As someone who has participated in the IETF since 1992, I am used to being one of the few women in the room during technical meetings. However, as more women have engaged in technical communities over the last few decades, the IETF, along with some other communities I participate in, have not experienced the diversity in participation experienced in the technical industry sector in general.
I’ve often wondered why that is although I’ve never really had time to do more than give it a passing thought. So when I was approached to work on a project initiated by the IETF Administration LLC (IETF LLC), the IETF Secretariat and Chairs of Systers to better understand the experiences of women participating in the IETF, I was very happy to accept the opportunity. Perhaps gathering this data could give some insights.
The aim of the project was to interview women in person at the IETF 117 meeting in San Francisco, supplemented by remote interviews for those who no longer attend the IETF or those who could not attend in person. The views of trans and non-binary people were also welcome.
A total of 31 interviews were conducted with discussions around the following topics:
- What they knew before they started participating.
- Their first impressions of the IETF.
- What they’ve encountered in their participation.
- Specific areas, situations, or even individuals of note.
- The impact of attending IETF on them and their work.
- Their analysis of their experiences and any issues they’ve encountered.
- Their view (if they have been participating long enough) on how things have changed over time for women participating.
- What they think can/should be done to change things to enable more women to participate in the IETF.
While experiences varied there were some common themes when it came to discussing diversity issues, the benefits of mentorships and impact on a professional/personal level.
When discussing diversity issues, a consistent thread during the interviews was that areas of diversity cannot be taken as individual elements. There are added complexities involved where multiple diversity elements will affect experiences. Many individuals interviewed mentioned that gender alone did not play into the personal experience and that other diversity elements such as age, professional experience and cultural background factored into their experiences.
There were experiences that expressed challenges to participating where gender stereotypes contributed to the feeling of needing to work harder to be respected and have their contributions accounted for. However, many individuals interviewed expressed that the Systers group gave them a feeling of belonging and they would like to see the program continue and possibly expand. Also, mentorship, regardless of gender, made a significant difference in creating a positive and welcoming experience.
Most of the participants felt that contributing and being part of the IETF had a strong positive impact on their professional and personal goals.
Several details were given on how things have changed over time for women participating and multiple suggestions were made on how experiences of women attending the IETF can be enhanced. Some of these suggestions may also be relevant to other global technical meetings. Anyone interested in the full details can view the complete report.
It is a positive step to see that efforts are ongoing to gather data and engage in open dialogue regarding diversity and inclusion. I felt very fortunate to meet so many wonderful individuals who shared their experiences with me.
This project had me reflect on my own experiences and I realized how fortunate I had been in my early career to have many male mentors and a few fabulous female peers. No matter where you are in your career you can never outgrow the need for mentors. Just don’t forget that it’s also important to start acting as a mentor yourself when you have enough experience to be one. It can make a significant difference to someone just starting out.
Merike Kaeo has over 25 years of experience in pioneering core Internet technology deployments and leading strategic digital security transformations.
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