Articles tagged: women-in-tech

Impostor Syndrome vs Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome

1298 days ago

Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative recently wrote a guest post for the USENIX blog called Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community. I found this point, made almost off-hand, rather striking:

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields in which women are not supposed to be good (and where sexism is rife), women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. The idea that most people, when their skills, authority, and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a “Not so, I’ll show you” is a myth. Rather, when our community tells us over and over that we’re imposters, we start to believe it.

(My emphasis.) It makes total sense. It is not merely a coincidence that women in male-dominated fields should face this indiscriminately. Of course, it is related – of course.

I was reminded of this when someone on a widely-read tech mailing list made a “tongue in cheek” (pff) comment about the evils of affirmative action:

We see ourselves as a meritocracy; for sake of honesty and transparency, our special programmes for women should candidly admit patronage of incompetence over political correctness. Let’s cancel our “women in IT” programmes and replace them with programmes that reward “incompetent women in IT,” or at least to widen eligibility to include hamsters and fish.

Yep. Incompetent women, hamsters and fish.

I am reminded of a quip that we will know there is equality when there is just as many incompetent women in power as there are men.

Specifically, what reading a post like this reminds me, is that a non-trivial number of people in a geek crowd will see my name on a mailing list or see my face at a conference, and they will wonder. Does she deserve to be here? When I give a talk, they will wonder, is she a token appointment? If someone congratulates me on something I’ve done, they will wonder, is it just because she’s a girl? Whether I succeed on skill or not, some people will always look at me sceptically and doubt my abilities.

My intention is not to talk about affirmative action, but cultural dissonance of belonging to a community that suspects at first glance, you’re probably in the wrong place.

One of the suggested counter-actions to impostor syndrome is to Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session at a conference, from your workplace training program, or your school: There’s nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome.

This is good advice. And the flip side of Impostor Syndrome is maybe this point by Garann Means, made better than I could:

When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

Should there be a term for the inflated sense of personal achievement and bright-eyed belief in meritocracy that comes from unexamined privilege? I put “Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome” in the title but it’s not ideal. It’s probably more widespread than Impostor Syndrome, and is arguably more harmful (to others, if not the individual).

Any individual’s achievements will be a result of both of their personal actions and societal forces. Privilege silently and seamlessly working in your favour in some cases, and systemic discrimination and isms working against you in other cases, where sometimes you won’t even know which doors were closed before you thought to look (or maybe you were discouraged from looking well before then), and other times you definitely know.

Anyway, I’ve a little thought experiment to cap this off with. It will only take, hmm, the rest of your life.

Imagine that what minorities report about their lives is actually true.

Chew, swallow, digest.

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An interview with a conference organiser

1309 days ago

INTERVIEWER: Hi there, thanks for joining us.

CONFERENCE ORGANISER: No problem, thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you’re the lead organiser of this conference, which has been running for several years now, is that right? Can you tell us how this year’s edition is shaping up?

ORGANISER: That’s right, this is a conference which has really come from a humble grassroots beginning of barely a few dozen attendees, growing to what it is today, the premiere conference in this region for this field with several hundred attendees. It’s really a must-be-there event for people working in the field thanks to our incredible line-up of speakers. The program has just been released and we are super excited about the latest and most important developments with the best speakers.

INTERVIEWER: I noticed one of your keynotes is from the local university here, which is a bit different to the usual industry crowd I suppose.

ORGANISER: Yes, we wanted to make a real effort this year to hear voices from a wide range of fields, so we have some great speakers from academia, from government and even a CTO from a non-profit. We think they will provide a surprising and perhaps even controversial counterpoint to the accepted wisdom, and it’s so valuable for professionals in this field to have an opportunity to hear from them.

INTERVIEWER: Indeed. Has the incident that occurred at an industry conference just a couple of months ago had any influence on the organising of your event?

ORGANISER: Oh, yes, that was terrible. Thankfully that guy has been identified and won’t be causing any more problems. Just a terribly unfortunate story to hear.

INTERVIEWER: You haven’t decided to adopt an anti-harassment policy?

ORGANISER: It’s not really relevant to our event, I believe. We have a different vibe and it’s always been fine. And we don’t want to be seen as censoring our speakers.

INTERVIEWER: How much work goes into organising a conference of this size? Are the hard yards done now or are the late nights just beginning?

ORGANISER: Well many late nights of planning have passed to get us to this point, which is really laying the foundation. But at this point registrations are now open, and it’s all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to bring a superb conference experience to our attendees.

INTERVIEWER: I couldn’t help noticing that none of your invited speakers are women.

ORGANISER: …Oh, is it? I hadn’t noticed.

INTERVIEWER: In fact you have a stuffed toy listed as a speaker, but no women.

ORGANISER: Well, Sparky is standing in for our secret mystery speaker. But, uh, it’s certainly not a deliberate decision to not have any women speakers. In fact we invited several, but they all refused. And, uh, there are some among our submitted talks, I believe.

INTERVIEWER: There’s one.

ORGANISER: Well, again, that’s just based on what was submitted. Our submissions are judged purely on merit. If women don’t submit anything we can’t accept any more talks from them, obviously.

INTERVIEWER: How many women did you approach to give invited talks?

ORGANISER: How many exactly?

INTERVIEWER: Yes.

ORGANISER: Uh, two.

INTERVIEWER: And they both said no?

ORGANISER: One was busy and the other one couldn’t attend because it’s in the school holidays.

INTERVIEWER: Your conference doesn’t provide childcare for attendees?

ORGANISER: What? No, it’s a conference for IT professionals, not mothers.

INTERVIEWER: Right. And so after they both declined you didn’t think to approach any other women?

ORGANISER: Well, seriously, who else would we have asked? Like, we are open to suggestions. It’s not like we are not open to suggestions.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t know any other women working in the field?

ORGANISER: Well, no, not personally. But that’s just because there aren’t many women in the field. It’s not like I’m avoiding them. At the local monthly meetup, there would be maybe one woman out of twenty, and actually maybe she stopped showing up about six months back. I can’t remember.

INTERVIEWER: Do you go to the local Girl Geek Dinners events? Or the local Women in IT Society?

ORGANISER: What? Of course not — look I don’t appreciate this suggestion that the conference is somehow anti-women. All we aim to do is invite the best technical speakers and accept the best proposals that are submitted. We are not discriminating and throwing out anything with a woman’s name on it. We simply don’t get anything to throw out. It is hardly our fault if women choose not to be part of the industry or choose not to participate in community events like ours. We are not going to have some token woman just for the sake of having a woman. That would be insulting to our other speakers and also insulting to women.

INTERVIEWER: Did you reach out to any groups attempting to target submissions from women? Did you reach out to individual women on Twitter or via email that you knew of in the industry? Did you make any effort whatsoever to encourage women to submit to the conference?

ORGANISER: No, we just sent the call for papers to the mailing list of the local meetup groups like normal.

INTERVIEWER: Like the group that had one woman six months ago?

ORGANISER: Yeah.

(beat)

INTERVIEWER: It looks like your conference has some new schwag this year. This pen-sized electronics board is going to be a popular item I suspect.

ORGANISER: Oh yeah, people are going to love it. That took literally months of wrangling by our organising team, trying to get stuff organised with the Chinese factory. We’re really proud it’s finally made it into the schwag bag. I think it’s really that attention to detail that we bring that makes this conference so special, you know?

INTERVIEWER: Thanks for your time.

——

Any resemblance to reality is coincidental. Imagine this being read by Clarke & Dawe for a superior experience.

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"Go to the top": women at the Australian weather bureau

2616 days ago

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in science and technology.

Women made up 24% of the Bureau of Meteorology’s staff at the end of 2009. But even within the Bureau, the numbers differ widely from classification to classification – women make up 16% of the IT Officers, 14% of the Technical Officers, but over 55% of the Administrative Service Officers. (2008-09 Annual ReportAppendix 3)

Somewhat surprisingly, to me at least, The Bureau has the lowest proportion of women of all the federal government agencies – even lower than the Department of Defence, which manages some 40% female participation. (APSC State of the Service report, 2008-09)

Chart showing gender breakdown amongst all the federal government agencies. Image from the 2005-06 State of the Service Report (things have improved slightly since then).

It was only 1966 that the marriage bar was lifted in the public service – a law that women employees had to resign once they married.

During World War II, as in many industries, women began working at the Bureau as the men were out at war. The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)


Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force prepare a weather analysis chart in the Central Forecasting Room of the Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne, Victoria, on Monday 9 November 1942. The woman seated at right reads out the weather observations to her colleague, who plots them on the chart. Image from p211, “The Weather Watchers: 100 Years of the Bureau of Meteorology” by David Day. Source: BOM image catalogue reference “general78”.

One of the met members of the WAAAF was Beryl Bedgood, who later married and was known as Dame Beryl Beaurepaire. She is generally better known for her fundraising and charity work, and her work for women’s rights, and she was reportedly at one point the most powerful woman in the Liberal party.


Sergeant Beryl Edith Bedggood, WAAAF Meteorological Observer serving at No 1 Operational Training Unit RAAF. RAAF Station east Sale, Vic, 25 October 1944. From the Australian War Memorial website.

From a 2005 interview, she talks about her experience in the WAAAF:

Well, I went to join up and it was in a car sales place in Russell Street, and oh, I was questioned like mad. Was I unhappy at home? And so many things. And I said, No. And I remember saying to them, Look, my father’s in the Air Force, that’s why I chose the Air Force, and also I’m science-interested, and I believe soon there will be places in the meteorological section. ‘Oh no, they won’t allow any women into that’. I said, ‘Well look, I’d like to get into that section and find out.’ So anyway, I started off as a drill instructor, of all things, because it was the only way I could get in. and so soon after I finished that course, I was able to re-muster, as it was called, to a meteorological assistant, and there were three of us in a class of forty, the rest were men. And we of course topped the class, because we’d had to have either a Matriculation or a University year to get into it, and the men had only had to have the equivalent of Intermediate. And of course the men were all posted out to interesting active stations, and my two friends and I, we were posted to the Weather Bureau in Drummond Street, Carlton. And we just worked alongside public servants, and we got paid about a quarter of what they got paid. We had to work shifts, which included Saturdays and Sundays, with no extra money. If they worked Sunday they got time-and-a-half, or three times, and we got a bit jack of it. And one Saturday afternoon, my friend Lois and I were sitting in there, and we both got mad, because we were sitting there and we were running the whole place and only getting paid, I don’t know, 2/10d a day or something. So we took ourselves off and went down to call on the Director of the WAAAF, which was terribly naughty. We could have been court-martialled, but we went. And after we’d talked to her for about ten minutes, she sent for a cup of tea for us, so we thought, Well, we must have been received all right to be offered a cup of tea. And we just said, ‘We didn’t join the WAAAF to be public servants.’ And that was what it meant. And then about three months after that, I got sent to one operational training unit, East Sale, and my friend got sent to South Australia, Glenelg. And so I think that was when I started to realise that if you went to the top you sometimes got there, and since then, all my life I’ve endeavoured to go to the top to get what I wanted, and I think that if a lot of people went to the top instead of being put off by the clerks in the office, they’d have got more.

A very sensible philosophy!

The chapter Airwoman in the book “Beryl Beaurepaire”
by Michael McKernan has more detail about her time in the WAAAF.


The first major intake of women into the Meteorologists Course was in 1965. Image from p328, “The Weather Watchers”. Source: BOM image catalogue reference “general95”.

Despite the pioneering of the WAAAF, it took some 20 more years for women to get into the met course, and it was the mid 70s before observer positions were fully open to women. In 1980 there were just two women observers, to 430 men!

I also wanted to find an Australian woman who was an atmospheric scientist, and after a while I discovered Dr Jean Laby. I think there is a bio on her in Irresistible Forces: Australian women in science by Claire Hooker. (There’s also an interview online.)

So — go to the top!

More reading:

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LCA recap - Code of our own

2680 days ago

(Techiturn is a tad neglected. I somehow managed to not blog once about attending OSDC. My bad. Anyway, let’s skip straight to LCA...)

Monday’s Haecksen and LinuxChix miniconf brought what was for me, the first great talk of LCA 2010: Liz Henry’s Code of our own. Because there were no abstracts, I guessed from the title she was going to talk about the Archive of our own (AOOO) project, but she was talking more generally about potential answers to questions like, what can we do to encourage more women in open source? How can we better support the ones that are here already?

The title (as well as that of AOOO) is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, directly referencing the feminist ideas about the value of spaces specifically for women. In terms of coding, I definitely see the value myself in spaces to talk to other women about programming: I can ask questions and share my experiences without having the pressure of representing All Women Programmers Of All Time. Not to mention, I can actually just have a tech conversation with another woman without a man butting in.

So, Liz opened by saying that she wanted to apply “advanced feminist solidarity theory” to FLOSS, and was going to skip over some assumptions, like diversity is good, and universal design is a goal of FLOSS. (I am paraphrasing from memory and brief notes, so if you can correct my paraphrase please let me know.) I hadn’t heard the term “universal design” before but I guess in software it mostly is referred to as usability and/or accessibility.

She pointed out the interestingly-covered book How to suppress women’s writing, which identifies rhetorical strategies used to trivialise women’s writings, such as

  • denial of agency — “someone else (a guy) must have written it”, but also, interestingly, seemingly complimentary statements like “women are just naturally good at design” (ie, she didn’t have to work so hard)
  • pollution of agency — “she only hacked with her boyfriend”
  • double standard of content — kernel hacking is important, blog software is not. Coding is important, documentation/design/support is not.
  • false categorising — women defined as a relative/partner of a male hacker rather than in their own right. Maybe also related to above, “what she did isn’t REALLY hacking”.

And there are others.

Liz talked about her experiences at the BlogHer conferences, with some 1800 attendees, mostly women, who all write their own blogs and in some cases earn a living from it. Many of them may be on the verge of being able to hack. How could they be “converted”? What kind of things can be done to encourage women to contribute to FLOSS projects?

One thing often suggested is a mentoring programme. She mentioned she is not a big fan of these, because they typically have a very strong teacher/learner dichotomy, which can put a lot of pressure on the self-appointed “expert” teacher. Rather than this, maybe it is better to have a situation where two people are just learning and figuring out stuff together, rather than one having the responsibility to always have the answers.

Another barrier is that new developers often don’t have “old school skills” — ie the command line. This is often required (or virtually required) for contributing to FLOSS projects. I definitely notice this myself, even though I am comfortable with the command line. For example, a page describing how to access/commit to the code base of a project will have sample command-line SVN commands to run, even though there are great SVN GUIs that don’t require any command-line fu at all. They could have screenshot-based walk-throughs but they don’t. I mean that is one side, the other side is making sure women have a chance to learn command-line stuff. Lots of demystification is needed. Plus even if you did complete a CS degree, there is always a ton of command-line tricks you don’t happen to know about yet!

Liz also made the great point that the reaction “We need more women in FLOSS – let’s teach programming to girls!” is not very rational. Of course, teaching programming to girls is great. But it’s not like all the existing grown women in the world who don’t currently program are write-offs. :) Teach programming to WOMEN, too!

So when it comes to actually holding women-friendly or women-specific hacking events, she had the following advice:

  • Treat tech support and debugging as feminist activism — demystify, reassure and empower
  • Create a culture of figuring things out together
  • Always do introductions! Do them faciliated – have people talk about their life briefly, or 5 keywords, or one thing they know about and one thing they want to learn, or have everyone put their picture on a sheet of butcher paper with a brief bio.
  • “Show and tell” – what tools does everyone use? How do they go about doing a particular task?
  • Have a “installathon” — install Wordpress on a webhost, just go through bits of code together. Admit that debugging (figuring out how code works) is hard!
  • Create guest accounts for everyone on a server if need be
  • Have a house party. It doesn’t have to be huge or super formal.
  • Do lots of paired/one-on-one activities
  • Borrow the practice from fanfic of having a beta reader – someone who looks over your work before you release it to the world. (AKA code review! I love this reframing)

Liz mentioned that she hates IRC and much prefers using instant messaging and Pastebin. Got to say I’m not much of a fan of IRC either — the attitude is just so often hostile or just apathetic, although it is a useful just to know how to use it because a lot of FLOSS projects don’t give you much other choice. Knowing how to connect to the LinuxChix server is a good skill to have too. :)

She also recommended to show the code! Blog about your code, even though it means exposing it along with all your potential mistakes. Although it is hard not to feel wary about this, after observing the reaction to Leah Culver doing a similar thing.

One of the audience questions was, “Where do I find these great geeky women?” One answer was Girl Geek Dinners (although I was discussing with another woman later, that the women I’ve met at these are often a distinctly different crowd to the women I know through FLOSS. But that’s no bad thing, we can recruit them :D). Liz also suggested running a class at a library on blogging.

Another audience comment was that this may not be a good approach for getting women into a particular project. This kind of approach, which is not integrated with the project’s community, may make it seem that when a woman does begin publicly contributing, she is “coming out of nowhere”. I have often observed that FLOSS projects don’t take too well to suggestions or criticisms that seemingly come from outsiders. (Of course, some don’t take to them too well from insiders, either. ;)) Making contributions inside a community is important for establishing reputation and trust. Personally I see the kind of approach Liz is suggesting as preceding any kind of project-specific recruitment, and just encouraging a “can-hack” attitude.

So that’s pretty much my take on the talk, but you should definitely get it straight from the horse’s mouth and watch the video. If this sounds interesting, you should probably also check out Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time about the Dreamwidth fork of Livejournal blog software. Liz Henry is also talking in the main conf on Friday about Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech.

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MXUG-style Girl Geek Dinner, Melbourne

2873 days ago

On Tuesday 21st we are going to hold a MXUG-style” Girl Geek Dinner (GGD) at ThoughtWorks. If you know any girl geeks in Melbourne please pass this invitation on!

  • Date: Tuesday, July 21, 2009
  • Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
  • Location: ThoughtWorks, Level 15, 303 Collins St

If you’re on Facebook you can RSVP there, otherwise it would be nice if you comment/email to let me know to expect you.

This is the brainchild of Duana & I. We have both been attending MXUG for the last few months and really like the format. MXUG stands for Melbourne ‘X’ User Group, where the ‘X’ stands for anything — usually some technology that you have recently got into and would like to share your enthusiasm for. (Not that X, although I suppose in theory it could be.) The talks are just 15 minutes, so you can’t get too bored by any one topic, and you generally get to feel extremely bleeding edge. It’s good for the terminally curious. And as a speaker you get to enthuse about something shiny, without having to be an expert on it.

But… not very many women attend. The first MXUG event had two. (Of maybe forty.) The second had one. Recent meetings have been a bit better, and I have suggested it to most of the techie women I know at least once.

So my hope with this event is that more women will get to enjoy the fun that is MXUG, and ultimately that more women feel encouraged to attend MXUG the original.

(I also hope that with a smaller group, it might be possible to discuss a bit more the background of some talks. I cringe whenever I hear a speaker ask, “OK, so does everyone know what X is? No wait, put your hand up if you don’t know what X is.” And then proceed to give a brief explanation of it anyway. Tip: Don’t ask the audience to volunteer their ignorance, the vast majority of people are not that brave. And even if people think they know what X is, often they’ll have a different understanding to you the expert, so just give the brief explanation to put everyone on the same footing and suppress the ritual audience quizzing.)

So! That’s it. Our venue and dinner (!) is kindly sponsored by ThoughtWorks. The usual rule of GGD events is that men may attend as the guest of a woman attendee, and I hope that men will keep in mind what I have said above in choosing whether or not to attend.

We also need a couple more speakers! Please come and share the shiny. We will probably also do some lightning talks (organised on the night), so please drop me a line (comment/email – brianna at modernthings dot org) if you are interested in either of those.

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FITT for management?

2889 days ago

Tonight I went to the inaugural Females in IT & Telecommunications event in Melbourne. Now FITT is a non-profit crowd and this event was organised by volunteers, and I recognise that you can never please everyone, but nonetheless… I have some feedback.

Now Telstra was hosting and sponsoring this event, so fair enough, there was some Telstra involvement. The host, Michael Lawrey, was a chap from Telstra. (An undoubtedly impressive chap, but was it really so difficult to find a single woman in Telstra who might be able to talk about women in IT/telcos? And if so… what does that say?) So, no worries. A chap from Telstra talking for 20 or 30 minutes as an intro to a panel. And no one from FITT was even introduced.

Then the panelists were… “past Telstra Business Women Award winners”. Let’s check the panelists have all the relevant fields covered:

  • Fashion/retail: check.
  • Education/economics: check.
  • Publishing/bridal: check.

IT or telecommunications? Oh, well, you know, they’re all big users and fans of technology… In a sense we’re all women in IT these days, aren’t we?

I held out hope it might be redeemed by the panel interaction. No such luck. It was the strangest panel I’ve ever seen: the host fed canned questions to the panelists, most with no bearing on technology (and the few times they had to talk about the impact of technology, they struggled to say anything insightful), such as, “How do you measure success?”

“What have some of your milestones been?”

“What would your advice to others be?”

“How’s your work/life balance?” (I’m not sure if that was really a question… it might have been. In any case, I didn’t realise until now that work/life balance was like code for How do you assuage your motherly and wifely guilt for daring to leave the house? — Or perhaps I had this under repression.)

The most baffling thing was that the host asking the panel questions accounted for about 90% of the panel time. What kind of bizarro panel is that? I was very tempted to break out some spontaneous audience participation, but I didn’t feel certain that the rest of the audience wasn’t actually loving it. Then there were 3 quick questions from the audience at the end. And all this took over an hour, I’d say.

So basically the whole thing was uber-business geared and there was next to no IT/telecommunications specific content. Oh wait, I lie: after the panel, there was a Telstra promo video about their cable to Hawaii… no particular relevance to women, though.

During the post-panel “networking drinks and canapes” I took it upon myself to speak to Lawrey. I gathered a drink and stood in the vicinity of a conversation he was having with another chap from Telstra. (There were about 5 men of maybe 50 people there, and I guess they were all from Telstra. Good that he was taking this opportunity to talk to all these women present…)

First I asked him if there hadn’t been any Award winners who had worked in IT. He couldn’t think of any. I tried to make the point that there was little IT-specific content in the panel. We also talked a bit about “how to get more women into the industry”, which he talked about in the introduction. He had mentioned the need to market the industry better, e.g. by going into schools and talking to grade 10s. I said I thought they should be engaging primary school kids, which he laughed at in surprise. A 15 or 16 year old girl who has it fixed in her head that she could not be “techy”, is not likely to have her mind changed by a Telstra suit doing a fly-by promo.

He also mentioned maternity leave…. but again, this is something that applies across the board. It is not something specific to the IT industry that keeps women away. In his intro he talked a lot about women’s participation in the workforce more generally. My interest is: what is it about IT that makes it in particular unattractive to women? To the extent that participation has decreased since the ’80s? I tried to engage him on this but I don’t know how successful I was.

While the panel was going on, on a board at the front was a big list of FITT’s objectives:

  • Encourage more women into the ICT industry
  • Inspire women in the industry to achieve their personal aspirations and potential.
  • Assist women to broaden their understanding of the ICT industry.
  • Facilitate networking opportunities.

I was thinking about which of these the panel was fulfilling. It must be the second. And it just seemed to say, “Management straight ahead for you!” And I wanted to ask, what else might success in a technical field look like? Is your career stalling unless you are making slow march towards management? I would like to think not, because let’s face it, if you’re aiming to end up in management, there would be far more direct routes to take than via an IT career. Just go do freaking HR or something. Geez.

FITT has certainly done some interesting stuff in its twenty years of being. (Twenty!) But comparing this with past events with groups like LinuxChix or Girl Geek Dinners, FITT will need to lift its game.

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