Every now and then, I’m tagged on things involving Women and Data. It makes sense: I’m a woman and I work in data. And I retweet them, sometimes participate, and spend some time getting others to participate.
Here’s where I struggle. A part of my head believes if I just put my head down and do good work, then that’s all that should matter. That it shouldn’t matter that I’m female, dark-haired, bilingual, or any of the other facets that make up my identity.
But, then there’s this other part, barely a whisper, that points to something different. Like the times I’m asked to take notes when there’s several other people who would be better for this (ex: the project manager who likes paper, the intern with his nose buried in the phone, or anyone with proper typing skills or legible writing). The number of times I’m interrupted and talked over. The times I’m told to make something pretty (this could be its own rant here). All of these things happen to guys as well. Even the pretty thing. There’s a careful balance between anecdotal and evidence, intent and perception, and randomness and statistical reliability.
There’s data for all of this. Almost a scary amount, frankly.
There’s data on the representation gap.
There’s data on the retention gap.
There’s data on the barriers and hurdles.
There’s data on the pipeline.
There’s data on mentorship.
There’s data on interruptions.
There’s data. Lots of it. But data doesn’t fix the issue with my head.
You see, my head wants to believe I can just focus, do the work, and that’s all that’s needed. I can look at this data, I can look at how far I’ve come and say I made it and point to others who have too.
Except, there’s a dissonance.
As an interpreter, I bridged the world between Deaf and Hearing consumers. I was the intermediary, the only person in the room who had a clear picture of everything that transpired. And, spending time in the Deaf community, I understood facets of their world.
You see, when Deaf children attend Deaf schools, they share a language, a culture, jokes, and so many other things that, frankly, we all take for granted as hearing individuals. They see adults who share their language that grow up to find love, make families, and do all the things we generally see modeled by our parents and communities. In short, their experience is as close to others as possible, with one notable exception: the culture is transmitted at school, not home.
When a Deaf child (without a Cochlear Implant) goes to a mainstream school and is the sole kid that signs, there’s none of this. The only language model is generally an interpreter, who – 90% of the time – uses American Sign Language as their 2nd language and has far less language instruction and exposure than most foreign language teachers. Every interaction requires the interpreter or is severely limited when using someone’s second language. All communication is intentional and catching back-chatter doesn’t happen. There’s so many values that never get shared. At some point, this child wonders what’s in store, as there is no visible path. Some of these children even think they’ll vanish or become hearing.
Think on that a moment.
Look at someone young that you love and imagine them navigating the world like this. Data doesn’t change the narrative. You can tell Deaf kids that others exist, but if they never see that firsthand…it’s like telling them about unicorns.
The narrative affects how we see things and relate to others.
The sense of isolation as the only one can be profound. When things happen, there’s no one like you who knows how to address it in a way that feels natural. There’s an unease that lingers. And, the difference, however slight, seems to invisibly affect things, like communication. Everything feels just a little harder and some things, well, they may as well be unreachable. There’s no clear path about the future, no surefire way to forge a meaningful bond that doesn’t require ignoring a large part of the experience.
Many of these children, when they age, connect with the Deaf community (deaf people who sign). And then they work to catch up on everything they missed. But not everything falls into place. So many critical things didn’t happen, and sometimes, never happen. In certain respects, the effects of early isolation lingers, not from lack of trying, but lack of fit.
But it’s not only socialization, it’s finding a path. It’s finding those before who have done it and succeeded. When that path is saturated, we look for a new one. But when it’s non-existent time and time again, we long, – just once – to find a trail that makes the going easier.
With deafness, we can pinpoint the invisible factors at play. Speech relies so much on hearing. B, V, and W all look the same on the mouth. What happens behind the lips – voicing and tongue placement – go without thinking for those who can hear. For those who can’t? It takes up all the focus. And the result is rarely the same as someone who can hear – and monitor – their own voice.
For women in data (and a host of other identities and professions), the challenges can also feel invisible. The sense of isolation can be profound. When things happen, there’s no one like you who knows how to address it in a way that feels natural. There’s an unease that lingers. And, the difference, however slight, seems to invisibly affect things, like communication. Everything feels just a little harder and some things, well, they may as well be unreachable. And the path does seem less visible and many do vanish. They go into other fields, go solo, or simply fade out. And, yes, the bonds that seem so strong between women and all the female duos that you see, that’s not an accident. When you look all around and see people like you, the goal is to stand out. When all you do is stand out, fitting in is a true joy.
I did this visualization for Makeover Monday some time ago. What stands out to me most is NOT the pipeline problem, but the mentorship gap.
Before we go yelling at women to mentor more men, let’s give this a look. I ran a mentorship program. I’ve mentored probably more men than women in my career. But, how many would call that? Women are often seen as helpers. It’s not seen as an extra mile, because it’s part of all the miles we’re expected to run. Or, we’re just friends or colleagues who pitch in a bit or provide an opinion. We don’t get called mentors. And we ourselves rarely spell it out explicitly. Does anyone?
It’s important to have women helping women. But it’s equally important that men not only help women, but seek help from women as well and recognize it. Do you know a woman who excels at server? Encourage her to blog and refer her off when someone needs a TabCMD script. When you look at Tableau Public vizzes, are you branching out to include women and crediting them properly? In the latest poll of top 2016 vizzes, 1 out of 5 was female (go Lindsey!) and, in top viewed vizzes, Inga Ting, who works for the Syndey Morning Herald is the lone female in a sea of heavy hitters. This is in spite of a conscious effort of Tableau Public showcasing and equal balance of male and female authors. Is this a difference in interests? Possibly. That women seem to disappear in the Twitter timeline? Likely. I feel like my timeline is a blur. That hits come from Reddit? I’ll just send you to a link on this one.
I’m willing to work on my narrative. I’m willing to keep telling myself it’s not because of my gender or anything else, it’s personal. But, I need your help getting more women in this narrative or the struggle is going to earn an exponent. Let’s ditch the struggle.