“For a girl, you’re really great at Computer Science. It’s rare to see.”
A professor at Oberlin College said this to me ten years ago and even now, I clearly remember the weird, conflicted feeling this statement gave me. Even worse, I didn’t know why this seemingly wonderful compliment made me uncomfortable. I was a freshman, brand new to Computer Science, in a class of more than 50 people and here I was, being singled out for being talented. Why, out of all the conversations I’ve had, does this one stick with me, a full decade later?
I think this compliment or more accurately, “complisult” — this one professor’s valiant, if clumsy, attempt to be inclusive — is so salient because it made me conscious of the fact that I was going to be treated differently for being a woman in tech, regardless of my skills and talent. It was also the first time I experienced the nagging feeling of doubt that has been a constant presence throughout my career since that day. Am I actually good at what I do, or am I only good for a woman?
This is what is so insidious about the current state of affairs for women in the tech world. Even compliments come with strings attached. You know that even if you’re awesome and can keep up with the best of the best, you are still an outsider. Each compliment that ends with “for a woman”, reinforces the fact that according to all expectations, you’re not supposed to be comfortable with computers and technology.
Recently, at a Quibb meetup I went to with my husband, we were having your standard startup conversation with someone — product, strategy, technology, the whole shebang. I ended up doing a lot of talking because we were discussing a market in which I have a lot of experience. At some point, the guy we’re speaking to says, “You know, I thought you were just here as the cute girlfriend, but you actually know more than [your husband] does!” Once again, likely well-intentioned, but still painful and absolutely sexist.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to point out or even notice the less egregious or offensive examples of bias without coming off as “overly sensitive” or nitpicky. Even now, as I write this post, I feel guilty for complaining about the compliments I’ve received, despite the fact I’m consciously making a point that even compliments can be damaging. How ridiculous is that?
Being a woman in tech is death by a thousand cuts. For every blatant and egregious example of sexism, there are a million more instances of subtle cultural bias. Each tiny, seemingly insignificant comment, positive OR negative, adds up over time to create behavioral and social changes in pretty much everyone. This is why it’s so difficult to change the status quo — you can’t just reform the worst offenders, you have to shift all of the sociocultural norms associated with these perceptions. Have you tried to consciously and willfully change an entire culture? Because there are a whole mess of social scientists, including myself, who are ready to inform you what a PITA it is.
I am about to embark on the path to founding my own company and already, for no logical reason, I find myself questioning if I have enough “tech cred” to pass muster in the startup community. I have a Computer Science degree from Wellesley College, which is as elite as they come. I have programmed in every paradigm, administered an enterprise Linux computing cluster, and managed a multi-million dollar mission critical system for one of the biggest tech companies in the world. I understand statistics, probability, experimental design, databases, systems architecture, and a whole mess of other “technical” things. I am awesome at what I do and not just for a woman.
Yet, I know, that to many, I will be assumed to be the “cute girlfriend.” I’m more than happy to prove them wrong, but really, should I have to?