As a woman, what can I do to feel more comfortable at tech events where women are a tiny fraction of the participants? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Veni Johanna, Engineering Manager, on Quora:

As a woman, what can I do to feel more comfortable at tech events where women are a tiny fraction of the participants?

One general framework that can help here is to:

  1. Break-down the feeling. Where does the discomfort come from? Keep digging deeper by asking 'why?' until you can't break it down further.
  2. Think/validate whether the list in (1) is assumption or fact.
  3. Prioritize the list in order of how those factors make you uncomfortable.
  4. Find solutions to the prioritized list in (3).

Discomfort (or most other feelings, really) is often difficult to explain because it's a by-product of many things running in our head, like assumptions, past experiences, heuristics, and perceptions of ourselves and others around us. Breaking down the feeling can help in realizing our assumptions and biases, and zeroing in on the actual issues that lead to the discomfort.

Some examples of what this process can result in:

  • Source of discomfort: People around me are more experienced than I am.
    • This is an assumption, unclear if this is true.
    • Solution: If this is true, then great -- you can learn a lot at this event!
  • Source of discomfort: Everyone around me underestimates me.
    • This is an assumption (or not, maybe someone said something terrible).
    • Solution: Mindset shift -- being underestimated is awesome, it gives you so many more opportunities to prove people wrong. Also, people like to show off their knowledge, which allows you to learn more.
  • Source of discomfort: I don't have anything in common with any of them.
    • This is an assumption - presumably you can talk about the topic of the event!
  • Source of discomfort: I feel uncomfortable initiating conversations with people I don't know.
    • Solution: Bring a friend to these events next time, or message the event host in advance.
  • Source of discomfort: People are looking at me and it's awkward.
    • Solution: Either sit at the back so people don't see you, or sit at the very front (so you don't see people's eyes).

There may be other sources of discomfort, this list is just to help brainstorm! Dig deeper than intrinsic features (e.g. your age, gender), and think about what they might cause instead.

One powerful mindset shift is to find 'the good' in whatever our discomfort is, and lean into it. Being underestimated is annoying, but it comes with a lot of benefits: there's much less pressure to 'perform', it's ok to ask stupid questions, people let their guard down, and proving people wrong at a later time is fun. Being under pressure can be stressful, but if we take it as a challenge rather than a threat, it can be quite energizing [1]. While this isn't always possible, it's useful to keep this mindset in mind.

I know this approach is easier said and done, but hopefully this discomfort now feels more tractable to get over. Good luck!

Footnotes

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Published on: Jan 24, 2018