Rena Tom Rena Tom

Inclusivity and Inevitability



Like many of you, I have been following all of the discussion about women in tech. Of course it’s about far more than tech, and more than just women, but you have to start somewhere. These are mostly my opinions and experiences, but I have been polling my friends as well, and this is colored by their thoughts too.

It is a well-known fact that I am a nerd. It is a little-known fact about just how big of a nerd I really am. Back in the Stone Age, I studied mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. I wasn’t the best student and I had to repeat thermodynamics but by god, I got my degree. In my family, if you were good at something (math, science) that could lead to a professional degree, that is what you did. My folks are just Asian enough to want that, and I was very young and didn’t know better, so I did it.

My class was probably 85% male, mostly frat boys from Southern California, which is not a generalization, it is a verifiable fact. Boisterous, confident, clubby, nice enough, but they had no idea what to do with me. There were a few even nerdier girls who I never managed to make friends with, and then there was me, with the indie rock radio show and the skateboard and the funny outfits and oh wow, it was a bad fit. They didn’t want me and honestly, I didn’t want them.

I tried for a while. I went to the student meetings which inevitably involved sloshball (kegs + kickball for the uninitiated) and put up with a lot of the sort insulting teasing that guys seem to use on each other but never made sense to me. “Lighten up, I’m just capping on you.” I often trudged up or down a flight of stairs in the engineering building if I wanted to use the bathroom because the ladies rooms were every other floor. (My friend Audrey said this was also true at the Ivy League she attended for electrical engineering.) I was miserable but stayed in the program out of sheer spite.

At the end of school, I bought an ill-fitting suit to interview (always with men) at some firms, but I quickly realized that I wanted nothing to do with engineering. The companies were full of career engineers (all male) who would only give up their senior positions when they retired. I couldn’t imagine working for them for 30 years, so I didn’t. And that was my first departure from STEM but not my last.

Web design and development was next. It was the very early years and actually pretty balanced, for a while. We were all misfits having fun. I taught myself how to program, how to edit photos, how to wrestle with grouchy mail servers. Those years were useful in instilling a DIY approach regarding technology, and I don’t regret them, but at some point, it stopped being fun and I left tech behind.

It was the right time. I started making things with my hands, and I opened my store. That was the point that the balance started shifting for me. I started developing and honing my own skills (as a designer, a business owner, a maker, and a leader) and making more connections. Not coincidentally, I was meeting more designers, business owners, makers, and leaders who were of color, who were women, who were gay – and more people with different backgrounds and different interests in general.

Today, I am in a very interesting position. I run a coworking space. It’s small but located in a pleasant neighborhood. It has sunlight and mismatched chairs and furniture that would not look out of place in a well-designed living room. The membership has grown  through word of mouth, through my fairly extensive network, and the network of my friends. And we have probably 85-90% women members, which is a somewhat jaw-dropping number.

Makeshift may be the only coworking space that has not positioned itself as a women’s space to attract quite this many women. (I’ll be attending the coworking conference in March to find out for sure.) But how did this happen? When I wrote the business plan, I never put ‘attract women members’ in there. I did put in ‘great design book library, comfortable seating, proximity to lunch and coffee.’ I did include ‘offer business classes, offer lectures, offer networking opportunities.’

Truthfully, sometimes I find myself thinking the same thoughts as many others: Like attracts like. Why make the community into something it’s not becoming naturally. The people who get it will find us, and are the only ones we want anyway. But this is shortsighted, and sucks, and I need to do more outreach. In this case, it needs to be to men – both the ones who get it, and the ones who should, if I can explain it properly. Why? Because my space is for creative freelancers, and that includes men, and therefore they need to hear about us. Diversity is an outcome of inclusiveness. (Thanks to Jess and Elizabeth for the link.)

So I won’t be setting a quota, but I *will* establish some goals to invite and include, and then try my best to meet those goals. It’s the right thing to do. I could very easily have restricted the space solely to women like these places, but that didn’t feel right for me personally, just like the gender balance right now (though comfortable and easy and safe and lovely, all truly wonderful things) doesn’t feel right either.

Whew. So that’s how one person left tech and engineering through feeling rather unwanted, and lived to tell. This post doesn’t really say anything new but sometimes you just have to write it anyway. My resolve was strengthened, sadly, by an incident yesterday. One of my members got the most infuriating, insulting email I have encountered in a while – which is saying something. While going over pricing with a client, he wrote that “you should maybe discuss the fee structure with your husband.” Um, yeah! I’m only glad that she got that email while at Makeshift so that she had a place to vent and be supported by her peers…and me to suggest that she fire his ass immediately. Just doing my job.

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  1. I’m a sewing pattern designer and former middle school teacher, both professions that are predominately made up of women. The men that I’ve worked with in both careers have,for the most part, been such exceptional people. It’s difficult to stick it out when you are in the minority, but often those who do are there because this is their life’s work and they, like you, have something real to contribute.

  2. linsiwolsie says:

    Uncanny how much my career trajectory has resembled yours! Studied biomedical engineering (like a good Asian child) and found myself in the early days of web design soon after. Now, I’m writing and making here in Singapore.

  3. Clare says:

    Urrrgh. Unfortunately there is still a it of that out there. I recently heard of a girl (who was about to get married) told that perhaps she shouldn’t bother getting professionally qualified because “she’d no doubt soon go off and have children”. Sent a shiver down my spine..

    I’m a Physicist by education, Engineer by trade, and with a million and one creative side projects on the go.. Perhaps we’re a type no one has figured out yet :-)

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