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IETF Systers Program offer support while challenging biases

8 Mar 2022

The IETF Systers Program offers women participants the opportunity to network with each other and “gain support by networking, sharing advice and experiences, and collaborating on various projects.”

The IETF Systers Program has been active since 1993, with members gathering during nearly every IETF meeting since then. Program founder Allison Mankin chose the name Systers in response to the late Anita Borg’s call for women in computer systems to support and celebrate each other. IETF Systers embraces the same spirit as the initiative

In addition to face-to-face meetings, Systers offers an email list for participants to discuss topics of interest and concern. The list is open to anyone identifying as a woman who is interested in the IETF.

In conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8, the IETF blog chatted with Kirsty Paine, the chair of Systers.

IETF Blog: How did you get involved in the IETF?

Kirsty: I went to my first IETF in London four years ago – being British, it wasn't too far to go – and then I've been to every IETF since! I go because technical standards are the best place to look if you want to know upcoming technology trends, and be the first to know what the future technical landscape will look like. And so I look to standards development organizations, as that's where technical standards and the latest international innovation is happening. Since my work is in technical innovation and security, and my specialism is in Internet technologies, the IETF was a natural choice for the standards body I follow the closest.

IETF Blog: How did the Systers group get its start?

Kirsty: Formed as a grassroots effort to improve a sense of belonging in the IETF for women, Systers used to meet for a networking lunch during IETF meeting weeks. Now it's grown into a supportive community with coffee mornings, virtual meet-ups – but we still have that lunch! It's a great place to get to know each other and find some friendly faces at IETF. 

IETF Blog: How has the Systers group been helpful as you’ve become more involved in the IETF?

Kirsty: It's a great way to meet people from different IETF working groups and areas where you might not normally participate, and just learn from them! The breadth of technical expertise in the group is amazing, yet not intimidating – as everyone is happy to help newcomers find their feet, make connections and get their work started. It's a more friendly atmosphere than the IETF at large, which can be off-putting to a lot of newer attendees. It's big enough to make some fantastic connections, yet small enough to feel welcoming and like a real community.

IETF Blog: What advice would you give women considering or just starting to participate in the IETF or other similar groups?

Kirsty: Firstly, welcome! Come and find me at a coffee break or a virtual Systers meet-up for a chat, it would be great to meet you! And secondly, don't be put off by your first IETF meeting – it can be overwhelming because everything is new, dense and intense. But if you can, find the time to read the drafts that will be presented at the meeting, as it helps a lot, and make the most of the networking opportunities. There are lots of newcomer events to help you find your way around, coffee breaks, the Systers lunch and even a social. Oh, and definitely come back for your second meeting; you'll find that it's not as difficult to follow the second time around!

IETF Blog: What does this year’s theme of International Women’s Day mean to you in the context of the IETF?

Kirsty: This year's theme is “break the bias,” and to me that means we need to recognise biases in ourselves and others, then cut it out! “What bias do we each experience?” is probably an easy question, because we each remember a time when we were treated differently because of attributes we have. But then a harder question is, what bias do we hold of others? Yeah, that's trickier. When people say they hold no bias, I ask them to imagine driving behind a car that's speeding, not indicating, being pushy on the road – are you imagining a certain brand of car in front of you?

Everyone holds bias, so recognising those biases in ourselves is the first step, but the next step is harder – to disrupt and dismantle them systematically.

Putting this in an IETF context, I'd ask participants, “When do you take people at face value?” Perhaps it's because of where they work, how they present themselves, maybe your friend introduced them to you, or maybe it's just based purely on what they say. On the flip side of that, do you then disregard or grill others who say the same things simply because they don't have these endorsements, or fit what you had imagined? When you unconsciously attribute certain attitudes and stereotypes to another person or group of people, you can be unfairly ignoring their point of view. Tragically, then you are missing out on fantastic technical talent.

This matters at the IETF and in technical spaces everywhere, since missing out on technical talent because of inclusion challenges is a truly terrible thing. Our problems are too hard to solve with only one group of like-minded thinkers. So this International Women’s Day, challenge ourselves and challenge others. Let's break the bias!

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