Alex Casey reports back from the Techweek’17 ‘Breaking Stereotypes’ panel with a bevy of useful life advice.
The room for the Breaking Stereotypes panel was built to inspire, from the shaggy aqua rug to the bespoke mismatched seats, to the wall art that literally said “inspire”. ‘Twas the middle of Techweek’17, the coffee was steaming, the notebooks were opening, and the horrific gender stats of the tech industry were being pulled gently into focus.
A panel featuring women of all different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities had gathered in the inspire room at Tech Futures Lab to chew over some meaty problems. There was founder Frances Valintine, computer engineer and She# founder Mahsa Mohaghegh, #everydaysexism and IT expert Vivian Chandra, The Next Billion’s Priti Ambani, software engineer Nitkalya Wiriyanuparb and data architect Alex Garkavenko – which is a job that exists because we live in The Matrix BTW.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the women spoke about their own pathways into tech, how to get more women and non-binary folk into tech and, most importantly, how to get them to the top. For your ease, I collated all of their delicious tidbits and created this inspirational degustation menu of advice. Don’t eat it all at once.
1) Find yourself a cheerleader/s
Finding like-minded people in the same industry allows you to share your stories and, as Priti Ambani put it, “paint pictures of what is possible”. As much as Taylor Swift has ruined the concept of the girl gang for absolutely everyone, Frances Valintine heavily advocates for finding a team of like-minded people who “get” what it’s like to be maneuvering a man’s world.
“They’re my sanity check on Slack” she said, referring to a collage of powerhouse women that Taylor Swift would probably call “girlbosses” but are in fact just actual bosses.
2) Do other stuff, and do heaps of it
One mantra rang from almost every speaker: stay curious and stay hungry (and I’m not just talking about the selection of mini pastries). Part of that involves ensuring that you feed your ravenous mind-monster with different activities and skills, be they Harry Potter books, aerial circus classes or random bouts of hiking.
There’s also a bloody bevy of online classes that you can take to strengthen your skills in whichever area you work in. Employing a perhaps unfortunate simile given the current property market, Frances Valentine advised that you should invest in your brain “like you invest in a house”. Check out the MOOC list for literally thousands of free online courses that you can take whilst counting your pennies to buy a house in 2050.
3) Make like baking soda and… rise
One of the big stereotypes women face in competitive male environments is that they always have to drag each other down. Instead, the panel advised being supportive of others, freeing yourself of bias and making time for those who need it. Vivian Chandra recommends trying to help just one person if you can, giving a shout out to one of her code school students that she bumped into years later at a professional event.
4) Challenge what you see
With only 3% of women choosing a career in tech, there’s no doubt that within that small pocket there’s a huge diversity problem. “Close your eyes,” instructed Priti Ambani, “you can see Steve Jobs, you can see Elon Musk. Can you see Sheryl Sandberg?” As the women get hazier and hazier in your mind’s eye, it’s important to note that Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg remain clearly white. There’s a distinct need to shine a light on role models who reflect the diversity in the world, which Priti expands more on here.
The women also talked about expanding this stereotype #disruption to the every day, whether it’s in advertising or the media. Point out images you see on billboards and at the mall, ask questions of children about who they’re selling to and what stereotypes they are relying on. And, as Vivian Chandra so succinctly put it, “buy kids Wonder Woman, not Batman.”
5) Don’t be afraid to be a nag hag (if you need to)
One of the greatest anecdotes of the day was told by Frances Valintine, who recounted correcting a boardroom full of 50-odd male executives, save for one other woman. Every time someone unconsciously used a male gendered pronoun when talking about leadership roles, Frances said “or she” until people stopped doing it.
Everyday language matters. If bosses can’t even stomach saying “she” or “they”, how they ever gonna hire them?
6) Toss the imposter in the garbage
A room full of hands shot up when we were asked who suffered from the dreaded imposter syndrome. How do you keep pushing yourself when you feel like you are conning everyone worse than Danny DeVito’s evil car dealer dad in Matilda? “Channel it” said Alex Garkavenko, suggesting you could embrace the dread and uncertainty as a good sign that you are doing something that challenges you. I bet even Matilda’s Dad doubted himself at times.
7) And men: step TF up
Frances Valentine has noticed a trend in cool men who step down from conferences and panels that only have one woman speaking. Whether it’s a dad correcting jibes about “babysitting” to just “no, I’m parenting” or taking active means to make room for diversity, men have the power to champion those who haven’t made it through the glass ceiling just yet.
8) AND ALSO: RELAX BECAUSE PRETTY SOON WE’LL MOSTLY EXIST AS AVATARS ANYWAY
A sobering but comforting thought that ended the panel. See you when The Singularity hits.
Techweek’17: a week of events bringing together New Zealand’s brightest technology and innovation talent to tackle global issues with local ingenuity. May 6-14, Nationwide. techweek.co.nz