Professional Development

Thoughts on Growing PASSWIT

At this year’s Women in Technology Luncheon at the PASS Summit, the event took on a larger discussion about overall diversity within technology. As a member of the LGBT community, I found it commendable, because inequality and exclusion seem to be prevalent in the tech industry at large. (Note: this is based on my own anecdotal evidence from others, mostly women, that I follow in blogs, Twitter, and Hacker News.)

PASS Summit 2013 Women in Technology Luncheon

Overall, the event was a success. We had a great slate of panelists: Gail Shaw, Kevin Kline, Cindy Gross, Rob Farley, and Erin Stellato. There were a lot of good stories shared, and I wanted to pull out some of the quotes (paraphrased) that stuck with me:

“I watch Star Trek and play D&D… I can’t be bothered to fit in!”
Gail Shaw

“What other people think is irrelevant. Make your own successes.”
Cindy Gross

“Teams model themselves after their leaders. Oracle is cutthroat due in part to Larry Ellison being cutthroat. Microsoft, on the other hand, is more of a meritocracy due to Bill Gates leadership style.”
Kevin Kline

“Lead without being the leader. Reach out to your team and others. Build relationships [on diverse teams] by finding common ground.”
Erin Stellato

“If you see something you think is wrong, you have to stand up and say something about it.”
Rob Farley

I ended on Rob’s quote because I think I see something that could be improved in these events going forward. This is a difficult post to write because I consider these people to be friends, and I don’t want to discourage the movement we’ve had on the topic. But to progress further and affect change, we need to review our efforts.

On Diversity

While the event attempted to tackle diversity at large, I felt it cast a different perception. It may be difficult to see since we’re (collectively) trying to do better, and we’re having the conversation at all. But diversity would have been better achieved had the panel had a greater mix of individuals.

For example, I would have expected some persons of color or a member of the LGBT community represented on the panel. But there were none. I make this note in fair confidence, as I know many of the panelists on an individual level. And while the LGBT community has a wonderful, strong ally in Cindy Gross, it isn’t quite the same thing as having an actual representative.

There were some details about the panel event that struck me as odd. It felt that the men on the slate were receiving more questions and taking more time to answer than their female counterparts. Granted, I’m never one to shoot for absolute parity, but it did seem unbalanced especially in the first half of the event.

Another odd chord came when one panelist mentioned issues with religious diversity. The panelist identifies as Christian, which leads all religions in number affiliated both in the US and globally. I would have preferred that any other, non-majority faith would have been given a view point.

I think that future events can be stronger by not only talking about diversity, but actually achieving it through the individuals invited to speak on the matter.

Beyond Talk

This is a point that has bothered me for years: how do we move beyond talking about diversity and begin working on the issue. Don’t get me wrong: these panels are a great forum for sharing stories and personal advice about overcoming adversity, and it does have its place. But I feel like we’re in a holding pattern, and we never move towards solutions.

And yes, this exact question was asked at this year’s Luncheon, but I felt the answers were less than satisfying.

It isn’t our fault however.

I believe that we need to look beyond our borders to solicit advice for fostering and growing diversity. As it was stated by Kevin Kline (paraphrasing again), “We spend a lot of time solving difficult problems, but little time in trying to understand others.” Just as we traveled to the Summit last week in order to learn from the experts in our community, we should solicit inclusivity experts in order to gain repeatable, teachable lessons in tackling this issue. And given that we’ve shown up to the lunch of our own volition, we’re already primed to make the most gains from this kind of training.

What do you Think?

I love learning from others, whether it’s about SQL Server or simply how another person or culture exists, grows, or reacts to the world around them. It’s why I’m drawn to the grittiness of my neighborhood, and to DC as an international city. I learn more about myself and others because my surrounding world is so diverse.

I’ve been amazed to see how the Women in Technology movement has grown within the SQL Server community. Compared to other tech communities and conferences, it’s (literally) astonishing. But the goal of diversity is too important to settle, and we need to keep growing our community in an open, accessible, and inviting way as possible.

What do you think? Am I off base in my assessment? I’d especially love to hear from anyone that listened or attended the panel.

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  • http://www.jenstirrup.com Jen Stirrup

    Hello Matt,
    At SQLBits in the UK, I ‘own’ DitBits, which is “Diversity in Technology”. It has a broader scope in that we look at ‘people in technology’ issues and perceptions. Our last meeting was here: http://ditbits.wordpress.com/ or here http://www.jenstirrup.com/2013/04/announcing-ditbits-at-sqlbits.html
    DitBits itself was a risk, since we’d never tried anything like this before.
    We had a great discussion and a great audience, with a mix of people of different sexual orientations, religions, race, ethnicity, different age groups and physical ability.
    We have a very multicultural society in the UK, and I’m proud to be a part of it. Our discussion was very gentle since this is a new topic for us, and a new type of event.
    I have to confess that we are growing and still being shaped so we haven’t got it nailed yet. Our first mission was simply to get people to turn up since it’s impossible to gauge interest or what the audience wants until you try something out. I’m absolutely sure that we didn’t get everything right but we tried, and we’ll do it again. You have to start somewhere, and suggestions such as yours are vital, so thank you for taking the time to write this. As we are very nascent, I would love to get your ideas and input for future occasions, particularly when we are looking for speakers, topics and so on.
    I hope that helps.
    Kind Regards,
    Jen

    • http://mattvelic.com Matt Velic

      That is so great! I hadn’t heard about DiTBiTs, but it seems like that’s the way that the WIT movement seems to be growing. And I may not have stressed it enough in the post, but it’s not about being perfect or having everything at once. Just progress. Baby steps. Natural growth.

      Thanks again for the ideas, and we’ll definitely have to keep in touch on the issue!

  • http://gkdba.wordpress.com/ K. Brian Kelley

    +1 to Gail’s comment! I identify with it 100%, unless you are talking about ST:TNG, which I never got into very well.

    Part of diversity, at least with respect to religious aspects, is that you give respect to every valid religion, even if it’s the majority religion. I know using the word “valid” there is a firebrand. However, I don’t know a better word to exclude examples of someone claiming a religion that isn’t (“I worship my shoe and my shoe says every Monday is a religious holiday”). Perhaps someone can define that better than I. A person can be part of a majority religion and seek to protect others. You also have to give respect to those who choose to believe in no faith at all. I’ll give you a very specific set of examples.

    Military chaplains are called to this, for instance. You only usually hear about the outliers, the ones who refuse to comply with the job aspects they agreed to when they accepted the role of chaplain. The vast majority do their job right. And of those, the vast majority are… Christian. And of those, the vast majority are… Southern Baptist. So being a Christian doesn’t mean someone isn’t a good speaker on diversity. When I was in service I know two pertinent examples where Christian chaplains stepped up. Chaplains supported Wiccan believers to have an open circle at Fort Hood (this was despite protests outside the base). And where I was stationed, a Southern Baptist chaplain went to bat for a Wiccan airman I knew so he could have his holy days off (Beltane, Samhain, Solstices, etc.) instead of the federally celebrated, based in Christianity ones. This meant the SBC chaplain had to make time to go to the Airman’s commander and basically be prepared to cite why the commander had to allow it. This took quite a bit of effort, but the chaplain stuck to it and the airman’s rights were upheld. I’ve also seen chaplains step up and protect the rights of atheists in service.

    Just because one is in the majority doesn’t mean one can’t have a good perspective on diversity. This is true whether we’re talking religion, race, sexual orientation, or favorite NASCAR driver. If we want acceptance and diversity, it’s got to work all ways. Otherwise, you’re going to continue to get resistance and separation. Think about what you basically said, “I’d like a panel member to speak on religious diversity, as long as he or she isn’t Christian.” That’s not acceptance, but exclusion, based on religion. That goes against diversity, does it not?

    • http://mattvelic.com Matt Velic

      So here’s the deal: even though Christians are in the majority, Christianity is diverse. So much so that even within that umbrella term, you can have two different Christians with contradictory beliefs. Having been Catholic my whole life, even to the point of having considered the priesthood, I’m well learned about different faiths. But when I bring it up in my post, I’m using the terminology that the panelist used. If he had said “I’m this kind of Christian,” perhaps it would have had a different effect – but when using the generic, umbrella term, packed with all the history, permutations, iterations, et cetera; it’s tough. It also doesn’t help that the story was a one-off. It wasn’t really mentioned again in the panel, so the information was limited in some aspects.

      I agree that the majority can, and should, protect the minority. Much of the history of turmoil in this country is predicated on that sentiment, and it still causes turmoil today. All I was trying to say was that we can better represent diversity by making sure all kinds of people (and faiths) are invited to the table to represent themselves.

      • http://gkdba.wordpress.com/ K. Brian Kelley

        OK, I understand better with that clarification, I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Meredith Ryan

    First and foremost: Thank you for your honest, thoughtfully presented, constructive feedback on the panel. As the person that was largely responsible for the panel selection and abstract approval I NEED this type of feedback from the community to do a better job next time.
    I would also like to apologize for the lack of diversity that you noted above – I own that and will do my level best to find a better mix next time.

    Regarding you’re call to action, I agree wholeheartedly. We, as a whole need to stop focusing on talking about these things and start focusing on the doing. I would love to hear your thoughts on ways to accomplish that.

    • http://mattvelic.com Matt Velic

      Thanks for reading, Meredith. The call to action is difficult – even I’m not entirely sure what can be done besides promoting people through scholarships and other organizations – but I’m starting to do more research on the subject every day. I think if we pull together on this, we can find the right answer for our community together. I’d love to help in any way I can.