Navigating a gendered world – some questions

Last evening, Kiran and I walked into a dinner organized for entrepreneurs (or some such event Kiran asked me to come for). One of the guests, who seemed like the co-host, introduced Kiran as “this is Jonnalagadda and he runs a group called HasGeek”. At that point, I intervened and said, “we both run the company. And I am also his financier.” The co-host immediately corrected himself and said “of course”. I settled into one of the chairs in the balcony rather uncomfortably.

I started talking to one of the women who was sitting in the gathering. I asked her “what do you do?” Just as she started to tell me about her company, the co-host said “she is my wife. She is also my financier and banker.” He then went on to elaborate the story of his marriage with her, how he had been living on the edge and how she had accommodated and been with him all the years. I wasn’t sure how to read this turnaround. I let it be.

Later, when the other guests started stepping in, he continued to introduce his wife as his “financier and banker.” The host for the evening looked at me and asked why I was silent to this introduction. I said, “well, I have set a trend.” I wasn’t happy with the tone of my responses because I felt the responses were stemming from reaction, defense and anger. Having been through the Vipassana school of meditation, I have come to realize the value and importance of responses that are free of reactions.

Through the evening, I forced myself to sit in the balcony. Gradually, the host’s and co-host’s wives went to the living room and the balcony was occupied by men. I was the only woman sitting there. The wives of other men joined the women in the living room. I tried to put myself in an optimistic, positive mood and genuinely talk to some of the ‘entrepreneurs’ and engage in their conversations. I found I could do it most of the times but my heart was definitely not in the right place. At dinner, I felt the need for my own space and did not want to force myself into making conversation with men just to be part of the group.

Years ago, I rarely went for dinners and gatherings with my parents’ friends from our religious community because the separation of genders affected me very strongly. By the age of 19, I was part of an organizational culture where our leader was a woman and she had imparted to us a culture where men and women were equal. Since then, I could not tolerate discrimination or any separation of genders on the basis of intelligence quotient, power and roles. I have picked fights with my father, father-in-law, ex-boyfriends and male friends on issues of a woman’s entitlements and marginalization of women in households, professions and society.

In recent times, I admit I hate to go for entrepreneur gatherings, startup founder meetings and other such events because I find these spaces to be very “male”, like boys’ clubs. The figure of an ‘entrepreneur’ is typically a ‘man’ and in Bangalore, largely ‘male, engineer’.

In the past, I have felt uncomfortable about my position as a non-engineer, newbie to the jargons of the technology world, ‘woman’ and unknown to the world of SAS and media business. I perceived my role in the company as someone who has simply been managing the company and ensuring smooth running, and that this is a no-brainer activity. This perception of my position in such a simplistic fashion has made me feel very vulnerable and marginalised in tech and startup spaces. My silence reinforced my position of marginality. In turn, I was marginalised because I was not speaking up. Clearly, I was doing disservice to myself.

In the past few months, I have started pulling myself up and asking why I have been behaving like a victim in this space of a gendered startup and tech world, and why am I doubtful of my own position in this space and the company I run with my husband. I realize I have caved into one of the biggest pressures and glamours of the startup world – the glamour and sexiness of being an engineer, and the assumption that engineers can help to achieve scale in businesses. I am not an engineer and the pressure of not being one has been getting to me. And this pressure gets to me even more when people don’t recognize that in some of the technology conferences, I have played a part in framing the content and agenda of the events. Neither have I spoken up to those who have failed to recognize this role.

I also have to question my relationship with the technology community since this is the primary community our company works with. For Kiran, his relationship with technology communities has been organic by virtue of him being a developer, open-source programmer and a person who is passionate about the freedoms and logics associated with open source software. He has also spent many years of his life thinking about interactions in the community and interfaces that facilitate more interactions. I have no such ties or history. Further, I have found that members of these communities respect practising programmers. I am not one. And I am also not sure if I feel a sense of belongingness to these communities despite my active interest in developing ideas for hacknights and curiosity to participate and learn by organizing more technology conferences.

This blog post is not a rant. It is an attempt to question some of my deepest angers and resentments against the tech and startup world and to separate my emotions so that I can understand the situation more objectively and why it is so. Why is it so much easier for my spouse and co-founder to be part of these communities – is it simply because he is male, engineer, ‘product oriented’ and visible in social media and networks? What causes invisibility for me? Is it because of my non-sexy role in the company, not being an engineer and practising programmer? Is it because I am a ‘woman’?  And if being a woman is what works against me in the tech and startup world, then what it about being a woman that is uncomfortable and unacceptable in tech and startup worlds?

I am emotionally and intellectually invested in these questions because the subject of ‘entrepreneurship’ is very, very close to my heart for 34 years now. My father was an entrepreneur, a true risk-taker, and growing up with him made me a risk taking woman. I have taken risks in love, in career, in finances and I have been amply rewarded for each of these risks – sometimes with tangible outcomes, sometimes with life’s most insightful lessons, and on one occasion, with the man I married four and a half years ago.

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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5 Responses to Navigating a gendered world – some questions

  1. Gora Mohanty says:

    Nice article. Would take too long to reply to it in the depth that it deserves, but here are a few words:
    * Yes, there is a definite advantage to being male in the IT, and much of the startup community
    that exists around it. This is changing: There is better representation of women in startup
    groups these days, though still nowhere near adequate. As you have remarked, it is assumed
    that women are in a supportive role: “finacier, and banker”.
    * I feel that a large part of this is an inferiority complex on the part of techies: Technology, and
    the relevant skills, are over-valued as that is often all that people know, and a big part of
    their sense of self worth. Thus, other skills are relegated to “supportive” roles, though they
    are often as important, if not more so, for a startup than sheer technical expertise. Good
    ideas are a dime a dozen, and there are probably thousands of people that can handle
    the tech. What matters finally is vision, execution, and the ability to find and retain people

    Don’t let it get to you. The best revenge is success, and HasGeek is doing quite well in that
    regard.

  2. nutsiepully says:

    Hey Zainab,
    I think to begin with it’s great that you are tackling these questions and problems, basically investing yourself in them. It’s also good to see that you are trying not to be reactive (though that can be quite hard sometimes).

    My understanding of these problems is 2-fold.
    One is subtle sexism (which might even be a form of ostracism) due to techie groups not being very girl friendly. This is in part (from what I think) due to
    1. a true fact that there is a larger percentage of males and in social sittings, one majority tends to be more vocal. The fact that we tend to not have enough empathy for female presence often stems from ignorance about how causal remarks might affect them.
    A very good example was the infamous ‘dongle’ incident at the Python conference, where those involved got fired. Sometimes the remarks may not even be sexist – (in that case they were sex jokes) which in some circumstances is just fine, and in some can be offensive.
    From my personal experience, initially when working at a startup, there were barely any girls and the group of us would often joke around on topics which might not have been completely acceptable with girls around. Obviously, as more people came in and the environment became more diverse, things changed.
    I don’t have a solution. I definitely think that we as men need to learn more and be more aware of how what we do affects women. There are a lot of good communities which seem to be generating awareness about this. This seems like the long battle. Apart from that, (and this seems a lot like throwing the responsibility in the wrong direction), but it wouldn’t hurt for women to let us know when we are making them uncomfortable politely (in cases when it’s clearly done unintentionally, without realization). But I understand this is not possible in an unfriendly group, and people high on testosterone tend to not listen a lot of times.

    The other was almost abject sexism, as was demonstrated earlier with the particularly snide remark – “she is also my cashier and financier.” I’m not sure how much we can change such mindsets, but speaking up was definitely the right thing to do. In fact I think interrupting him in between was the right thing to do.

    Regarding often being/feeling like the lone warrior, I’d say just keep doing it. The first in the line of fire often have it worst and victory is not often credited to them. But I just hope at one point, the critical mass would be impossible to ignore. In some sense, it already is.

    My 2 cents 🙂

    -Pulkit

  3. 5bma1e,ifotcg! says:

    I wonder if one of the actions possible is the creation of women’s networks, like the EPWN (European Professionnal Women’s Network) which aim at actively supporting women in business.

  4. Lava says:

    Hi Zainab, I was part of one of your recent events and so I feel obligated to post my views here.

    There is no question about the fact that you feel alienated and here is my theory on why that is happening.

    The problem is because you were hanging out with a GROUP of PASSIONATE techies while not being a passionate techie yourself. Note the emphasis on group and passionate, you could hang out with a group of techies without a problem, or with one or two of passionate techies without a problem but once there is enough of them in one place to attain critical mass then their common passion takes over the environment and alienates everyone who is not like them. Even a non-passionate male engineer would feel alienated in this environment.

    This applies to any group of passionate people. I am a passionate and energetic person but if I were to go to an event that has all passionate doctors then I would feel left out. I won’t get the inside jokes, the terminologies, I won’t have any medical stories to tell them and even if I did I would not be enjoying them as much as they do. I could be an engineer who is actually creating technology solutions for these doctors, they might like me very much, heck they might even need me more than they need their doctor buddies but still once there is enough of them in a group I would start feeling like an outsider.

    This is human nature and social group dynamics, this is further compounded by the fact that good techies generally have lower than average Social IQ. Unfortunately there is not much we can do about this without physically altering the human brain. Gender might play a minor role but I don’t think that is the root cause here. The first step towards treating a condition is proper diagnosis, so see if this theory makes sense.

    I would say it is a good thing that your are not another male engineer, this lets you look at things differently. You don’t have the same blind spots that we have. I think Hasgeek is better off having two different types of founders instead of having two techies. And for the hacknight I think we interacted more with you than we did with Kiran. You are doing great, just don’t judge your performance by our scales, we won’t fare well if we did the reverse.

    Good luck! Hope this input helps with your analysis and see you at the next hacknight 🙂

  5. sky says:

    The Geek Feminism blog and Wiki has some great resources on these issues, and I think you’d also have interesting perspectives to add to what they have there.

    I think that some of it cuts both ways. Areas which have traditionally been more open to women in tech industries (as well as other areas, like academia) are both open *because* they’re seen as less important, and further devalued because they’re not associated with hegemonic masculinity. Documentation, the organisational work that allows engineers to do their programming, even work that is often invisible (who cleans the offices? who cooks?): all this is just as vital to producing the final product as programming is, but it doesn’t get valued.

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