Interviews

Meet the woman who is telling the stories of women in tech

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“There is no longer shame in telling your story, only power” – Jennifer Cloer

Jennifer Cloer, the founder of reTHINKit PR, and one of the most influential people in the open source world, has announced the premiere of The Chasing Grace Project Episode One: Eighty Twenty (March 25, 2018 at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon).

Prior to starting reTHINKit PR and her film company Wicked Flicks Productions, Jennifer was VP of Communications at the Linux Foundation. I have known Jennifer for more than a decade, even before the Linux Foundation was formed. When Jennifer made the announcement of the premiere on Medium, I talked to her to get the story behind the stories she is telling through The Chasing Grace Project.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you tell a bit about the Chasing Grace project?
Jennifer Cloer: The Chasing Grace Project is a documentary series of six episodes about women in tech. It takes a very real look at the adversities they face but shines a spotlight on how they are rising above those adversities to chart successful careers in tech and influence change for the next generation. We hope to help recruit and retain female talent for the tech industry and to give a platform for everyday women in tech to share their stories.

We shoot every episode in a different city and host the premiere screening event for that episode in the city where we shot. The episodes are also released online as they are screened.

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Building the future will take all of us. We can’t build a world with artificial intelligence and blockchain, for example, without a diverse, global team of men and women doing the building.

What what the drive behind starting this project?
We’re at a very critical moment in time, one in which the conversation on diversity and inclusiveness is at an all-time high but one in which we’ve actually moved backwards on diversity in tech. According to the most recent data , there are fewer women forging tech careers today and more leaving than ever before. Building the future will take all of us. We can’t build a world with artificial intelligence and blockchain, for example, without a diverse, global team of men and women doing the building. And women need access to tech jobs; they’re among the most economically lucrative careers in the world today.

On a more personal level, I’ve been a woman in tech for about 17 years and a couple of years ago realized the narrative around that experience – women in tech – was reaching a fever pitch. But the online conversation was confusing and important nuances were being overlooked. This is a complex issue. The experiences of women in tech vary and the solutions aren’t always obvious.

I’ve been a storyteller and communicator my entire career and understand the power of film to bring viewers closer to the subject and to really understand experiences at an intimate level. By putting women in front of the camera and giving them a platform for their voices and stories, we hope we can help recruit and retain female talent for the tech industry.

Why did you choose this format for the project?
Well, we first set out to produce a feature-length documentary. But quickly realized the public discussion on women in tech was moving and changing so fast that there was no way that format would work. Feature-length work takes years to produce; by the time we released a two-hour film, the conversation would have moved well beyond us. We decided last summer to move to an episodic format so we could release early and often, much like the way we build software.

How did you choose the participants for the project?
We interview men and women every week and choose participants based on how well their stories support the episode topics and story arc we’ve established. If I had all the time and resources in the world, I’d share every single story.

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What will be the next venue?
We’re headed to the Silicon Valley in April to shoot episode #2, which focuses on the culture of tech. Where else better to shoot that one, right? The Valley drives tech culture around the world. Other cities include Austin, Denver, New York and Philadelphia. We’re leaving 1-2 open so we can follow the stories and the participants.

What are the big challenges women are facing today, especially in the tech space?
I think the experience for women in tech is very different than it is for men, and people are just starting to understand that. So one of the biggest challenges is how we all become more aware of those experiences and support each other – men and women – in creating an inclusive workplace and industry.

As you’ll see in our first episode out March 25th that explores the gender gap, for every step forward a woman makes in her career, it seems her male counterpart takes 2-3 steps forward. Sometimes it even feels like she loses a turn or has to go back a few steps. Whether overlooked for a promotion or her career trajectory being stalled after returning from maternity leave, it seems women have to work twice as hard for the same results. But when they do reach career milestones, it can be even more rewarding and the stories of those achievements can inspire us all.

What kind of support is coming from the industry for the project?
We’re so grateful for the outpouring of interest and support from the tech community from all over the world. People are reaching out with invitations to screen the episodes at their companies or community events. Companies want to know how they can support (sponsor!) and both men and women want to share their stories. We’re experiencing a unique moment in time, a time in which we can truly advance the conversation and take real actions to drive change.

You have been involved with the biggest Open Source project. What has been your experience as a woman as part of the community? What lessons did you learn?
Well, it’s no secret that the open source community has very few women. There’s the old joke that one of the biggest benefits of attending an open source conference as a woman is there are no lines at the bathroom. But we all know that can be a lonely feeling.

What I’ve learned being involved in the Linux community, and with a variety of other open source software projects, is the power of women to come together to support each other. There aren’t many of us in open source but what we lack in numbers we make up in grit and badassery. Most of us know each other (again, small community), we all support each other and know we can reach out to each other any time to ask for help.

There are also many men in the open source community who are allies. When men dominate a space, such as open source, their role as advocates is even more important. We need more of them, though, and actions from folks like Imad Sousou at Intel to sponsor The Chasing Grace Project helps set the right example.

I do think it’s getting better all the time. I see more women on stage at open source events than ever before. It’s still not enough but there is important work being done to address that. I see more female developer advocates from Microsoft, IBM and Facebook, among others, contributing to open source, being vocal and advancing the right conversations for diversity and inclusiveness.

Things are changing. It’s a bit slower than we’d like, but that community of women I was talking about? We’re working hard.

I recall an interview with Kelsey Hightower in which he said that Open Source breaks the traditional model – you don’t have to prove anything, your background and who you are doesn’t matter, you can start contributing at any level. Is that true for women as well?
The idea of a meritocracy is great, but it often benefits the people already in positions of power or influence.

When you’re anonymous online (besides perhaps your handle or email address), it might seem like all the unconscious bias we talk about becomes moot. No one knows who you are and all contributions are rated with the same measuring stick. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the story. Behavior in some open source projects can in itself be exclusive. Women and other minorities might be excited to contribute but after monitoring a community before submitting their patch or bug fix, realize it’s not the kind of community they want to be a part of.

This is the harsh reality that we need to address, and I do believe it’s getting better. More awareness about the issue, more male allies and more women contributing in a variety of ways is helping.

The “#MeToo” movement is picking up, what do you think is the driving force behind it?
JC: I think women feel more empowered than ever to share their stories and experiences. And I think that change is coming from trailblazers like Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler in tech and others across other industries who were among the first in recent years to speak out, to call bias and discrimination by their names. There is no longer shame in telling your story, only power.

If you want to watch the Episode One: Eighty Twenty on March 25. Please RSVP on Facebook to get it first online or join us at the screening in Portland, Oregon. Details in my blog.

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Swapnil Bhartiya
I have more than 12 years of experience covering Enterprise Open Source, Cloud, Containers, IoT, Machine Learning and general tech. My stories cover a very broad spectrum - traditional Linux, data center and Free Software to contemporary emerging technologies like 'serverless'. Widely Read: My stories have appeared in a multitude of leading publications including CIO, InfoWorld, Network World, The New Stack, Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN Magazine, HPE Insights, Raspberry Pi Geek Magazine, SweetCode, Linux For You, Electronics For You and more.

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