Saturday, May 17, 2008

An article that dredged up some memories

There is an article in New York Times about an upcoming report of a study of women's experiences in the science, technology and engineering fields.

Diversity Isn't Rocket Science, Is It?

"It's almost a time warp," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work. "All the predatory and demeaning and discriminatory stuff that went on in workplaces 20, 30 years ago is alive and well in these professions."

That is the conclusion of the center's latest study, which will be published in the Harvard Business Review in June.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave.

I would sure like to read this report, if it is ever made available on the internet. It would be interesting to compare those 1493 women's stories with mine. I am lucky to be in a workplace where I haven't experienced a bias against me, despite me being one of the few women in a mostly male technical team. My previous workplace wasn't so good. While I haven't experienced any overt sexism, I ran into some subtle forms of... weirdness, a lot of which could have been attributed to gender perceptions. They were subtle enough to not evoke outrage, and to make me feel it was all my fault (which is actually my default operating assumption in many life's situations).

They were paying me -- why didn't they want me to work?

My previous workplace, a software company in Dallas, had a huge software development team of ~ 100 people, divided into many groups. I was assigned to a group that was focused mostly on R&D, rather than pedal-to-the-metal, get-the-product-out-the-door stuff. My group wrote prototypes of plugins for the company's main product (they didn't call them plugins, but that's kind of what it was -- different algorithms for doing tasks that our product did), and then the Big Brains decided which of them might be worth integrating into the company's product. Out of 10 people on this team, everybody except two people had a PhD. Most of them had spent a significant time in the academia as post-docs or professors. I was one of the two people who only had a Master's degree, and one of only two women. The other woman was a seasoned software developer, who played along very well with the rules and social norms expected in such an environment. I was, on the other hand, a complete rookie. This was my first job as a software developer, and also my first job in the US! I had no idea what to expect or how to behave.

One thing I completely did not expect is that nobody would give me any work to do. :-)

I'm serious. It became clear to me that my team lead did not see me as an available resource. Apparently, when he assigned team members to projects, I simply did not come to his mind. It was kind of like in an old detective story, the title or author of which I forgot. The mystery in it centered around the fact that there were footsteps in the snow leading to the house, yet the witness who's been at the house the whole time swore there were no visitors. It turned out, somebody had indeed come to the house: a postman (or a milkman -- details elude me). But for a member of English upper class in the beginning of the 20th century postmen and milkmen were simply not persons. So the postman flew completely under the witness's radar; when asked who came to the house, the witness did not even think to mention the postman. The same way, when thinking who to assign the work to, my boss simply did not think of me.

Feeling Kafkaesque

How was I supposed to interpret this? Was it because

(a) I didn't have a PhD like most of the group members? But then why did he take me on his group to begin with? Ostensibly it was because the research I did for my Master's thesis was related to the research his group did. Still, he knew I had only a Master's, not a PhD. If he thought this wasn't enough, he should not have taken me on.

(b) I was a woman, and therefore incompatible with a notion of a software developer?

(c) I was considered unworthy to be given a chance for some other reason?

I was so puzzled by his attitude (hey, they are paying me -- don't they want me to work?) that I (a) internalized it, assuming it was my own fault, and (b) tried to rectify the situation by repeatedly asking him to give me tasks to do. Sometimes he did, by assigning me some little research project; the problem was that when I tried to get him to review what I did and determine how to proceed further, he would never, never have time to review it. Weeks would go by, and he still would not find time.

I also asked him to give me bugs to fix in the existing code, because what's a better way to become familiar with the company's code if not by fixing bugs? And his reply literally was "there aren't that many bugs in our group code".

I just didn't know whether I should continue to "bug" him to give me work, or to give up. Since, as I said, I internalized the message that he behaved that way because something was wrong with me (women are really good at this -- at assuming everything is their fault! It's the default operating mode for many women, and I used to be no different), I gave up. I did not dare to continue to pester him. Besides, how many times could I pester him without starting to feel like an attention-starved wife being brushed off by a husband who's "just not that into her"? :-) There's this odd gender dynamics there, that wouldn't be present if both employees were the same sex.

And yet, at the meetings with the director of software development, my boss constantly complained he did not have enough developers to implement all the projects he has planned! I felt Kafkaesque. Should I wave -- hey, look at me over here! I'm not a roach on the wall! I'm a developer too! What about me? How about you give me some work? but of course I couldn't do that, as it would have been very embarrassing for all parties involved, even if it was said in the most polite form.

In retrospective I know my biggest mistake was to try to make the whole thing work, instead of going to the development director and asking him to reassign me to another team. But I could not bring myself to ask for it, because I was afraid that if I admit to the development director I haven't been doing much work, I would be shown the door! Eventually though, he and my team lead jointly decided to reassign me. And it made a big difference. My new team had concrete projects, deadlines, and -- surprise, surprise -- bugs to fix. :-)

So I don't know if this was just a weird case of a boss who's clueless about management, but I suspect he would have treated me differently if I had been a guy. When some new guys joined the team after me, he integrated them right away, giving them work to do. But he never gave me a chance to begin with, as if he simply could not imagine me being on the team. Go figure.

1 comment:

exelion said...

This was funny =)

You shouldn't take it personal. It looks like a prejudgement to me. Because of your sex they may have tried to keep you busy with light work, generic stuff.

You know, usually males are more excited about computers, electronics, robotics etc. This may lead to prejudgements sometimes, which may cause some big losses to companies.
For this, structuring a rotation system comes in handy to better analyze employee performance, manage assignments, and prevent any misjudgements.

Good to know it's not an issue anymore =)