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On appearance and bias: thoughts from the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011

Colander

One of the topics of great interest during the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011 was that of appearance. How important is grooming? What about first impressions?

People shared the usual advice: Dress appropriately. Be yourself. Neatness counts.

Like the way I skip fluffy guest posts full of cliches, I try to avoid sharing the same thoughts you’ll find everywhere else. So I found myself thinking about one of the points raised, which you don’t encounter that often.

One of the participants had observed that “booth babes” at a tech convention can drive people away. My take-away from that is that *you should make sure that what you communicate with your appearance supports what you want to communicate.* Too much attention to appearance can conflict with your goals. You can dress to blend in or you can dress to stand out. Suits help you build rapport with people who are more comfortable with suits. Jeans and a geek T-shirt help you build more rapport with people who are more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts.

Tweaking convention can support your goals, too. I’ve turned up at technical get-togethers in brightly-coloured ethnic clothing to make several points along the way: a. it’s okay to bring personal interests into the tech world, b. it’s okay to be a girl, c. there are people here from different cultures, and d. it’s good to have fun. That this made me easier to spot in a crowd was an excellent bonus, and it worked really well.

Know what you want to say, and make sure your appearance supports it. Re-think what you want to say, too. For example, if the path towards becoming an executive requires expensive suits and other status symbols, it might not be for a person who disagrees with dry-cleaning, at least until people create better washable suits. (Or you can pick a different uniform: black mock turtlenecks and jeans totally works for Steve Jobs.)

I dress for minimal thought during most days, for either blending in or standing out during get-togethers, and for practicality when travelling. Slacks, blouse, sweater/blazer, and scarf give me a good uniform for the workweek. If I’m speaking at a conference, I might dig out my cream suit. If I’m attending a crowded event, I might wear a red top or bring a hat. If I’m travelling, I pack my Tilley’s Endurables businesswear: hand-washable slacks, blazers, and blouses that will dry overnight in a pinch. I wear flat shoes for comfort and boots for warmth. These routines mean that I need to spend very little time thinking about what to wear.

There’s a limit to how much time, money, and energy I want to spend on appearance. I’m not going to spend on make-up, cosmetic surgery, or designer items. I suppose going to a dermatologist or having frequent facials could help my face clear up, but it’s no big deal. I won’t experiment with body ink, piercings, or hair colour. The gradual onset of gray hair won’t be dyed away, and the wrinkles will be welcomed. (I do invest energy into making sure I get the kind of wrinkles I want: more smile lines than frowns! =) ) This is partly because I have other priorities, and partly because I want to help build a society where these things matter less, where we don’t shame people for appearance or age or lifestyle choice.

Thinking about this further, I realized that I’m not really interested in the conventional approach to thinking about appearance. This topic usually focuses on: “How can I get other people to think better of me? How can I increase my chances for a raise or a promotion? How can I project more status and confidence?”

For that part, my questions are more along the lines of “How can I stay true to my values? Are my goals in line with those values and priorities?” And there’s another, much more interesting question for me: *”How can I correct my biases?”*

Our biases around attractiveness reduce the quality of our decisions. People get dinged for being too fat, being too old, being too plain, and even being too attractive. Women are more harshly judged than men, and are the target of much body-policing from advertising, media, coworkers, friends, and even themselves.

I’ve received plenty of privileges. I’m young, female, enthusiastic, and easy to get along with, and that has almost certainly helped me do what I do. I have plenty of mentors while other people (perhaps less cheerful, perhaps less “cute”) It sometimes works to my disadvantage. There are areas of consulting that I probably won’t focus on until I have more gravitas, if ever.

I also carry biases. There’s that preference for people who are cheerful; people with symmetric, angular features; people who are trim; people who carry themselves with confidence. I work against these preferences, pull my attention away from that so that I can focus on other factors, try to separate seeing from thinking. (I indulge this bias with my husband, though, whom I think is very handsome, and with whom I have the license to look at as much as I’d like; but I always make it clear that I love him for much greater reasons.)

Likewise, there’s dealing with that reactive judging of people who frown a lot, people with weaker postures, people who are overweight, people who dress inappropriately… I work to separate negative perceptions and reality so that I can make better decisions. There’s ableism, sexism, ageism, racism, and a million unnamed stories we tell ourselves without examining them closely.

You can eliminate the visual aspect through teleconferences, but that doesn’t solve the problem. We joke about everything sounding smarter when said in a British accent, but accent stereotypes do influence judgment. I’m glad that accents are getting more mixed up now, what with people mixing cultures and people getting cross-trained in different accents. It helps challenge that bias. Then there’s confidence and pitch and vocabulary and fluency…

Paying attention to and adjusting for all these biases is partly why I like the move towards virtual connections, particularly during the beginning. If I can’t see or hear people, I can more easily focus on what they say. However, the Internet replaces one set of biases with another. Instead of being influenced by appearance, I’m biased by how articulate someone is – and that’s tangled up in class and education and culture and the availability of leisure time and the ability of people to access this technology.

It isn’t easy to separate all these factors, and I may never be able to do it completely. There’s a bit of shame in it too, when I realize how many of society’s messages I’ve internalized into these quick impressions of other people.

I want to make better decisions. I want to be able to see the best in people, unclouded by the preconceptions I carry. I might never be able to eliminate my biases, but I can recognize them and slow down when they might be in play. If I slow down and understand, for example, how my first impressions colour my decisions, then I can clarify my reasons and reject invalid ones.

You’ll find plenty of books about how to groom yourself for particular kinds of success. Wouldn’t it be interesting to build a society where this matters less?

Colander photo (c) 2010 Ben Hosking – Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

2011-02-05 Sat 08:40

Reflecting on life as an experiment, gender gaps, and privilege

Is there a gender gap for self-experimentation? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I can tell you about the things I take for granted that might be making it easier for me than for other people, and how some of the barriers might be correlated with gender.

1. I have the privilege of time. It takes time to reflect. It takes time to track. It takes time to analyze. It takes time to be curious. I know lots of other people struggle with work-life balance issues. W- and I share household responsibilities fairly (if anything, he does more work), so we both have the time to hack. Many women bear a disproportionate burden of household and child-rearing responsibilities, which cuts into the time needed to reflect and experiment.

2. I have the privilege of asking my own questions. It means I can ask my own questions. Many people struggle with questions and goals posed from the outside. People are under pressure to ask themselves: "How can I lose weight?" "How can I get out of debt?" "How can I have more time for myself?" "How can I deal with other people’s expectations?" I’m lucky that I’m not under pressure from these questions, so I can ask my own. Women receive a lot of this self-image policing, well-meant or not.

3. I have the privilege of experimenting with and building tools. I’ve saved up an opportunity fund for things like my smartphone. If I have an idea for something I want to track, I can prototype something using spreadsheets, customize my Emacs, or develop an application for
it. Many people aren’t as comfortable with technology as I am, and many women have less exposure to technology for a variety of reasons.

4. I have the privilege of enjoying math. I like tracking my finances and my time. I like analyzing my trends. I like seeing the numbers and the graphs. Many people are uncomfortable with math, and many women haven’t had opportunities to discover how much fun it can be.

5. I have the privilege of a network. I know people (male and female) who geek, who track, who hack. They inspire and encourage me, and sometimes they help me figure things out. Many women aren’t as connected with other technical people.

6. I have the privilege of confidence. It’s not easy being the odd one out, being one of a few women in a room or in an online space. It helps to know I can hold my own, that no one’s going to patronize me because of my gender or perceived inexperience. Many people don’t have
that experience, and women run into those subtleties more often than men do.

7. I have the privilege of understanding the big picture. To an outsider looking in, self-tracking or self-quantification might seem like a lot of work for little benefit. Why would anyone want to track when they wake up, or how much they spend on things, or what their mood is? It really helps to understand the bigger picture. For example, I track my finances because I like knowing when I can afford to grab an opportunity, and because I want to make sure my spending
lines up with my priorities so that I can live a better life. We geeks often talk about the trees without showing people the forest, so many men and women don’t see why it matters.

Knowing the privileges I take for granted, then, I can think about ways to reduce the barriers that other people run into. It’s hard to solve other people’s work-life integration issues for them, but it
might be possible to inspire people to learn more and grow. It’s hard to fight advertising and culture, but I work on counteracting common messages. It’s hard to get everyone into programming or math, but I might be able to help early adopters with tools and blog posts, and
that can ripple out to others. I can’t help everyone get connected or become confident, but I can share stories and help people come in. I’ll periodically lapse into jargon and geeky delight over obscure details, but I can also share my big picture.

What privileges do you take for granted when it comes to experimentation, self-tracking, technology, or other areas? What can you do to reduce the barriers for others?

Diversity and awareness of privilege

I came across If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged on geekfeminism.org, and I went, “Hmm. They’re right.” I started very early, and the extra years of practice and immersion and love meant that I could run rings around my classmates by the time we got to high school. I also had great role models in my parents, who raised us to follow our passions and not let people’s gender stereotypes get in the way.

This reminds me of the first session we took in a women’s leadership course. During the discussion, I said that I didn’t relate to many of the challenges described in the video, which had been produced a number of years ago. But I’ve been lucky. The challenge, then, is to help more people experience this.

I also enjoy the privilege of working in a mostly-balanced workplace. I feel normal at IBM. I’m not the only woman, not the only immigrant, not the only newbie, not the only Filipino, and definitely not the only geek. I’m surrounded by role models who show me that so many things are possible in both the managerial and professional career paths (and that people don’t have to be confined to one or the other). Sure, there are still some aspects missing from our mix, but it’s cool.

This accepted diversity means that instead of fighting to prove my worth as a human being, I can focus on the fights where I want to make a real difference, like helping people connect, collaborate, and do their best from wherever.

Instead of renouncing this privilege, then, I can do two things. I can use it as a springboard to work on the next challenges. I can be aware of the circumstances that brought me to this point, and help people bridge the gaps instead of thinking that because it was easy for me, it should be easy for most people.

And then there are little tweaks along the way that I can do to help make things even more equitable… These things are worth working on.

Women and technical leadership

I’ve read enough books to understand that when it comes to rapid career growth, family, and personal happiness, I can’t have it all, at least not all at the same time. I collect role models and goals anyway, just in case it turns out to be possible.

I think about the choices I make and try to project the consequences decades down the line. Do I look for a role in a growth market, and can our relationship thrive despite the distance? Do I focus on becoming an individual contributor, or do I prepare for people management? Do I focus on Canada or find a global role?

This profile of senior technical women from the Anita Borg institute helped me understand a little bit more of the road ahead. For example, if three out of four senior technical women have a partner or spouse who also works full-time, then maybe W- and I can balance our careers. If half of the single senior technical women surveyed have children, then people can lead even in a difficult situation like that. If senior technical women are more concerned with professional development than with work-life practices, that tells me that work-life practices and the need for flexibility probably won’t be limiting factors. Senior women in management roles think more about new opportunities outside or inside the company than senior women in technical contributor roles think of these things, so senior women in management may be at a higher risk of turnover. This reminds me of a mentor’s advice to stay technical, because strong technical contributions are a way to stabilize your position.

A recent IBM feature highlighted a few female IBM Fellows, the highest technical rank in the company. I’d met a couple of them already, thanks to my passion for collaboration and Web 2.0. I’m glad to work with a company that cares about diversity, and I’m looking forward to learning from everyone’s inspiration.

Notes from WITI: The Shy Connector

100 people and I chatted about networking for introverts in The Shy Connector, a webinar hosted by Women in Technology, International.

I’d love to hear from you. If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to post a comment or contact me privately. If you attended the presentation, please fill out the survey, suggest improvements, and tell me about other topics you would like to learn more about!

Slides:

Jump to the text chat

Speaker’s notes:

Hi, I’m Sacha Chua, and I’m an introvert. <clapping>

You might be, too. Do you prefer bookstores over bars? Puzzles more than parties? Close friends instead of crowds? If so, you might be an introvert.

It can be hard to connect as an introvert. LinkedIn and Facebook can feel like popularity contests. How many friends do you have? Should you say yes to invitations from strangers? Meetups can be overwhelming. So many choices to make, so many people to meet…

So what can you do if you’re shy?

There are plenty of books and blogs about social networking, because success and happiness often depend on whom you know and who knows you.

“Sell yourself!” “Brand yourself!” “Attend as many events as you can!” “Talk to people in the elevator!” they advise. Right.

Most of the networking tips I’ve read are geared toward extroverts who don’t need tips on how to talk to strangers.

Me, I hate starting conversations. I find it hard to make small talk. I’m too shy to reach out. Following up takes focused effort.
Sound familiar? Ever felt that way, too?

Here are seven things I’ve learned about connecting as an introvert. I hope these tips will help you play to your strengths.

Tip 1: It’s okay to be an introvert.

You don’t need to fake being extroverted. You don’t need to be a glad-handing, business-card-throwing networker in order to connect. Just listen and ask a few questions during conversations. Give yourself quiet time to recharge. Connect online if you feel more comfortable that way. Figure out what works for you.

For me, blogging often works out better than going to events. Now that I understand that about myself, it’s easier for me to say, “No, I’m planning to stay home” when faced with an invite. I’m much more comfortable blogging than partying, and I can share in a way I simply can’t do in person.

Tip 2: Change your perspective.

It’s not about selling yourself. It’s not about marketing your personal brand. It’s not about figuring out what other people can do for you. It’s about focusing on what you can do to help other people.

Focus on what can help other people be happier and more successful. Ask questions. Explore ideas.

Focusing the spotlight on the other person makes it easier to make conversation and get to know others.

Tip 3: Give people reasons to talk to you, both online and offline.

Most people find it hard to start a conversation, too. Do them a favour and give them an excuse to approach you.

An interesting hat makes you easy to find in a crowd. Accessories with character draw remarks. Keywords on your nametag lead to conversations.

Online? Share your interests and thoughts. People can find you through search engines and reach out to learn from you.

My favourite? Giving a presentation. Talking to a hundred people at once is easier than talking to two at a time because I can rehearse what I want to say. I reach way more people this way, and I don’t have to start any conversations!

Tip 4: Look for ways to help.

While you’re listening, think: What do I know? Who do I know? How can I help?

Have I read a book they might like? Have I talked to someone they should meet? Do I have an interesting idea that can save them time?

Even if you can’t help right away, if you make it a point to remember their need, you may be able to connect the dots later.

Tip 5: Give yourself homework.

Following up with someone is easier when you’ve promised to send them a link or introduce them to someone else who can help.

That’s why you should always carry something you can use to take notes. Why worry about forgetting when you can write things down?

Tip 6: Make it easy to get to know you.

So you’ve met someone, learned about their interests, and followed up. How do you build the connection from there?

Even if you don’t like talking about yourself, you can make it easier for other people to get to know you.

Share your interests, skills, and goals. The more people know about what you can do, the more you can find opportunities to help them.

A personal website or profile page is a good way to start. Link it in your e-mail signature and put it on your business card.

A blog is even better. If you share tips, ideas, and a bit of a personal touch, people might even subscribe and really get to know you over time. They might even help you grow! =)

Tip 7: Keep growing, and your network will grow with you.

As you develop your passions, improve your skills, and grow your network, you’ll be able to create more value — and more, and more, and more.

The more you understand your passions, the easier it is to communicate them.

The more you improve your skills, the more you can help others.

The more people you know, the more introductions and connections you can make.

If you share what you’re learning with people, your network can grow along with you.

Then you won’t have to fake being an extrovert or drain yourself of energy; people and opportunities will simply flow to you.

Which of these tips would you like to focus on, practice, and learn more about? How can I help you explore your networking potential?


Notes from the text chat:

General notes

I’m an introvert in a business environment and an extrovert outside
The whole marketing myself through social media is a real challenge

Giving people reasons to talk to you

The name tag words are a good idea!

I want to see your funny hat
I think people would think I was strange if I walked in with a funny hat
I would be more shy if I have a hat on
Depends… sophisticated hat = empowering. goofy hat = loss of professional credibility

Living in an extroverted world

I pretend to be an extrovert all the time. People think I know what I’m doing but I am a mess inside.
People think i’m extroverted and don’t understand when i try to explain that i need down time or can’t overschedule myself
What about someone who complains all the time about personal issues?
Being a person that does not watch a lot of TV, I find that I need to watch the news more in order to be able to converse and stay up on current events, all over, including in the entertainment world. To be more well-rounded.

Conversations with introverts

Sometimes people just don’t talk back. I may start the conversation asking questions, but get yes/no answers.
I hear that!
Yes — when you’re trying to talk to other introverts!

Starting the conversation

What do you say when you first see someone besides “how are you”?
Instead of people “how are you” I ask them what brought them to the event, which has worked for me
brava i like the question, what are your passions
I’m a new grad and I work in a team with members that have been working in the company for 15+ years. I have a hard time connecting with them and often times i feel intimidated to even start a conversation that isn’t work related… : |
In a corporate environment, how do you initiate the connection – i always feel awkward inviting a “stranger” to lunch
I agree that it is hard to start non-work-related conversations.
new grad; ask one of those people to help you / take you under their wing

Leaving conversations

I have a hard time exiting a conversation gracefully…
How about “It was great talking to you…”
What about saying, I have to go, I have a few other people to meet with

Energy

How can you calm yourself down if you have to lead a conference call, or even worse, make a business speech in front of your peers?
I jump up and down about 20 times to get rid of nervous energy.
Don’t think as talking to peers. Talk to a friendly face or voice you already know.
Talk to “A” person.

Resources

I’m coaching a very shy young woman who is starting a business where she has to invite people to hear about her new business. She isn’t in WITI. Where could I get other information to help me help her?
Joining a local Toastmasters club is an excellent way to improve personal communications as well as giving business presentations.
Yes, Toastmasters is great. We used to have one here. You’re able to get feedback.

Meetings

What are techniques to interrupt people in a meeting when you want to make a point but everyone is talking and there’s no break in the conversation?
What about making more of an effort to speak up in meetings (especially remote)? People could incorrectly interpret shyness or quietness as lack of interest.

Voice and speaking

I get more nervous because I can’t get the “quiver” out of my voice. Any suggestions?
Doesn’t matter how prepared I am.
I get so nervous my neck and chest get red with hives!
When I speak in front of crowds, I stammer over my words. HELP!
Practice with a friend.
Practice in front of a mirror.
When I hear a speaker having trouble, nervous, stammering, I always, always feel I want them to do well, and I usually try and pay attention to them and smile to give them confidence, maybe knowing others (strangers) are on your side might help with the jitters

Personas – professional and social

How do you mix personal and business in social media?
I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my personal site in my business signature
I use LinkedIn for professional networking and Facebook for personal networking and try not to blur the line
Social networking is big; however, I believe that you need to be careful with what’s put on there, especially in the business area. I’ve seen it used against people too.

Can you say something about posture? How do we show a positive posture?
I meant posture as far as your attitude
How you present yourself

Impressions

I had a friend share with me recently at a networking dinner that I had my hands clasped near my chin a lot, and she said that made me appear disengaged… so I had to watch that.
Here’s my favorite tip & it allows your first impression to be a strong one even if I don’t feel that way– Be the first to extend your hand to say “Hello, I’m Vickie.” You appear to be an extrovert
I did a Krispy Kreme fundraiser for Haiti at work for them to put a face to my name. :D One of the executives came by to pick up a couple of boxes and it was good to meet him!

Keeping your spirits up

How do you stay positive if people don’t respond or turn you down?
That is hard for me too – to stay positive.

Presentation style and delivery

This is the first entirely visual presentation I’ve seen and appreciate the clarity in ways it portrays the message
These are great slides. Simple and clean and really get the point across.
brava
Thank you Sacha your presentation was great!
This is the best webinar I have ever participated in
Thank you so much, Sacha — I totally relate to your perspective on being an introvert — thanks for doing this!
My first experience with this type of presentation – it was very helpful
I feel like the ‘It’s okay’ smiley guy right now :)
thank you!
Great presentation. Thanks Sacha.
Very helpful–thanks
excellent presentation – great innovation with your deployment

From the interaction: Challenges people faced: Fairly even spread, more emphasis on small talk and building the relationship

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From the interaction: Tips to take forward: Perspective and growth

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Previous Shy Connector discussions

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post a comment or contact me privately!

Next step for me: Blog about the different topics we discussed, then plan follow-up presentations or articles. Stay tuned!

Ada Lovelace Day linkfest and wrapup

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some posts from Ada Lovelace Day:

Linda Rodriguez wrote about how Ada Lovelace Day came to be, and paradox1x suggested some good reads.

Mellystu wrote about her 4-year-old daughter (who’s using UNIX!), David Parmet wrote about his two daughters. Jennifer Hanen wrote about her mom’s cousin working for NASA.

Speaking of classified work: Zach Copley wrote about Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

Sharon celebrated Terri’s contribution at linux.conf.au, and Peter wrote about a Sydney IT evangelist. Lisa Damast listed six women shaping the Israeli technology industry. Red Bean wrote about a cryptographic researcher in China.

Leah Culver wrote about Valerie Aurora (among others), who wrote about being encouraged by the fact that there are female kernel programmers like Pauline Middlelink. Karen Quinn Fung (one of my inspirations!) wrote about Leigh Honeywell (also one of my inspirations!), who salutes the Ubuntu Women.

Julia Roy listed a number of social media geeks who have touched her life, and Jasmin Tragas wrote about a nonprofit social media consultant. Gabe Wachob wrote about a lawyer who focuses on the public interest. Jerry wrote about a number of thought leaders he admires.

SusanT wrote about the teachers in her personal learning network, and Janet Clarey lists a number of edubloggers.

And a shout-out goes to Tania Samsonova who included me in her list, along with lots of inspiring people including her mother-in-law (who keeps trying to teach Tania’s boys assembler… over the phone… in Russian…), Joey de Villa who included me in his list of Toronto tech women, RTFVerterra who likes my Drupal posts, and Clair Ching (another one of my friends! =) ), who shared some tidbits from our adventures. (Remember the random Japanese cat phrase? ;) )

… and if you want a huge list, check out The Ada Lovelace Day Collection – 1091 posts and counting!