Friday, October 03, 2008

Mary Lou Jepsen's thoughts on being a women in Technology

On Friday Mary Lou Jepsen spoke about her experiences with the One Laptop per Child and her company Pixel Qi, but she also gave suggestions on how to approach being a woman in computing. She quoted Gloria Steinem as saying "Sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was." Although the quote was initially referring to Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama, it still applies that often gender is the most limiting factor in equality today. Personally, I hope we can work to change this for the next generation.

She said that you should always negotiate before accepting an offer, because it helps them think of you as a good negotiator and then they'll give you better jobs later on. Getting that extra little bit is important in the beginning (before accepting an offer is your best chance for the next 2 years to make a change like that), but letting them know you'll negotiate is possibly more important.

She reminded us all not to give up too easily as well. She claims that getting your degree (PhD, if relevant) is very important as well. Although we see men who have succeeded very well without finishing their degrees, we don't really see women in that position. Having the degree will give you that extra believability, and make it harder for people to discount your ideas and criticisms. This is important more for women than it is for men, due to that inadvertent/invisible/unacknowledged sexism problem.

The biggest point and my favorite point is that it all boils down to confidence. When she was taking testosterone, her entire world view changed. She suddenly thought of herself as the smartest person in the world, she was always angry, and she was always thinking about sex. Nothing was different in her life but the testosterone. She feels that these feelings came from the same place as the self-doubt without the testosterone came from: being unsure about herself. Although the story is funny, it also points out that quite often the same feelings manifest themselves different ways in the different genders. What she wants everyone to learn from her experience is that when a guy is giving this type of attitude, stand up to him; he's not any more sure that his idea will work than you are that your idea will work. Don't let that type of attitude stop you, know that it means that you have a good chance of winning if you don't give up. I think this is advice that many women in technology really need to hear, as often the biggest barrier to success is dealing with the people who seem to want to put you down no matter what.

Her last piece of advice is to give credit to others, and stand up to take credit of your own work as well. If you give credit, people are more likely to believe you deserve the credit you ask for. Take advantage of the fact that you'll be easier to remember because you look different than the millions of guys in your position, and that companies will be more likely to remember you; so if you do something good, that reputation will last well.

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