Death by a thousand cuts: the reality of being a woman in tech

“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?

SE-complisult

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?

 

Comments

  1. John says

    If that what really bothers you about your life, if that is the biggest negative in your life, if that is
    what keeps you up at night, you should consider yourself lucky, extremely lucky. You look healthy,
    you seem intelligent, you are good looking and you are probably making a good living. What else
    Do you need?

  2. The Little Mercoder says

    You’re not the cute girlfriend though are you. The stereotypes will fade if we keep on showing the world how clueless they are.

    I was in tech support for a large corporation once… I called security to come and open a door for me.

    He came up to the door and started chatting. I was confused. Then I asked him to open the door. He looked bewildered. I said “I’m here with technical support” He still looked shocked. I pulled out my ID. He tried to apologize “Sorry, it’s just that you don’t looooook like you’re in technical support” Young and stormy I screwed up my face and nearly spat “Because I’m a girl?” He opened the door and slinked away.

    Make that startup huge girl, you can step up and change the face of it all. We all can. One success story at a time.

  3. Catherine Dodge says

    As a fellow woman in tech, you’ve hit it spot on. we can never be confident because there’s always that lurking thought, “Am I really good or am I just good for a woman?” Congrats on starting your own company!

  4. anon says

    I spent a week vacationing in a cabin with my brother and his inlaws. I was told I cooked pretty well, for a man. I was told I was a great help in the kitchen and cleaning up for a man.

    In elementary school, girls found out about a birth mark I have, and constantly mocked me for it, including pulling up my shirt to see it.

    In middle school I was always picked last for sports teams, as a boy I was small and not athletic.

    Elsewhere I have been told that as a man I should be okay with being treated as a likely rapist.

    At work, my code has been mocked, my comments have been mocked, my documentation hs been mocked, my way of debugging been mocked, my choice of editor (emacs) has been mocked, my age has been mocked, my sex life has been mocked, my weight has been mocked, my hair has been mocked,

    My conclusion:

    Being in a family is death by a thousand cuts.
    Being in school is death by a thousand cuts.
    Being a worker is death by a thousand cuts.

    Living is death by a thousand cuts.

    This is a pretty good article, for a woman.

  5. says

    You have a right to defend yourself. You should not be subjected to discriminating abuse. You deserve equal pay, equal respect, equal acknowledgement.

    In the office environment, I am the outcast, no one gives me the time of day to form an opinion or express one, so it’s not just women who are discriminated against, it is anyone who is considered a threat. Why am I a threat? Because everyone in the office is an employee, and I have a separate office where I work on a project I got funding for by the employer, therefore I am not an employee, but an entrepreneur, and so I am the disrespected outcast.

  6. Chuck says

    Pioneers in any social change will experience the pains of breaking the status quo, but it’s their courage and perseverance that really moves our culture forward. Once piece of solace I can offer is that over the last decade I’ve noticed progress in my peers. Where once it was commonplace to minimize or impede women in tech now I see a general desire to fix the situation, with a lot of well intentioned, but often ignorant behavior.

    You called out the fear of not having enough “tech cred”, but I think the tech cred more than any other kind, comes from what you can do and not what you look like. So if Tech cred is the only thing holding you back, Found That Company! :)

  7. says

    Remember, this works both ways. Guys get strange looks when working as nurses and primary school teachers and get treated very differently by other staff and the public. I met a male nanny at a backpackers who was on a road trip in NZ with his four female colleagues but I made sure not to say anything particularly directed at him for the reasons you gave above.

  8. rachel says

    I’m not an engineer, but I work in product. I mostly get a lot of comments on the flip side which always raise some strange questions in the back of my mind:

    “you’re just one of the guys”
    “you have balls”
    and literally, “you’re not really a girl”

    and somehow, deep inside (if I’m being really honest), I feel so proud of that. now THAT kinda sucks.

  9. says

    Success, however you define it, is still the best revenge as well as being really effective in silencing those internal voices questioning your abilities.

    Bask in your “otherness.” Stop letting others make you doubt yourself about your credentials, or otherwise you just become one of them. People who pay you those thinly veiled sexist left-handed compliments are just attempting a power play. Don’t allow it. Don’t become one of them. Heaven knows, there are plenty of “mean girls” who’ve succumbed to this pettiness. They give lip service to supporting their *sister* entrepreneurs and that’s it — lip service.

    Turn perceived disadvantages to your advantage and function with confidence. Always walk into a room like you own it.

    And, believe it or not, doing jumping jacks right before really helps as it releases testosterone and enhances your confidence level.

  10. says

    Success, however you define it, is still the best revenge as well as being really effective in silencing those internal voices questioning your abilities.

    Bask in your “otherness.” Stop letting others make you doubt yourself about your credentials, or otherwise you just become one of them. People who pay you those thinly veiled sexist left-handed compliments are just attempting a power play. Don’t allow it. Don’t become one of them. Heaven knows, there are plenty of “mean girls” who’ve succumbed to this pettiness. They give lip service to supporting their *sister* entrepreneurs and that’s it — lip service.

    Turn perceived disadvantages to your advantage and function with confidence. Always walk into a room like you own it.

    And, believe it or not, doing jumping jacks right before really helps as it releases testosterone and enhances your confidence level.

  11. says

    Sorry to hear you are launching your own startup. I was wishing you’d join mine…. All the best and please connect directly if there’s anything you need. The sisterhood has been amazingly supportive to me and we are there for you as well!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Reality of Being a Woman in Tech | Social Ergonomics (July 11): “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.” […]

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