I saw this question on Geek Feminism a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t feel like I’ve come up with an answer that is satisfactory yet. The question is in parts, so I’ll tackle them one at a time.
If you’re a woman in CS, does it ever get better? If it got better for you, where and how did that happen?
Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller famously told gay kids who are being bullied that it gets better. Their video inspired thousands of others to film their own videos, ranging from all sorts of individuals to the San Francisco Giants to President Obama. If you’ve watched a lot of these videos, you can often boil their message down to a few points:
- A lot of homophobia is rooted in ignorance and immaturity.
- When you’re the only LGBT person that you know about, you feel completely alone.
- When you’re in a situation where you’re surrounded by homophobia, sometimes the only solution is to get the hell out of there.
- Once you get the hell out of there, you have to find someplace that is accepting of who you are.
I think that there are a lot of parallels to the sexism that exists today in computer science and software engineering.
A lot of sexism in CS is rooted in ignorance and immaturity. As men start seeing more accomplished women in CS, it gets better.
When you’re the only woman around, you feel alone because you have experiences that aren’t shared by others. It gets better when you find another woman who is in a similar situation who you can talk to — it lets you know that you’re not alone.
If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t handle the sexism that you’re dealing with, sometimes the only solution is to get the hell out of there. I know that finding a job isn’t trivial and isn’t something that you do overnight, but then those LGBT kids have to wait until they’re 18 so that they can leave home too. Polish up your resume and portfolio like they’ve never been polished before, start applying for jobs, and get the hell out.
As you’re looking for a new job, remember that the interview is a two-way street. A couple of months ago, I wrote a long post about participating in an on-campus interview, and my last point was that you should ask questions about what’s important to you in your position. If you’re getting the hell out of a job because of the sexism that you’re dealing with, you should have a lot of questions about the team and its culture. Obviously you’re not going to ask, “so, how many sexist pigs do you work with?”, but there are plenty of questions that you can ask and observations that you can make that will help you understand what the situation there is like.
If you’ve learned to deal with it, how?
As ever, it depends on the sexism. Frankly, it also depends on you, too.
Sometimes you simply call ’em on it. How you do it depends on the situation and your relationship with those involved.
For example, one day, I was working in my office with the door open. A bunch of male engineers who I know pretty well were standing in the hallway chatting. One of the guys, who is single, commented that he always felt like he was behind on stuff: keeping his apartment clean, doing laundry, etc. Somebody said, “oh, you need a wife!” and the rest of the guys agreed vociferously. I got up, walked to my door, and simply stood there with an eyebrow raised. The single guy laughed and said that it wasn’t his idea, and the others backpedaled, including a couple who said that they’re also married to women who work in tech and that it’s a lot easier to manage when you’ve got two people to handle everything. I didn’t say anything, I certainly didn’t call them sexist, and it ended up being a funny anecdote for all of us.
Sometimes you work on it over time, and you build up your credibility so that the sexist behavior fades away. Credibility goes a long way towards fixing sexism that’s rooted in ignorance. I’ll admit that I’ve laid the smackdown on someone who tried to mansplain to me that the problem that we were discussing was NP-complete and what that meant. As if the mansplaining wasn’t obnoxious enough, he was totally wrong about it being NP-complete — in fact, it was only O(n²), and I proved it. He wouldn’t meet my eyes in the hallway for weeks afterwards, but a few months later, I heard through the grapevine that he had complimented my technical skills in a meeting.
One thing that you always always do when combating sexism is to be the change that you wish to see in the world. Do not display any sexism yourself. For example, don’t use your mom (or the more generic soccer mom) as an example of a non-technical user. I don’t care if your mom really isn’t technical. It goes without saying that you should avoid other stereotypes, -isms, and -phobias as well. Don’t display racist behavior, don’t display homophobic behavior. Your credibility in trying to address sexism is negated when you make a racist comment yourself.
If being ostracized and viewed as gross and weird for being feminist and female “never gets better,” why stay in CS?
I reject that it “never gets better”. It might not get better in certain situations. Buy me a cocktail sometime and I’ll tell you about the manager who wanted to know when I planned to get pregnant so that he could include it in his schedule for our next release. I doubt that he’s ever going to get better. But you can find situations where it is better, and you embrace them, and you try to make it better for other women too.
Even in a bad situation, one of the reasons that you stay in CS is because you love it. If you don’t love it, and if it’s a bad situation, you don’t have a good reason to stay. This isn’t to say that sometimes the sexism just gets overwhelming and you can’t take it anymore, and so you do go off and do something else. If that’s the decision that you make, that’s valid. There have been some pretty nasty examples out there. If I try to put myself in those shoes, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t’ve walked away myself. But, thankfully, I haven’t been that unlucky with sexism in CS.
I think that it’s incumbent upon technical women to make ourselves available for mentorship. It’s hard to find a technical woman for a mentor, especially ones who have been in tech for several years. So for those of us who have, I think that we should help out the younger women who are experiencing a lot of the same things that we did, and hopefully helping to avoid having women drop out of the field because they just can’t take the sexism any longer. I do this at VMware, mentoring some of the younger women on my team and reaching out to them when I think that they could use a hand. It’s also one of the reasons why I write this Q&A series of blog posts, to exemplify the behavior that I think that a senior technical woman should have.
Ultimately, I think that the way that sexism in CS gets better for us as individual women in CS is to find your tribe. Find the other women who have walked the same path that you want to walk. Find the men who aren’t sexist. Find the courage to get yourself out of a bad situation. It gets better, and it requires you to help make it get better.