What Gender Diversity Means to Me

I’m a volunteer on the Diversity in Agile project founded by Mike Sutton and supported by the Agile Alliance. Update: Though we did these video interviews back in 2010, they’re still online, and these women are still awesome!

For reasons I don’t understand, some people have misunderstood the first phase of the project, which seeks to recognize and celebrate the contributions of women in agile development, as an awards program for women. Some people even thought it was only for women in testing.

Jon Bach asked me a good question. A couple of weeks ago, our Writing About Testing group held a conference in Durango, CO. The group was nicely balanced with as many women as men. Jon asked me what advantages I felt this gave the conference. He found my reply helpful and encouraged me to share it here. I’ve done so, with edits to make it more understandable to people who weren’t there. I hope others will find it helpful.

(Some others are finding this still makes them uncomfortable. I guess this is just such a delicate issue, it’s hard to express my feelings without offending someone. But as we are losing women from our industry at an alarming rate, I feel like I have to take the risk of pissing a few people off. Please take this in the spirit that I have the best intentions at heart. And think about this – would you want to work on a homogeneous team? Yes, gender is only one part of diversity. It happens to be the first area that the Diversity in Agile project is recognizing.)

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I’m sure the advantages of having a lot of women at WAT were different for each participant. And while I thought “wow, this is rare, I’m in a room with lots of women”, it wasn’t on my mind all the time.

For me, some advantages that may have been due to the gender balance were:

  • I felt much more comfortable with a lot of women in the group. This wasn’t so much conscious, as just a feeling of ease and belonging that I don’t always feel on my almost-all-male dev team.
  • I find women are in general more active at collaborating and communicating, especially in a new setting. I think we had a lot of good energy and jumping into the exercises and great conversations because we were a diverse group.
  • Seeing other women contribute built my own confidence that I could contribute. I’m not saying that men in general try to reduce my confidence level. But I think most of us feel better with peers around. (Not to say men aren’t my peers – but they aren’t as much alike to me as other women are).
  • This is a note I wrote down when Marlena Compton was talking, I’m not sure if she said it or if it’s just a thought she generated in me:
    • “It’s easy to not feel safe if you aren’t sure about your thoughts. You need a space safe enough to get thoughts out. “
  • I feel more personal safety when there are more women in the room. I think it might be because other women are also thinking about safety, so they make an effort  to provide it. (Again, I am not saying that men do not care about personal safety or do not make an effort to provide it. I just don’t get the same feeling in a room full of only men.) Also in my notes is:

    • If you’ve got something to say, try to say it in a safe place. Don’t invest all your weight into your initial foray – get some feedback from a trusted peer group.
    • I’m not sure if Marlena said that but I’m pretty sure it was one of the women. So, generally I felt I was getting more support and information about personal safety and confidence from the women in the room.
  • This is a gross generalization of course – but some men in the room talked about using anger as motivation for writing (which I do understand, it’s not a bad thing) while I felt women were coming more from a point of view of joy. For example, Elisabeth Hendrickson‘s stunt hamsters and pandas added an element of fun.
  • I feel that because there were so many diverse viewpoints in the room, I got a lot more ideas than from a group of only men. I can’t prove this, of course. But I’m thinking of Elisabeth’s slides with her panda and hamster people, Chris McMahon‘s software development-as-artistic talk, the haiku exercise, donkey energy, the “P”s of motivation, we had a huge variety of ideas that I don’t think we’d have had with a less diverse group. (sorry, for those of you who weren’t there, I don’t have room to explain all those things, they will be blogged about later!)

I love the guys I work with, but I find I often have a point of view that’s different from theirs. Of course, it’s hard for me to know how much of my different viewpoint is just because I’m a tester. We’ve worked together so long, this has changed over the years, as we’ve all influenced each other.

But I remember at first, when there was only one other woman on the team, I was a bit shocked at the way they joked around – insults that were playful, but to an outsider it was a bit shocking, I couldn’t always tell if they were kidding. I don’t think they’d have had this aspect of their culture with more women around, though I could be wrong.

When all the guys play Quake every afternoon, and scream and cuss and pound the desk, they’re having a great time; the other woman on the team and I can enjoy that they are having fun, but we don’t feel like joining in. On a previous all-male team I worked with, I felt left out when they celebrated success by playing Foosball (which I’m no good at – though I do know women who love to play) or went to a movie I really didn’t want to go see (but I went anyway, which expanded my horizons – I learned to love X-Men!)  I really enjoyed having more women on my team back in the day when there were more female programmers.
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I would appreciate any suggestions to make the Women in Agile site communicate our mission more clearly.

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There are some other posts on this issue at CowboyTesting and Lanette Creamer‘s blog,

22 comments on “What Gender Diversity Means to Me

  1. Interesting observations, Lisa. I see some things that surprise me.

    “I think most of us feel better with peers around.” Do men not feel like peers to you? I also don’t understand a sense of safety (in terms of expression) only when women are around.

    “I feel that because there were so many diverse viewpoints in the room, I got a lot more ideas than from a group of only men.” Would it have been as diverse if there were only women? Is the diversity of viewpoints more closely related to gender than to temperament or MBTI type?

    “When all the guys play Quake every afternoon, and scream and cuss and pound the desk, they’re having a great time.” Perhaps it’s not gender, but also age. Not all men do these things. Or maybe it’s men in Colorado. I would be bored to death. Maybe men are more diverse than your workgroup.

  2. Hi George,
    I didn’t say I only feel a sense of safety when only men are around. What I’m trying to say is that I feel like some issues, such as personal safety, seem to be more at the forefront of women’s minds than men. That is, of course a generalization.

    Would we have had as diverse a set of ideas at WAT with only women? I don’t think so. Is it more related to gender than other factors? Possibly not, but there IS a difference in viewpoint that is related to gender. Today I was in a session Jeff Patton did in which he talked about “differences that make a difference”. I think gender is one. I don’t think one gender is better or worse than the other. But I think it’s undeniable that culture plays a huge role, and gender is a huge component of culture.

    The guys playing Quake range in age from later 40s to early 30s. It doesn’t bother me a bit that they play Quake. They’re a diverse group of guys, they share this interest (and a love of Seinfeld). I just can’t quite be one of the guys since I don’t share that with them. That doesn’t bother me that much, and there are two women on my team so I’m not alone. But when I’ve been on a team of all men, I did feel lonely sometimes. I can’t tell you why that is, it’s just a fact.

    Can we separate out gender from every other factor in a successful team? I don’t think so. But, I think it’s hard to argue that a homogeneous team can be as creative and innovative as a diverse one. I think innovation requires more than one point of view.

    It’s undeniable that not only are fewer women getting degrees in software-related fields, but more women are dropping out of software development. Numbers in other industries such as engineering and science are not having this same issue. I think we ought to try to do something about it. But, I accept that not everyone agrees, and that’s ok.

    Would all the guys out there enjoy working on all-male teams, when the numbers of women in software continue to drop? Do y’all think it’s a good thing? If you don’t, then would you just do nothing about it?

  3. Lisa, I would never argue for homogeneous teams, but I’ve never thought of that as primarily a gender issue (or racial, or cultural). While these can be the most visible indicators of diversity, I still have difficulty believing that they’re the most important aspects. I certainly don’t use any of these as a predictor of whether I’ll like working with a team, or whether I think the team will be successful.

    BTW, have you read http://jrothman.com/blog/mpd/2010/06/its-not-women-we-need-its-a-variety-of-people.html ?

    I’m all for diversity, and I’m all for celebrating the achievements of women in the field. I’m struggling, though, with my reaction to some of your comments. I’m feeling judged inferior because of my gender. It makes me reflect that there are multiple dimensions to safety, and that it’s a personal relationship to the situation, not an aspect of the situation, itself.

  4. George, I do not want you to feel judged inferior! I will see if I can fix my post to not give that impression.

    One of our project group members came up with what I think is a better way to express the Women in Agile program. Does it sound any better to you?

    “A few months ago a project was funded by the Agile Alliance to start promoting more diversity on our teams–meaning that when we look around the team room, we want to see variety in terms of educational background, gender, culture, and race. This program will roll out in an iterative fashion, and will bring news-like coverage of compelling stories of everyday team members that are doing great work.

    “The first iteration is a focus on Women in Agile. Although not all the details have been set, it is already possible to publicly recognize one (or more) woman you consider to be a role model or who has made a significant contribution to your career;

    “Please join us in acknowledging the support we’ve received from the women in our midst, and in so doing, expand the positive influence they’ve had in the community.”

    I agree it’s not only women we need, it’s a variety of people. But we are losing women at an alarming rate.

  5. Lisa,

    There was a time when more women were in software? I’ve been around for 10 years now and I guess I missed that era!

    My husband is a HS teacher and he is seeing women getting better grades these days and being more serious about college. Hard to say if this will translate into more of them finding their way to our profession. His school is also looking at having a special Technology and Science track which I think is a great idea for teaching our next generation.

    Lisa, I am sure you or anyone else who is interested could go into schools and do a presentations on the IT field and software testing. This could increase interest in the profession. In this day and age I don’t think there are many who even understand what a software tester really does, few of my friends who aren’t in IT can grasp it. So if students, including women, don’t understand a profession they certainly wouldn’t “plan” to someday join that profession.

  6. Lori, as usual, you have a great idea! There ARE more women going into other science and engineering fields. They just don’t gravitate towards computer science or IT. Maybe Bret could help me find out how to arrange to participate in career programs at high schools?

    Yeah, when I started back in the early 80s, we had as many or more women programmers. We didn’t even think about gender diversity, we just had it. :->

  7. Lisa, perhaps the link itself is part of the problem. “Your team needs women” sounds more like an accusation than a celebration of successful women in Agile software development.

    As for diversity over time, I’m seeing more women programmers now than I did in the 80s and 90s. I think that has more to do with the organizations I’m seeing than due to the industry as a whole. It seems rare, today, to work with a team that has no women. One recent case comes to mind, but it was a very small organization and, while there were no women programmers, some of the Product Owners were women. In another case, some years back, there were no women programmers at the site I visited, but there were a couple of programming managers who were women.

    I almost overlooked these cases. I don’t classify teams into ones with women programming and ones without.

  8. George, it’s helpful to hear that “Your team needs women” strikes the wrong note, I’ll see if we can change that. And I am THRILLED to hear you are working with more women than before. Statistics I’ve read and my own experience show the opposite, but we all know about statistics!

    Do you think you might notice if you were on a team with no other men? or would it not enter your mind? Maybe it is a different experience for men to have or not have other men on the team. Could be another cultural difference between this.

    I don’t think the gender imbalance on software teams is due to active discrimination or sexism. It’s actually a puzzle to me. I have run into very few people who had any problems hiring or working with women, they just couldn’t find women to hire.

    When I was hired for my first programming job in 1982, the manager hiring me noted, somewhat jokingly, that he liked to hire women because they bring baked goods to the office. He asked me if I baked. No manager would dare to ask that these days! But I didn’t take offense from that, I took it in the spirit it was said. And I joined my first programming team, which had nice diversity in gender and ethnicity, it was a joyful start to my software career.

  9. I would probably notice if I were on a team with no other men, but it would likely not be the first thing I noticed. I certainly have been in many working sessions where I was the only man, but I couldn’t tell you which sessions they were. I don’t think that’s a gender-related trait, though. I think it’s just me. I once completely forgot that a co-worker was black, while noticing that the company didn’t have any black programmers.

    While celebrating successful women may entice more to enter the profession, increasing the attention paid to the gender of each team member might have the opposite effect.

  10. Fortunately, we are all unique and each of us has a different experience.

    If you have any ideas for attracting women & other minorities to agile development (or to s/w dev in general, but we feel agile may be more enticing to women with its people focus), please share them and I’ll pass them along to the project team – or just join our project team! ;->

  11. Yes, but you have to get them in front of you to talk to them. When we advertise for an open development or testing position, we get so few qualified women applicants that we can even interview.

  12. Maybe you’re not looking in the places where they hang out? Maybe you’re not advertising yourself in a way that entices them? Maybe the ones you’re reaching are happy where they are?

    It seems to me that telling people to hire more women will deplete the pool and make your problem even worse.

  13. lol, I suppose you’re right about depleting the pool!

    But, I can assure you, the fact is that there are few women in the job market here for positions on our team. I have a big network locally, I go to many user group meetings, I know many people in the recruiting business, in this area I feel comfortable with my facts.

  14. An interesting read in that regard is this research that came out today

    This has facts about women in science and engineering.

    I have similar experiences in IT. And in Belgium women are going to ICT education then 10 years ago.

    (and a lot of them leave ict after just a few years)

    I now understand that two parts where bad inteh communication:
    1) “Your team needs more women”, that feels indeed bad, and I did not notice it before
    2) People felt it was for an award just for women. And that is as equally bad. It never was the intention. Actually a lot of discussion happened in the diversity of agile workgroup to make sure we created something that was not an award. Something different. We might not have found the best solution, but I’m quite happy with the first iteration…
    Not with the communication.

  15. Hi Lisa 🙂

    Lots of interesting discussion around this project and I like discussions 🙂

    If I put aside the fact that I, as a woman in test, don’t feel particularly lonely or left out, I think there is a definite communication issue going on. I (and others) read one thing into this proprosal but apparently not what is intended. This miscommunication appears to be at the root of some of the divisions occurring within the community this project is intended to improve. I consider this a bad thing.

    Is there a way to better present the intent? Maybe present it as One Diversity of Many or something similar to make it clear this is just a start and others are not less important nor ignored? I know it says Diversity in Agile: Women in Agile, but that seems to go unnoticed.

    Is there a way to make the criteria a bit more flexible? Maybe make the criteria allow for women active in the community to nominate people that really helped them or mentored them? Maybe allow people to nominate women who do outreach to schools and girl’s organizations? Something that feels less like putting someone on a pedestal where only a WOMAN can go. Is there a way to take some of the lessons/stories and put together not just the multi-media but a press kit or presentation information for teachers or instructors to use to influence girls?

    Trying to brainstorm ideas to improve clarity of intent and communication of intent along with potential low-cost changes that may help. Not my project, so free for the taking.

    As for myself, I do feel any person’s own personality has a huge influence on how they function in a team and that is true for women in IT, too. I am perfectly comfortable in a room or team where I am the only woman. I don’t feel unsafe or left out. I don’t feel lonely or alone. I don’t play Quake and don’t care to. I’m not too much into crude jokes but they don’t bother me. I’m also not into long talks about the latest celebrity, Lost, Survivor, etc. I don’t care about the latest fashion trends much. I tend more toward the Mars style of communication than the Venus style, despity my gender. I certainly don’t feel more safe in a group of women than in a group of men. In fact, in my career, I can say I’ve had MORE problems arise from women co-workers than men.

    But those are MY personality traits and MY comfort levels, not everyone’s.

    I did (and do) question the project and its presentation but I also see the passion and drive and want see it succeed in its goals. But the divisiveness I’m seeing is worrisome and I stand by my statement that this has not been unifying but has shown itself to be divisive. Is there a way to change that?

  16. Maura, thanks for your comment, it’s always great to meet more rockin’ women in software.

    I don’t think our project is divisive. I think the issue itself is divisive. Nobody raised a fuss (except me and a few others) when the Agile Alliance Pask award was given to many men over the years or never to a woman. But when people mis-perceive that awards might be given to women (though that wasn’t the case), they get all het up.

    I think this is a topic that’s difficult to communicate about on email and Twitter and blog comments, but I think it’s important to keep the conversation going. We’re trying to put up a blog on our Diversity project site so that we can centralize the discussion there. We’re trying to tweak our verbiage to use terms that don’t mislead or inflame people, so we appreciate all the feedback.

    Maura, you are welcome to join our project, it’s open to everyone and we need help.

  17. Thanks everyone for your feedback. We’ve updated the Diversity in Agile site with language that we think better conveys what we’re trying to do. We’ve changed ‘nominate’ to ‘introduce’, for example. I hope people will also read this post by Yves Hanoulle, which sheds more light on our motivations.

  18. Keep up the good work, Lisa. It’s often thankless and don’t be too apologetic when you encounter “white male privilege”: we’ve been in a position of privilege for so long that we don’t even realize it. “You make me feel inferior” is the reaction of someone who hasn’t, unlike many women and people of color, often been made to feel that way before.

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