Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ladies Helping Ladies: A Few Thoughts

I've been thinking about this post for a while, trying to figure out exactly what I want to write. Incidentally, I am writing this with a pen and paper (gasp!) in a hotel in Santa Rosa, Colombia - to be typed up (and spell checked) the next time I'm at my computer.

I've spent the better part of this year traveling, and as a result have found myself (both accidentally and on purpose) in a few countries that have a decidedly different view on women. Some might say "marginalizing" or "sexist" or some other word that connotes "bad", but personally I hesitate to even use the word "different" because I'm not sure even that is entirely accurate.

At home, I go about my day without too much consideration for my gender, in fact I prefer to ignore it. I'm sure it dictates a certain amount of my habits, life experience, etc, but it's not something I choose to consider on a daily basis. Traveling in countries where my gender is constantly being brought to my attention forces a certain level of awareness and introspection that don't exist in my day to day life. My gender is similar to my age - sure it has something to do with who I am and how I live my life, but I'm not asked to consider on a daily basis how old I am.

My gender has yielded many things throughout my travels, from being required to wear more/different clothing from my male counterparts in blazingly hot places (yuck), to being allowed to pre-board a flight (yay!), to being told I'm strong while doing significantly less than the men around me (sure?). Through all of it, it was a brief moment in the New Delhi airport that has really stayed with me.

In New Delhi (and other places in that part of the world), security lines at the airport are gender segregated. Men go through the metal detectors in a process that is very similar to a western security checkpoint, while women are pulled, one by one, into a tiny, enclosed box with curtains covering the entrance and exit, and are subjected to a physical search. For someone who is neither used to nor interested in being gender segregated and/or physically searched, it's a bit unnerving.

Standing in the "women only" line waiting my turn to be searched, I found myself looking wistfully over at the men going through the "normal" security checkpoint. Why can't I just go through the metal detector? What is about to happen in that enclosed box? Maybe I can just pull the "I'm foreign" card and stand in the men's line? No such luck.

As my turn came and I stepped into the box to be searched, I was greeted by the security officer in charge of searching me. As unnerved and out of my element as I felt, she immediately put me at ease. Her warm smile and kind eyes told me I had nothing to be nervous about - that she was on my side. I was so struck by this woman in their foreign country and foreign culture, so eager to put me at ease, so eager to help. It's something I will never forget.

So, what's the take away?

In the technology industry, there are distinctly few women. Women can become marginalized simply due to the fact that there aren't a lot of us in the room. A technology event can be as foreign as an airport in India with customs and rituals equally as foreign.

So what about the woman who are in the room? What can we do?

Well, we can give each other the gift the security guard gave me: We can help each other out. We can smile at each other. We can offer reassurance. We can offer each other a helping hand. We can put each other at ease.

EDIT: Making the women who are in the room feel comfortable encourages more women to be in the room. For thoughts on why that's a good thing, I refer you to an excellent post by Sara Chipps on the subject.