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.

A woman wearing dark red leggings, a cropped tee and white shoes, standing on rocks by the sea. One of her hands is up in the air with her palm towards the sky, her other hand on her hip.
Me, today, on a walk at our company Devcamp, which I helped organise (📸: Mitchell Busby)

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.

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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.

i wish i can print this whole paragraph and paste it on my forehead shirt or something. then again, this entire post is making me internally scream YES to every word you said. while i know this is a post about women in tech, i can’t help but think that it can also apply to other fields as well. for example, when i was forced to learn piano by my parents because they wanted me to compete against my cousin even though neither my cousin or i ever thought about it like that because she plays the piano for hobby, i wanted to learn guitar and drum. yet my family’s comment to that was, “guitar and drum are for boys. you’re a girl. let’s go, we’ll make you take a ballet lesson too while we’re at it.” it was so frustrating to grow up surrounded by even families who think that i should do this or that based on my gender. it’s stupid.

before i fell in love with ui/ux design, i wanted to try and be a front-end developer first. so i learned basic html and css myself. i remember the looks most people gave me and the words they said, “oh my, a girl who codes? that’s….strange. quite awesome but strange nonetheless.” at that time, i thought that maybe that’s how it is – you know how people think women aren’t coders and men aren’t designers back in the days? yeah, that was what i thought and it made me feel…sort of special in a way? i never saw it as sexism until i grew up and learned about terms regarding social issues. and then i realised that i was never special because like you said, what’s so oddly special about women in tech? nothing. gender doesn’t determine those shit. now that i think about it, of course it’s sexist. of course it’s degrading and stupid.

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.

this part feels so, so real. even now when the era has progressed more than before, i still get certain men giving me the side-eye when i told them i don’t play anime visual novels and instead play fps, rpg, action adventure and stealth games. they look at me with wide eyes i thought they kind of resembled pugs for a moment. this kind of crap doesn’t only happen in tech industry but also video gaming communities and it’s disgusting! i get so triggered sometimes when i meet men who belittle me when i told them i don’t play dota. it’s like, for them, if someone claims to be a gamer and that person doesn’t play dota, it’s a big no-no which is funny because even those men don’t have the guts to play horror games. just because women don’t play sims all the time doesn’t mean they’re invalid gamers and just because we play counter strike doesn’t mean we should receive trophies in the form of side-eyes.

i can go on and on with my comment and my protest for this issue but i’d rather not bore you. to sum it up, i LOVE this post and i SWEAR by it. in fact, i am VERY GRATEFUL for this post. i’m not sure if women in design (and i mean, digital design specifically) can be perceived similarly to women in tech but in general, you’re right, we should just support the fact that women are kicking ass in their career now.

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Hey Elise! I wanted to start by saying that I absolutely think these experiences can be applied to other fields. I said something similar when I shared the post on social media because I know women can feel this way in so many industries. Many would consider digital design to be in the realm of tech, too. And depending on how you look at it, science is also part of technology, and I’m certain that scientists, astronauts, doctors, physicians and chemists can relate to my experiences.

Something I didn’t quite detail in my post (but that I have written about before) is that my parents didn’t ever make comments about me playing with LEGO and toy cars, or playing games, or working with computers being a “boys thing”. They encouraged me to do what I loved. That’s why my experiences in the real world were quite surprising. I really believe that parents – especially in this year of 2019 – have the power to teach their children to see the world in a non-gendered way. They truly have the opportunity to speak up against things like gendered toys and the gendered views on certain occupations. It’s just sad that even though a lot of parents have started to do this, a lot of companies still insist on creating gendered toys, and organisations refuse to support women trying to break into occupations that historically haven’t been had by women.

The important thing to realise is that there are women doing some amazing shit out there. There are also women who share the same views as both of us and who are doing great things to push for gender equality 😊

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