t think immediately about it. Whereas when I go to a conference like PDC where women are outnumbered – or heck, even to some conference rooms where I am meeting with another team – and I’m the only woman in the room – I *always* notice. And I want to advocate for that to change.

One of the female VPs who spoke to us in the conference keynote said she was so used to being the misfit (only woman) in meetings she just never thought about it any more. As with many women of her generation she didn’t have any female role models  to point to. There was no gender difference to pay attention to. There was just her, and she coped as she saw best.

All this reminded me of the Tale of O, which is not the naughty Story of O by Pauline Reage, but a workplace psychology book that came out a couple decades ago. Rather than talking about men and women, black or white, the authors talked about different things that happen when someone who is different (the "O") breaks into the ranks of an organization or group that is made of people who have more in common and have been there longer (the "X's").

Scouring the Web, I guess this book has spawned workplace training videos, but what it really brings home are those unspoken playground rules. Animals sniff each other or flap fins; humans do different dress codes, verbal and behavioral gestures to show inclusivity or exclusivity to the group, and some of the ramifications of this are painful enough we avoid making this level of thinking conscious. (Not to mention the dress codes can get kinda ugly.)

No one wants to consciously think about their chances of being made the scapegoat or that they might themselves be shutting others out….Until you are the O in a group of X's, and then you are forced to find coping mechanisms that make you comfortable and the others around you comfortable (or not, as the case may be).

In a group where folks are predominantly the same it’s easy for the folks on the inside to relax into that sameness and not notice it. That’s why I watch out when people tell me: Betsy, you sound like you are from Microsoft. Or, they make comments to me that suggest all Microsofties are the same. What that says to me is that they see Microsoft  like a walled fortress, with the same spiky buttresses (Eww! Spiky buttresses!). They see me as the X, and them as the O. That's no good.

So getting back to the Microsoft Women’s conference....

The women’s conference, in celebrating the role of women at Microsoft, acknowledges that the women in the conference sessions deal with that subtle pressure. Things that get picked up culturally by men may be missed by women, and some of the sessions were to help make up that gap. And of course, the pressure of resisting a stereotype – that infamous moment when a boss calls you in to his office and says: "Another team player has complained you are too emotional" and of course resisting the urge to shriek back at him “Am NOT!!"

For the record, I treasure that my male colleague does not really care whether you are a man or woman as long as your code is good; I just don’t think gender-blindness means being blind to any ongoing dynamics. And, I’d rather women went into situations savvy, avoiding stereotyping and avoiding taking things personally (“I can’t do this," " I’m incompetent") when they run into things they were not socialized with, or into someone who had judged them from erroneous preconceptions. Understanding the forces at play also helps people of either gender be better managers.