This is what breaking ground feels like

My friend Lisa Hsu just wrote this piece to express the isolation and exhaustion she feels working in an environment without enough women.

I applaud her bravery in sharing her feelings.  I have to count myself lucky that I feel nowhere near this level of strain.  I think that is partly because I’m in a better situation than she is at work, partly because I have some female social outlets (including my ice hockey team), partly because I may be less sensitized to lopsided situations.

But this reminds me that in many ways we are still just breaking ground.  We are not in the middle of a shift to a happy equilibrium; we are only at the start of it.  When I entered the work-force over 18 years ago, the numbers were the same as they are today.  The same.  My impatience with this situation started rising recently, after an associate pointed out that we have about that much time until our own daughters enter the work-force.  I can’t put up with being in the same place for another 18 years!  I want better for my daughters (and my son)!

When the numbers are small, individuals make a huge difference.  Hire or lose just 1 person, and the percentages shift a lot.  And if a workplace falls below some minimum level of female participation, the few women who are left, like Lisa, start feeling extra strain from the situation.  You might think that her story is an isolated case, but let me tell you, the replies I’ve seen among her Facebook friends and the Moms in Tech Facebook group have included a lot of “me too’s.”  (Sorry to abuse a recently-used phrase that suggests other things.)

But let’s not just whine about our situation; let’s attempt to extract action.  From this train of thought, here is what I’ve come up with so far.

First, and easiest (I hope).  Be sensitive to feelings.

  • Men: watch out for feelings of isolation in the women around you.  This is a Real Thing.  I tend to take a head-on talk-about-it approach: it’s OK to ask your co-worker if she feels left out, and managers, just straight-out ask your female employee how well she feels like she fits in.
  • Women: manage your energy levels.  There are no medals for suffering through in silence.  Tell your boss how you feel.  Seek out other women at work, find non-work social outlets, whatever it takes to recharge yourself.  Besides my hockey team, I have a few female friends at work I have lunch with on a monthly basis, just because.  This isn’t slacking.  It is an essential part of keeping yourself in tip-top productive shape.

Now, more speculative.  Since isolation is bad, I wonder if it might actually be better to concentrate women together instead of sprinkle them around.  Or at least, give them the option to move around purely for this purpose, since any extreme dictates turn into madness.

My internal engineer immediately went down a train of thought like this: let’s say there’s a minimum concentration below which female employees are usually unhappy (U).  Merge the women together until you are between U and 2U.  At 2U you can split off a second team with a sustainable level of women.  Oh, it’s a b-tree!!  Ha ha.

Anyway, coming back to reality, I would never legislate this, but when organizing teams, yeah, I would consider this.  Don’t leave women all alone unless you know they are content with it.  The flip side is, those leftover teams without women are also not the healthiest environment.  In this thought-experiment, those guys could unintentionally develop bad habits / culture that will be even harder for women to integrate into.  So, I’m not exactly advocating for concentration, either.  That we even have to consider these things is further evidence that we are far below healthy equilibrium.

Do you have any other thoughts on actions we can take to get people like Lisa out of their distress, and prevent it from happening to others?

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