Software Engineering Made a Woman Outta Me

Software Engineering Made a Woman Outta Me

By Jennifer Gilbert

This article was originally published on Medium, and is reposted here with permission from the author. 

Jennifer Gilbert
Jennifer Gilbert

When I decided to learn to code, I knew I was entering a male-dominated field. But I considered that challenge far less worrisome than, say, taming the black magic of recursion.

Yes, there would be sexist, disrespectful jerks. Of course there would.

But I’ve dealt with jerks before: I’m no stranger to their stomping grounds, also known as “sidewalks” and “grocery stores” and “schools” and “offices” and “every last form of public transportation.” You can tell that completely avoiding jerks isn’t a big goal for me because I don’t live in a hermit cave that I singlehandedly scraped out of the side of a mountain with a spoon, unwilling to let an amorous construction crew ruin my no-hitter.

Plus, my company, which I am sure you could identify without much trouble and whom I certainly do not seek to represent here in any official capacity, is a pretty great place for women to work: an internal organization dedicated to the career development of women, generous maternity leave, flexible scheduling, and waaay fewer leering creeps than your average train car. Train cars are like Jerk Church, aren’t they.

If the jerks weren’t going to be a problem, I couldn’t think of any other hazards that someone as low-maintenance as I am could possibly have to worry about.

I’ve never had a manicure or pedicure. I haven’t seen the inside of a salon since August; I cut my own bangs, and they remain a proud testament to my lack of fine-motor control. My closet is devoid of frills and heels. The only jewelry I wear is my wedding band.

I’m a former distance runner and rollergirl who has spent a significant amount of time smelling like the worst thing you’ve ever forgotten in your fridge, the thing that prompts you to sacrifice your Tupperware just to appease the stench gods, chucking the entire container into the garbage just so you don’t have to crack the lid. I don’t own a purse, preferring instead to stuff my wallet and phone into the front pockets of my hoodie—and I doubt Cosmo will ever deem my Faux Potbelly of Lumpy Possessions to be the new black.

I didn’t contemplate the problem of my femininity, because as far as I knew, I didn’t have any to begin with.

And yet, the day I became a software engineer, I became a woman. It was a lonely moment. My dad wasn’t even there to awkwardly hug me before yelling for my mother and excusing himself to Any Room But This One.

Here is what I didn’t really understand before that first day:

  1. The biggest tomboy alive can suddenly feel like Programmer Barbie if her surrounding context is male enough. Yes, even if she looks as if she allowed a wild animal to chew off her bangs, which by the way is a rude observation of you to make.
  2. A bubbly woman in stilettos and lace is likely to suffer even more, no matter how talented or smart she might be.
  3. Being different is lonely. Being different is hard. That pain point does not cease to exist even when it’s no one’s fault, and a company seeking to retain a diverse skill set is going to have to mitigate it.

Even if it existed, flawless communal innocence would not eliminate the troubles of homogeneity. In the same way that Ladies’ Night Out might involve 55% more giggling, lamenting about the Great Frenemy that is the carbohydrate, and photo-snapping than the average get-together, men act more male as the ratio tips in their favor. Topics and behaviors that would bore mixed company become more acceptable. Traditionally feminine behaviors feel less acceptable not because anyone is openly disapproving of them, but simply because no one else is engaging in them.

I should know: using merely the theory of relativity, the tech community transmogrified me into a blubbering girlypile of ladyness.

I was just fine before, and I’m exactly the same as I was then. But somehow I now say far too much, far too quickly. I tug at my clothes all the time. I sweep my hair away from my face all day long. I fret over my mistakes. I apologize exactly as often, and yet somehow four thousand times as often, as I used to.

My habitual laughter feels weird. The salad I eat for lunch feels weird. My disinterest in purchasing a nice car or a bleeding-edge smartphone feels weird.

I try to avoid putting on lip gloss in front of anyone. Sometimes I fail. I can’t help it; my lips are high-maintenance that way. They’re like a couple of escaped, frightened aquarium newts, okay? They dry out. It’s serious.

So I turn away and apply the gloss quickly, like it’s the eighties and I need to put a rolled-up dollar in my nostril for just a second.

Not all of this is rational, but being different has made me irrational. My perfectly innocuous Valentine’s Day bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries arrived while I was in a meeting; the receptionist put it in the break-room fridge, and even if the preference was a mild one, I would still rather leave it there than be the only person displaying a romantic gesture in her cubicle.

Even this paranoia about being feminine seems hopelessly feminine. When I hoped to master recursion, this wasn’t what I had in mind.

I spent months gritting my teeth through it: You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here. Your determination to bloom where you are planted is no match for your parched mummy-mouth.

But, simply by being respectful people to work with, my coworkers have greatly lessened my discomfort over the past year. I now have days and weeks during which not a single wisp of sore-thumb anxiety flaps its wings against my brain.

It still feels important to describe the experiences above and refuse to shoulder the full responsibility of fixing it.

Your average seminar on the topic will tell me that some of these awkward differences would melt away if I learned to be more confident, more blunt, less emotional.

Despite how challenging it is for any of us to fully understand or articulate the gigantic subterranean machinery of gender norms, or the punishment those enormous gears would crank out if I took this advice, most of the efforts toward this problem focus more on teaching women not to take any shit than on teaching other people not to hand out as much shit in the first place.

We all can stand to improve our professional skills, and I’m no exception. But radically reshaping my behavior is not going to make my life better.

First of all, in a more female environment, no one would want to play ball with the woman that the masculine world thinks I should become. Why would I transfer my loyalties to a demographic I will never fully belong to at the expense of broad swaths of my social network?

Second of all, on the golden side of my apologetic, self-effacing coin are empathy, humility, and introspection, valuable traits that this industry could use more of. The majority of my success up to this point is directly attributable to the very personality that might be considered a liability in a less diverse environment, which is why “culture fit” is such an uncomfortable phrase for those who aren’t ever going to be able to quit lip gloss cold turkey.

Not that I’m one of them! I can stop anytime.

The encouraging part is how much more at ease I feel when even a third of the attendees of a given meeting are women, but anyone striving toward that level of diversity knows that it’s slow going.

If you’re one of the good guys and you want to help speed things up, you can start by respecting that even if my being different doesn’t bother you, it may very well bother me—and only one of us has to be uncomfortable for it to count as a problem. Understand that while individual differences between me and the majority of my coworkers might seem small and silly, they can add up to an overall feeling of isolation.

It’s so easy to miss the big picture and judge someone as “oversensitive” on a case-by-case basis. These incidents are occurring in someone else’s life, not yours, and they carry greater impact in that context.

Women-only or women-centered coding workshops are a balm to me and a lot of others spending their careers in rooms full of men, struggling to feel like people instead of women. If you would like to host one, reach out to organizations like Women Who Code. Provide mentorship, either as a host or as an attendee if you’re welcome to participate.

Volunteer for RailsBridge or show up at PyLadies meetups—nothing more clearly communicates that women are welcome in tech than your willingness to sacrifice your Saturday in the name of showing up to smile and say hello.

We won’t just remember you; we’ll want to work with you.

The community spends a lot of time discussing the misdeeds of men in tech, and for good reason. But we shouldn’t let that bias us into interpreting my complaints as an accusation of wrongdoing.

It’s possible for me to work with some of the nicest and most respectful people in the world and still suspect that I might be more effective professionally if more of them were women.

It’s possible for you to offer to help without anyone taking it as an admission that men are bad and women are good.

At any rate, if you offer it to me, I promise to take it as nothing more than a reflection of what I’ve learned this year: my skill set is valuable, being different is hard, and that it’s more productive to work toward changing a work environment than changing women.

About the Author

You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jay_gee.

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