One of my personal “causes” is trying to promote the technology world as a gender-inclusive space.  If you read about such matters on the internet these days, there are some stories that talk about how we’re getting more women in technology.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but one of my concerns is that even if we are getting more women working in the tech industry, I’m not convinced we are getting more women doing technical work.  This is absolutely not to say that non-technical roles are not important and don’t benefit from diversity.  It’s simply to say…

  1. …technical stuff is what I know about, and therefore it’s what I’m passionate about and comfortable talking about
  2. …I care a lot about engineering teams being diverse because I believe diverse engineering teams are better at solving problems
  3. …I worry that the tech industry might believe the problem of a lack of gender equality is ‘solved’ if the percentage of women employed in tech companies goes up, regardless of whether or not the percentage of women employed in technical roles in tech companies goes up

I attend a lot of conferences (especially as of late) and although I’m really enjoying seeing more women participating and giving talks, I’m still disheartened at the fact that they are usually not working in technical roles.

How do we solve that?  I don’t know.  I wish I did know.  I personally just try to be a good example, and look for ways in which I can help — help make other women feel comfortable in the tech world, help set examples for children, etc.  And I try to speak out about gender issues, both to comment on positive things I see, and also on problems I observe or experience.

And that’s the reason this post is here.

I was recently attending a conference where the target demographic are game developers using Unity, and, while I was standing in line for coffee, minding my own business, the gentleman (an attendee of the conference, who I do not know) behind me taps me on the shoulder.  As I turn around, he gives me a smile and comments, “Wow, Unity sure has some beautiful women.”  To be honest, I was somewhat uncomfortable.  I was attending the conference to work, after all — to talk about technical things and share technical ideas.  Was this ‘harassment’?  I don’t know; I would classify it as ‘unwelcome sexual attention’, which as far as I can tell from my research on the internet, may or may not fall under the description of ‘sexual harassment’.  It does seem to violate most standard anti-harassment policies.

But whether such a thing is harassment or not, and how I personally felt or reacted, is not actually what I find to be the interesting conversation point to come out of the situation.

I realized through discussion of this event within my own social circle that one of the big problems we have as an industry — especially in the games industry — is that people just don’t agree on what the problem is.  I realized that it’s possible for people (men) who are perfectly sane people and genuinely believe in gender equality to not see why someone would find the situation I described above a problem.

“Doesn’t everyone like compliments?”

“I wish someone would tell me I’m attractive!”

So how can we collectively solve a problem if we don’t even agree on what the problem is?  We can’t.

How do we solve that?  I don’t know the answer to that either.

But the whole thing got me thinking about what I think the problem is, at least in the above-described situation:

  1. I’ve said before during the keynote I gave at ACT-W Seattle, and I’ll say again, “We need to stop looking at people in terms of their gender and start looking at them in terms of their skills.”
  2. Any kind of gender-based discrimination based obviously violates (1) because instead of removing gender as an issue, they create a gender-based issue.
  3. Sexual advances (or ‘compliments’ if you see them as that) at conferences that are designed to bring technical people together to discuss technical topics and exchange technical ideas also violate (1) because instead of removing gender as an issue, they contribute to the issue that technical women at conferences are being evaluated based on their appearance.  They should be evaluated instead of their technical skills and ideas — nothing more, nothing less.
  4. Lastly (this last point is admittedly a bit controversial, but I strongly believe in it), it’s not OK for people who (a) have never been the target of such incidents, and (2) have never been impacted by the nuances and subtleties of gender differences in tech, to say that sexism or gender issues, or even just a particular incident, isn’t a problem just because they can’t imagine themselves being bothered if they were in the target audience’s situation.

Just my $0.02.