Women in tech – and the big F word: Feminism

Women in tech – and the big F word: Feminism

Of course I couldn’t leave out the silly word play, but let me start out by saying I (and we all should) support the goal of feminism: originally aiming to restore the historical imbalance – with the goal of equality – between men and women.

As I personally understand it, feminism is not the strive for dominance of females after years, decades, yes even centuries (should I say millennia) of oppression by men – in most parts of the world (there are exceptions of matriarchal communities). Feminism is of course the rightful shoutout for equality of rights, etcetera, both in the public and private domain, for both women and men. As time has evolved, so has society and nowadays we – more and more of us – realize we should maybe talk more generally about gender equality, instead of merely the traditional female and male genders.

As much as this topic has been polarized, I would like to share a few thoughts to add some nuance to the debate. By the way, the debate is mostly replaced by oneliners, an evolution much powered by tech (social media among them, but not restricted to), but this as a side remark.

So here it comes, where I potentially get my fingers burned – if not any other body parts – on this delicate topic (which it shouldn’t be, of course).

  • Since the word feminism only has the word stem of female in it, the meaning of the word gets misinterpreted and has changed over time and context. (This happens all the time, endless debates of seemingly opposing stances, which turn out to be about terminology.) Of course this originates from the historic roots of the movement, rightfully aiming to restore undervalued rights, roles, etcetera, for woman, opposed to men. Nowadays we realize – some of us, but increasingly learning this as a global society – more genders should be included, not only the binary viewpoint of men and women; leading to the better term gender equality.
  • However, I feel using the word equality also has some unwanted side effects. Obviously we do not want for women and men and other sexes to be equal; we want their rights, roles, chances in life to be equal. And even that’s not the entire goal if we are honest and leave out our emotional connotations. Actually we want the human species to live peacefully together, where each individual has equal chances, roles, opportunities.
    The problem is, this is still not what we want, because then we would throw away the rich and valuable diversity we have among our species. We do not want to turn every individual into a clone of each other. We do not want to make women more menlike, to put it cartoonesque, as much as we do not want to turn men into women (ask most heterosexual women…).
    Similarly we do not want to turn black – or whatever other etnicity – into white, or white into latin for example. That is called cultural appropriation. (I guess a famous singer got away with that and probably some other stuff, while trying to heal the world, but that’s another story. Just some black humor here. No pun intended, but you can’t blame for serendipity.)
  • So, what do we want? What should we want? I think we should want to strive for the valuation of each etnicity, gender, society, community and individual – in that order, roughly – leaving more room for community than mere individuality in our identities. This can not be restricted to the original goal of feminism alone. I think we should keep the term feminism for the original battle, women – multiple times in history – have fought and are still fighting to try and overcome the dominance of men in any blunt or subtle way. I think the term gender equality is another step in the good direction, but is still too much focussed on similarities. We should learn to become comfortable with differences. The difficulty – I think a blind spot for many – is that we as a human species are inclined biologically and evolutionary to be part of a group, implying we do not identify with other groups. This is a very hard thing to overcome and in my opinion one of the biggest reasons – if not the sole biggest – why a (peaceful) multicultural society is somewhat of an utopy.
  • So do we really want equality? I think not. Do we want equal value of possessions? Not even that, as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand, an inequality – be it economic inequality, social inequality or any other flavour of inequality in general between individuals or groups – that grows too big is not a good idea.

We are currently living in that kind of world. But my optimistic part (call it survival instinct) is emphasising that the imbalances are being made visible, if not being acted upon to restore towards more balance. In my interpretation, balance is a limited deviation from equality.
Also note, equality of some properties is not the same as egality of the things having these same properties. For example, a men and a women both having long hair, does not imply the man and the woman are the same person (some sort of clone of each other).

Balance is not the same as equality, that’s my whole point. Also, differences have their positives and are required even. We should be nuanced in where we allow for differences and where we require equality. The nuanced result (which holds countless unknown balancing factors, I know) is what I call balance – in this context. For us as a society to find out what those (metaphorical) balancing factors are. (Please, Silicon Valley, do not attempt to calculate them…)

So now for the root cause of this post – pun intended. I attended some very interesting talk – titled: Women leaders in tech – held by Raisa Ghazi and colleagues and other (female) speakers. The points Raisa made at that talk that got my attention are the following.

  • We need leaders with empathy, a skill traditionally ascribed to women (natural talents).
  • Women get backlash when taking position in a discussion.
  • Women empower people – influence without (need for) authority.
  • Woman want to do it perfectly.
  • Woman (ambitious ones, specifically in tech) should express their aspirations more clearly and openly.
  • Woman are not natural multitaskers; this idea is a ploy of men to make women do more things.
  • Woman are allowed to use their natural charm and make a connection with the recruiter before applying for a job. Woman think this is not fair, but should do it anyway. Men use other schemes – to put it cartoonesque – to arrive at the same goals and are applauded for them to work, instead of being shamed about it. Fair play is overrated.
  • Create your own visibility, don’t let you get boxed in.
  • Do a SWOT analysis at any opportunity.
  • Find a buddy on the same career level.
  • Use bravery and belief.
  • Review your list of thing to do each month, reflect and plan for the next month.
  • How to deal with backlash? Have a tribe of support. Vent it out. Do not internalize. Fear always comes first, but document that, write your experience and emotions at a bad (or good) situation down, quickly after it occurred, so you don’t forget. Use psychological tricks, for example, make the offender repeat their words by asking: “Excuse me, what did you say?”.

I agree we need leaders with empathy. Actually, we need people with empathy. Let’s introduce this from early age; incorporate this in schools and hobby activities as a start.

The backlash is something I would bring up to justify some feminism, even the more radical forms of it. However, we should be careful not to generalize (“all” men), since this is, as we know, how radical movements start, rooted by the feeling their identity is not acknowledged. I think the incel movement is an unfortunate countermovement. Which is not to say that feminism is to blame for that or should be less radical. I think it’s just an example of how extreme imbalances (female oppression, male domination) tend to get an overshoot in the opposite direction when a countermovement tries to reclaim terrain. (I notice – as may you – I just started using military terminology, probably due to the warlike nature this struggle has taken unfortunately.)
More importantly, I would like to stress the observation that radical groupings are fueled by an emotional shortcoming (lacking of emotional intelligence) of their individual members; usually originating from childhood. In order to try to restore that imbalance, the individual joins a group to empower their beliefs in a shared battle from echo chambers, aiming for a reversal of the roles and establishing a reversal of the imbalance. Indeed, this is not what we want to happen.
This is a typical zero-sum game. We should instead look for win-win situations. And although likely hard to find, it should be our goal and strive, in my opinion. Accepting failure on the way. I know, it’s a bit idealistic, but anyway, avoiding the zero-sum game is a start.
Anyway, starting with (emotional) balance from the start is easier than trying to restore it later in life. Hence the call for introducing it in schools and extracurricular activities.

With the next few points, I agree, but would like to nuance and say this applies not solely to women. Let’s acknowledge that empowering others, perfectionism, underachieving, the failure to multitask and natural charm are not mere female characteristics and neither are they present with every woman. I understand these arguments, but want to point out that it is also an example of binary thinking, something that we need to learn to be aware of and in my opinion avoid and replace by more pluralistic viewpoints, as hard as this may be. We as a species think in concepts and after simplifying, we quickly end up with two opposing entities. Countless examples to find for who is willing to pay attention to it (men-woman, black-white, democrats-republicans, etc.).

We do ourselves short by lingering in dualistic viewpoints. I am doing an appeal here: exercise yourself in pluralistic thinking, in taking multiple viewpoints. Exercise yourself in empathy.

This becomes easier as you restore from previous emotional imbalance. More so if you are willing to do the effort and probably tame the ego a bit. (See the future foreword of this, if that ever takes shape.)

For the final points, I think it’s very insightful and humbling to realize what kind of effort most (all) women are spending on trying to cope with the current imbalance in our society. (We can say the same about other groups in relation to other types of imbalances too of course, but let’s focus here on the women-men relationship in the majority of societies.) And of course in a war like that, all weapons are mobilized, also passive aggressive behaviour, which is not monopolized by women (yes, of course men do that too, this is a human trait).
Anyway, I think Raiza and her panel listed some very helpful and constructive tools for women (maybe even some men) in tech (but surely also beyond) to cope with the current situation of male dominance in postions of power.

We should restore the balance, preferably in a transitional way. However we should admit that change usually comes from revolution and that evolution takes a timeframe which is unacceptably long in this case. Therefore I still support some feminism, even the more radical ones, be it in balanced proportions.

Anyway, high teatime for more women in leadership positions.

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