On being a woman in tech

I often get asked to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the tech industry. Now, I’m not a huge fan of speaking for such a large group of people. To be perfectly honest, my personal experience hasn’t been all that terrible, but it isn’t the average path women take in this industry. So I thought it might be nice to do a bit of reflecting on this International Women’s Day. See where I stand on being a woman in tech as I get ready to celebrate a decade in the industry.

To start at the beginning, I grew up in a country where there were plenty of women in STEM fields. My grandmother was what we call in Russia an “academic”, which is essentially a Ph.D. – in her case, it was in chemistry. She traveled the world (yes, even back in the iron curtain time) and there were many other women who worked alongside her. One of my aunts is a pediatrician who founded her own medical center that treats around 20,000 children per year. My mom switched careers in her 40s and has been a passionate and knowledgeable software engineer for nearly 20 years now. Surrounded by these intelligent women, it never crossed my mind that being a woman in STEM was anything out of the ordinary.

I started my digital studio shortly after graduating university and have been running it for almost a decade now. As such, I’ve only been exposed to tech agency life outside of my own organization through working with other agencies, not in them. I get to work with folks I respect and like on a daily basis. When I have a negative experience, I can say “no” to future work with an individual or even an organization. This is a privilege I’ve worked very hard for, but it’s a privilege nonetheless. Most women in tech have to work with folks hired by those senior to them (mostly men) and have little to no say about the clients they’re working with.

For me, I’ve only had a few unpleasant (read sexist) experiences in my career. These experiences can be filed under “way to make a wrong assumption because I’m a woman” which is still misogynistic, but this is peaches compared to what some of my female colleagues go through on a daily basis. And even though I’ve been so very lucky, it seems that the misogynist attitudes in tech (oh let’s face it, in our society as a whole) still managed to make their way into my psyche.

While I’ve never been a terribly feminine lady, I still notice myself making the deliberate choice to read as androgynous as possible during meetings, while giving talks, teaching workshops etc. The prevailing attitude is pretty girls aren’t good at coding and girls who are good at coding don’t care about being pretty. But it goes well beyond that. I recently felt offended when someone referred to me as feminine. What I quickly realized is that in my mind, my own feminity was a sign of weakness to me, even when this quality was being praised by others. So it seems that even though my personal experience being a woman in tech hasn’t been particularly negative, I’ve still picked up so much of the misogynist attitudes that I know are a reality for so many women in tech. Not only did I pick them up – I went ahead and applied them to myself while actively supporting and encouraging women to learn coding and get into the tech world…

Really, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, the prevalence of horrific stories out there from women who have been verbally and emotionally abused by their male colleagues is a good indicator of just how entrenched these attitudes are in our industry. Here’s just one thread I saw on Twitter this past weekend (I’m posting just the first few tweets, but please do click and read the rest):

With this much honey there’s bound to be some bees, and if you keep reading the thread (I’ll save you the hassle and post a few highlights here) a magical troll rears his ugly head.

This is a prime example of the attitudes women face in tech (I didn’t even post the worst of it). There are many folks out there who stand up for what’s right, but there is also a whole culture of real-life trolls (some of them with tiny hands).

So as we celebrate this International Women’s Day, I encourage you all to stay vigilant and keep fighting the good fight. Be an ally to others and don’t forget to be an ally to yourself ✊

Sasha