Why go to women-focused technology events?

Why would a woman who's perfectly comfortable in groups predominantly populated by men want to step out of her comfort zone to attend women-focused technology groups?

diverse group of young women
Credit: Thinkstock

A lot of people wonder why there need to be woman-focused spaces in tech. I was one of those people for a very long time. I avoided them for the first decade and a half of my InfoSec career. What on earth would I have to gain? But I was surprised to see how much there was for me to learn from women who’ve chosen a similar career path.

I blanch at being called “woman” in much the same way as I do being called “expert.” While both are accurate, there are significant implications to both that feel very uncomfortable for me. Experts are supposed to be pretty nigh infallible, but I know enough to understand how much I still don’t know about security. And there are a ton of things women are “supposed” to like or to do, which I strenuously avoid: I wouldn’t know fashion if it came up and bit me on the rump, and I am barely passable at putting on makeup or styling my hair. I wouldn’t be caught dead dancing, baby humans kind of freak me out, and “chick flicks” bore me to tears. Because of this, I’ve often found myself feeling very much alone in groups of women.

Before joining my first tech company, I had been in an industry that was almost entirely populated by women. While the work itself was deeply satisfying, I seldom felt any sort of camaraderie with my colleagues because I had almost nothing to add to communal conversations. And when you’re employed in an industry where seasonal layoffs are a natural part of the job, being the person least connected to the group means you’re almost always the first to be let go even if you’re very good at your job.

In tech, my relationship to coworkers changed, if only slowly. I still felt like an outsider among my now predominantly male coworkers, but this has seldom been a negative experience. Having wide swaths of shared interests and something to add to the conversation made me feel that my presence was a welcome one. I finally found a group I connected with in a work setting, including even the occasional female colleague. So why would I want to step out of that comfort zone to seek out larger groups of women again?

It wasn’t until a friend persuaded me to accompany her to an Executive Women’s Forum meeting that I started catching a glimpse of the answer to that question. I expected there to be a scant handful of women in attendance, given the female-to-male ratios I’m accustomed to seeing at conferences. While the percentage of women in Information Security is abysmally low, when you actually put a bunch of us together in the same room, it adds up to a lot more people than I would have expected. (And in reality, it’s not just women there either; I can think of few such meetings that didn’t include at least a few men, and they’re warmly welcomed.)

What I found at that first meeting totally defied my expectations. Instead of feeling like an outlier, I had found a group whose interests and experiences were very similar to my own.

Because it needs clarifying, “similar experiences” is not a euphemism for man-bashing or complaining about how everything is unfair when you’re a woman. And while no gender has a monopoly on any one trait or set of behaviors, the way people are socialized into treating men and women – especially those who have chosen a non-traditional career – means we are often presented with a similar set of gender-specific hoops to jump through. Hearing how others have negotiated those obstacles is incredibly informative, and it ignited my desire to revisit this experience.

Beyond that, being that one-in-a-dozen person in a group can be a surprising drain on your energy. It was tiring to be the invisible “non-girly” girl when I worked with women, and it can be taxing to be the hyper-visible female working with men. Being in a group of people who share my vocation as well as my interests, and who are more demographically similar to me, is a more energy-neutral state. Having that extra level of shared experience is a lot like returning home after traveling abroad: having to sustain that extra mental energy needed to translate your language or cultural references is a burden you’re seldom aware of until it has come and gone.

And the emergency-oriented, “always on” nature of our work is pretty draining even on a good day. Finding your “tribe within a tribe” can go a long way towards neutralizing the burnout we all must negotiate, regardless of gender, in this career.

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