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How to be a better ally

Recently, I attended a happy hour with a team of software developers I’d been working with. I looked around the table and realized that I was the only woman in attendance. It startled me because it was unusual, but it led me to consider the slow changes I’ve witnessed to the demographics of the software business.

Naturally, I turned to the Internet to do a little research, and turned up a few depressing statistics. The number of women in IT has steadily decreased since I started my career. Although more women than men attend college and obtain a bachelor’s degree, and women slightly outnumber men in business jobs overall, the number of women earning CIS degrees and working as software engineers has dropped dramatically. (See the graphs below.)

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So what accounts for this decrease? There’s a documented phenomenon of women leaving IT mid-career, but the graphs above reveal that fewer and fewer women are even starting in the field. Why do young women eschew CIS as an education/career path? Studies show that between grades 4 and 8, girls develop a different relationship with computers and computing than boys, spending less time using computers and gaming. On the other hand, we’ve learned that software written by women generally has a higher user acceptance rate, and that technology companies with more women executives have higher success rates. So encouraging women to enter and stay in CIS professions seems like a pretty good idea.

An informal survey of my Seilevel colleagues reveals that behind every successful woman there is a parent, a teacher, colleague, or mentor who encouraged and supported her. In my own career there have been several, most notably a colleague named Andy who was the subject-matter-expert on a project I was managing. He became my friend and supporter in the almost exclusively male construction company where we worked. Not only did he contribute to my individual success, but his example also taught me how to be a good ally for other women. Maybe you can use some of these techniques to help provide a supportive environment for your colleagues too.

  1. Really listen – Most of us have the habit of listening more intently to people we think are smart or important. But we’re all biased in our estimation of other people’s value. Stop talking and really listen equally to all of your colleagues, without judgment.
  2. Shine light on others – You lose nothing by helping other people excel. Highlight the accomplishments of others. This can be as simple as acknowledging teammates who contributed to a deliverable or task. Younger colleagues may be hesitant to call attention to their own contributions; you can help ensure they get the kudos they deserve.
  3. Don’t self-segregate – When I was a teacher, I noticed that girls and boys generally divided themselves up by gender automatically in the classroom, the cafeteria, and the playground. Adults do this too, probably without thinking about it. When you walk into the conference room, the stand-up meeting, the lunch room, be the person who mixes things up.
  4. Don’t mansplain – There, I said it. I know men are tired of hearing this, but this term has become code for a range of offensive behaviors. (Yes, women can exhibit these behaviors too, so we all need to be aware of them.) Essentially, mansplaining is lecturing someone on a subject that she/he is already knowledgeable about or isn’t interested in. This can include using demeaning vocabulary like “honey” and making gender-based generalizations. The easiest way to avoid doing this is to always assume that the person you’re talking to is smart, capable, and will ask if they need something explained.
  5. Nurture leadership – You may work with people who have never had the opportunity to develop leadership skills, or who have great skills already but need a chance to use them. There are many ways to make space for people to take charge of a project, a task, a deliverable, or a team. Make sure the women who work for you are getting their turn to lead. And if you’re working as the subordinate or peer of a woman leader, respect her role.
  6. Don’t sexualize work relationships – This ought to go without saying. We’ve all worked with THAT GUY who flirts with every woman in the office, and most of us know better. But even well-intentioned people can do and say things that make their female colleagues uncomfortable, especially ones who have been subjected to mistreatment in the past. A good rule is simply not to mention a woman’s physical appearance and not to be touchy in the office. There are lots of ways to be friendly, and complimentary, without going there. Most of us would much prefer that you noticed our brilliant work than our new hair-style, trust me.
  7. Call out bad behavior – If you see your male colleagues behaving in a way that marginalizes the women on your team, don’t just turn a blind eye. Sometimes telling a relevant anecdote can get the point across, or just a “that’s not cool, dude.” Sometimes you might have to take a more direct or formal approach, especially if you are the supervisor.

When our teams and companies are more diverse and inclusive, we’re more successful, and honestly, we have more fun. You could contribute to a woman choosing to leave the software industry forever, or you could contribute to her success and satisfaction in her career.

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