“So Sorry You’re Having to Hear All This”

On this #WomenInScience Day 2020…

I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were in the middle of a tech outage. I was there as leadership. In outage scenarios I prefer to be there. To show presence. To support. To remove roadblocks. To ensure clear, understandable communications and updates are shared with all our users – executive to mailroom. In some ways, likely even to teach. We were a few hours in; the team was trouble-shooting-slash-floundering. I’d never experienced anything like it. The team was fixated on silly things and also willfully ignoring the basic question, ‘What changed?’ The recovery teams and, most importantly, the aspirational technologist leading the response, needed to learn through this. It was midnight. My boss had just sent me a text: Do you at least feel like they’re on the track to identifying the issue? My response: Not remotely. I’ve never seen such flailing.

The lead technologist then decided to kick into high gear a standard process to find the failure, system by system. Starting with all the wrong systems. There were about ten of us sitting around the table. As he waxed poetic on each step and jotted down systems on the whiteboard, he paused, looked directly at me, and stated:

“I’m so sorry you’re having to hear all this technical talk Paige.”

Whoa. Did he say Paige? He did.

Because-? I never ran cables? My technology experience was more in the fields of application development, software engineering and database administration? There were several with similar backgrounds in the room, so – truly one difference. I was the only female. I was the only female in the room. I was also the only name named.

He did not even realize the impact of what he had said. At the time, I’d been a CIO for approximately ten years across several institutions. I’ve undoubtedly managed numerous outage scenarios across all systems and technologies.

“I’m so sorry you’re having to hear all this technical talk Paige.”

Make no mistake, this almost militantly-respectful gentleman was displaying behavior and a mindset that had been modeled for him. He was not the root cause of behavior failure here. It was shocking but moreover saddening. There were gasps. At him, not with him. Shock, not mirth.

I have seen how it works. How it snakes its way through the seemingly most unflappable audiences, and festers, and grows. It starts with one. In a position of power. Patient zero.

I knew patient zero. As a female leader, I hid his behavior. Please note: I can only speak for myself on that response to it. I covered it up. I hid it. It was a choice. Because it’s embarrassing first and foremost. Because it’s awkward. Because I couldn’t believe it. Because we knew it wouldn’t do any good, nor would patient zero ever own the behavior. Mostly the behavior was covered because it would negatively impact our department’s ability to get anything done. We hid it. Colleagues apologized to me for the behavior behind closed doors. My peers and I hid it. For the betterment of the institution we thought, but most likely to the unfixable detriment of the aspiring technologist. It’s learned behavior. That he doesn’t see. So it will shackle him.

My experience is but one blip.

Now let’s revisit how this impacts others. I’m a CIO. A Vice President for IT. I know my worth. I’ve known my worth for a long time. But let me assure you, there was a murky period shortly thereafter. A time where self-doubt crept in. And I’m strong.

Think of the teenage girl in high school that deep-down wants to be a scientist. Think of the undergrad in the engineering class. Think of the help desk manager that supplies tier 1 support to a bevy of tier 2 and tier 3 professionals. Think of the fresh liberal arts college graduate that is offered an opportunity in an IT department, totally capable to learn-in-position. Imposter Syndrome impacts the most experienced of us. Imagine that nearly imperceptible degrading, dismissive attitude and its impact on those less experienced.

For those wondering, in the outage scenario it took a dozen times of me asking ‘What changed?’ with increasingly exasperated ‘Nothing was changed’ until a final question received the response ‘Well we changed xyz but that couldn’t have resulted in this’. There it was. It was, in fact, the root cause and identified swiftly the root issue.

A culture is modeled. A culture is taught. A culture is followed. And a culture is empowered. Enabled. And it’s visible. If you want to be a part of the change, watch the words. Watch the actions. Ask the questions. Shine the light.

There are reasons women don’t persist in technology. Statistics show it has nothing to do with lack of interest. Most likely it has little to do with capability or effectiveness. It’s the on-path, in-state responses to women in technology.

Let’s work on this, shall we? #WomenInScience matter.

My story is certainly not unique. Too many have them. What’s yours?