Just do it!

September 4, 2014

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Endocode and newthinking are partner companies who campaign for gender balance. The following interview is also available in German on the newthinking blog; it was conducted in June 2014 with Cecilia Palmer. Cecilia Palmer works part time at newthinking as a web developer and spends the rest of her time as a designer and organizer in fashion-related projects. She particularly enjoys balancing the analogue and digital forms of her work.

Cecilia, you come from Sweden. In terms of gender balance, is it different there?

I can’t compare working here to working in Sweden – as I went to school there and then I moved away – but at a basic level it’s very different. When I was born at the beginning of the 80’s, it was already totally normal for a father to take maternity leave to be with the kids. Nowadays it would be stranger for the father to keep working; people would say, “What’s wrong with him?” There is also still a big gender gap in Sweden, but I think the general attitude is much further along, if I compare it with Germany. Being a housewife is more of a taboo in Sweden, but here it still exists. Germany is kind of a modern country, but on this issue the gender thinking is still strongly that of the older generation.

What is your personal experience with gender balance in technical areas?

I think this topic is not only applicable to the tech scene. It’s more a general “women/men on the business floor” thing, which happens in all kinds of projects. As a woman, it‘s not that people simply accept your competence directly, rather you have to prove it. It’s more often men who get along without proving what they can do. People assume that they can do it. I see it more often that guys can do their thing and people trust that they are capable if they say so. It’s more about how they present themselves than about their actual skills. Because there are a lot of people who don’t have particularly strong skills but they have the attitude – and women seldom get along without the attitude.

This chimes with what a trainer said to me (whom I interviewed before): If you generalize, women behave differently to men. And the business world is strongly adapted to men’s behaviour…

But then we come to another problem. Which is that when women copy male behaviour, this is not particularly a positive thing. Women are not supposed to behave like guys and “take the same amount of space”. You can do that when you are in a higher position, but when coming as an underdog, it will be seen as arrogant and unlikeable. Men often take up more space. They talk through things more; women think more before they talk. Men tend to repeat things which others said, as though it was their own idea, whereas women tend to bring themselves in when they have something to add. For men, it’s not so much about what you say, it’s more about how much space you take up. You can see similar things if you look at men in public, say, on the metro.. You’ll see how much seat space some men take with their legs. It’s exactly the same in meetings. It’s all about taking up space in different ways.

You work in completely different settings: in fashion and in tech, in organizations and in loose groups. Is there a clear difference in terms of gender?

This is a very difficult question to answer, as I work in very different projects and situations. In bigger teams you have more of a structure. And you may be forced to work with people who are quite narcissistic. In the end it may work out fine, but there’s this process of constantly having situations involving conflict and annoyances. I prefer working without having to deal with these things. When you don’t have a structure, you choose people whom you work well together with. When I notice that I have to prove myself a little bit more and they are sceptical, I am more likely to turn away if I can choose not to work with the person. You can work together with a man on an equal level and you can have a good partnership, but then other people come along and so often they turn to the guy. This is very frustrating.

My personal tactic with these things is not to focus too much on it and I just go on and do my thing. It’s like you have this raincoat on, which doesn’t let these things  through. I try just not to listen. If you keep on working, in the end people realize that they were wrong.

Sometimes it sounds like you are a traveller between worlds…

I am quite a tomboy. In general I spend a lot of time with guys and I have a lot of male friends. There’s definitely a difference between female friendship and friendship with guys. It’s another culture and a different way of interacting with each other – which I also enjoy. This might make it a little bit easier for me as I don’t take things so personal. You know, when things are maybe a little bit more rough, I am not so sensitive. But you need to be tough to be a woman in a male-dominated environment.

If I would give any kind of advice on how to deal with these things, I would say: More women should just do IT. I don’t think it’s due to a lack of interest, it’s that they are listening too much to men. In my opinion, women take men too seriously and listen too much. It’s become almost like a secret society of men who can code. From the outside it can appear as though they like to keep a high, thick wall against the outside world so that no one can doubt their expertise. Men often use a language of exclusion – using terminology that will automatically make others feel like they don’t know what you are talking about. You can tell people whatever you want, because no one understands what you are talking about. It’s so easy to gain more power by talking like this. But instead of talking to you like a human being, they are talking to you like a robot. It might be more precise but it is not good for communication. This is something that keeps a lot of women outside as it creates a higher barrier to entry. It‘s not that this is so complicated. I mean, for any kind of profession and any kind of skill you have to learn. I work a lot in between different people and I sometimes feel like a kind of a babelfish. I prefer respectful communication because then you get somewhere.

What I can’t hear in your words is fear. You seem to be curious to learn new things even if they look complicated.

That is my motivation: To learn things. Because doing only the same thing is pretty boring. I think if enough women just do that, just be themselves, just do what they want, take the space they need, do the things that they like to do and not listen too much to men if they say something weird, then that makes a big difference: Just do things. Don’t get offended. To stay happy you need to have a kind of rough attitude and not take things too personally. You need to do this to normalize the gender world.

This interview was conducted by Andreas Wichmann. Andreas is a partner at Endocode AG and an expert in collaboration. As a consultant he helps clients with their processes concerning teamwork and cooperation. In addition to his work at Endocode, Andreas is active on projects at newthinking in several capacities, including as an expert for open innovation projects_.__

Find all articles in the gender balance series here:

  1. Personal insights: women in IT – with Jennifer Beecher
  2. Just do it! – with Cecilia Palmer
  3. Free Software, Free Society? – with Silke Meyer
  4. What women want – and what they have to learn – with Jutta Wepler
  5. Endocode wants gender balance: How to start? – with Jennifer Beecher