Neal Freeland

Engineering/marketing manager, family guy. My personal blog with a few work thoughts mixed in.

Grace Hopper Conference

with 4 comments

I just returned from a few days at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and thought I’d share a few observations. I think men talking about women in tech is like crossing a minefield men don’t know they’re in. Even with the best of intentions they will step on a mine they can’t see. Look at the understandably negative reaction to Satya‘s keynote at the conference this week. That said, I think men should enter the minefield anyway. We need men to bravely embrace this topic and talk about it. But be prepared: We’re probably going to mess something up and become a target. I watched Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy and Microsoft alum (I used to work with him), receive a lot of punishing feedback in the press and social media for being on a “male allies” panel. My initial reaction: Geez I don’t want to be a target for this, I’d rather be a silent and safe supporter than open myself up and take a risk. His reaction: Keep trying, we need to take risks if we are going to create change. The women who believe in this are taking risks everyday with their careers. Men can take a few risks, too.

So here goes.

Why it’s important to have more women in tech. Growing the number of women in tech is important because women are the customers of our products, and data show that companies build better products when they have insight and understanding about their customers. A common mistake male engineers make is to say “this is how I use the product, so this is what we should build” when a significant number, or even the majority, of customers are female. Thus, diversity leads to broader understanding, which leads to new insights, which leads to innovation, which leads to more product and business success. This isn’t just the “right” thing to do, it’s also in our self-interest.

What is needed to grow women in tech. To attract and retain more women in technology, culture change is required. Even though engineers are rational and objective, we are still susceptible to gender role bias (test yourself). I consider myself aware and supportive of women in work, and I took the test and it told me I have a slight association of MEN with CAREER and WOMEN with HOME. Over two thirds of the million people who have taken this Harvard test have a similar bias. It is everywhere in our culture and is generally unconscious. When we have low representation (only 17% of Microsoft engineering hires are women) combined with unconscious bias we end up with a culture that is less supportive to women than it is to men. Men generally don’t see this since we benefit from the bias, but many women we work with feel this bias every single day. To change the culture, many women are speaking up and demanding representation and equality. They are being persistent, and this may often feel uncomfortable for all involved. For example, expect women to ask for promotions and pay raises. In fact, encourage them to do so. Changing our culture is something we should all support in order to achieve the benefits of having more women in tech.

What managers can do. I learned some of the tactics we can deploy as an organization: Actively recruit women into the organization; listen to women’s stories; identify and develop top female engineering talent; increase the number of female engineering leaders; establish metrics and hold leaders accountable; model work/life flexibility; train managers to be aware of unconscious bias when determining promotions and rewards; help women connect with each other to reduce isolation and build support networks; mentor and sponsor women. There are a lot of great resources at the National Center for Women in Technology.

An example. We can generally all agree that the tactics above are useful, but I believe this topic is mostly about how we treat each other. It’s about relationships, so I want to bring it down to earth by sharing an anecdote. I crossed paths with Yeelin who worked on my team last year. She is an amazing program manager early in her career who works super hard and knows her space cold. I noticed in some product meetings (scrum and spec reviews) that she held back even though she had the answers. I hypothesized that she did this because as an Asian female she has heard messages that this is the behavior she should demonstrate, and I raised this in a skip level 1×1. She agreed with the hypothesis. I encouraged her to show her leadership more visibly and assured her that people really want her to do so; we all appreciate helpful leaders. I added that I believe she has the technical talent, passion and work ethic to be successful in her career. I also suggested she connect with Qiao Lin, a female engineer who was a few years ahead in career experience and who had just transferred to the Bellevue office from China. I was impressed by Qiao Lin’s enthusiastic networking (she reached out to meet me in a 1×1), her confident style, and that she had asked me to donate to the Anita Borg Institute during our annual fall giving campaign. Then we had a re-org and I didn’t see much more of Yeelin. Fast forward nearly a year, and Yeelin told me that she was at the conference because of our conversation and Qiao Lin’s mentoring. It’s hard to describe exactly, but I felt like we shared a moment of mutual appreciation and that we were both trying to live the change we are hoping to see in the world.

Next year I will encourage more women to attend this conference, and I think it is an amazing place to recruit top engineering talent.

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Written by nealfreeland

October 10, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Great thoughts Neal, thank you for taking the “risk” to share your thoughts. I really wanted to attend this conference, but we’re having a baby any day now, so hopefully next year!

    Paul Nash

    October 10, 2014 at 10:39 pm

  2. Neal thank you for being open about your support. It means a lot to know where your allies are.

    I did several recruiting rounds at GHC. I can share my technique for tech screen + short mentor session. So many students left with my alias, excited about Microsoft, and hopefully with a role model to follow. I will see how many are courageous enough to contact me. I am always available for mentoring within MSFT. Feel free to send anyone to me for mentoring within your org.

    Jennifer Beckmann

    October 11, 2014 at 12:50 pm

  3. Great thoughts and summary – thanks. Have you seen Susan Colantuono’s TED talk on closing the gender gap at the top?

    Lisa White

    October 12, 2014 at 10:32 am

    • I haven’t but will look for it thanks!

      nealfreeland

      October 12, 2014 at 11:57 am


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