Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Being a woman in tech. The bad parts.

There's a lot of talk about women in tech, why there are so few of us and what can be done about it. I don't have the answer to that. I know that I work with things I love and I wish that no one would have to avoid following this path because of discrimination for whatever reason.

Where are the female programmers?

I started working as a programmer in 1997. From 1997 up until 2011, I worked at 8 different companies, ranging from 3 employees to 240. During that time, I only had three other female developer colleagues. I ran into one more, who came in as a short time consultant at my then current company. And I worked with a female DBA. There. That's it. And male developer colleagues? Well, I'd say around 80. From 2011 to 2014, I worked at Thomas Cook in Stockholm who actually had around 15-20% female developers. So whatever they're doing, it's working. :)

And is there a problem?

When I started working as a developer, I never even thought about the fact that I was one of very few female developers. Back then, the Internet had just arrived and we were all trying to learn and keep up with the new technology. I never noticed anyone saying anything or received any remarks about being female. The dotcom-business was booming, everyone was having fun and the industry was taking shape.

But 10 years later, I thought about it a lot. And I know I was wondering if a rookie female developer would walk through these doors, would she stay? Maybe it was because the dotcom-era ended, and we - the happy new Internet people - were scattered and ended up in old school companies where murky dusty views of women and tech were residing.

It's not the small things that idiots say and do

So, I guess I've had the same experience as most women in male dominated environments. I've spoken up because something is not working and blokes loudly comment "Oh, I guess it's PMS-time", followed by big laughs from the others. Or the classic mumbling "I guess someone didn't get some last night". Or maybe the "Look out, she's gonna start crying". Classical condescending bullying. I suppose it can happen anywhere. Or can it? Has it happened to you while standing with your 30yo-something developer peers?

Or yeah, the "What do you prefer, frontend or backend?" from completely unknown blokes at a tech conference, followed by the traditional laughs. That's also a classic. Heard that more than once. Pattern here is men in group. No one would act like that if it was just me and him. But that's just it. As a female developer, it's hard not to bump into men in group.

And of course, not all men. Very few men, actually. Immensely few! But it doesn't have to happen that many times before you start to back away from it all. Not enough to scare me out of tech, but maybe enough to make me avoid crowds and not speak up and draw attention to myself.

It's worse with the more subtle things

You know when you go up to a group of developers that stand around talking and laughing at a conference or meetup and suddenly they get all quiet and the person who was talking won't finish what he was saying? And it gets really awkward and you know that you shouldn't have gone up to them. That feeling.

Again, making me keep to myself at those events. Which I wish I wouldn't do. But for me, it's not about mingling and networking, it's about listening to the sessions and in between, staying invisible and probably leaving early. I just don't feel like I'm part of the developer community.

Then there are the things that are hard to deal with

"We really want to hire women", they say. And then you start working there as their first female dev and at least five male devs say - in one way or another - "We are so eager to hire women, but I think they should have hired the best developer instead." BAM, kind of. It's sad. And hard to handle. And leaving me with the feeling that I ALWAYS ALWAYS have to prove myself, to show that I am good enough to deserve this job.

And that time, when I had been working as a backend developer and architect in a very complex domain for years, and went to a interview for a job in exactly the same domain. I got a no because I had "too much of a frontend profile". And we hadn't discussed frontend at all because I really knew nothing about it. But I guess they thought that my pink laptop bag was full of gifs and jpegs.

But nothing is as hard as being invisible

So I worked in this team as an architect together with two other blokes. One of which, after 3 months in our team, for the first time asks me a question: "what colours and icons should I use for the dashboard?". And I say "I have no idea, talk to the designer". And he says "isn't this what you do?". After 3 months of stand-ups, hadn't he listened or did he just want to push me down? Who knows. I'm just trying hard not to care.

But the worst thing with being invisible is when people from other teams or the business don't talk to me. If there's a bloke around, they talk to him. It doesn't matter if he's the designer or whatever. All questions on technical issues gets directed to the man in the room. I've had team mates apologising to me because they've been asked things when they think everyone should know I'm the one to go to. Sometimes it has felt really hopeless. And I've been seriously doubting my competence since people don't talk to me. I still am, not because these things happen to me very often, but because of the bulk of it all during my 20 years as a developer. I work and work and learn and learn, but I'm still no one. Just that person fulfilling the gender quota.

There's more of course. These things are just some samples of everything that has made me have that lump of uncertainty in my belly all these years. But in the big whole, it is just a few people, a few companies and a few events that have caused it. The majority of people I've met in tech are lovely, creative people that I've really enjoyed working with. I just wish that on any one of those bad events I've experienced, someone else would've spoken up and said something. Maybe I wouldn't have felt so alone, exposed and so much like not belonging there. If you want to help making the developer community a more including one, start there.