I could see the gender topic mushrooming on the horizon. I was resigned to it. I have a short paragraph on mental speed dial for when it inevitably comes up so I can jump on the fastest plane to ‘next topic, please’…but this time I surprised myself: “I think I’d like to do a piece on my experience as a woman in the software world.”
What!? My inner dialogue gasped, why!? Bear with me, I promise this won’t be a guilt-tripping man bash.
“I have a unique perspective to offer, so I’d like to do that.”
I’ve been lucky. By and large, I haven’t run into any major disadvantages or advantages to being a woman in the software field. I feel like that’s a story not told enough in the debate, where the experience is just like anything else in life: some good, some bad, overall average.
My parents encouraged and enabled my interest in computers and tech when I was young. What I perceived as playtime was actually building my skill set: Age 12 or so, I was making pixel art modifications (colourful fantasy ponies) and writing scripts for an ancient 2D game called Furcadia; its ‘Dragonspeak’ scripting language let you write simple trigger/response scripts (i.e. play this sound when the player steps on this object, or teleport the player to these coordinates).
Not long after, I was putting together a new computer with my dad; an old, black Compaq the size of a bulky school binder, so I could play this awesome game called Morrowind, in which I dabbled with mods and map building.
So really it was a no-brainer that I ended up in the field. It’s what I did for fun. It’s also why I didn’t realize that there was a gender ratio problem in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) until I finally chose a major and my dad said, “Well, you’ll have an advantage being a girl in computer science.”
That was a mind boggle. Really? Was it true? Did my gender alone give me an advantage? So I started paying attention.
From Freshman To Bachelor, To First Full-time Job
The first year of my degree program touted about 120 students. In that first freshman class of naive hopefuls I remember five women, self included. Starting ratio: One out of 24 students, female, or 4.67 percent. Okay, yeah, so maybe there weren’t a lot of us, but my only real complaint is one you’d hear anywhere with that ratio of hormonal males; I had to tolerate and ignore a lot pick up lines ranging from so smooth I wasn’t sure if it was actually a pick up line to catastrophically bad. (“I know you’ll realize that I’m the superior choice for a boyfriend. My IRC friend agrees.” True story.)
By graduation, there were only eight students to claim their Bachelor of Innovation in Game Design and Development. I was the only female. Not surprisingly, we were a pretty tight knit group; we all had mutual respect for ‘making it’ and my gender wasn’t a big deal.
If anything, the lack of contention let me cultivate an ignorant pride in my birthright singularity. I had excellent teachers that rightly didn’t care about gender, and it certainly helped that one of my teachers, Dana Wortman, was herself a successful comp sci female. There were two female engineering department teaching staff among about ten, which, of course, I took as more proof of my confronting the status quo, which is always a nice ego boost. Vive la femmes-in-tech revolution!
My career future was assured.
That confidence in this gender-driven edge carried me to my first full time job. On a flight back from Washington, D.C., I was telling my seat neighbor that I’d left my last job because I witnessed unethical client interaction practices. As we were taxiing to the runway, the man in front of us turned around with business card extended. “You’re a programmer? Here’s my card. Email me your resumé.”
It was the CEO of BombBomb, Connor McCluskey. Knowing him as I do now, I’m sure he would have done the same thing for any programmer espousing business ethics, regardless of gender, but at the time I felt like my ticket was in being female.
I loved my job at BombBomb. Our game dev team was tiny (five people total!) and we got along great; we were all young, suitably nerdy and all played video games. Any discomfort I felt with them, or the office at large, I dismissed as my being “too sensitive.”
That in and of itself was a clear outward sign to anyone looking in, but at the time, those hangups were just “something I had to get over.” Don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic people. There are only a few times I recall being uncomfortable about something that might not have been office-appropriate. Like the time I was explaining database “sharding” to our giggling customer service team. They thought I had said “sharting.” Gross.
Impostor Syndrome: Little Sister Or Nagger?
When the new-job euphoria wore off, my thinly grasped gender pride took a paranoid turn. I wasn’t surrounded by awesome teachers and peers who didn’t make any deal of my gender, but instead by people surprised and curious to see me on the development side of the building, and this nagged at me. Made me self-conscious. When my comments or criticisms were dismissed, I started wondering if it was because I was a junior programmer, or because I was female. I had sort of taken on the little sister vibe. Maybe they’d settled for a sub-par hire just because I was a girl?
I was experiencing a mild case of “impostor syndrome,” though I didn’t know it until I watched footage of Sabrina Farmer’s presentation at the 2012 USENIX WiAC summit. Irresponsibly, I can’t remember who linked me the video. I was skeptical and hesitant going in; the presentation is cringingly labeled ‘Overcoming My Biggest Roadblock, Myself’, and historically I’m not big on embracing and exposing one’s emotions.
I’m still not sure how I feel about her presentation. Her vulnerability makes my teeth ache and I really can’t relate to the mommy-hood spiel, but I can’t deny the impact of seeing someone so undeniably successful talk about her struggles like it was okay to have them.
As a result of her presentation, I took an interest in the subject of women in a male-dominated industry. I started reading about why people thought women weren’t going into STEM careers. Claims that we’re more susceptible to feelings of guilt. That we’re less likely to interrupt, or doggedly defend a stance. That this adherence to social etiquette/pressures make us easy targets for being talked-over or ignored. That we’re more likely to show embarrassment in the face of crude humor. That we’re more sensitive to our work environment surroundings, so, “yes, please” to the pretty coloured tissue box and a potted plant – but wait, never-mind, we don’t want the attention and judgments it might bring. (I had a plant and an owl mug. Don’t sacrifice the small joys in fear of possibility. A lot of my coworkers liked my owl mug.)
Most of these claims rang fairly true, though fortunately for me, to a much milder extent than some of the horror stories.
I feel guilt, for sure. Anything remotely my business (even something brought up casually) was now my problem and I had to fix it or oh-my-goodness-I-would-disappoint-the-world-and/or-my-coworker.
Both options were equally bad. While this attitude made me the preferred go-to for anyone outside the department (and who doesn’t love popularity), I had to get over it pretty quick to avoid burning out. I had to learn to say ‘I can’t help you right now’ and not feel like I’d personally let this person down. Apparently, that’s one of the things women are less prone than men to do: Say “No” when they really should.
Being able to say “No” became part of speaking up and taking a stand.