Of women and IT

Of women and IT


I'm sharing some of my experiences with sexism in software and CS education

Of women and IT

I've been following the #thatwoman hashtag on Twitter, and I thought it's a good opportunity to speak up about my own experiences with sexism in tech. I'm a computer science student about to get her degree, and I've had my fill of experiences already. Speaking up is something I'm often reluctant of doing - I'm afraid of being, well, "that woman" who always calls people out on their sexism and makes people uncomfortable. Ashe Dryden wrote a great article about the risks women run in speaking up against sexism, by the way - in case you haven't seen it it's well worth reading. Even though I am a bit concerned this might hurt me socially, or professionally a bit further down the road, I'm going to share a couple of my experiences.

I've supported myself working a part-time job in software for a few years in a tiny company. One time I was assigned to a project for a specific customer; our desktop application had to interact with their web-based CRM. I had written the lion's share of the code, so at some point I had to follow up on a bug report my coworker had taken to get more information. The guy who reported the bug was their CEO, and I could not get any useful info out of him - he was too busy being condescending, telling me how much more experienced he was and that he needed to talk to a developer to tell me whether the error was coming from our application, the browser or their CRM, and what the full text of the error message was. Well, I ended up handing him to a male coworker who had nothing to do with the project at all, and all of a sudden he had no problem giving him the information without being condescending. So that's half an hour's worth of my time, plus the overhead due to interruption, that I could've spent, I don't know, working on my assigned project. Or fixing his problem (it was a bug in the browser, but I found a workaround). My coworker's work was interrupted as well, and we both ended up putting in overtime that day, just because someone could not come to terms with the fact that a woman could be a competent developer and thus wasted her and her coworker's time - oh, and he was hurting himself as well because he could've had support by a developer who was actually working on their application, but ended up speaking with someone who hardly knew the project.

I get more of the small but grating things at uni, things that are easy to dismiss with "it was just a joke/stupid comment, just ignore it" if you aren't aware that they are not isolated incidents. I get guys saying "no, those girls walking past cannot possibly be in our class - women don't do computer science" while I sit right behind them in that very class. I get "You're good with computers/programming - for a girl". I get people praising me for trivial things, like tidying up my home directory in a shell, as if it was a miracle for a person in a computer science class to run Linux and be comfortable with using the command line. In programming labs in a CS 101-type class that our uni doesn't allow anyone to test out of, the guy next to me asked me to please go a bit more slowly, he was intimidated because I was way ahead of him (how dare I make him look bad by being better? I get being intimidated, but in what world is it okay to actually ask the other person to slow down if everyone is supposed to work on their own and he had no business looking at my progress to begin with? No, I didn't slow down, and I told him that if that was a problem he should try to focus on his own work). For some reason no one says it about me personally, but I've heard "no wonder she gets good grades, she uses her cleavage-fu to her advantage" about a couple of female students who dressed in a rather feminine way. And if I had €1 for every time anyone said "Real men do/use X", when X was a programming language, a technique, a framework or whatever, I wouldn't have to worry about paying back my student loans any longer.

Yes, this appears petty compared to what some other people face. I'm not being sexually harassed, I haven't lost jobs or received death threats, there are worse things that could happen to me, and, again, that may make me "that woman" who makes mountains out of molehills, who bothers writing a blog post about stupid comments that the speaker didn't think twice about. But here's the thing: These incidents may be small, but they're part of the problem nonetheless. We do not think twice about them because they're so small, so easily dismissed, nothing special. We think it's no big deal to say or do these things, and in saying or doing them, we perpetuate structural sexism without thinking twice. We continue to perpetuate the idea that women don't do computer science, and if they do, they still can't be better than men, through tiny, subtle things like this, and still, if someone puts a finger on it, they are rebuked and told it's no big deal and they shouldn't kick up a fuss about it because it's "just a joke" or "just a stupid thing they said", not a Big Deal, not "real sexism". stereotype threatis a thing, though, and I can't say I haven't been facing it. I hardly ever ask questions at all because I'm afraid of being stereotyped as "yet another woman who can't do/doesn't know X". I don't contribute to open source projects because I'm afraid that my code quality won't be up to their standards and they'll judge me as "yet another woman who should not be a programmer". You could say that's on me, and it's all in my head, and I'm just being neurotic, but women are judged that way frequently, and a woman's shortcomings are often attributed to her gender rather than just to the individual (compare this XKCD comic).

Frankly, I don't see why I should be quiet about the things people say or do just because they are not a huge deal like death threats or rape. Does that mean I should just have to put up with people dismissing my opinion because of my gender, or people commenting on my appearance in an inappropriate way, or people acting like I don't exist while I'm right there in the room with them? I'm often told that "things are that way in the industry and if I want to make it as a woman I have to tough it out". Fuck that. I may have to deal with it, sure, but I'm not doing that by just taking it silently or laughing along with them if they make a sexist remark (to show that I'm "cool" and "really one of the guys", see?). I'm not willing to quietly accept that it's going to be this way for the rest of my career, but if no one points out these things to people, it's never going to change.

So what can you do to counteract sexism in tech? Ashe's article I linked to earlier on has a couple of useful pointers, as has What Can Men Do? - it's geared primarily toward men, but has links to resources that'll come in handy for everyone, regardless of gender. You'll find some guidelines for acting as an ally to various marginalised groups here (PDF).

Written by Nadja Deininger ().