Sexism and Tech and Love

Sexism in tech is something I am asked about somewhat frequently, because I am a woman, and because I used to be a programmer in Silicon Valley.

Part of me just doesn’t want to engage with people on this topic because I find it painful to remember. About 9 months ago, I quit my job as one of the first engineers at an early stage start up, and began taking classes to become a massage therapist. One of the things I loved about taking massage classes was interacting with my teachers. My teachers were often women over the age of 40, and they were kind, and loving, and funny, and witty, and were people who just generally seemed to be enjoying their lives. Not only that, however, but there was a respect that both male and female students had for the teachers. I heard male students gush about their one on one time withe a female teacher, and how much they learned. It would not have been embarrassing for them to say something like, “I would really like to be like Julie when I become a massage therapist.”

I think it’s that essence, that essence of men being willing to emulate female role models – or rather, lack of it – that I found very difficult in tech. Being an intern is easy, because usually men are very kind and would like to increase the number of women at their company, and will happily teach women whatever they know. Being an equal on a team I found more difficult, and being a team lead I found the most difficult. The biggest obstacle I faced, I believe, was that many people were more interested in impressing me than learning from me. That’s why I was so moved to see men being willing to learn from their female teachers when I took massage. I realized this is not something about men and women, this is not something about human nature,  this is something about tech.

When writing this post, I burst into tears, remembering what it was like to work in tech. I felt like there were a thousand challenges I had to face alone, that no one else could see. I was usually the only woman where I worked, and I felt so isolated. More than anything else, what I found myself really wanting was for someone to say “I see how difficult it is, and you’re doing a great job. Just keep going.” For instance, once I was accused of being emotionally attached to my code (in front of a client, might I add) – an accusation I didn’t believe anyone would levy at a man.

“Well, were you emotionally attached to your code?” a friend of mine asked when repeating the story. And the truth is, maybe I was, but, nearly everyone is emotionally attached to their code (recognizing this is the first step to behaving rationally about it.) The thing is, even if I was particularly attached, and even if that *was* a comment that was just as likely to be said to a man, I didn’t *believe* it. I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female, and I felt resentful about this . And, I had no one to talk to – I thought people would just judge me for not being rational. What I wanted, deep in my heart, was for someone to say, “Yes, I see this is difficult for you – I see hearing that comment was hard for you because you are worried about the sexist implications, and it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.” I don’t mind taking on a difficult task, I just minded having to do it alone and unseen.

I wrote love in the title of this post, intending to somehow circle back and discuss the role love plays in all this, but the anger I still feel about my time in tech is getting in my way. I mean, I suppose that’s the ultimate problem with the whole thing – there is so much anger it impedes movement. Thing is, I think women are unlikely to get empathy for men on their situation if they’re unable to see the forces that are leading men to the behavior they exhibit.

Life is very hard for men in tech as well, a point which I have grown to appreciate over the years. Many of them are single, many of them work 70 hour weeks for years and survive with minimal love and compassion and kindness. They are also unseen. There are not many people, and especially very few women, who can truly appreciate their technical accomplishments. I have watched my coworkers slave away for days on a project, to have someone in the marketing department say “oh, it’s like magic!” when they’re done. It’s not magic. It’s blood, and sweat, and lack of sleep. It’s time, and devotion, a little chunk of their soul, and a very particular kind of love. Our entire modern economy is resting on the toil of these unsung workers, and all flattering lip service doesn’t disguise the fact that most people don’t *get* it.

I’ve struggled with this for over a decade now, coming to terms with the humanity of those I believe oppress me. I can see why they do what they do. I can see that men are sometimes so desperate to be appreciated by me, they try to impress me and this blocks them from learning from me because they will find my criticism very painful. If this happens too many times, I feel angry, because these men “refusing” to learn from me are making it harder for me to improve in my career. So, I begin resenting the people I’m supposed to be teaching – but they feel it, and become even more desperate to impress me, and are able to hear me less. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – broken by love. When I can make it clear that I care about the people I work with, that I will still care about them if they make a mistake, that I will not think they are stupid for trying something that doesn’t work – that’s when these walls start coming down. But, truthfully, I find it very hard to do when I’m so full of pain myself.

41 thoughts on “Sexism and Tech and Love

    • Further data point, we often discuss not emotional attachment, but the closely related concept of ownership and possesiveness. Being protective of code you worked on is pretty much universally regarded as a negative trait. Not that that diminishes the point in the article which is more about the authors perception at the time rather than the actual reality of the situation. It’s an interesting perspective but I’m not entirely sure what to make of the article or what the take away is. At this point the only conclusion I can draw is “it’s complicated” and that the IT industry in general kind of sucks. It is not without reason that IT workers are often compared to Morlocks. On the other hand, IT is one of the few industries that pays very well based primarily on talent and has been fairly resistant to the recession and unemployment shown in other industries.

    • But did saying that to a man carry the same meanings?

      “The thing is, even if I was particularly attached, and even if that *was* a comment that was just as likely to be said to a man, I didn’t *believe* it. I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female… worried about the sexist implications… it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.”

      It’s not a perfect comparison for sure, but this reminds me a bit of the frustration people felt over Obama being called “articulate” in the media. Silver-tongued White politicians have also been called “articulate”; Barack Obama has also been called “eloquent”; and there’s nothing wrong with with the word “articulate” in itself. But still, it’s different.

      I would guess that Black (maybe non-White in general) politicians are more likely to be called “articulate” than “eloquent” compared to similarly situated White politicians. But even if turned out that they weren’t, the word “articulate” can take on a different weight within the context of stereotypes that have been applied to Black people. As a result Black people are often sensitive to being called “articulate,” in a way that White people are not.

      Similar thing with “emotional” and women.

      It’s also arguable that the word “articulate” means something different to an audience when it is applied to Black people vs. when it is applied to White people.

      Similar thing too with being “emotionally connected to code.” If someone says that a woman is emotionally connected to her code in front of a client, does it mean the same thing to that client as it would if someone made the same comment about a man?

      When I used to do database consulting work with clients, I often started out on a different footing with clients than my male counterparts did. The first part of my work with clients usually involved a lot of fending off of stereotypes. So to have a colleague say that about my work in front of a client would really suck, because even if it was a pretty run-of-the-mill statement on my colleague’s part, my client might very well not interpret it that way.

      • That’s an interesting and challenging point that I hadn’t considered.

        To be clear, I like this blog post a lot and I’m not particularly proud of calling this guy out. It was a mean thing to do, and I’m pretty sure it really sucked for him too. That said, it was a deliberate reprimand to try to get him to stop behaving in a way that I thought was disruptive to the community we were in. I was managing people at the time, but not him, so I needed to use something other than positional authority. There were probably more diplomatic ways to accomplish it, but it was definitely effective in getting him to cut the crap, and quickly.

        I wonder, maybe obsessively, about how to responsibly handle issues like this. On the one hand, I have to take yours, and the original author’s, account on how this sort of reprimand would make women feel *especially* bad or undermined. On the other hand, I’ve also been told that it’s a grave mistake to assume that women are more sensitive than men and needed to be treated with special care, because that is a sexist attitude. I suppose that if the sensitivity is acknowledged to be due to structural factors and not essentialized ones, then that’s not so bad.

        But still (and this is reflected in some of the other comments), from the perspective of being a tech manager, knowing that there are cultural land mines like this around does make me feel like it’s a lot *harder* to manage women responsibly, though I hope you will trust me when I say that I think gender equity in tech is desirable. I face similar anxieties now when trying to teach technical skills in mixed-gender classes. I feel like I need to be conscious of the fact that my female students are women, and also much more conscious of how their individual femininity is modulated–because it’s certainly NOT the same from person to person, and different women in or approaching tech thematize their role as women in tech differently or not at all.

        Don’t even get me started on how complicated it is being *attracted* to your female students in a technical class. But as somebody who by and large wants to do the right thing…it’s really complicated.

        The best I can think to do in response to all this is to try to spread certain ideas of normalcy and middle ground. Nobody is perfect and everybody has to carry some of the burden of making things work. Blog posts like this one are great because they raise awareness about gendered communication issues, but it also seems true that part of the solution is raising awareness about things like how being emotionally attached to your code and making bad decisions because of it is a common and ungendered rookie mistake. Probably not one to be mentioned to a client, but also probably not one to be interpreted in light of a stereotype that women are more emotional (which doesn’t make any sense anyway, given how emotional we men are.)

  1. Pingback: Sexism and Tech and Love | Enjoying The Moment

  2. well, if you were a programmer and you switched to a completely unrelated job, then maybe programming just isn’t for you, and this is the confusing part.

    To me, it has nothing to do with being a male or a female, programming should be treated more like an art form in it’s own way.

    When you ask a artist why do they paint, the answer is most likely an emotional one. Every good programmer I know is emotionally attached to their code, this is completely natural and helpfull when you have to defend your code in a meeting. If you don’t believe in what you created and don’t feel a special “love” for it, then it is very hard to sell.

    • Getting emotionally attached to your code is probably the worst thing you can do. The code doesn’t have feelings, it cant say anything back to you except what you make it say. Don’t love something that is a mathematical abstraction that does logical and rational computations.

      When I started out as a programmer that’s probably the first lesson that I learned when dealing with a tough task; scrape the code and start fresh if it doesn’t work, otherwise you are getting attached and it is clouding your judgement.

      • I am emotionally attached to *all* my code, and that is a good thing –emotional attachment like pride in a job done well or concern when you hand off the piece of art you just poured those 70 hour work weeks into. I would challenge anyone who thinks it is wrong to have a pride in their work. In fact, I would be cautious of a developer who wrote code they didn’t care about.

        Did you not put any effort into it?
        Did you do your best work?
        Do you care about the project’s success or failure?

        That being said, I should never be overly possessive of my code and always eager for others to be critical of it. Nobody is perfect and there are always better ways to do things. The more critical thought given to your work ultimately gives the client a better product. And product is what counts; it is how you keep your job.

        A painter and a writer sign their name to every work they create and at the end of the day so do I. When all is said and done, my reputation hangs on my work and it is displayed for all to see. I am a craftsman.

        Best of luck on your new career. I wish you all success and happiness.

      • In my experience, most developers scrap code far too quickly (especially other people’s) because reading code is harder than writing it. Emotional attachment can also take the form of getting frustrated, and being unwilling to sit through the mess, and giving up too quickly. We’re emotional beings, we have emotions – and yes, they get in the way, but I don’t think “stop having them!” works well as a technique to deal with them. I would instead suggest acknowledging them, and trying to see the impact of them on your current work.

    • “well, if you were a programmer and you switched to a completely unrelated job, then maybe programming just isn’t for you”

      Or perhaps, her experience in the industry has shown her that it’s just not worth being treated horribly by her coworkers and it’s just not worth pursuing such a career when jobs that do not demean one in other fields exist, while such jobs in the IT industry are just about unheard of.

      This statement is just silly, shortsighted, and simply stupid. There are many who would love to switch careers so that they can enjoy programming again. As a writer, I’m glad I work in programming, something I love very much, but am willing to sacrifice it for my career. Enjoyment of coding is mostly sacrificed for a paycheck and I can write undisturbed. If writing paid more (and wasn’t the greater loss of the two), perhaps I’d be a writer first and enjoy programming. The reality is, unless you are extremely lucky, it’s impossible to work in tech without losing most of the enjoyment of the craft. This is purely an issue with the industry. Long hours, pointless work, and disrespectful assholes are everywhere and programming is not enjoyable when any of these (and other factors) are in play.

      • you are not completely wrong.. but I did say maybe.. nevertheless, every person should do what they love. If programming is what you really want to do for most of the day then tuff it out instead of crying about it. what doesn’t kill you…

    • <3. Sometime humor is great for showing how unfair and inhumane something is. Well done on succinctly supporting the OP and pointing out the counterproductive useless of the approach that is used to discredit her challenges.

  3. Your second to last paragraph is true for all of us. Some of us move up into management to survive…some move to other careers. The pace is just not sustainable for a dev./sen. dev. for more than 20 years. I appreciate your article and the emotions that led you to change careers. I hope the best for you and sincerely respect the decision. I am not there yet but have considered going back to farming…more and more over the last 5 years.

  4. I’m not entirely sure what the point is – but I appreciate this post and the insight it displays.

    I came here expecting another moan from someone about machismo culture in tech, or how we should encourage women into tech more or how women are underprivileged (which today, [disclaimer: i’m a man], seems utterly at odds with reality). Instead I found an honest slice of opinion, a piece of a story and a little insight…

    Criticising co-workers in front of clients is extremely bad form… even if the point is valid.

    Its also a shame that the most vocal are always the extremists, which is why I was expecting something else…

    I do vaguely disagree with one thing though, which is perhaps the crux of this post: “I realized this is not something about men and women, this is not something about human nature, this is something about tech.”

    I think you are close but you missed the mark a bit.

    Men bending over backwards to impress women, and women desiring lots of emotional support whilst being unappreciative of men is pretty universal. As is women being disrespected a little for being in a traditionally male role, and vice-versa disrespect towards men in traditionally female roles.

    Its something about larger categories than just tech – science, tech, engineering, manual labour are the ‘work of men’ and women in that environment automatically lose a little respect somehow (I don’t get it tbh, but I still do it without even realising). The same is true for men, I suspect it is much more so because of the tremendous pressure on them to be emotionally independent, it goes unnoticed and uncared for because of that too. Both that men in traditionally female roles feel inclined to suck it up and get on with it, tolerating any amount of abuse without complaint (because that is what being a man is all about), and that other men will deride them heavily for it out of disrespect.

    Have you ever heard the term “hairdresser’s car”? I can not think of a similar term on the flipside that I hear so often… its not entirely uncommon for friends to challenge a man’s sexuality or accuse him of being weak or effeminate if he ‘admits’ to having ‘a traditionally female job’ and he has to take it with good humour.

    • Yeah, there wasn’t really an exact “point” – the problem is complicated, and it would be deceptive for me to suggest I had *the* solution. You are right, these dynamics do play out in other fields. I suppose, I think there is something unique about tech though – or probably more accurately, they play out uniquely in every single situation. Men do sometimes something similar actually, like male nurses are assumed to be less competent than female ones. More than “sexism” maybe it’s just hard for people to break comfortable mental models? I’m not sure.

  5. I converted to Judaism in my mid-20s. I remember one time this prompted someone at my synagogue to ask me what I thought they should do to get more “young people” to start attending (if you’re not on social security, you count as “young” at most synagogues). I said, “How should I know? I like it the way it is.” As a convert, I was born gentile and found religious feelings in myself. The young people who aren’t attending are the opposite: born Jewish, and with no religious feelings. It’s very uncomfortable, because in that moment, you’re being recognized as being different when you feel more like the asker than the people they’re lumping you in with. As if the gender you were born with is more important in terms of defining you than your passion for programming, even in a programming context!

    But, as a male programmer, I can see why you get asked. Like a convert to Judaism, a female programmer is rare. Giving the benefit of the doubt, sometimes the asker is just recognizing that we are special and uncommon, and hopes we might have some unique insight to share.

    I try very hard not to ask women programmers about these things, because I think if I bring it up I’m likely to make a bigger mess of it with my words. I hope that treating them as equal peers as best I can and striving for greater professionalism as a programmer is enough. I hope the silent majority is silent for the same reasons, but it’s clear from what you’ve written that this isn’t enough.

    I appreciate this article a lot. I wish it hadn’t hurt to write. I yearn for a world that wouldn’t have caused you this pain, but I’m grateful to at least have your advice at the end. Even if it is “embarrassing” somehow to suggest love, I think you’re right. So thank you.

    • It is hard though, because if no one ever asked, we’d never get any answers. I appreciate being asked out of a professional context, for whatever that’s worth. It’s scarier to be honest when your job is on the line. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  6. I’m studying to become a dev right now, and the first week my male teacher (head of course) made a sexist joke about our female teaching assistant. The “joke” doesn’t translate well, so I won’t share it, but I was sad to get a glimpse into the possible work environment I might find myself in some years ahead.

    I come from a fairly female dominated industry (culture) where people are be feminists and doesn’t tolerate sexism. Thanks for sharing this, even though it bothered me plenty.

    • I have many female friends entering tech now, and for some of them, I think it’s the right choice. But, if things become a problem, I’d suggest finding someone to talk to about it as soon as possible. For me, the things that became the biggest problems were the ones I tried to be stoic about.

  7. It’s funny because I code because I love it, but I expect others to be cold, clinical, and dispassionate & objective about their code. It’s almost like the ideal programmer needs to be like House. Creative, detached, and slightly deranged. It’s not about being a man or a woman, but I don’t think programming has a place for sensitive or compassionate people. It’s cold and unfeeling and lonely.

  8. I have to say, I’ve experienced everything you have at one point or another in Tech. The only difference is that I’m also a man.

    I don’t think you can level a lot of it as a man woman thing. Maybe just men in general, we all have faults, its a people thing.

  9. It’s a shame you have not been my boss, I would have liked to learn a lot from you. But now at least I can thank these words.

    Everyone who comes to feel so much love for our work (programming), ending eventually escape the industry forward. And then wanting to return.

    Thank you.

  10. FWIW, I’ve felt much the same things as a man. I think these issues are more associated with the tech industry itself than being gender-related.

    That’s not to say that belonging to the minority gender in this industry doesn’t have challenges of its own, or that they aren’t magnified as a result of gender. Rather that tech is a hard place to work. Personally I struggle with Impostor Syndrome daily as a result of the self-protection mechanisms often in play in the tech industry.

  11. Speaking as a male-bodied tech worker, thank you.

    I can only imagine that someone with your experience, skills and insights has already made significant impact, both in the code and on the teams you’ve worked with. Thanks for making tech better by sharing your story.

  12. > I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female, and I felt resentful about this . And, I had no one to talk to – I thought people would just judge me for not being rational. What I wanted, deep in my heart, was for someone to say, “Yes, I see this is difficult for you – I see hearing that comment was hard for you because you are worried about the sexist implications, and it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.” I don’t mind taking on a difficult task, I just minded having to do it alone and unseen.

    So let’s recap:

    1) You assumed that you were targeted for being a woman, based on the fact that it involved emotions. This is projecting sexist intent onto a crude but sexless statement. When a friend asks the same question, you acknowledge it as a valid question. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that your friend is female.

    2) You assume everyone around you would judge you for being irrational, because they were all men, meaning you’re the one judging them by their gender. You clearly favor women over men and do not seem to realize men do not favor men over women, despite having worked in a male dominated industry.

    3) You do not seem to realize that having to do things “alone and unseen” is the natural state of being for a man. We do not get automatic attention when we walk into a room. We do not expect support and encouragement simply by showing up. This is not cause for us to burst into tears.

    Personally, I think it’s no surprise that, after being told throughout school and college that the world wants them to be scientists and engineers, women end up disillusioned when they find a job and realize nobody particularly cares they are there..

    Ask any experienced manager which is easier: providing criticism and feedback to a male coworker, or a female coworker, and you’ll be closer to figuring out who’s really holding who back.

  13. It sounds like you faced many difficult challenges in tech. It also sounds like the normal challenges everyone faces and the challenges you specifically faced as a woman in tech were interwoven, at times very subtly.

    I have great appreciation for the amount of thought you have given all of those experiences. It says a lot about how you think and how you approach the world.

    It makes me think you are the kind of person I would enjoy working with or learning from. As a man who works in tech, I just wanted to share that.

  14. It sounds like you are carrying a lot of pain, and these experiences sound difficult, but I think you might be jumping to conclusions by blaming it on sexism. Personally I’ve never experienced anyone unwilling to learn from me if I had something to teach, regardless of gender. I’ve had many men ask to learn from me. I also know many men who have sought out mentoring from other female engineers that they respect. The problem, I suspect, is that there just aren’t enough of us (women in tech) to see this happen more often.

    I know it’s just anecdotal evidence but I’ve been working in tech for 10 years now in various places so please use it as a data point to build more faith in our male colleagues.

  15. I’m sorry that has been your experience.

    I’ve been consulting long enough (over a decade) to know that *nobody* of any gender loves getting thrown under the bus in front of a client. Constructive criticism, especially in a performance position like in front of client, is a team practice and hence requires team practice and trust. Look at how poorly some of the FOSS flamewars go when someone feels their approach or code is being attacked unfairly.

    Some of us will keep trying to improve the field.

  16. I’m often angered reading ‘women in tech’ pieces because they unfairly slander every man in tech, sometimes explicitly. But you didn’t do that. And you empathized with them. And that helped me realize that it *does* matter that people don’t mean to be hurtful, and it *does* matter that they’re rarely bigoted, but it also *does* matter that people are being hurt.

    I’ve also never read before about men being driven to impress their female coworkers and supervisors – that’s an interesting, and sad, insight!

  17. Thank you for interesting post. It reminds of this article: “The Dark Side Of Software Development That No One Talks About” (http://simpleprogrammer.com/2013/09/09/dark-side-software-development-one-talks/).
    I see the similar sentiment in the physics department where I am working as graduate student. Although I am not female, people here seem to regard me as someone to ‘impress’ as I am an international student, somebody they are not completely familiar with.

  18. Pingback: Sexism and Tech and Love | Blog | Four Ton Fish

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