Monday, November 24, 2014

Faux Pas

The conference I attended last week was a pleasant excursion away from the confines of telecommuting. Other than the technology and systems presented, I particularly enjoyed meeting new people and catching up with friends. I think it really helped me focus again, both on work and on my personal projects.

That said, I disappointed myself with a conversation I had with one woman at the conference. She had released some software that is a brilliant example of the kind of systems that I am interested in learning more about, and I am looking forward to investigating how it all fits together. So when I saw her passing by I took the opportunity to introduce myself and thank her.

After the initial part of the conversation, I asked where she had traveled from, and she replied, "London," though she had originally come from elsewhere. I have other friends who live in and around London, and the cost of living in that city always seems prohibitive to me, so I asked about this. The response was that it wasn't so bad for her, and that she thought it was a nice place to settle down.

Without thinking, I took my cue from the phrase "settle down" and asked if she was married. She was very nice and replied no, but it was clear I had made a mistake and I allowed her to leave the conversation soon after that.

My initial reaction after this was to be defensive. After all, "settle down" is a phrase often associated with one's family, and many of us at the conference were married, so it didn't seem that harmful. But that it just one of those psychological tricks we pull on ourselves in order to not feel bad about our mistakes.

The fact is that this was a young woman on her own in a conference that was predominantly male. A question like this may be innocent enough in other circumstances, but as my wife pointed out, it can be threatening in an environment with such a strong gender disparity.

The tech industry has a major problem with its gender imbalance, and those women who remain are often treated so poorly that many of them choose to leave. I am particularly galled at my actions because I want to be part of the solution, and not perpetuating this unhealthy state of affairs. My actions were inadvertent, and not on a level of some of the behavior I have heard of, but if we want to see things change then it puts the onus on those of us who are in the majority to make things better. When it comes to the constant difficulties women and minorities face in the tech community, that means trying to improve things down to the subtlest level, as they all accumulate for individuals until they decide they don't want to be a part of it any more. And if that were to happen, we would be much poorer for it. Diversity breeds success.

I'm writing this as a reminder to myself to do better in the future. I'm also thinking that it may add to the voices of those who want to see things change, so those who haven't thought about it yet will give it some consideration, and those who have will be heartened by someone else trying... even when they get it wrong.

By following the conference on twitter, I saw that this woman went on to enjoy the rest of the conference, and I hope that my own mistake is something that she was able to quickly forget. If she ever reads this (unlikely), then I wholeheartedly apologise. Personally, I hope that this lesson stays with me a long time, and I always remember to make a more conscious effort about where I take the conversation in future.