Make an assumption, but not the one you think

I cofounded and organize a developer Meetup group that has been in existence for almost three years now. Our membership is just shy of 1000 people and our regular attendance at our monthly speaker events is at least 40-50 people.  It’s a great group and I’m proud of the work I’ve put into building it and the vision I have for how to make it better.  I go to every single Meetup we have and am committed to its success connecting and educating these developers. The education part of it is the reason for my blogpost today.  I keep thinking about something that happened at last night’s Meetup that needs to be shared and discussed.

Last night I arrived early at our Meetup site to set out a sign for members to see and to get myself settled in to a position where I could spot people arriving and try to immediately reach out and make them feel comfortable, welcome, and included.  Shortly after I was seated a young man walked in and sat down with me and we began talking about what had brought him to our group.  He was new to the area and was looking for work.  He had been employed for a short while as a developer before moving to Portland and was hoping to continue his career here.  He was friendly and interesting and I enjoyed talking with him.  There was nothing about him that made him stand out as being an icon in the tech community, a developer who was wise beyond his years, or as an entrepreneur on the cusp of the next big startup.  He may well be any or all of those, but none of that was externally obvious.

You need to know this, because after he and I had been talking for a short while, another man arrived, walked over, said hi and held out his hand to the man I was talking to.  That’s fine, but the reason he did is evident in his next words to the man…

“Are you the Organizer of this Meetup?”

He had a 50/50 chance.  He could have asked either of us or neither of us.  But he didn’t.  Had it been two men sitting there instead of me, would he still have approached the young relatively inexperienced developer and asked if he was in charge?  I don’t think so. I am more mature, more confident, and more experienced than that developer, but that didn’t matter.  What mattered was external appearance. I am a woman.

The man immediately looked uncomfortable when the developer informed him I was the Founder and Organizer.  Because I’m a nice person I instinctively moved to make him more comfortable.  I smiled, held out my hand and introduced myself. Then I immediately laughed and said something about how he “must have looked especially ‘leaderly’ [etc].”  I wanted to diffuse the awkwardness.

This kind of experience has happened before, but this exchange has stuck with me. I feel like I missed an opportunity to educate and make a small difference, a “teaching moment.”  The man who made the wrong assumption was a nice man. I do not believe he meant to be disrespectful and I truly think he felt badly and wished he hadn’t said that. But he did and unfortunately I didn’t recognize until this morning that I could have turned it into a friendly discussion about assumptions and their power.

Here’s the message I wish I had conveyed to him and to the developer who was sitting there.  We all make assumptions; it’s an important part of how we organize our worlds. He is not a bad person for having assumed that, but by not questioning his assumption he  is promoting a trend in tech that says leaders are white men.  Had he challenged his world view and asked me if I was the organizer, what harm would there be? And even more important to me, what good could come of it?

Possible outcomes I see had he asked if I was the leader of the group:

Scenario One: I am the Organizer

  1. We have a lovely conversation about how it came into existence, etc.
  2. We talk about why he came to the meetup and learn about him.
  3. …more of the same, ya da ya da ya da…

Scenario Two: I am not the Organizer

  1. I have just received the message that I could be a leader.
  2. Anyone around me has also just received that message.
  3. I and everyone around me is pissed that he has even made such an assumption. This one is obviously ridiculous. If he is wrong, it is a non-event.

I see zero harmful results of it in this scenario. If you feel confident enough to assume the white man is the leader, you should feel confident enough to assume someone else is.  And if you don’t, then ask instead of making the assumption.

I am a woman in tech and I am doing good things and it’s frustrating when the assumption is it’s a man instead of me.  Every woman in tech out there and anyone who is an ally to those women needs to promote them on a daily basis through the little things like intentionally challenging their assumptions.  If you are wrong, the worst you will have done is put the idea in the front of everyone that it is possible for this person to be in the leadership role.  Without that happening over and over again, all of us nice people (men and women both) will continue to just expect and accept the status quo where you assume leadership and expertise are to be held only by men.


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