Diversity in Tech: Conflicting Thoughts from the Women’s-Only Lounge

By Geri Johnson
Geri has a broad technology and operations background spanning 20+ years. Her goal is to help companies change better and faster in order to achieve their strategic objectives.
 
“But this begs the question of diversity: Who do we learn the most from, people like us or people different from us?”

As I prepare to attend the 5th Annual Lesbians Who Tech + Allies Summit this week, I’ve been reflecting on conferences past and the role diversity plays at these events – and in tech as a whole. I attended the Microsoft Ignite conference toward the end of last year for developers and IT professionals across the country. The conference is Microsoft’s annual signature event, hosting 30,000 attendees and headlined by brilliant people. On my return, and in typical fashion, I was asked, “How was the conference?” I could have said the usual, “Good, I learned a lot, my brain hurts, etc.” And don’t get me wrong, I did make those topical remarks in passing conversations. But for those who dug deeper or asked about my biggest takeaway from the conference, I said, “I feel inspired to do more with women in tech.” Why? Why now? Why not go to a conference like years prior, attend some sessions, collect some swag, find the best vendor party and chat with some geeks about new tech – and have that be it? Don’t get me wrong, I did those standard conference things, but I also attended sessions for Women in Business and Technology.

The sessions were not exclusive to women, but they were predominantly attended by women. The sessions created a safe space to ask questions and get guidance from women who have been there. The presenters were inspiring. Their experiences resonated with me. I found myself nodding my head wanting to hear more, and thinking yes, that happened to me, too.

Back story: Five years ago, I moved from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs. It wasn’t for a job or a spouse. I wanted to live in Colorado for the sunny days and the scenic mountains. But why did I pick Colorado Springs when I could have chosen any city in Colorado? I wanted to bring the diversity.

If you were to ask me who I am – I am many things. I embody several identities: black, female, lesbian, curvy, technologist, innovator, executive. Denver could have been a more comfortable choice for me to find communities that share my identities. I knew Colorado Springs would be less diverse, but I liked the city and wanted to add to the population for others to see, change minds and perceptions, make others feel more comfortable when they visit or consider moving.

Here’s the thing, I can’t hide my identity at the door. Unconscious and conscious bias dictates that others have a perception of me before I even speak one word. So I’m here, in COS, to smile, speaking intelligently, carry a conversation about world travel, drive a car you didn’t expect, make a purchase you didn’t expect, hold a position at a company you didn’t expect, attend events you didn’t expect, play golf at a course you didn’t expect. Why? Because I embody several identities, more than anyone can see when I enter a room. And that makes me a person with a wealth of experiences, arguably a diverse background. I want to be there for you when you’re nervous about going somewhere because there won’t be anyone “like you”; I want you to feel welcomed and relieved to see you’re not alone.

Let’s get back to why this has anything to do with the Ignite conference. I attended sessions tailored for women. I visited the lounge for women. I networked and connected with women. And I felt conflicted. It’s comforting to go to a lounge designated for women. I was able to share stories and geek out with other women. How often do we get a chance to do that? Close to never! But I’m all about bringing the diversity in tech, so I need to be out there bringing it with the everyone. I felt guilty and like I was promoting segregation.

But, I found myself questioning how was I supposed to meet these women if the lounge and sessions were not available?
How were they supposed to meet me?
And what about the women who traveled with male colleagues and didn’t feel comfortable going to the WIBT sessions or lounge?
Did they feel like they were missing out?
Did the ones who abandoned their male colleagues feel guilty?
Did they want time to talk with other women in tech?

All these thoughts and questions made me leave the conference wanting to do more and be a mentor in the women in tech community. If a woman wants to talk with someone who has already blazed a trail, I want to be available to her and vice versa. But this begs the question of diversity: Who do we learn the most from, people like us or people different from us? I would argue we learn the most from people different than us.

Based on that logic, shouldn’t I be a mentor to men in tech?
But what about the women – the black women, the black lesbian women, shouldn’t I be there for them?
Don’t they want to talk to someone who’s been in their shoes?
To know they are not alone?
To know there is a support community out there for them?

I’ve decided it doesn’t matter which mentor route I choose. The best choice is to begin and get the conversations going. Everyone in the tech community need to get involved and have conversations about diversity. We need all the women’s lounges, we need comforting spaces for camaraderie, but we also need spaces to build our diversity with open dialogue about the state of women in tech – or lack thereof.

I need to invest my time equally between women in tech initiatives and general tech user groups. I need to bring the diversity to both communities. As more women show up, I want to be there so they don’t feel alone or like the only brave soul in the room. Then, there will be two of us, three of us, four of us … and counting.

But men, when I’m in the room, please treat me with the respect my years of experience deserve, and don’t be surprised that I know what I’m talking about. Yes, I know how to spell cloud computing architecture, and I know what a server is, and a VLAN, and a docker container, and hybrid and database. Don’t tell me I should talk to my “IT guy” – I am IT. I have the degree, the certifications, the on-call hours, the Nimda virus and my kickass architecture diagrams to prove it. So let’s not start the conversation by me proving I’m more than equal. Let’s start by talking about what we love most about being in tech, the best advice anyone has ever given us in our careers, the coolest thing we’re learning right now.

And women, if we attend these male-dominated events but stay huddled together in solidarity, we’re not bringing the diversity. Get in there and get the conversations going. I call it strategic mingling. Go to an event and seek out two people: someone you think will be similar to you and someone different. Yes, take your wing person with you, but break up, connect with others and then come back to share your experiences.

The best way to create diversity is to be the diversity. What is your company doing to support diversity? Better yet, what are you doing?

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