It starts innocently enough: I’ll be on a call with a vendor, engineer, tech lead, or other relative stranger to talk about performance. Or I’ll be in a casual conversation with someone who I don’t know all that well, talking about work stuff. Then they ask:
“So, what do you think of the current climate for women in tech?” “Oh, I just read an article about sexism in the tech industry, did you read it?” “I was wondering, would you like to be on this panel I’m constructing about women in tech?” “I was just reading about how bad it is for women in tech! Do you have any juicy stories?”
This happens so frequently that I’ve started to gather data about it. My mean time for a work-related conversation with a stranger to shift to “women in tech” in the past four weeks? Three and a half minutes.
I don’t actively avoid talking about the situation of women in the tech industry. I’ve been on panels, I’ve written blog posts, I routinely get coaching on it and coach others on it. These kinds of productive conversations about gender diversity give me the chance to opt in and plan ahead for the kind of exhaustion that typically comes from this kind of work, and tend to happen in a setting with familiar people.
I choose to participate in the “women in tech” topic online and at work because I think it’s really important, and I’m hoping we can begin to enact change in our industry. However, even in these ideal scenarios, talking about gender diversity in technology is extremely emotionally draining. When the topic crops up unexpectedly in a conversation with a stranger and I have no easy way to avoid it, the situation is much more exhausting, and it tangibly detracts from the work I’ve shown up to do: managing a team of engineers and helping people improve site performance.
When strangers surprise me with the “women in tech” conversation, it’s most likely because they’re in a position of privilege that prevents them from understanding that it’s burdensome for someone who lives this experience to talk about it. Most of the time, these conversations end up being free 101-level education for the stranger, and they provide no positive reciprocation for me personally and no benefit for women in my industry generally. The burden is multifaceted: it takes time away from me furthering my career and doing my job, it is emotionally taxing for me to educate others about things that relate to my painful lived experiences, and it comes with a great deal of risk for me to talk openly about a highly politicized topic. I walk away from those conversations feeling totally depleted, sometimes scared, and often triggered by remembering the sexism and misogyny that I’ve experienced.
Given these experiences, I cannot imagine what it must be like for, as an example, a woman of color in tech. When these surprises happen to me, I have grown comfortable responding with power and honesty, choosing sometimes to educate the stranger about the problematic conversation we’re having and ask for their help breaking the unicorn law, and other times simply aiming to opt out of the conversation (though this can have negative consequences regardless of how politely I do it, given social participation expectations for women). I know that my ability to respond like that is a privilege, and that few people have this privilege or are able to take on this kind of risk in response.
So, what can you do if you want to talk to someone about what it’s like be a minority in a popular and highly scrutinized field like technology? Ask yourself these questions:
First and foremost: Do I need to ask this person about her experiences, or is there research I can do on my own to learn what I want to know? Why do I want to ask this question? If I must ask her, is there a way that I can set up this conversation so that this person feels safe saying no to it? If I must ask her, can we schedule the conversation so she has time to prepare for it? If I must ask her, what kind of position am I putting this person in? What risks will this person have to take on in order to enter into this conversation? What risks will she have to take on in order to not enter this conversation? If I must ask her, what other work is she not doing in order to have this conversation with me? Am I losing out on getting her insight on the topic we’re meant to be talking about, in which she presumably has some expertise? Is there an imbalance of privilege or power in our relationship? It bears repeating: Do I need to ask this person about her experiences, or is there research I can do on my own to learn what I want to know?
It’s admirable to want to learn about another person’s experiences, especially when they’re very different from your own. But these questions can help you keep in mind the burden of sharing difficult experiences. Read a ton more about how you can help break the unicorn law here.