It's Not Women We Need; It's a Variety of People

The people who are organizing Your Team Needs Women have a good idea–diversity in teams. I have a problem with how they are doing it.

I have tried to contribute to the agile community, chairing the Agile 2009 conference, speaking at user groups, writing for a number of outlets, working with my clients. I do those things because I love my work. I don't do them because I'm female. I provide a type of diversity, more because of my age and experience than my gender.

How many people in this field have been developers and testers? That's a type of diversity I offer. As well as managing projects and programs. I've developed hardware/software projects and programs. Too few people have that type of work diversity.

Gender diversity is an obvious diversity. It's not the most useful diversity. Personality diversity is even more important. (I described why in Hiring the Best…) The nomination even calls it out a little, in the sections about “support, promote and encourage” and empathy.

And, with what I read of the nomination, I am concerned that the nominations are looking for nurturing women. I hope not. I nurture my family, not my colleagues. I'm only my daughters' mother. I'm not anyone else's mother.

For me, this would be a fabulous award for *anyone*, not just women. In fact, showcasing men as empathic beings might bring more women into the field, but I doubt it.

The problem is that we need to talk to women when they are teenagers, not when they are in their 20's, 30's, 40's. When we help teenagers think about technology careers, that's when we can get more women in the field.

Don't get me wrong. I love recognition of people's achievements. I was thrilled when Manage It! won a Jolt productivity award, and I still am thrilled. That award was for a book, not a woman-authored book.The playing field was open.

I would love to see this award open to every gender, not just women. When you take most of the constituency out of the equation, the award means less.

Do I think we need more women in software? Yes. Do I think this award will help? No. I'm not offended; I'm disappointed.

If we really want more women in software, some of us women must put on nice clothes and talk to the middle-schoolers, high schoolers, and maybe freshman and sophomores in university. That's how we influence women to join the field. I volunteer for that.

Don't just look for women. Don't award or recognize just women. Look for people with a variety of work experience, life experience, and most importantly, personality diversity. That's how you get a great agile team.

16 Replies to “It's Not Women We Need; It's a Variety of People”

  1. Hi Johanna,

    I think there’s a misperception out there that the organizers intend an awards program, perhaps fed by the word “nominations”. If you go to their website at you can find out more of the details. Their intention is to recognize (and celebrate) many kinds of diversity – they chose women as a place to start. My understanding is that they are seeking nominations for women to interview so they can uncover the many ways in which women contribute to agile teams, the ways women are encouraged to contributed, and possibly learn from the ways women are discouraged from it. The intention is not to elevate a few women with awards but to showcase many women’s everyday work in software projects.


  2. Johanna , thank you for a great post. It goes to the heart of the debate – we want more diversity.

    It must start somewhere though and gender diversity is one area that is perhaps most topical.

    Your contributions to the community are well known and so greatly appreciated, but I think you have it backwards.

    I believe you are a person first, a woman second and everything else follows. Your work and your perception/interpretation of the stuff that has happened in your life to form experiences are all greatly influenced by your gender at such a fundamental level.

    There are many people who have had the same events happen in their life as you (no doubt) , but they have formed different experiences of those events and reached different conclusions to you.

    Those conclusions and how you interpret and apply them are what make you, you. And that is the core of the diversity you bring – not simply a record of those events.

    In this program, we are on a knife edge of perception – many will think this is a recognition based program to simple increase numbers – it is much more than that. Part of diversity is having sufficient numbers in a pool, if we can encourage more women to come into the industry and stay , we can continue to amplify the message that teams must now discover ways to use the increased diversity that brings.

    Without a doubt, teams and organisations should right now be exploring ways to make their collective experiences work for them – many don’t even know this. They focus mostly on work experience diversity – which is surprisingly a poor source of innovation.

    As to the subject of nurturing – motherly care is a form of nurturing – and that is not what is intended in the program text. I doubt anyone wants cuddled teams (though cuddling in teams is a practice I encourage!) . The nurturing we intend is not of people, but of values and environment.

    You may have noticed that this program is one in a series – subsequent ones are planned but not yet decided on, we would really appreciate your help, wisdom and insight to create something that could make a difference to the mix of ideas and perspectives in our teams.

    Thanks again for thinking about this issue and I’m glad our program sparked it 🙂

  3. If we really want more women in software, some of us women must put on nice clothes and talk to the middle-schoolers, high schoolers, and maybe freshman and sophomores in university. That’s how we influence women to join the field. I volunteer for that.

    I think that is part of the solution. However, it’s not the whole solution. Getting women to join the field is not enough. At universities, most women that start computer science studies, quit. Even if they get through their studies, I’ve read research saying that as much as one third of them quit working in the IT industry, compared to one tenth of the men. (I am, unfortunately, unable to find the link to this research) That is a lot!

    I think one of the biggest challenges is really creating an environment that makes women want to stay in the industry.

  4. Mike. I tend to agree with Johanna in this instance. In theory this is a great idea, and I really love the enthusiasm and dedication but…

    I can’t remember if we spoke about this at #XP2010, but focussing on just ‘women’ personally makes me uncomfortable. It just feels like it is drawing attention to the lack of diversity (in gender), potentially putting people off. The more the ‘issue’ is talked about the less comfortable I feel. Singling women out just heightens the awareness of ‘difference’ for me, and I fail to see how it could (as it stands) encourage diversity.

  5. Hi Johanna,

    we just had an interesting conversation about the project at the XP 2010 conference.

    It seemed to me that there was more or less a consesus that this isn’t going to be an “award”. It isn’t about recognizing the 12 “most awesome” women.

    In contrast, there seemed to be agreement that the 12 selected women should represent the wide, diverse range of ways women contribute to our field. So, while there is a focus on women, I’d expect a secondary effect of showcasing diversity in general.

    Personally, I have the feeling that you might underestimate the effect of gender diversity. I’m fortunate enough to have worked in a team with a high percentage of women in the last years, and I’m convinced that it made a big difference.

  6. Very interesting post about something I have conflicted views about. On one hand, as a former recipient of a few women-specific grants and scholarships, I’d be an hypocrite if I didn’t support women-specific programs in computer science and engineering. And I think that we need to encourage more women in computer science, not only for diversity, but simply because we need all the good brains we can get, and at least half of these good brains inhabit women bodies.

    On the other hand, I agree that this is not the most efficient way to get more women in our fields, except maybe in a marginal visibility thing. If we’re not targeting girls in their teens, or even earlier, we’re simply preaching to a very small choir.

  7. Johanna,

    You make several excellent points.

    Diversity is way more than gender. Any push for more diversity in Agile teams needs to encompass actual diversity within the team and within the workplace. For example, a team of men aged 25-35 from the same region of Eastern Europe is not diverse. Such a team might benefit from a more experienced team member and from a team member whose first language is English. Both of those factors might be more important than gender in diversifying the team.

    Attracting more women into engineering and attracting more women already in engineering onto Agile teams are also two different points. Apropos attracting more women currently in the field: It sounds from Diana’s response above that they are also trying to make more visible the ways in which women contribute to Agile teams, and to identify and learn from the ways in which women are discouraged from it. Some aspects of Agile teams can be off-putting to women and even to some men, particularly the lack of flexibility for parents of young children. Both men and women in my experience had trouble making the transition from being able to work from home when a child was sick to having to be in the office within earshot of the team at all times. I’m old and have no kids, so that wasn’t an issue for me. However, the social aspects of Agile team interaction such as the sophomoric humor did raise issues for me. That speaks a little to Karianne’s point about creating an environment that makes women want to stay in the industry. The culture around Agile needs to grow up a little past rubber chickens and references to Family Guy if we want women (and even some men) to stay.

    As for attracting more young women into software engineering: we need to worry about attracting more students period. Fewer and fewer young people are going into computer science or other technical disciplines. That’s why Congress has to keep increasing the number of H1B visas. We are not growing enough home grown tech workers. That said, I agree that if we want to attract girls to the field they need to see women coming to their schools. I don’t know about the nice clothes part though. Any middle-aged woman is going to look middle-aged to a kid no matter what you’re wearing. What kids need to see is recent college grads who are loving their new techie jobs.

  8. I want thought diversity on teams. If we end up with women who think exactly the same we still have blind spots even if we have the most “diverse” team out there. Diversity of thought is really hard to define or go for. If we all need a baseline of skills to understand technology, that filters out some diversity. There are some odd things people who enjoy computer software have in common even. That gives as a starting point, but it also gives a stigma that may turn off some groups of people.

    Thank you for your nicely stated blog. This is such a touchy issue, and my initial thought was to dislike starting with just women, but then I thought more about it and realized I was just glad to see volunteers trying to do something positive to make a difference without telling anyone else what to do. Instead just describing what works for some teams today. I wish rather than describing what people “should do” more often people would show what works.

  9. If any of you are interested, we are starting a program aimed at 6-8th grade girls to get them more interested in tech as a career.

    Studies show a drop off of girls who participate in tech and science programs in high school. It is worse in universities and grad school.

    Why is this?

    Girls want to create, not build. They see technology as a lonely, cubicle based career. They do not understand how they are already using technology in their everyday lives and how they can expand it to be a career choice.

    They are also turned off by the idea they will be seen as a geek.

    We need role models! We need mentors! These girls need support. Women and men in our field need to step up.

  10. So many great points have been made here and I’m glad that that we are talking about this stuff.

    But talk is not enough – hence the program. Should it be the only thing that is done? Certainly not – we should do lots of things to improve diversity. Increase participation, extract more value from whatever we already have. Go forth and do it!

    When I think about this whole diversity discussion, the visual that comes into my head is of a really amazing stew! With lots of spices , herbs and things that ,together, create a beautiful stew.

    Noticing that there isn’t enough salt in this mix is not saying there is too much pepper, coriander or anything else. It simply says ‘there isn’t enough salt, adding more salt will make the stew even better’.

    Is there anything wrong with drawing attention to the gender imbalance in our teams? I don’t think it is.

    If by drawing attention, we support efforts to encourage young girls to consider a career in software and their influx forces the environment to change to better support their longer participation and limit their attrition – then fantastic!

    It has to start somewhere.

    Our differences can help us be better together.

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