Dealing with equality, invisibility

In the past two weeks I’ve had a series of conversations with friends and colleagues about women in the technology workforce, provoked by of all things, water pollution.  The commonality being we’ve moved past the point where the problem is what is visible, and where we’re now facing the challenge of what you can’t see.

Here’s the water pollution angle:  A week or so ago I heard an interview with Charles Duhigg of the NY Times about how the cleanliness of the nation’s water supply is perhaps at greater risk than it’s ever been.  More so than back in the ‘70s, where the pollution was severe: rivers that caught fire, bore multi-colored hues of industrial waste, had detritus floating in them.

Today’s water pollution is microscopic, requiring sophisticated filtering that’s too expensive for water utilities to install.  Charles suggested the most practicable solution is for people to filter their own water, and take personal responsibility to ensure it’s clean and safe. 

So here’s where women in the technology workforce comes in.  Much visible change has happened.  Women are in the workforce, and are increasingly taking leadership positions.  Just not enough.  And what is the right number?  I have no idea, I’d like to think it’s the number that exists when everyone selected for a job is done so on the basis of merit.  The whole point is that it’s the product of an ongoing balancing act. 

I have faith that women’s pay will increase as more and more compensation and performance review processes are made transparent.  But unless they are listened to as equals, then all the process in the world still won’t address this fundamental form of discrimination, affecting the information that feeds performance reviews.  Will women ever get to parity unless their ideas are considered on an equal basis as men’s?

In the technology sector, ideas are what fuels business, so unless women’s ideas are given the same consideration as men’s, they will suffer when it comes time for reviews, and that will affect their compensation.  It won’t address why the women make $0.77 compared to every $1 their male counterparts make, but it won’t hurt.

So, who’s responsible to fix this?   We all are, and we fix it in the moment, calling it out and challenging it in the moment, when it happens. 

I was involved as a member of the board of a public-private entity where we were trying to determine the site of a new facility.  We’d spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out how to secure a really great site, and were running into all sorts of problems.  It was getting frustrating, and I made a suggestion about putting it in a less attractive, but more pragmatic location, which we quickly agreed to do. 

A female staff member pulled me aside after the meeting to thank me, saying she’d been making the same suggestion for weeks, but her superiors hadn’t listened to her.  I can tell you my suggestion was not all that insightful or magnificently made, but I was the male and it was listened to.

Rather than call this out, I spoke to her separately.  I was concerned about creating conflict between her and her superior.  So I let her know I realized how frustrated she must have been to not be listened to, and that at least I saw this.  How will the other male members of this board know how to listen differently if they aren’t shown where they haven’t done so?  I didn’t correct this in the moment, and in doing so I failed the woman who thanked me. 

And this is where the water analogy comes back.  The way to deal with this is to take personal responsibility, and to make what is invisible, visible. 

It is as much women’s responsibility to be louder and less convenient as it is men’s responsibilities to listen more actively.  In either case, everyone has an obligation to call out inequality when they see it.  And it won’t be convenient. 

That’s where I screwed up, and won’t do that again.

A sizable share of the readers of my blog are women.  What’s your experience?

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6 Responses to “Dealing with equality, invisibility”

  1. Sally Mcdonald Says:

    well, I’ve never really experienced someone not listening to me becasue I was a woman. Of course I happen to have a big mouth. I’m also not in the tech arena so maybe that’s different. That said, I don’t know that it’s the woman’s responsibility to be necessarily louder and less convenient, though. Nor do I think it was your responsiblity to “save” this particular woman from her inability to handle herself. IMHO each individual has to handle things for him/herself in a way that works for the situation and for their reality. Bias is there whether we can see it or not. It comes in all forms and the remedies likewise have to be in many forms.

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    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      You raise a good point, Sally, about this being up to the individual. Where I felt my responsibility lay was calling out what I will call discrimination, to help raise awareness for the men on the board (and the woman’s superior), which can stray awfully close to the line of “saving” the woman involved. She’s responsible for her own actions, and I’m not responsible to taking care of her. But by not speaking out, I do feel like I let her down, because I missed an opportunity to improve the environment as a whole, for all those people in the room. She still has to deal with her work situation, on her own. Thank you for your comment!

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  2. Matthew Trifiro (CEO, 1000 Markets) Says:

    I am going to skirt the main topic of equality and comment on the water quality angle.

    When I lived in Los Angeles I did a lot of volunteer work on park creation and, in the process, got to see inside one of the largest landowners in the County — the LA Dept of Water and Power — and, in the process, got a mini education in water — water rights, water quality, water storage.

    I could regale you with many interesting tales, but the one that is most apropos given the Charles Duhigg interview is the story of LA’s open-air reservoirs.

    Ever since the days of Mulholland, when LA discovered a natural downward slope from Mono Lake to the base of the Tehachapi, LA has been the major importer of its own water. Once this water is in the LA basin, it is stored in massive reservoirs like this one in the Hollywood Hills (photo: http://la.curbed.com/uploads/2008-06-hollywood_res.jpg).

    The amazing thing is that these open air reservoirs are mostly there for show, they have been quietly replaced by massive (and I mean massive) underground storage tanks. The LA DWP recognized early on it had a problem with water quality. The water is fine when it firs arrives, clean from the source (eastern sierra’s, mostly). But once it sits in an open air reservoir, there is a gigantic pollution deposition problem. Yes, you heard that right, the pollution in LA air is so high that reservoir surface deposition is a big problem (runoff issues contribute, but air pollution is the big one).

    The community went nuts when LA DWP said they were going to bury their water feature. So the open air reservoirs remain — for aesthetic reasons, mostly — and the potable water is stored in 40-110 million gallon underground tanks, some of the largest in the world.

    This anecdote doesn’t really address the idea that we should all filter at the source, but it does provide some scale to the problem.

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    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      And how much water is lost in these “features” due to evaporation? But this larger issue of needing to bury the water supply to shield it from a systemic pollution problem is alarming indeed. Thanks for sharing this Matt.

      PS…as a northern california native, this whole anecdote provokes the “they’re stealing our water” reaction in me. Some things you just never grow out of!

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  3. Jenny Samppala Says:

    Pete, I’m glad you tackled this topic. It’s complex and can be messy. When we try to re-balance something, we usually end up with unintended consequences because we’re only dealing with the problems we can see- pay, titles, number of women vs. men, etc. Rarely, though, does tackling the visible problem fix the underlying issue. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig (or whatever that saying is.)

    I won’t propose an answer to the problem because I don’t really know what it is. I do know that to have a true balance to the point where a problem isn’t recognizable because it doesn’t exist is a matter of time, cultural changes, shifts in leadership…deeper things. Not surface issues.

    Simply being louder or more inconvenient is a start- people need to be jarred a bit to see an issue. Women in tech also need to be encouraged by their peers and leaders, leaders need to be prodded by their employees and cultures need to support women.

    There’s so much more to say on this topic! I hope you follow up with more posts.

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    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Thanks Jenny,you bring up a good point, raising visibility only puts in the position of being better able to deal with the fundamental cause, but it’s not the solution itself. It seems like discrimination in general has these properties, that only through awareness and protest do you earn the opportunity to address the root cause. Thanks for your participation in the conversation!

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