This is the second main post of the Brilliant Professional Programming Series.
I went to a software developer conference in San Francisco about a month ago. All the conversations started with: ‘Have you played this video game?’ or ‘Did you watch that game last night?’ I don’t play video games or watch any sports, so I sat quietly. No one tried to talk to me or asked me what I do or what I’m doing at that particular talk. I felt alienated. I looked around to find other female developers. There were only four women in a room of about 20 people. It made me wonder: why do I feel so alone? why are there so few female developers?
I hate being asked what I do professionally. I love what I do, but I get a small panic attack every time someone asks. Sometimes this happens – Me: 'I’m a software engineer!' Stranger: 'That’s awesome! What’s your stack?' But much more often, this happens:
Me: I’m a software engineer!
Stranger: Really? You don’t look like a software engineer.
Why don’t I look like a software engineer? Is it my gender? Is it my age? Other things I commonly hear are: ‘Oh, are you an intern?’ and ‘Oh, are you a student?’ No I am not an intern, and no I am not a student. Like I said before, I am a software engineer. I know that I do not fit the common stereotype of a programmer, but that stereotype needs to change. These subtle and not-so-subtle sexist comments are not okay.
I moved to San Francisco about a year and a half ago. I didn’t have a job offer, but I had a degree in computer science and a year of experience as a front end engineer and a whole lot of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm soon wore down.
I learned that some people think I am a lesser engineer or not an engineer at all because of the way I look. I was at a party and met some engineers who worked at a company I was set to interview at later in the week. A mutual friend introduced us: ‘This is Kelly! She’s interviewing for a position on the engineering team.’ The responses shocked me: ‘You’re kidding, right?’ and ‘What do you actually do?’ I was livid. I wasn’t taken seriously. Do people joke about being engineers? No. Did I cancel that interview? Absolutely yes.
This is a culture that focuses heavily on drinking and partying, and in order to fit in I was required to join. I interviewed with two guys who were starting a new company. The interviews went well, and it seemed like there was a good cultural fit at first. I even got an offer. Then I got a phone call. I had to spend the weekend with them in Tahoe so we could ski and drink (in hot tubs) and get to know each other. When did requiring potential employees to get half naked and drunk in a hot tub become okay? Would this have been a requirement if I were a man?
Sexual harassment is pervasive in the tech scene. This next interview started like any other, a bit casual but nothing too strange. Then came very personal and very inappropriate questions. ‘How long have you lived in San Francisco?' ‘Where do you live?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Do you drink?’ ‘Do you smoke weed?’ I tried to hide my discomfort by avoiding the questions. In retrospect, I should have stopped the interview immediately but I didn’t. I had never been in that situation before. I didn’t have the confidence to stand up to him and tell him that he was being inappropriate. He ended the interview with ‘I’m having a party this weekend, you should come. I’ll text you.’ And he did text me. And called me. A lot. ‘Hey, you should come to the party.’ ‘Why didn’t you come to the party?’ ‘Well I guess you’re not interested.’ He meant interested in him, not the job. I always thought that this was common sense, but apparently I have to make it clear: sexual harassment is never okay. It is not okay during interviews, it is not okay in the workplace, and it is not okay in any other circumstances.
This behavior has become accepted in our society. People make excuses for these inexcusable comments and actions. ‘Because you should be used to it by now. Because there are so few women in computer science.’ I will never accept those excuses. I will never get used to it.
In the US, women receive almost 50% of the bachelors’ degrees in STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) fields. But women receive less than 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in Computer Science. Below are graphs of (1) the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded in a STEM field by year and (2) the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded in computer science by year:
Made with data from the National Science Foundation
Why are those numbers so low? This Planet Money podcast points the finger at personal computers, which were introduced in the 1980s. They were marketed towards boys, so lots of boys grew up playing with computers. As a result, young men had more experience and interest in computers and were more likely to study computer science in college. Most girls didn’t grow up playing with computers, so very few had any experience by the time they entered college. These young women felt that the men were far ahead of them in computer science classes and consequently dropped out.
I started the CS program at UT Dallas at age 16. I got my bachelor’s degree in CS at age 19 in the spring of 2012. In my graduating class, less than 10% of the students were women. It didn’t start this way. About a third of the students in my first year classes were female. In my second year that number dropped significantly, and in my third and final year, I was either the only girl or one of two girls in the class. This didn’t come as a shock. I was constantly put down by my male peers (even though I consistently made the top test scores). No one took me seriously. Everyone just assumed that I would switch majors. ‘Do you even like computers, Kelly?’ That just made me want it more because anything you can do I can do better.
These days, nearly everyone has a computer. But there is still a large gender gap in the field of computer science. Why? Even though girls have just as much experience using computers as boys, computer science is still being marketed towards boys.
The programmers portrayed in media are all overwhelmingly male. The recent films about hacking feature male hackers and are geared towards men (lots of violence and sex). And the films that do have female hackers in minor roles objectify the women and paint them as helpless. Spoiler alert: there is a female hacker in Furious 7. But she’s nothing like the male hacker in Blackhat. He can code like hell and kicks ass. She doesn’t fight; she can’t defend herself and has to be saved multiple times. The male characters ogle at her and remark that ‘with a body like that, she shouldn’t spend all her time behind a computer’.
I love being a software engineer. I love that my work is being used by all of you. But it’s difficult being female and a software engineer. I have been marginalized, made to feel like I am inferior and incapable. I have been alienated because I do not fit the programming culture. But I refuse to let it get to me!
I don’t expect things to change overnight, but things must change soon. This is my call to action:
Find a support network. Being around other female programmers is great. Most of the women have had the same experiences, and we can all help each other.
Find a mentor. My mentors are all super great. They have given me so much advice and support over the years.
Volunteer your time to teach or mentor someone. I strongly believe that programming is a very valuable skill, which is why I mentor women of all ages.
Share your story. I’ve shared my story in hopes that more people realize that the gender gap in computer science is a problem that is only growing. If more people share their stories, we can shine a brighter light on this problem.
Speak out if you hear or see something inappropriate. A year ago, I did not have the confidence to speak up, and it made me feel bad about myself. Now if anyone makes an inappropriate comment, I will call them out on it. To the men reading this: we need your help here. Stand up for women when you see them treated badly. Stand up for women when you hear them talked about disrespectfully.