There is nothing surprising about a woman in tech
I originally planned to publish my next episode of Journey of a Fashionable Minimalist, but realising it was International Women’s Day, I wanted to write a post for it as I have done in previous years.
In one of my very first presentations I gave, in my first foray into public speaking, I spoke about how I became a web developer (now UI engineer). The full title of the talk was: I didn’t mean to become a web developer, it just happened. I had grown up with computer games and learned how to code before I was a teenager, so the special treatment I got when I was one of only two girls in a computer class of boys made me wonder: why is it so unusual that there is a woman in this class?
Nonetheless, the gender imbalance was obvious, and harrowing, even though I genuinely loved tinkering with computers and writing code. I found myself in this situation of gender imbalance many times over the course of my education and during my career. The stereotypes of being “smart” simply because I knew how to use a computer made me think, as I grew older – not only the question of why I had to be smart to increase my attractiveness, but weren’t men working with computers smart, too? What was so special about a woman being smart? Isn’t that sexist?
Still, to this day, whether I am a woman in a group where myself and fellow women are outnumbered by men, or I am in a group of people – the environments I grew up in, garnered most of my education in, fostered relationships in, and spent time on my hobbies in, were all dominated by men.
Being the minority is mentally exhausting.
Now, men are great (sometimes), and for the most part, I got along absolutely wonderfully with a lot of the men in my life. But as a woman, the feeling of being outnumbered can be mentally taxing, whether people notice or point out the imbalance, or don’t. It doesn’t matter if in a single night of networking we don’t see men whispering to each other and pointing at you discreetly. It doesn’t matter if in that same night, we (thank goodness) don’t get physical advances. In our minds, we will notice that we are outnumbered, even subconsciously, and we lack the company of any other woman.
This invisible mental strain is exhausting and lonely. Even though both men and women can get along with each other without being in a relationship, not having people of the same gender to open up to is difficult. By having other women around me, it means they can understand some of the complexities related to being a woman, and they can understand me on a slightly deeper level than any man ever could.
Growing up, I had very few girlfriends. Many of my close friends were men. I was not close to my mother when I was young. This loneliness was something I felt quite frequently. I would see other women hanging out with their friends, and feel left out and sad because I didn’t have such a group. I opened up to my friends, who were men, but although sympathetic, they didn’t understand how I felt being the only woman in a room a lot of the time.
Over time, I had to learn to enjoy my own company. And it gets lonely, even if you get used to it. A lot of people find their own company frightening. Especially in a world of fast-moving technology and the constant need to “hustle” or be occupied, the impatience for meditation and the craving for a shopping list of to-dos, people struggle to be alone, with their thoughts, with their problems, and the conversations with themselves.
Experiencing sexism, caused by – again – being the minority
Working in tech, feeling lonely can be worse. If you’re the only woman in your office, perhaps a handful of men will go to the pub and have a drink, and if you’re not into pubs or drinks, you can stay in the office, eating your homemade lasagna on your own. Or you can join the crowd and feel rather awkward because no one will want to talk about your really nice nail art, even though that was your response to “What did you get up to on the weekend?”.
Some of the men want to play a video game, but you want to play a different one. If your choice happens to be Counter Strike you might get a side-eye and a comment with some undertone of doubt. “Didn’t think a woman would like first-person shooter games!” 🙄 Please.
I had to deal with sexist remarks all the time. If you are one of few women in a group, and you’re outnumbered by men, and you happen to like yet another activity whose main aficionados are men (video games is a good example), the feeling is twice as suffocating. In fact, similar to how many people will be surprised when a woman works in an industry dominated by men, women are pretty damn surprised when men don’t make a sexist comment about them enjoying an activity like video games or team sport. There’s a good reason for that. We are always prepared for some kind of sexist comment, because it’s pretty much all we’ve ever known. Historically, we’ve been seen as the lesser gender – less smart, less intelligent, less capable, less strong.
We don’t just experience sexism from men, either. I’ve had women turn on me because they don’t understand computers, they don’t like my sense of style, or they see me as a threat for one reason or another – but all reasons to do with the fact that I engage in activities that are rarely favoured by women. When it comes to talking about work, they immediately switch off and aren’t willing to listen, or they change the topic. More and more of these experiences of alienation push women further away from other women, when really, we should be allies, and supporting each other and bringing each other up.
Reduce the mental strain for women who are part of the minority. Change the way we’ve been responding to women.
We don’t need to point out that there’s a woman in the room.
We don’t need to act surprised that there are women participating in a sport typically dominated by men.
We can make women feel welcome, no matter what they are doing or participating in – but especially in areas that have been historically dominated by men. And we want to allow them to participate without drawing attention to their gender.
We want women to feel uplifted and be empowered to share their positive experiences with other women. Women who aren’t already participating will hear these stories and feel comfortable joining in – comfortable, not afraid, and not like they feel out of place or like they don’t belong there.
Existing women in tech need a support network.
We want exisiting women in tech to feel less alone, to avoid feeling impostor syndrome, and to find people they can relate to, by continuing to have communities dedicated to the achievements of women and inviting more women to pursue a career in technology. When I couldn’t relate to women who didn’t know about tech, I felt alone. It was not until I found a Girl Geek group that I felt like I had found “my people”, who could understand my passions, my education, my career, and the intricacies involved with them.
Sure, we want equality, and we want women to feel welcome, but most importantly: we want women to feel like they deserve to have a career in tech, and they have every right to pursue one. There is nothing that should stop them, especially not their gender. In a time that has evolved so much from hundreds of years ago, it’s unbelievable that still, archaic systems prevent women from excelling and doing their best… and still, to this day, quite frankly, makes them feel like shit.
It’s time we had some goddamn empathy.
It’s time we realise that there are some damn amazing women out there whom people need to know about. It’s time we realise that women who already feel marginalised are trying their hardest to be where they are today, going through mental challenges constantly, and trying their hardest to fight for their cause. It’s time we take that load off their shoulders and, as a community, come together and support them.
It’s the continual, ongoing support and advocation for women in tech, sharing and embracing their achievements, and spreading the word about these networks for women, that gives many women like me the confidence and knowledge that they aren’t alone and that someone believes in them just as much as they should believe in themselves.
Because it’s about time we stopped being surprised about women kicking ass in their careers.
This post was written for International Women’s Day, on the 8th March this year.
Last year, for International Women’s Day, I published a blog post titled I can wear whatever the hell I want, and no matter what you say, I’m still an engineer. This year, I tried to stick with the theme, #BalanceforBetter, a huge part of which I believe is that women experience so much more than people care to understand when they are the minority in a given group – and why continued support for these women helps us achieve better gender equality.