Cisco Live: A river of dudes

It’s been a few weeks since Cisco Live, and I’ve had time to digest a lot of what I heard and saw there. There were some pleasant surprises: The DevNet area was awesome and highlighted some interesting things that Cisco is doing with Infrastructure as Code.

There were also disappointments: Intercloud remains a confused mess, some vendors went super-cheesy with their presentations, and the follow-up sales calls are relentless (Seriously, Puppet Labs, I didn’t need another 25 voicemails.).

But weeks later, the thing that stands out in my mind is the homogony of the attendees. Easily 99% of those present were male, and that stinks.

This happens everywhere

Diversity isn’t a tech industry problem – tech just happens to highlight the most egregious examples because of the current underrepresentation of women and minorities in math and science-heavy fields.

Across all industries, we make it hard for women to get their foot in the door – I’ve seen women turned down for jobs over concern for how others in the business would “cope” with them and a myriad of other silly reasons. I’ve seen women forced to prove themselves far past what’s required of male applicants with similar experience and credentials.

I’ve seen those that have gotten hired treated horribly – spoken down to, insulted, alienated.

Yeah, so…I’m gonna need you to answer the phone now

A few years ago my wife and I worked at the same company. When management fired the receptionist, they decided to split the phone duties among “the other women” in the office. Male peers, at the same employment level, were excluded – they had important work to do. My wife was managing HRIS, but because of her gender she was seen as “less than” the males working in entry-level roles a few offices away.

I know plenty of smart, competent women who have strong interest in fields in which they are not working – tech, science, manufacturing, field ops. When I ask them why they didn’t follow their interests, the answer is almost universally “because I didn’t feel welcome”. They didn’t feel welcome in computer club, in biology class, in their MBA program – so they defaulted to something they didn’t love in order to survive.

That makes me furious

My wife and I have been talking about starting a family, and during those discussions my imagination runs wild. I imagine future children, teaching them things, showing them the world.

I imagine having a little girl who gets told by others that it’s more important to be pretty than smart. I imagine her applying for a job and getting turned down because of her gender. I imagine her getting treated poorly by a chauvinistic manager. I imagine her standing up for herself and being called a bitch and it makes my blood boil.

Changing culture

The status quo hurts everyone. A meeting room filled entirely with men lends itself to the pack-mentality groupthink that results in bad decisions and stagnation. It creates a toxic, locker-room culture in which it is OK to talk down to others and management is accomplished through intimidation. It leads to stale ideas pushed forward by literal yes-men.

My ideal hiring scenario, because I don’t trust my own subconscious biases, would be completely blind – if I was managing a team, I wouldn’t know if a new hire was male or female, I wouldn’t know their race or age, I wouldn’t know any of the unimportant things about them until they walked in the door the first day.

(This sounds impractical, but Google is actually pulling something off that is very similar.)

That’s really hard though, especially for companies that don’t have the resources to setup selection committees or do away with the concept of “hiring” managers. It’s not that hard to blind resumes for the first round of review though, so we can start there.

It’s also not that hard to treat your current coworkers like human beings.

Diversity is a hard problem to solve. There are no easy fixes – there never are when a problem is based in the way people behave, but we have to start making changes, if only to build momentum.

Down with the patriarchy. Long live basic human decency.