Monthly Archives: June 2012

On Women in Technology (and Other Male-Dominated Fields)

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Last month Ramesh and I attended the “SQL Day Poland” conference in the beautiful city of Wroclaw. The conference also organized a “Women in Technology Panel” where I was invited to participate. The discussion was quite lively, touching many topics from work environment down to education and upbringing. I liked that the women almost exclusively shared from their personal experience and did not give theoretical lectures on the topic.

After our return the subject still remained very much in my mind and I was trying to distill one major female issue from the past 10 years I have worked in the IT field.

What was most prominent in my observation of male and female colleagues was the manner in which they would pursue the advancement of their respective careers. I have seen men shamelessly ask for training, promotions and bonuses, while women on the other hand, would think twice or thrice as to whether such demands had merit and would choose an ideal time to approach their managers if at all.

Twenty or thirty years ago it was still possible to work exclusively for one company life-long. People had plenty of time to make a name for themselves. Plenty of time to ponder when to ask for training, a raise in salary or promotion.
Nowadays people stay in one job for two or three years and then move on. Either within the same company if it is big enough (Microsoft, IBM, SAP…) or they move to a different employer altogether. The time to get the most out of our current employment is much shorter now than it used to be in the past, especially in the IT field.
This general acceleration forces us to pursue our goals more aggressively. The term commonly used is “proactivity”, to proactively shape our career and future.

Why is there such a gap in proactivity between men and women?

1. Women often lack awareness of the necessity for proactive behavior, especially when they were brought up conservatively.

2. The fear of rejection: Women (and shy men) might fear rejection. I can share from personal experience that a less attached attitude to the outcome of any proactive step will work to your advantage. Our careers never depend solely on one person. So, if we approach someone with a request and it is denied, we have only lost one option out of many. We can approach others or change our surroundings thereby allowing us access to a new path to reach our goal.

3. The concern of what others might think if we suddenly become proactive. That’s one of my favorite topics. A good friend of mine once said: “Worried about what others might think about you? Relax and don’t flatter yourself! Others are far more concerned about their unpaid bills and constantly nagging partners, about their children’s education and their own retirement plan. How much time do you think is left to think about YOU?” Well, usually not much (unless they’ve got a secret crush).

Joking aside, if I may sum it up: You can gain far more by “shamelessly” approaching people with your requests than you could lose. Looking back, I can say that 75% of my requests were fulfilled. Wherever I hesitated and waited for the other person to approach me the outcome was pretty much the opposite. With passive behavior I was only successful about 25% of the time.

Why not be proactive more frequently? It is fun to come out of one’s shell and make oneself heard! (If you are not quite sure how it feels to make yourself heard I’ll give you a few Flamenco lessons ;o)

Good luck to all of us!

On Understanding

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What comes to your mind when someone asks you what is necessary to properly understand another person?
To speak the same language?
I agree that sharing the same language can help to understand each other better. However, there are plenty of situations in which we can make ourselves understood with only a minimum of words.

I shall never forget my uncle Walter and his wife Heide who travelled the world by hitch hiking. Walter is over 80 now, Heide over 70, which makes them the oldest “vagabonds” I have ever heard of. Their insatiable love of adventure attracted much curiosity which made them frequent guests of various talk shows, but that is not the reason why I am mentioning them here.

When I was a child and I heard that they had come back from a travel, I would run over to their house, impatient to hear about their adventures, to see their slides. The thing that amazed me most was how they could orientate in a culture without speaking the local language.
My aunt used to smile every time I brought up that point, and say “Look, as always, we learnt how to say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’, the rest we managed to express with gestures.” “And that worked?” I asked. “Yes, that worked fine. It was funny, sometimes it took a while but we always finally got what we wanted!” my aunt replied.

Now try to imagine a totally different scenario, try to remember the last time you fought with your partner. Most probably you did speak the same language but understanding did not happen. For some reason your partner seemed not to understand you.
On the other hand, what s/he answered to you did not help solve the issue, either. Depending on your character and the importance of the issue you might have finally given up, slammed a door, broken a vase or even started crying. Or, you might have decided to quit the battlefield, to leave the stand-off, to give it a break.

What happened? Two people who know each other well and who speak the same language could not make themselves understood, hmm…

I observed that such discussions were usually emotionally charged. The words did not reach the other person “neutrally”, they or previous situations in which they had been used triggered stressful emotions.

I remember when a friend told me the story of his father, who trembled every time another person would greet him with a friendly “hi” raising his arm to accompany the greeting. The friend’s father had escaped from Nazi Germany as a child, all memories he had from that time were people in brown shirts walking around, shouting “Heil!”, lifting their arm for a “Nazi salute”. So, for his poor father the sound “hi” + arm lift remained emotionally charged, it took him decades to forget and relax.

Of course, most people we meet would have had less traumatic experiences, but still, certain words or topics might cause stress and hinder an unbiased understanding. No one exists without context, everybody has a history, and words are not perceived neutrally.

So, in order to make ourselves understood it is not just important to choose the right words, we also need the proper receiver, a person who would be able to “decode” our message correctly. Many times that correct decoding depends on similar experience. That’s why we sometimes say “we just clicked”, “we were on the same wavelength” and so on.

On the other hand, that does not mean that we can only communicate properly with people who underwent similar experience like us, but it might take some extra effort to understand the other person’s view. That might be especially the case with intercultural encounters.

One more story in that context, a friend repeatedly told me: “I feel so embarassed when my husband boasts about our son’s good grades. Of course, our son is diligent, he is doing very well and I am proud of him, too; but to boast about his achievements in front of others, I find that to be improper.”

When she finally took heart to discuss this issue with her husband, it came to light that the misunderstanding had to do with their respective family backgrounds. While the husband’s family had always struggled with achievements and were very expressive when they had cause to celebrate, my friend’s family, an aristocratic family, was reserved and preferred to display the elegance of understatement. The core of their conflict, it seemed, was a mere difference in family tradition. It took a while for them to find that out, but they eventually found a happy medium as their just reward.

“Love will find its way through all languages on its own.” (Rumi)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…

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The modern, electronic world has changed our life considerably. While previously people shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences with diaries and a few, close friends, we nowadays are more open using twitter, facebook and blogs.

I resisted this trend for about 5 years, stubbornly ignoring my friends’ invite to join facebook and follow their updates; now, as a middle-aged woman (:o) I feel generally more open to share whatsoever comes across in my life. This greater openness surely has to do with the fading fear about what others might think about me.

What I like about writing in general and blogging in particular could be summarized as follows:

1. It helps sorting thoughts. Whenever I try to understand something, putting it into words and structuring it gives me a clear perspective of my thoughts.

2. Blogging encourages interaction with others. Topics that interest us can be widely shared, adding new aspects brought in by others. By blogging we can reach people worldwide which we might not have achieved otherwise.

3. “Blog about it and then let it go!” is an uplifting way to deal with difficult experiences. Several authors have stated that writing helped them overcome childhood traumas and other unpleasant occurrences in their life. “My sentiments exactly!”

Some people state that social media are mainly for emotional exhibitionists and narcissists. I agree that some courage is necessary to step out of one’s comfort zone and share by way of social media, but by no means should they be considered solely a platform for the vain. Also, I found out that many of the experiences I thought were very personal and unique, were in fact similar to what others had experienced as well. Only by sharing I came to know!

Human experiences, hopes and fears are similar. There are cultural differences to some extent, but overall they revolve around the following:

1. Marriage/Family

2. Work/Career/Making a living

3. Health/Beauty/Emotional Wellbeing

4. Friendships/Hobbies/Work-Life-Balance

5. Safety/Security (on personal and national level)

6. Religion/Spiritual growth/How to live happily/Finding one’s life’s calling

I plan to blog on all these topics as they come to my mind.

That’s all for today, thanks for reading through!