Monday, June 8, 2015

Women in the Workplace: Canaries in the Coalmine

Photo by Seriykotik CC-BY-NC
This is a long-overdue reflection about the impact of incorporating conversations about Women in EdTech into the ET4Online conference program. Yes, it's a late reflection, but it's one I've been meaning to write since the end of April and it must get done, late or not.  For my more general reflections about the conference, please click here.

The 2015 OLC/MERLOT ET4Online incorporated a panel session titled "Women in EdTech: a conversation" and a "Women in EdTech Dinner," sponsored by LoudCloud Systems. The events were strongly attended and I feel it's really important to talk about why they were coordinated and theorize on why they were so popular. (View a Storify of #ET4Women here by Patrice Torcivia.)

To do so, I will turn to the insights of Caroline Turner, a former corporate executive and business attorney turned author/consultant.  After Turner left her executive level position, she wrote:

"When I left..., it surprised people. I was 'at the top of my game.' My kids were out of college so the hard part of juggling family and work was over. But I lacked the passion it took to keep it up. I couldn't name a cause of my decision to leave. It just felt like it was time to move on. 
Then I began to notice how much company I had as a former successful woman executive... I began to reflect on what really caused me to leave the C-suite...
That women leave their jobs at a higher rate than men is confirmed by ddata from the Bureau of Labor adn by private research. While women's role in the family is a significant factor in the attrition rate of women, equally important is the general job dissatisfaction that women express." 
Turner goes on to suggest that the workplace is an environment created by men and, as such, it values and models masculine attributes.  And this general job dissatisfaction that she alludes to may be attributed to years, even decades of attempting to conform to masculine approaches of success.

Successful women professionals are like "canaries in the coalmine," says Turner.  Canaries placed in coalmines die because of a toxic environment. For a canary to survive, we wouldn't just keep pushing more of them into that toxic coalmine. Instead, we would work together to remove the toxicity from the environment.

Frequently, we read about the need to "get more women" into the STEM careers, high level executive positions like CIO, and other male-dominated areas.  But less frequently, we hear critical conversations about the need to probe our workplace environments and make them more inclusive. During the Women in EdTech panel with Amy Collier, Patrica Torcivia, Keesa Johnson, Tracy Clark, and Maha Bali, one participant recalled the experience of pumping breast mile on a toilet in a public bathroom at work.  I had that same experience and I wondered how many other women in the room and viewing the live stream had too. These "raw" conversations made me also recalled when I learned about my unplanned pregnancy days after accepting my first full-time faculty position and the guilt I felt when I shared this with my Dean.  I thought about how ludicrous it was for me to feel guilty and how this guilt was something my husband, who also worked full-time, could not relate to.  Soon there-after, I learned that my faculty contract included a whopping five days of birth leave. My need clearly were not represented here, that was clear.

These examples begin unveil the masculine values around which today's workplace was built, which to this day are not recognized by most and talked about even less. They also reveal the experiences and feelings women endure silently in an effort to "be professional." In a previous blog post, I wrote about how vital it is for the voices of women, and other marginalized identities, to be part of our current edtech dialogue. We need more bloggers, keynote speakers, authors, Hangout hosts that are women and people of color...especially in a time when innovation is so needed. But, as the canary analogy demonstrates, we need to simultaneously have conversations about these silent and pervasive issues. Recognizing the problem is the first step in making it better.

At the Women in EdTech dinner at ET4Online, I felt empowered to sit down in a room with women and men who had chosen to spend their evening sharing experiences and having "raw" conversations that crossed generational lines.  We've received some terrific feedback about the conference, overall, feeling "family like." The sense of community was strong.  Scott Hamm left this lovely comment on my blog, "at times [I] feel like most conferences are microcosms of Silicon Valley's heavy white male dominance and perpetuate the limited role of minorities and women ([which] was encouraged ... this year)."

Let's work together to keep the conversation going.


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