LISA '11: Women in Tech Panel

Yesterday's Women in Tech Panel was moderated by Lois Bennett, who was joined by panelists Carolyn Rowland, Máirín Duffy, and Deb Nicholson. Lois started the discussion with the question, “Is there a problem?

Carolyn responded, “I didn't think there was a problem because I've adapted, I think.” She said that she tried fitting in by being “like a guy” in how she dressed, talked, and interacted. "I wanted to fit in and be accepted for how smart I was," she said, adding, "Women sometimes want to feel like women, not like men." After a while, Carolyn noticed, “It took over who I am.” She asked the question, “Did you down play femininity because you wanted to? Or because you felt you needed to?”

Máirín agreed with Carolyn, saying, "IRC and mailing lists basically made me cry." She focused on university-based projects, but by her senior year in college, she wanted to make a difference in open source. She got an internship at Red Hat, which then helped her make face-to-face contacts with people.

Deb pointed out that something about the open source community makes it less inviting than the proprietary software community, which has a higher percentage of women participants. An attendee spoke up and shared an experience at her office. Seven men and one woman were interviewed for a position, and ultimately one of the men was hired based on his existing skill set. She pointed out that statistically, the woman wouldn't get chosen because she might not have as much experience. Deb said that studies show that men consistently overestimate their skill set, whereas women consistently underestimate.

Forking a Child Process

The panel also discussed whether women are penalized for wanting to start a family or for already having children. Carolyn, who has three children, said that when she was pregnant, she went to work every day and had to overcome the fact that she was pregnant and a baby was on the way, whereas her husband didn't have to carry that with him to the workplace. Two days after delivering each child, Carolyn was back online, making sure her colleagues knew she was still plugged in and not going anywhere. She felt extra pressure to be productive from home when her baby was sleeping, for example, which was pressure her husband didn't have to deal with at work.

Deb pointed out that other industries offer generous paternity leave and suggested that the IT industry could unionize and commit to a 40-hour work week (which didn't raise any objections from the audience). Carolyn pointed out that men can't really understand pregnancy and maternity leave, saying, "If you were my supervisor, I'd be worried about it."

Máirín said that she and her husband are discussing starting a family, which wasn't something she was thinking about when she was evaluating potential employers. She wonders whether women self-select out of IT careers because they start families, and she said that one of her friends left the industry until her child was two or three years old. Máirín notes, however, that her employer, Red Hat, has a strong internal community of women who network and support each other.


The topic moved to women working with other women, and there is an assumption that if there are two women in an office together, they will like each other and be friends, which isn't always the case.

Deb said that a lot of men don't think they are sexist or part of the "problem," but she pointed out that in an IRC channel, for example, if one loud person is sexist and not one else speaks up about it, a new person in the channel will assume that everyone else agrees with the loud one. She said that being silent while someone louder and more obnoxious represents your community doesn't help.


What about recruitment? Máirín talked about the success of the GNOME Project's Summer of Code. At first, no women applied. The next time around, a GNOME Women's Summer Outreach program was launched. They took a more neutral approach to promoting the event — instead of focusing on anything competitive or game-related, they talked about the opportunity to learn new skills and earn money. The first year of the new effort, 10 women participated, which encouraged the sponsors to fund more years. She asked, "How are you wording your job postings? Where are you posting them?" Computer labs, for example, have been successful for GNOME outreach promotions.

Culture is slow to change, but Carolyn points out that you can adapt to a culture if you understand it. "We have to adapt because we are the minority," she says. Still, any culture can be more inviting. She points out that LOPSA could have a mentoring effort to help women adapt without having to hide themselves. "I think that LISA has gotten better and women feel safer here," she adds.

Action Items

At the end of the panel discussion, Máirín shared the notes she'd been taking. She summarized the talk with the following action items:

  1. Do not be quiet. If you see funny business going on, say something.
  2. Try to spread awareness that there is a problem.
  3. Make sure you have training opportunities in the workplace.
  4. If you are a woman in IT, reach out to other women and consider mentoring.
  5. Women need to watch their communication (be assertive, don't say "I think," sound confident).
  6. For women in tech events, invite non-women, too [few men showed up for the panel discussion, and there was discussion about how some men felt unwelcome to attend].
  7. Change meeting formats to be more inclusive so everyone has a chance to talk.
  8. Make your work more visible (self-promotion).
  9. Have a women's mentorship community (like the one in Red Hat, for example).
  10. Review your recruitment strategy (check company website -- is it all white men?).
  11. The medium is the message (maybe a blog is more comfortable for you than communicating in IRC, for example).

I'll add this other thought: LISA has a decent turnout of women each year, but we'd love to see more women (and new faces in general) join us. If there's anything we can do to make LISA — or other USENIX events — more inviting to you, please let us know. And if LISA '11 was your first time attending a LISA event, we'd love to hear feedback about your experience.

A special thanks to Nicole Forsgren Velasquez for generously sharing her talk notes for this article!