#EqualPayDay, “impostor syndrome”, and flipping tables

Equal Pay Day was yesterday, and for the second year in a row Microsoft published their pay equity data:

Like last year, they neglected to include any data about the relative promotion velocities[1] and retention numbers of various demographics. This got me thinking.

Frits Vilhelm Holm 1916.jpg
An actual impostor, from Wikipedia’s List of Impostors

Impostor syndrome” is an entirely rational behavior for folks who do get called impostors (ie. many underrepresented people). It’s part coping mechanism, part just listening to the feedback you’re getting.

But there’s another side to it: it’s more painful to know that you’re good enough and then get passed over despite that than it is to feel like you’re not good enough. To have done all that work to get over the subtle and not-so-subtle voices saying that you’re not qualified, that you’re a charlatan, that you don’t “have enough personal experience to evaluate” (that one I got last year, ten years into working in my field 💅). All of the implicit and explicit bias, all of the socialization. To know that you are good enough, and for that to not be enough.

“I’m good enough” is fixable. It puts you in some small measure of control. Just work harder, speak up more, but make sure you’re not “abrasive”… Lean in so goddamn hard you sprain something, and you’ll eventually get there.

Sadly, that’s not what the research shows. I’m most familiar with the research on why women leave tech, but I believe this point is broadly applicable to underrepresented people. It’s clear that women leave tech because they get fed up with their careers stalling out. With going full steam ahead and running into things like the maternal wall and other deeply-held biases.

So they flip a table[2] and leave. Or they have a plan in place to do so, when the day comes.

We call it “impostor syndrome”, but we’re not sick. The real sickness is an industry that calls itself a meritocracy but over and over and over fails to actually reward merit.

This is fixable. It will take doing the work of rooting out bias in all its forms, at all levels – and critically, in who gets chosen to level up. So let’s get to work.

[1] Promotion velocity is a bit of a jargony HR term, but it’s an easy metric to quantify in companies like Microsoft where there are set career ladders – it’s the speed at which people move up through the ranks.

[2] A year ago today I published a bit of a rant at tableflip.club. There were some nice articles written about it, and you can of course follow it on Twitter, though I’ve not been very good at keeping it up to date. I didn’t exactly end up tableflipping (immigration got in the way of the whole starting-a-company thing, a story for another time) but I did do a heck of a lot of research before deciding where to go.

Building a security community I want to stay in

Leigh Honeywell teaching an Ally Skills workshop
Yours truly teaching an Ally Skills workshop for the EEOC.

Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people of all genders (but mostly men) about what we can do to make tech, and information security in particular, a better place for women. Kids’ programs like r00tz and HacKid make it clear that plenty of girls want to be hackers early on. There is some awesome work happening specifically around increasing the number of women entering the pipeline – NYU’s Career Discovery symposium for women, ACSA‘s scholarships for women studying information security, Tennessee Tech’s Women in Cyber Security Conference, the EWF‘s fellowship at Carnegie Mellon, and many others. But we also have to make things better for the women who are already here.

I myself had a scary brush with burnout in the past year, and with a lot of work and amazingly supportive colleagues I’ve gotten through it. I want to stay in this field – but I need your help to make that happen. So if you’ve ever benefited from something I said or did – had an “ah-ha!” moment, got an interview you wanted, or finally understood threat modeling – I’m asking you to donate to the organization that kept me on this side of burnout: the Ada Initiative.

Donate now

Let me tell you why the Ada Initiative is making it easier for me to stay in infosec. This summer in Las Vegas during Security Conference Extravaganza Week, I taught two free Ally Skills workshops using the materials the Ada Initiative has spent the past three years developing. We make these materials available for free, online, under a Creative Commons license – we want the world to use them. Here are some things people said about the workshop:

“The key to the Ally Skills workshop is that it creates an environment where, with some basic ground rules, it’s possible to talk through all of those awkward day-to-day moments we all face as professionals in an industry with a gender disparity. Turning the cringeworthy into the teachable is no small feat, but the structure of the workshop makes it not only possible, but fun and surprisingly painless. Awesomesauce.” –Shawn Moyer

“As a woman in security, I thought I knew everything there was to know on the subject, and mostly attended for the promised snacks. To my surprise, I found the workshop to be deeply meaningful. It was encouraging to be in a room full of considerate people that wanted to improve their community, and it was a fantastic, introspective exercise figuring out what those improvements could be.” –Marisa Fagan

“The material presented and the trainer were both excellent, but what made it stick in a meaningful way were the stories shared by the participants. Everyone contributed thoughtfully which made it much easier to imagine how you might act on the information in real situations.” –Chet Wisniewski

Knowing that I’m not alone – that these people support me and they are going to take action when they see bad stuff going down – lets my shoulders come down from around my ears and allows me to think, hey, maybe I can keep doing this.

So I’m making you a challenge – two challenges, actually. First, if the rest of you donate $2048, I’ll match that donation with my own money. My employer, Salesforce.com, will match that dollar-for-dollar – so the impact of your donation will be tripled. Last year, I made a matching challenge to my friends in the name of my grandmother, architect Janet Leys Mactavish Shaw. You can read about her on Wikipedia – she was a badass lady who would have loved hacking and open technology and culture had she lived to see them happen.

And here’s my second challenge: I heard from a lot of people who were unable to make the workshops in Las Vegas that they would love to attend one. So if we can raise $4096, I will personally teach a free workshop – with content I’ve written specifically for information security – in San Francisco in the next six months.

Donate now

Scaling this workshop up is, to me, one of the most powerful things happening right now in working to improve conditions for women in geeky fields, and especially information security. I want you to join me in making this happen.

“It was great to have conversations, among people who support the aims of geek feminism, about how to handle situations and improve things. Online discussions tend to devolve into debating “how sexist something is”, which “side” is “overreacting”, or worse. Anyone who appreciates the depth, balance, and nuance found on the Geek Feminism wiki would enjoy one of your workshops.” –Jesse Ruderman

“It was enlightening to explore topics around sexism which, as a man in information security, I’m rarely exposed to with such honesty. The ability to have discussions with other men and women in the group was key to fully ingesting Leigh’s great skills lessons and questioning my own attitudes.” –Ryan O’Horo

Double Major

I’m back in school, as you’ve probably already gathered from my microblogging.  I’m finishing up a double major in Computer Science and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto, and if all goes according to plan I’ll be graduating in May 2011.

While this may sound like a strange combination, it makes perfect sense to me – I’m interested in equity issues within the STEM fields, especially computer science.

It turns out the combination of fields come in handy in unexpected ways some times.  After proofreading a paper I wrote for a Women and Gender Studies class for me my friend Valerie suggested that some quantitative data might be useful in supporting one of my assertions.  In my paper I argued that while early feminist scholarship on sexual harassment failed at intersectionality, more recent scholarship has embraced it.  To support this, I wanted to compare the number of citations for Catherine MacKinnon’s Sexual harassment of working women: a case of sex discrimination to Kimberle Crenshaw’s Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.  These are both profoundly influential works, but I wanted to quantify how their relative influence on scholarly work.

So I did what any self-respecting CS student would do – I wrote a script to scrape Google Scholar for citation numbers over time and made a graph comparing the two 🙂

For your edification, here’s scholargraph.pl:

# (c) 2010 Leigh Honeywell
# Licensed under the Simplified BSD License, reuse as you will!

use strict;
use LWP::Simple;
use LWP;

# set up LWP user agent and cookies; pretend to be Firefox 4 just to be cheeky
my $lua = LWP::UserAgent->new(
    keep_alive => 1,
    timeout    => 180,
    agent =>
"Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; rv:2.0b7pre) Gecko/20100921 Firefox/4.0b7pre"

# edit in your citation numbers from google scholar and the appropriate
# date ranges for what you're trying to do
my $crenshaw = getCites( "10759548619514288444", "1977", "2010" );
my $mackinnon = getCites( "2195253368518808933", "1977", "2010" );

sub getCites {
   (my $cite, my $startyear, my $endyear) = @_;

    for my $year ($startyear .. $endyear) {

        #construct the query URL using the above data
        my $post =
          $lua->get( "http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites="
              . $cite
              . "&as_ylo="
              . $year
              . "&as_yhi="
              . $year );

        # scrape the returned page for the number of results
        if ( $post->content =~ m#of (?:about )?(d*)</b># ) {
            print $cite. "," . $year . "," . $1 . "n";
        elsif ( $post->content =~ m#did not match any articles# ) {
            print $cite. "," . $year . ",no resultsn";
        else {
            # some kinda error happened, most likely google caught me!
            print $cite. "," . $year . "errorn";
    # don't kill google's servers
return 0;

Oh and if you’re curious, Crenshaw’s paper was cited far more than MacKinnon’s, pretty much as soon as it was published. Intersectionality FTW!

And as these things always go, of course I spend the evening working on this only to find that there’s a Perl module as well.


No-context-needed IRC log time!

-!- zfe [n=Gianluca@] has joined #ubuntu-women
<zfe> is this the kitchen?
<zfe> who would make me a sammich?
<redacted> zfe: No this is not the kitchen
<zfe> aren’t you women?
<redacted> zfe: you are welcome to go into your own kitchen and make yourself a sandwich.
<redacted> zfe: please read the channel guidelines in the topic
-!- mode/#ubuntu-women [+o hypa7ia] by ChanServ
<zfe> ok i will while you make me a sammich
-!- mode/#ubuntu-women [+b *!*=Gianluca@88.252.29.*] by hypa7ia
-!- zfe was kicked from #ubuntu-women by hypa7ia [http://xkcd.com/322]

Nicknames redacted to protect the innocent.

Python Open Mike

One of the early results from the dialog the Python community is having about diversity issues is a new blog – Python Open Mike.  The idea is that there are folks out there who have something to say that’s relevant to the Python community, but who don’t necessarily keep a blog themselves.  Open Mike is a venue for their posts.    It’s moderated, but easy to post to via email, and syndicated on Planet Python.  Though it came out of the diversity mailing list, it’s not intended to be restricted to diversity issues.  So if you have something to say about Python and are disinclined for whatever reason to set up your own, feel free to step up to the Mike!


My posse of heroines

I’m going to buck the trend and not name names on my post for Ada Lovelace Day 2009.  Instead I want to salute the women of the Ubuntu Women project for making participating in Ubuntu and in Open Source software in general just a little more supportive, friendly, and welcoming.  Unless one comes into our spaces to troll or harass, in which case the banhammers are swiftly dealt 🙂

Over the years (and it’s been years now!) I’ve hung out in #ubuntu-women on freenode, participated in the mailing list, and run into U-W participants at conferences around the world.  Through this, I’ve gained an invaluable support network, a place to vent to my peers, a great group of male allies (by which I mean guys who support the U-W project), and a bunch of fantastic friends.

Ada Lovelace Day is all about role models, and I couldn’t ask for a better bunch of women to look up to than the ones I hang out with every day in #ubuntu-women.  Thanks for all the great conversations, and let’s keep working hard on bug number 1!

I would be remiss to not mention my friend Behdad Esfahbod’s post for ALD, because he picked me to write about.  I’m delighted and honoured that he wrote about me. ETA: looks like Joey DeVilla and Karen Fung did too!