An answer to the question which should not have been asked

Published on 9/7/2015

I never thought that I would write a post about diversity. But as the unicorn law says that being a woman in tech you will be eventually speaking about women in tech, I do so now. However I'm doing this not because it is a strong will of mine. Something happened which makes me to respond.

I was recently speaking at a conference (a very good conference, I must say this) and during the asking session after the talk I got this question:

— How to solve the diversity problem and get more women in our industry?

I was absolutely not ready to this question. No wonder, being at stage and giving a presentation already brings a lot of stress. When it comes to a question session, it is even harder. And the last thing a speaker wants is to get such question.

This happened to me at the first time, so my response was not correct. In this post I will describe why conference attendants should not ask this question to female speakers. If you were willing to do so, please read. Maybe you will change your mind. I will also try to propose a proper respond to future speakers and conference hosts. However, this is an open question, I believe many can propose much better options. Go ahead in comments :-)

Do not ask women in tech about women in tech

Although I felt very uncomfortable when getting this question, it was hard to describe in words what exactly was wrong. So, I made some research across the Internet articles and speaking with friends. This is how I learnt about the unicorn law formulated by Emma Jane Westby:

If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.

I was surprised that the problem had been already formulated and number of people had faced it.

The presentation I gave was not related to gender problems, it was completely technical CSS/JavaScript speech. I am not a social scientist but a programmer. Moreover, I am not a gender equality activist. I even had never written in my blog anything related to diversity. So, there is completely no objective reason to ask me questions like that. I was asked this only because I am a woman.

This is the first answer on "What is wrong?". Asking a woman gender related questions because she is a woman is pushing her to represent her gender. However it was clear that my intention of speaking at the conference was to share my findings in programming and learn from another programmers. It had nothing to do with my gender.

Then, this question could be to the point, if I were responsible for bad diversity situation in the industry. And I am obviously not. I did my part staying on stage and presenting the result of my work when being asked about the solutions to the problem which I did not cause.

Another thing, that not being a social scientist I don't have proper information to develop a good answer. So, the situation may be described like "a speaker stays on stage in front of hundreds of people looking at her and gets a question which she clearly is not able to answer". It is known in advance that I cannot provide any valuable respond to this question. There would not be any useful information coming from me. The only result was that I was put into an awkward situation.

The more relevant thing would be to ask a random female about what they know. For example, something about their personal experience. However, I still do not suggest this, because questions like "What are the difficulties you faced as a female developer" are very often too personal to be answered on stage. I think that if not on stage but in a private conversation, I would not mind a question regarding my gender-in-tech experience.

If for some reason you would like a random female speaker to answer a gender-equality question publically, it might be a good idea to formulate it as much related to their work as you could. Something like "How do you solve diversity problem in your company?" would work better.

So, the conclusion here is that the best way is not to have sexpectations (thanks my colleague Toni for the word) that female developers have knowledge in the diversity thing and even are interested in gender equality stuff. Ask them what you would ask male programmers.

For women in tech: how to answer about women in tech

As I said, I was not ready for the question. However I felt uncomfortable, I tried to make laugh as I believe that most conflict situations may be avoided if turned out into a joke. So, I responded:

— Would you ask me such a question if I were a man? So, my answer is: don't treat us differently.

I do not suggest other ladies to reply like that as now I think that it might have sounded too aggressive. Also, if the person who asked me the question is reading this post, I apologise for such a response.

The conference host could have help me. But he started to explain why it is a right thing to ask me this question being based on my gender. I guess this is because the situation was unusual and unexpected for him as well. No one has yet enough experience in dealing with the stuff. However I believe that killing the discussion is the right thing. Unfortunately I cannot propose any solution on how exactly to wrap up a case and come to another question. But if you are going to be a conference host, please, think up.

Anyway, in a few days already not being under stress and having a chance to deeply think about it, I still did not come up with an answer. Seriously, it is not that easy.

I could say "I don't know". But these are not the words to pronounce when being on stage. I hope everyone agrees.

Also I could respond "Sorry, I am not a social scientist". But I don't want to make a fool of the person asking.

The honest version on the question about how to get more women in tech is "If there are already some ladies who have chosen to be programmers and came into the industry, just leave them in peace. Maybe they will stay".

Any other ideas?

BTW, this is a good article which helped me a lot to understand my feelings about the situation: Breaking the Unicorn Law: Stop asking women in open tech/culture about women in open tech/culture.