Taking Action as a Woman in Tech

I recently read this blog post by Lea Verou, a Research Assistant at MIT and an Invited Expert in the W3C CSS Working Group. She talks about how many outspoken women in tech paint a bleak picture of sexism in the industry, but she doesn’t feel it to be true for herself. She’s never felt less respected or unfairly treated due to her gender. She goes into how sometimes people can be quick to assume any criticism is due to their gender, and not their abilities.

This blog post spoke to me because it reflects exactly how I feel about these issues. It doesn’t mean sexism never happens, but it does mean that there’s no reason to fear going into tech as a woman. I myself have never felt ‘lesser’ among my coworkers, or not respected. The ratio of men to women at my workplace and on my team is about 10:1, but that’s really something I’ve just gotten used to over the years. My university’s Computer Science department had the same ratio. I’ve found myself becoming more and more comfortable letting my inner geek out and feeling like ‘one of the guys’. Perhaps I just have a bit of a tomboy streak in me. And that’s no requirement for working in tech; I know women with a strong feminine side that are also comfortable and happy in engineering roles.

Sometimes when I say this to other women in tech, they ask, “What about microagressions? Haven’t you felt belittled by men at work from time to time, even unintentionally?” I’ve thought about this a lot, and determined that it’s not fair–to myself or to my coworkers–to attribute these things to being a woman. When I am talked over in a meeting, I think it’s fairer to attribute that to my quietness. I know that I’m a quiet person, and I’m not as assertive as I could be. I’m working on handling those situations better. When a coworker gets assigned a fun new project instead of me, there’s generally a good reason for it. For example, that person may be more knowledgeable in a certain area, or perhaps they currently have less on their plate. If I really want the project, I can communicate my interest to my boss, or spend time learning and ramping up relevant skills. When someone compliments me on what I’m wearing, I thank them and attribute it to them being a nice person. If someone outright flirts with me or asks me on a date, I pull them aside and tell them that I’m not interested. In my mere three years in the industry, I have seen men as well as women in all of these situations. I can only speak for myself here, but I have not yet felt that being a woman has made me any less successful or less happy at work than if I was a man.

The biggest problem I see as a woman in tech is that there aren’t enough other women in the industry. When I was a kid, people who used computers a lot had a negative stigma. The geek stereotype was an overweight man with glasses and acne who lived in his parents’ basement and played video games all day. This kept men and women, especially those who were self-conscious about their appearance, from being interested in technology. By the time I entered college, computer usage became mainstream and startup fever was on the rise. The stereotype had changed to a young startup founder rolling in dough, or a genius capable of doing anything with a computer. At some point, it became cool to be a geek.

Stereotypical geeks of the past, present, and future

Stereotypical geeks of the past, present, and future

I’ve recently run into people who are intrigued by the thought of going into tech, but due to that old negative stigma, they didn’t learn about computers in school. Many of them think that the only way to get into the industry is to have learned about it in college and often give up before they begin. They need to be shown just how many different ways there are to get into the industry that don’t involve getting another degree.

The one problem I have with articles that talk about these issues is that there’s rarely anything actionable. They may suggest that there are problems in the world, but they don’t suggest how those problems could be solved. I propose two ways you can help with this lack of women in tech.

If you are not yet in tech and you’re interested in trying it out, don’t be afraid that you’re too old, or that you don’t have the right knowledge. The tech industry is one of the easiest fields to learn online because there is so much information readily available. This is because many computer geeks are early adopters on the internet. These people saw the internet for the great resource that it could be, and have produced a wealth of information that is freely accessible. Thus, many of the early articles on Wikipedia and courses on Coursera relate to technology and Computer Science.

To learn how to code, I recommend starting with a project that excites you. Make a mod for a game, or a personal website. Codecademy is a good resource for learning the basics of programming. Googling for tutorials will help you make nearly anything. The /r/learnprogramming subreddit has a fairly comprehensive list of resources. There are also dedicated organizations that can help teach you to code for free. Ada Developer’s Academy (ADA) is a program based in Seattle that helps women of all ages and backgrounds jump-start a career in tech. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, try contributing to open source projects on GitHub. These days it’s less about having a degree or any other piece of paper, and more about demonstrating competency, which you can accomplish through real-world code examples and projects.

You can also reach out to me for advice. I may not have time to teach you myself, but I’d be happy to help point you in the right direction.

If you are in the tech industry, find some time to give back to the local tech community. I was lucky that my dad was in the tech industry. He became a great role model for me, which got me interested in computers from an early age. Kids without tech role models end up much less likely to go into the industry. Women who are interested in getting into the industry need positive role models, whether you’re a woman showing that it’s possible to be successful in tech, or a man showing that it’s possible to be comfortable working with you.

Go to meetups to learn cool new things and teach others what you know. Find tech-oriented organizations to volunteer for–ones that really matter to you–and inspire others to enter the tech world. I’ve recently started volunteering as a TA for ADA and I’ve found it to be incredibly rewarding, much more than I first thought.

This field is still growing at an incredible rate, and I think there’s something in it for everyone. In nearly every other industry there’s some way that computers have made the job easier. I sincerely look forward to the day when the basics of computer programming are taught in every elementary school. Even if you aren’t interested in tech, you probably know someone who is, and I encourage you to pass on the message. It’s time to move beyond talking about these problems and actually take action to help make the world a better place.

Thanks to Andrew Liu for reading drafts of this.