To be honest, I was very nervous. A few panicked thoughts started to flood my mind as I prepared myself to enter a conference of 500 or so young female hackers and technology enthusiasts.
Would I be seen as an outsider?
Would people be disappointed to find out their mentor is not a woman?
Would people even listen to me during discussions?
Would any of my words hold credibility?
Would I be judged as being ignorant or unaware?
Would all of the men’s bathrooms be temporarily converted to women’s bathrooms?
Earlier this month I had the privilege to attend WECode (Women Engineers Code), the largest student-run Women in Computer Science conference, held at Harvard University. I was invited through my company as a mentor along with my Senior Director and the University Relations Tech Recruiter, both of whom were female. Although I was confused about being invited?—?I was both male and a recent college grad?—?and nervous about attending, I ended up gaining an invaluable perspective on inclusivity in the tech industry that I would not have experienced at a ‘normal’ conference. And by ‘normal’, I mean the usual men-dominated gathering of technologists.
Learning to Listen
One important thing, if not the most important thing, I learned in this conference was the value of listening. When I entered different workshops and talks, I usually gravitated towards the back. I was also hesitant to speak up to ask questions. However, during this time of self-conscious sitting, I learned a whole lot about women technologist’s experiences, opinions, and plans for the future. One notable speaker was even setting her stage as being a woman engineer running for Congress. I heard stories of conquered obstacles, and society-changing successes, and powerfully inspirational women. Surprisingly, by the end of the conference, I had seemed to develop a voice as well. I was ready to ask questions and ready to offer my own contribution.
Being an Ally
Prior to the conference, I did not know what it meant to be an ally. And quite frankly, I still do not exactly know. It’s funny?—?at some point I thought I had learned enough to consider myself an ally; however, seconds later I also learned that others would angrily disagree with me. Apparently considering myself an ally incorrectly while reaping the benefits of the ally label is even worse. So what I can say, at least for now, is that the best I can offer is to be an informed colleague, a friend that listens to the experiences of my colleagues and supports them.
Taking Part in the Solution
One thing that became clear during our discussions is that it takes everyoneto solve an issue. Women can’t do it alone. That would only result in an isolated solution. Men definitely cannot do it alone. It takes communication and work from both sides to figure out the issues that plague the tech industry in the realm of inclusivity.
I cannot claim that I’m now an expert on women’s issues; there’s still much to learn. However, I’ve been now equipped with the clarity of understanding what is happening in the workplace, sensitivity in noticing issues and situations people face, and a better vision for the future of technology. Will I go to a women’s tech conference again? I hope so. Will the questions of insecurity I had being before still float in my mind? Probably. But at least now I carry a greater sense of vision, inspiration, and understanding that surpasses even my own insecurities.
This post was originally published on Medium.