Diversity in Tech: An Opportunity

A UNCW-CFWIT Panel Recap

Early this summer Kristin Lancaster, Emilyanne Atkinson and I made our way to the Computer Science auditorium on the UNC Wilmington campus to discuss gender in tech with Dr. Curry Guinn's Professionalism and Ethics in Computer Science class. Dr. Guin reached out to Emilyanne and I because we’re part of Cape Fear Women in Tech, and he thought we might have an opinion or information to impart on the matter. Emilyanne and I decided it would be a great opportunity to have an open discussion and connect with future tech professionals, so we said yes and roped in another participant. As a part of GE Women’s Network and experienced woman in tech, Kristin was a perfect fit for our third panelist, so we were glad she was willing to be a part of the talk.  

A couple weeks prior to the event we all met to plan tackling what I consider a tough conversation. It's not that others don't recognize the lopsided male-female ratio in tech, but it can be uncomfortable as meandering comments and questions search for a magnetic north of blame. Based on observations throughout my short life, guilt is not the most generous of motivators. I prefer personal agency and chance to feel good about making a difference for the future - men and women move mountains to catch a glimpse of that feeling. Kristin suggested we discuss a gender diversity opportunity rather than an issue or problem, and we agreed. Shock and awe, even outrage, was not our objective. Rather, our goal was to communicate a collection of real, personal experiences and perspectives, encourage thought around why and if it matters to have diversity in tech, and plant seeds for small daily actions that could lead to larger change in the future.

As usual I forgot to take a picture while in the presence of the students, so I’ll paint a picture; 35 students, 31 males and 4 females of various ethnicities, backgrounds and ages.

This is a summary of our conversation that day.

(Slide we used as our backdrop)

We started with some “get to know you” questions for the students.

What year are you? Sophomores, Juniors, Seniors,

Where did you grow up? Southeast, South, Northeast, West Coast, Southwest, Middle America, Abroad

Majors?

○ CS? About half

○ IT? Most of the rest

○ Business? 2

○ Any Psych majors like Kristin and I? Nope

Do you care about and strive to create the best and baddest-ass technology products and solutions possible? Yes. We all had this one in common. Next, I gave the students a little introduction to how this thing was about to go down.

● We were asked to join you to discuss gender in tech. Our backgrounds are fairly diverse, but we all currently work in tech in our own ways.

● The plan today is provide you with some perspective. I'm sure you've already reviewed a ton of statistics and reports on diversity in tech and specifically the gender makeup of some of the most highly regarded tech behemoths in Silicon Valley. You can read all the data on your own. What we're looking to do today is impart the perspective of three real people who work in tech - we're going to tell you parts of our story and what we see from the inside looking around and out.

● We don't pretend to be experts in gender issues and the state of gender or diversity in tech, however, we have a collection of life experiences to draw from that we hope will help to add some humanity to what you've read and heard.

● As far as format - I'm going to have our guests introduce themselves then I'll begin asking them questions we prepared in advance. Our conversation may spark questions you have or points you'd like to make - do not hesitate to raise your hand and say what you like.

We developed the following questions in advance for me to ask Emilyanne and Kristin. Each of us had our favorites as indicated by our names. 

● Emilyanne - What was the gender makeup of your average computer science class when you were in school?

● All - What made you interested in tech in the first place?

● Paint a picture of your engineering team.

● All - Do you think there is a gender diversity opportunity in tech? Describe it.

○ Why should any of us care about it if there is one?

● What do you see in Wilmington that is the same or different from what you've seen elsewhere, or what your sense of the national/global climate?

● Emilyanne - Do you think that given enough time whatever diversity issues exist will just fix themselves?

● What's most difficult about your current position? Does it have anything to do with your gender? How do you overcome it?

● Audrey - Have you ever discussed gender in tech with female colleagues? Male colleagues - what did it sound like? Was there a conclusion? What surprised you?

● How does communication influence your teams - do you notice differences in men and women? Is it ever a problem? Is it a benefit? Do you consider your communication style male/female/neither?

● Kristin - Does public image matter? How do you approach it?

● Kristin - What role does authenticity play for you personally? Can you give an example of a time you didn't feel authentic?

● Kristin - Can you speak to your strategy of switching to the opposite of your default approach?

● Emilyanne - How does authenticity play out for you? From a cultural perspective do you think sometimes people feel they need to bend to the existing culture?

● Kristin - What is the problem with perfectionist tendencies in development/tech?

● Kristin - What is imposter syndrome and have you seen it in action/felt it? How to overcome it?

● What questions do you have for the students?

In a perfect world I would be able to provide a transcript of our conversation or at least answers to the questions here. The world is not perfect, so these questions will have to serve as sparks for your own internal dialogue or healthy group conversation.

I do have a few of my favorite takeaways to share:

● From Emilyanne - Maintain your sense of self, sometimes it’s good to stand out.

● From Kristin - Perfectionist tendencies are a trap that can hold you back in your career and in product development.

As we spoke, I was appreciative of the students’ respectful attention. Some made comments around their personal experiences - one female student recounted a situation at at work in a computer repair shop when a customer insisted on being helped by a male. All in all, I think we accomplished our mission. The students weren’t bored out of their skulls and possibly even had a few quality ideas to chew on, and I got to hang out with Kristin and Emilyanne. In conclusion, the statistics don’t lie, there are more men in technology professions than women. Over time, I hope the numbers change because it’s important to me that those crafting the future of technology, our future, have a rich tapestry of experiences and perspectives to bring to this work, this art. We wrapped up with this simple message... All we really want is to be good people and make great things, and if we all focus on that the world will be an awesome place.

And now, back to work.

Kristin Lancaster

Emilyanne Atkinson

Audrey Speicher

UNCW Department of Computer Science

 

Special thanks to Dr. Guinn and his fantastic class!