By Alina von Davier, Senior Vice President, ACTNext
Among the challenges for women in tech are people’s subconscious expectations of what “an expert” should look like.
Guess what? If you’re a woman, it’s usually not like you.
As a woman, everything about you is an outlier: your voice, your stature, your hair (big issue, for some reason), your makeup (or lack thereof), your smile (or lack thereof).
These subconscious expectations are hard to address since people are not aware of them. In addition, these biases exist in both men and women.
How many times have we found ourselves telling a story about a generic doctor while using the pronoun “he”?
In my line of work, how many times have my colleagues and I organized conference panels for which we needed to invite a brilliant woman scientist at the last moment — because the first people who came to mind, and who had already been invited, were men?
And how many times did that brilliant woman scientist need to have demonstrated her ability to walk on water lest we be accused of watering down the quality of the panel by inviting women who may not be as well-known because they haven’t sought the spotlight?
Just a few days ago, before the start of a workshop for which I was the main organizer, I was chatting with a fellow male participant at the podium. A woman interrupted both of us, but looked only at him as she asked him for details about the event.
I asked why she turned to him and not me. She said he looked more official. I pointed out that I had a suit jacket and trousers on, while he was wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. She looked for a different argument and said she thought I was “just chatting” (never mind that I was chatting with him).
She was uncomfortable with this conversation, as was he. The point is that she didn’t do it on purpose. It was one of those subconscious biases at work.
For the sake of our children, we need to check our biases and expectations. We need to actively change our vocabulary and attitude. We need to change our narratives about women in the public space. If we only comment on our daughters’ voices or hair we will trap them in the same narrow story about what a woman can be: a narrative determined by perishable and volatile physical appearance.
As a statistician, I’m claiming the right to variance for the women folk! Variance is a statistical concept that refers to the degree of dispersion and difference among the features of a variable.
I vote for the right for women scientists to be varied. The crazy-haired scientist or the Barbie-looking scientist. The mother of three children or of none. The shy woman and the bossy woman. The woman with the shrill voice and the calm woman. The fashionista and the woman with the frumpy wardrobe.
Science dearly needs women’s true skills and capabilities. This holds true for all minorities.
We each need to play our part in transforming the way our society works. There is room for us all.