Keeping It Professional In Tech

Keeping It Professional In Tech

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It’s been about 13 years now since I graduated college and joined the tech industry.  Over that time, I have observed and participated in repeated discussions about two topics that I think are closely related:  Professionalism & Women in Technology.

Women in Technology

I’ll start with Women in Tech first.  I’ve been speaking at tech conferences and events professionally for just about 6 years now.  Almost every time I am up on stage and view the audience, it’s a pretty sure bet that less than 10% of the room is female.  This is a very striking observation when the overall human population is mostly split nearly 50/50 (with some variation).  At first, this wasn’t so striking to me.  From my experiences during school and in the industry, I just thought this was ‘normal’ and didn’t pay attention to it. There are some industries (construction, nursing, etc) that have historically tended to be skewed toward one sex or the other.  I assumed the tech industry is one of them. 

Microsoft is a company that champions diversity.  There are many events, organizations, and programs that the company has sponsored both internally and externally in the industry to champion women in technology.  It is, and always has been, a core value of the company from my perspective.  I became more aware of these efforts through my day job in the evangelism business.

One thing I learned, aside from the percentage of women in the industry being low, was that the number is shrinking, not expanding! Not only is the number of women in our industry shrinking, but so is the number of young women entering technology disciplines in higher-education.  This means that the declining trend in the workforce will likely continue. 

I found this trend to be surprising.  However, I’ll be honest, not immediately concerning. 

Again, various industries have historically been skewed toward one sex or the other for ages. For example, my children are in elementary school. When I went to my oldest child’s first “Back To School” night several years ago, the entire school’s staff stood on stage in the auditorium to be introduced to the parents.  Out of approximately 40 staff members, there was only a SINGLE male on the stage.  Just one.

Was this a good thing, bad thing, or just “the way it is” in elementary education? To be honest, I had never given the subject much thought.

As I sat in the school auditorium, I reflected back upon the declining number of women in technology.  Questions started forming…

Was this a problem? If it were a problem, what is the cause?  Why are women leaving the tech industry?  Should something be done to change it? Could something be done to change it?  Are there barriers to entry (sexism, harrassment, etc)?  Is there just a difference in passion for the subject matter/line-of-work between the sexes?  Is there something unique about the tech industry from other industries causing it to be that way?  Technology is a labor of creativity and intellect. There is no difference in the intellectual ability of males and females that I am aware of. So why is this happening?

These were all questions that went through my (male) head.  I didn’t have the answers.

Over the years, as I have participated in many conversations and listened to others’ experiences, I have learned a lot.  I still don’t have all the answers. But I have a much greater awareness and sensitivity toward this subject than I did when I started this job.  It is hard for me to put into words here without sounding like copy stolen from an HR brochure, but there IS absolutely great value added by having diversity in our industry.

As such, I do find it concerning that the number of women in our industry continues to decline.  So what should be done about it?  There are some things that no one can change, like the subject matter/line-of-work.  If a person doesn’t like math, science, and technology, that’s a personal preference.  However, if they do, there should be no barriers to entry.

It is removing barriers to entry and creating an inviting environment, that I think is the most important thing we can all do for ANYONE demonstrating an interest to work in this industry.

So what are those barriers?  From experience, ask 100 people (male and female), and you will get 100 different answers and/or opinions.  Often, those opinions are very passionate, and sometimes contradictory.  But there are common themes out there.

Last week, my teammate, Rachel Appel, authored a post listing some of the answers she collected.  I encourage you all to click through and read it:

Rachel Appel: Stats, Data, and Answers, As To Why There Are So Few Women In Technology Fields

Rachel’s post covered a wide variety of issues, including:

  • Sexism: overt & subtle (hostile macho cultures)
  • Harassment, threats, or potential or actual violence toward women
  • Childcare
  • Financial Independence
  • Gender Stereotyping
  • Work-life balance

Rachel’s post generated quite a number of comments afterwards.  Not everyone agrees with what she wrote.  I encourage you to read those too for a wider perspective of opinions.  There are some deep philosophical questions bandied about.

Given that men in the tech industry are generally well-educated, I had hoped we had graduated from some of the stereotypes of the cat-calling construction worker. Over the past few years, I have witnessed more and more of the types of incidents that Rachel describes as being contributors to a decline in WIT. This is quite unfortunate.

Professionalism

This brings me to the other related topic in my introductory paragraph: Professionalism.

Some of the examples described, or linked to, by Rachel include presenters at technology conferences using sexual references or imagery in their slides. Also in this genre, is the use of profane language.

Most of the time, this is done in an attempt at humor or a raw attention grab.  I have seen presentations like this.  I’ve laughed at presentations like this.  I’ve “gotten” the humor…  the same way I might split my sides laughing in a comedy club with my friends.  I’m not a prude.  My ears don’t melt off at the sound of the f-bomb.

Heck, I’m from the Jersey Shore where the f-bomb is an adjective affixed to most words in every sentence in our demented Jersey dialect of the English language.  Our governor recently got props for telling people to “get the hell off the beach” when Hurricane Irene approached in September!  (I think he self-censored himself by ‘downgrading’ to the h-word from the f-bomb.) 

I’m quite guilty of using four letter words myself on a way too frequent basis.  If you lived around folks like the TV show “Jersey Shore”, you’d pick up bad habits too.  I am fascinated by how a simple sound produced by the human voice box can convey so many different meanings.

Having laughed at technology conference presentations like the ones described above, I’ve had that personal sense of, “wait a second… that was just, wrong!” 

Earlier this week, Scott Hanselman (of Hanselminutes and This Developer Life fame), authored a post titled “Profanity Doesn’t Work”.

Scott thinks it is wrong too.  He thinks it is un-professional.  Scott’s post discusses some examples of where swear words have been used in tech conference presentations.  Without condemning those who do, Scott covers the trade-offs that they inherently make when choosing to do so.  He sums things up nicely in his closing:

I appreciate and respect that profanity in presentations is a deliberate choice. You're cultivating a personal brand.

However, you take no chances of offending by not swearing, but you guarantee to offend someone if you do.”

Scott’s post triggered quite a bit of dialog in the comments.  I encourage you to read both his posts, and those of his commenters.  Just like with the Women in Tech discussion on Rachel’s blog, there are a wide variety of opinions shared regarding profanity in tech presentations.

I tend to agree with Scott on this issue.  In general, using profanity is not something I would purposefully do when given the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd of my professional peers in a professional setting like that.  I understand that not everyone might agree with that.  Some might say, “Oh, come on… we’re all adults here?! Cursing is a part of life.  Get over it.”.

It’s Not About Me. It’s Not About You.

It all comes down to the notion of “offense”. While there is a definition for the word “offensive”, there is no standard definition for what is offensive. What one person finds offensive, another might find humorous.  As I explained above, I use four letter words regularly all the time. I’m sure anyone who knows me personally can attest to this. I find a good curse word in the mix to be humorous. YOU might find it humorous too. The majority of the room might find it humorous.  But it’s not about me and it’s not about you.

It’s about the message. 

I get paid to speak at technology conferences.  It is my profession.  When I do so, my goal is to convey a message to as many people as I can.  To accomplish that, I need to be as inclusive as possible. If I offend a single person in the room with the delivery of my message, I’ve failed at my goal.

There are plenty of other venues and contexts where profanity, even in front of large groups, might be appropriate (i.e. comedy club, movie, etc.). 

I am in Scott’s camp when he says, “I believe that swearing decreases your reach and offers little benefit in return.

Note: Now, I’m not perfect.  I don’t pretend to put myself up on a pedestal here.  I am paid to do this as my job. Luckily, my employer doesn’t believe in censorship (within reason). If I slipped up and offended someone once, I probably would not get fired.  But if I offend a LOT of people, repeatedly… well, you would probably see my resume posted somewhere online.

So what does all this talk about profanity have to do with the declining number of women in technology?  Nothing directly.  I do not want to imply that women are more offended by profanity than men. Have you heard the women on Jersey Shore speak?!

Profanity essentially creates a non-inclusive environment, as those who are offended are “excluded”. This applies equally to both sexes.

It’s all about inclusiveness.  The minute you start offending folks, via profanity or other means, you become divisive, and your message is potentially lost upon a portion of your audience.  Right now, we are losing women in the industry.  I don’t want to see that trend continue.

It is a free world out there. Folks will continue to make their own decisions on how to speak & act in public and professional places.  I don’t begrudge anyone of those freedoms.  (Translated: Censorship is not the answer.)  However, if we want to address the issue of declining numbers of women in technology, perhaps we all need to look at ourselves in the mirror, and make an effort to act professionally.  I know I will.

What say you?

  • This is a good write up and well thought out- I hadn’t heard the one about professionalism before especially around profanity. I personally don’t mind profanity in one’s own workplace in front of peers (not LT or directs) but I do not enjoy profanity delivered on stage. You need to know the audience well to have it land with humor and congeniality. As a rule, any action that elicits a “No!” to “Am I acting like a gentleman/lady?” should not be performed on stage (or at a corporate party for that matter).

  • I have been in IT for over 30 years, as a consultant. I have usually attributed the profanity and sexist jokes to the age difference, and "new generation", but recently, I was at a conference and had to endure an ex-wife comment - from someone closer to my age. Since this is also rampant across other disciplines, besides IT, I just believe its the "new" lack of respect.  Hopefully, this too shall pass.

  • Well done, Peter! You raise many interesting questions that also need answers.

    I definitely share your stance of: "It’s Not About Me. It’s Not About You". We've joked enough between ourselves to to show that :)

  • Great post Peter!

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