Women in Technology

Hear us Roar

Tatiana Apandi Interviews Dru Lavigne

by Dru Lavigne and Tatiana Apandi

Dru Lavigne is a network and systems administrator, IT instructor, author and international speaker. She has over a decade of experience administering and teaching Netware, Microsoft, Cisco, Checkpoint, SCO, Solaris, Linux, and BSD systems. A prolific author, she pens the popular FreeBSD Basics column for O'Reilly and is author of BSD Hacks and The Best of FreeBSD Basics.

Tatiana Apandi: You've had a variety of careers in different areas, ranging from municipal government to construction, how is the atmosphere different in the IT world?

Dru Lavigne: If I were to rate these careers by gender discrimination, municipal government would fare the worst and IT the best. Even in the construction industry where one would expect to see blatant gender discrimination, I wasn't really affected. Once I had proved myself capable of doing the job (which, by the way, men have to do as well), I was a respected member of the team. Basically, your attitude on the first day of work determined where you belonged in the scheme of things. Whereas in municipal government there was a very low glass ceiling and women were restricted in the jobs and salary ranges available to them, regardless of their ability or motivation to succeed. This was my experience and is probably not true across the board; those in leadership roles for this particular municipal government had concrete ideas regarding a woman's place, which in turn set the tone for hiring and employee/employer interactions.

IT has actually been the easiest, especially the open source component. Having to prove yourself online has its advantages: no one has to know what you look like, how old you are, your economic status, where you went to school, who your family and friends are, your gender, your full name, etc.—all of the things you are normally judged on in face-to-face interactions. Basically, you are known for your work and your communication style, making it possible to get far quickly with a very low entry barrier. You just have to show up and start producing. You also have great leeway in choosing what to excel at according to your interests and abilities.

TA: As the creator of the BSD Certification Group, you are a key player in the BSD movement. What other crowning achievements do you feel you have had? Have you ever felt that your gender has had any effect on how others perceive you in your role?

DL: From a career perspective, going back to school, having the opportunity to train others, writing a regular column, writing that first book, having the chance to travel and meet others, joining the blogosphere, and becoming editor-in-chief of a publication.

Gender always has an effect, but mine has been mostly positive. For example, many people feel more comfortable discussing issues with a woman or with having a woman organize things—and fortunately I like to organize things. Face-to-face communications have been fine as I make sure I always do a top-notch job and people tend to respect that. My beginning online communications could have been trickier as I didn't really know what I was doing; for that reason I stayed low-key for several years and didn't make a point of correcting the assumption that I was male.

TA: In a blog post of yours, you discuss gender differences as they relate to a student's potential being realized. How do you feel you overcame some of the stigma that can be attached to the smart girl or the career-driven woman?

Dru Lavigne
Dru Lavigne

DL: It's hard being a student, it's hard being a teenager, and it's hard being a woman in her 20s. It's important to cultivate a sense of humor, to keep a good attitude, and to remember that things do get easier to handle as you mature. I don't think the stigma ever changes—what changes is your ability to cope so you can continue to do whatever it is that you want.

TA: From your current vantage point as a successful woman, do you feel that you had to make personal sacrifices for your career in IT? Do you feel that a man would have the same pressures when making career choices?

DL: Again, I have been fortunate as I entered my IT career later in life, around the time my daughter started high school.So the usual pressures of child care and being the primary person responsible for the household weren't an issue. I was also fortunate that my first IT job was as a trainer as women tend to excel in educational environments.

If my daughter had been younger I still could have found success in the open source component because of the many advantages it offers; this is something I wish more people, not just young women, knew about. If you're a smart self-starter you can gain an amazing skill set and a strong network of people, while maintaining your own schedule from home. I'm not saying it is easy (getting ahead rarely is) but you have far greater control over your career destiny than you have if you limit yourself to traditional methods.

While men don't have the same external pressures when it comes to raising children and managing a household, many men are motivated internally to do so. Open source offers them the same opportunity to stay in the game while working from home and participating in the lives of their children.

A lot has been written about having to make tough choices to move ahead, but these are all from the perspective of the traditional ways of moving ahead in a corporate environment. Open source breaks new ground in getting ahead, but it's not for everyone.

TA: In the tech world, there are surges that can very suddenly change how everything has been done up until that point. Do you feel that anything of this nature has happened for women in IT?

DL: One of the things I like about IT is that it is not static—there is the constant excitement of learning something new. Those personalities that don't enjoy being in an ever-changing environment tend to not last long in IT. Assuming a woman has the personality and other life stressors aren't a factor, women may have the advantage in changing times due to their communication skills. Also, much has been written about women moving into management roles, which often aren't considered to be as "IT-ish."

TA: You've mentioned several times the importance of mentorship—whether direct or indirect—do you feel more aware of the potential influence you may have?

DL: I've yet to directly mentor an individual. However, many have told me through email or in person how helpful my writings have been to get them over their initial learning curve. I also see many opportunities on IRC and mailing lists to encourage others and try to take the time to do so. I'm a big believer in the power of setting a positive tone and avoid communities where that tone is not appreciated. Such communities aren't just a turn-off, they are a waste of time.

TA: Do you think that the open source culture, by virtue of its come-one-come-all nature, can help women become more involved?

DL: Definitely. Finding a community where one feels comfortable and where one's progress isn't hindered is key. Open source is vast—if you're not happy in the community where you are, shop around 'til you are. Don't let a few bad experiences put you off. If you're sensitive about being female in what is perceived as a primarily male environment, be low-key about your gender. Above all, don't be afraid to participate!

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