I knew exactly how she felt

I went to a Women in IT event last night at Google Campus London designed to connect professional women in the IT industry to high school girls. Most of the girls I talked to were either interested in a different field, or were toying with the idea of computing as a backup plan. Then at the end of the evening, one girl pushed through the crowd to talk to me.

“Hi! You said you were an engineer?” she asked. I said yeah, a Test Engineer at Google. “That’s so cool! Have you ever seen Star Wars?” I looked really shocked and said of course I had. “Oh! I didn’t mean to offend you!” she said. I said I wasn’t offended, it’s just that nobody had ever asked me that before.

“I’m so glad to meet an engineer,” she enthused, “all the other women I talked to here were in marketing or law or something. I thought it was meant to be about IT.” I said that’s what happens when we hold events for women in IT when there aren’t that many women in this industry – we tend to broaden the definition of women in IT.

She then talked to me about robotics and physics and programming and how none of the other girls in her class understood anything she was talking about. They thought she wanted to build the next Terminator or hack into Government systems, when she just wanted to build self-driving cars.

All the other girls would talk about fashion labels and gossip and she would be bored out of her mind, wondering why nobody else watched Doctor Who. None of them understood the joke on her Darth Vader t-shirt. One of them listened to her podcast and asked her what “Marvel” was. One of them told her to stop making them feel stupid all the time.

She said that she really feels at home with other geeks, so she ends up hanging out with other geeks and they’re all boys at her school. I told her I knew exactly how she felt. I introduced her to a friend of mine who’s a software engineer and we told her that if she went into IT that it would be full of our people and that it’s great. She was really happy about that.

It’s funny because the evening started out with a lady giving a speech about how the IT industry is alienating women. But for some girls, it feels like women are alienating the girls who want to be in IT.

45 thoughts on “I knew exactly how she felt

  1. I was talking to a client about women in IT. She said that they were targeting female graduates, and trying to come up with exercises for them to do in the training courses. “All the guys want to do is exercises with robots and spaceships, and I told them they had to do something with social apps or sports instead. That’s what women want, right?”

    And I thought about Asimov, who made me want to be a programmer in the first place. Robots and spaceships every time.

  2. I think that it’s more that IT and technology has almost a parallel culture. It’s almost as though to break through you have to get not only the technology,but the culture as well. I sometimes find myself asking myself how inclusive we are when we by the nature of being almost like a counter culture are less accessible. Technologies like python, which build on Monty python may be less accessible due ti thr cultural baggage that it brings along with it. Do we get people into the culture through technology, or into the technology through culture?

  3. “it feels like women are alienating the girls”

    This anecdote reminds me of the observation that in most societies where female circumcision is performed, it’s the women who enforce it and perform it and justify it. The men are not the ones pushing for it at all. But when you hear it discussed in the west the practice is discussed as if the way to end it is to stop the men from making it happen. But the men aren’t making it happen. So nothing changes because the people being lectured at aren’t the ones that are running the system that upholds the particular practice.

  4. That’s our society. Girls are programmend to be interested in fashion, gossip and men. Boys are programmed to like scify and computers. So the most of us stay what we’re supposed to be. The rest of us wonders why we don’t decide on our own, what’s the best for us. I know so many ppl, who aren’t satisfied with that what they do, through they always thought it would be the best to them. So many little boys play with the Barbies of their sister only when it’s dark. And little girls watch football when the parents are out. But to be respected, and to act normal we forget about it.
    I am a girl. I like fashion, Star Trek and politics. I like repairing my radio on my own. And I like chatting about how cute is Picard. It’s so good to be owns self. :-)

  5. I don’t see the link between liking Doctor Who/Marvel/having a Darth Vader t-shirt and being smart. Liking these things is not different that linking Sex and the city, it’s only a matter of taste. Stop being snob. Being smart means being able to solve complex problems, and one complex problem is being relaxed and happy among other people with different views. This text is just a bunch of stereotypes. Sorry if my English is not perfect, it’s not my language.

  6. I totally understand what you’re talking about! In college I went abroad, and in our abroad class there were very few engineers. When I mentioned I was studying computer science, the boys (both engineer and non-engineer) just said ok, but MULTIPLE girls scrunched their noses and said ehhh, why?

    Similar things have happened since. I’m not trying to make sweeping statements about girls, there were plenty who supported what I did. But sometimes it does feel like an endless cycle, tech doesn’t have many girls, so many girls think it’s weird that girls are in tech, and so tech doesn’t have many girls…

  7. “and we told her that if she went into IT that it would be full of our people and that it’s great.”

    My heart just warmed up and boiled over, on reading that. How sweet. Yet to see Star Wars.

  8. Jordi, I think Trish is showing the correlation between interests (what you spend time doing, enjoying, and becoming good at) and cultural identification (how much you feel a part of a group). In other words, it’s not about “I like Marvel, therefore I’m smart” (which you’re right, that would be snobbery) but it’s about “Will I fit in and feel comfortable with this group of people, given my interests?”

    I am a software developer from Canada and later moved to Chicago, IL to work at a high frequency trading company there (algorithmic trading / prop trading). I experienced a kind of “culture shock” that I didn’t anticipate–it turns out that traders have a very different culture than I’m used to–one that is more rivalrous, ambition-oriented, and with a greater emphasis on sports like baseball and hockey for smoothing social interactions.

    I kind of learned to “get along” but never felt like “these are my people.” I eventually moved away. I think culture and the feelings we have when interacting with a group are very relevant to the story of how and whether you express your “smarts.”

  9. +1 to Jordi. I’m a veteran of software engineering and I never had any interest in Lego, Star Wars, comics or any of that juvenile nonsense that people like to pass off as “interest in engineering”.

    The true engineering culture is almost entirely disjoint with the “geek” or “nerdy” culture.

  10. I never used to really go to women-in-science-and-engineering type events because I had the same problem; they always seemed to be full of people who weren’t really scientists. And even if they were, I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be getting out of meeting them. I was always confident I was going to do something with science and engineering because that’s what interested me and what I was good at, so what difference did it make whether other people who were the same gender did it too? But now I’m on the other side (I make robots for a living) reading this makes me think again. If I’ve got the chance to improve the geek to lawyer ratio, and maybe connect with someone who wants to know there really are women working in science and technology, perhaps I should try and take it.

  11. That girls needs to find a science fiction or anime club. The numbers of people who are tech literate are much higher in them. Better yet, a makers organization or robotics group. Twin Cities Robotics Group http://www.tcrobots.org/ came along in my life at just the right time. I found them via a panel at a science fiction convention. Now there are many many more groups by and for the technologically literate folk. Hacker Spaces is one of the earlier ones: http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/Hackerspaces Yes they are mostly populated by males, but there are more an more females every year.

  12. It’s sad that girls are taught to veer away from technology at a young age. It’s also sad that being a geek/nerd is stigmatized by younger children. I’m really glad that someone found their passion in technology and pushed through with it, and if I ever start a company, I’ll try, maybe unsuccessfully, to hire 50/50 female/male employees.

  13. @Jordi — it’s not just “being a snob.” There IS a difference between watching Doctor Who/Marvel/Star Wars and only liking Sex and the City.

    You don’t HAVE to be smart to enjoy the first three. But you have to be willing to break with tradition (if you’re a girl for sure, but even for guys) and do your own thing even if your peers ridicule you for it. And THAT takes a certain strength of character.

    And that strength of character, I find, is HIGHLY correlated with being highly competent. I don’t a single engineer (male or female) who doesn’t like sci-fi, though specific likes within the genre vary a lot.

    Are you claiming to be a competent engineer who likes Sex and the City to the exclusion of sci-fi? Then you’re an exception. Fine. But humans evolved to see patterns, and I certainly also see the pattern that Trish observed. Don’t take it personally if you’re willing to do your own thing and it involves “Sex and the City.” I don’t get HBO so I’ve never even seen the show; couldn’t even tell you if I like it.

  14. Thank you for writing this.

    I agree that IT is a lot less exclusive of women than other women are of women in IT. It’s hard to fit in in both worlds.
    When there is a Mom’s night for my kid’s class, I wind up talking to the few lurking husbands.

    Any increase in numbers will help with that. It’s a spiral.

  15. +1 to Jordi and Sergey, all that ‘geeky’ culture is childish and immature imho, is Star Wars or dr Who really so meaningful and stimulating? I mean, it was, when I was 15, but i’ve grown up since then… Judging people by what they watch or what music they listen to is typical to teenagers, they just aren’t mature enough to see beyond that.

  16. I am a man and I would be bored to tears by “fashion labels and gossip” but I don’t see anyone shedding tears for this deficiency. Is it just possible that boys and girls have different interests? Is it possible that boys like building stuff more than girls do and “the Patriarchy” has nothing to do with the dearth of women in tech? Diverse people, diverse interests, no?

  17. I think most conferences named “Women in .*” start with some lady giving speech about how “.* industry is alienating women…”

  18. I met the girl who became my wife when she was finishing her MSc in Computer Science, when she was in her late 20’s. I have been professionally involved in software development since my early twenties. My wife is now a very successful Senior Business Analyst, though her skill set in practice depends more on her ability to be good at Systems Analysis (having deeper technical skills than most Senior Business Analysts!).

    While courting, I introduced her to the Far Side cartoons, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus – both of which she enjoyed. These were new to her, as she came from China.

    Our teenage son and I are both Doctor Who fans, and I am over 60. So I don’t think you have to be young and immature to like watching Doctor Who!

    I would like to see more women in the software fields, so long as no attempt is made to dumb down Computer Science to make it more ‘female friendly’!

    I think there is a high correlation between people liking Doctor Who, Star Trek, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, etc. and being interested in computers – regardless of gender.

  19. @Sunwoo Yang,

    Hire 100% of the ‘right’ employees, rather than looking for some ideal balance between men and women in your future company. Although I fully support women in technology (My company has 2 female partners, and myself as the only male partner, and the only other ’employee’ is a female software engineer), I think the current culture of ensuring you have X number of anything, compared to Y number of something else is basically counterproductive.

    Why stretch to find a particular subgroup to fully a role, in the interest of diversity ONLY? Why not hire the most capable, most experienced, ‘best’ person for a role, regardless of race, religion, sex, sexual preference? If I were interviewing two candidates for a new SE role, a man and a woman, and the man was the better fit (culturally, skillset, experience, background) I would hire him and feel no guilt.

    Of course, by the same token, were the shoe on the other foot, I would hire her, but I wouldn’t feel superior because I helped ‘balance’ my team. I would feel superior because I just hired the perfect SE for me, male or female.

  20. Ah, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I find that all my friends that go to women tech events aren’t even in engineering! It’s almost like a trend in silicon valley to attend these things.
    I’m a woman in software engineering, and I’ve been trying to find other women like me. Except I’m less into the geeky things like Star Wars and I’m actually genuinely interested in things like fashion and art.

  21. For girls who have an inclination towards tech and building things, I highly recommend they participate in a local hackerspace. The experience of DIY and sharing that joy with kindred spirits is wonderful.

    Of course, this recommendation is not gender-specific, just ocassion-specific; I say the same thing to high schoolers, to people who are feeling under-motivated with their work etc.

    p.s. For those who come to San Francisco, check out noisebridge. It is amazing.

  22. Which is more alienating…

    Characterizing women into Star Wars as hopeless nerds?
    Characterizing women into fashion as hopeless wannabes?

    They’re both judging the other. Why? Because “They’re not like me. I’d be bored to tears.” What are the chances one of the girls talking about fashion tried to reach out to a girl who liked Star Wars and got rebuffed? And discouraged?

    Labeling people is so boring. And it’s destructive no matter who’s doing it, the majority or minority.

  23. To Jordi and others that mixed-up cultural fit with “smart” or “elite”. It is simple and undeniable fact that people have a habit of forming taste that prefers certain set of sports, certain set of entertainment items and certain dress code. For some reason these sets correlate with occupation.

    Explicitly naming such preferences/sports/entertainment and correlating them with a group of people is not about “smart”, “elite”, “snob” or any other -ism. It’s simply about accepting that you want to be around people who’s interests are similar or at least compatible with your own. If you don’t feel like talking about what your coworkers talk about, you will have harder time connecting. If you have hard enough time connecting, you will most likely pursue your dreams elsewhere.

    As far as IT industry or women alienating women goes, I can’t say. I’m a man, so I can’t really identify with or understand all the challenges the woman has in IT. The fact is that male/female ratio in IT isn’t representative of general population and this single fact by itself warrants a question of “Why?” to be answered. Ye old habit of classifying occupations as male or female is painfully stupid (proven multiple times all over the world in just last 100 years alone, for those who care to educate themselves). Variations on this theme are by extension similarly stupid.

    Real answer? I don’t think we (as a western culture at least) figured it out just yet.

  24. Google may not be pushing people into gender stereotypes, but Google is definitely pushing people into other harmful stereotypes. Like being hipsters, being bobos or simply being totally positive (enlightened people call it clueless) about what Google is doing at large, i.e. tracking and analyzing people secretly on the the Internet and selling that information to advertisers. They’re pushing being anti-conservative and neoliberal so much that me, as a highly intelligent and educated, but also very ethical and correct guy, wouldn’t ever consider working for Google.

    That’s a pity, as some aspects about Google as a company are actually nice and not evil.

    Think about his, Eric, Larry, Sergey & co.!

  25. But for some girls, it feels like women are alienating the girls who want to be in IT.

    sounds about right to me ;-)

  26. Another reason to get into IT is that you dont have to share the toilets with too many others.
    eg there are about 120 on the floor and close to 95% are men. There are the same number of toilets for man and women.
    The women – cubicle ratio is almost 1 to 1.

    I’ve suggested they could put name plates on the cubicles.

  27. @Amy Thank you! Labels are indeed terrible. I wonder about the girl at that conference that was as interested in physics and technology but disinterested in star wars. It might feel like either sub-culture is just as alienating.

  28. are you still in touch with the girl?
    is she london based?
    Because i would suggest a good place to hang out with people of like mind (and more likely to bump into another woman into tech) is the London Hack space at 447 Hackney Road where they have just moved.
    I know a bunch of women involved.
    If she from out of town there are increasingly hack spaces all over the place.
    Here in oxford were hopefully are about to move into our first space

    on the fashion thing I was pointing out to my mum that i was typical girly girl liking bags and shoes and she pointed out that she was never into these things and nor is my sister or my brothers partner or…
    I have to say btw here by bags I meen stuff like my S.O Tech IFAC packs, that are attached via MOLLY to my black Tasmanian tiger bag, I have loads of bags made with brand names on them like Lowe alpine, Berghaus, karrimore
    equally I love shoes – like the several pairs of various types of fivefingers i have, to go along with my lowa boots, my teva sandals/thongs etc
    I’m also into clothes just so long as they are made of coolmax or other high tech materials
    see a proper girly girl am I :)
    I read vogue etc and its just seems like another kind of geekery one that I don’t understand, having said that I found the background to why certain colours and materials are in that year, and how that gets decided, fascinating. But their is very liitle written about how the fashion industry actually operates.

    anyhow got to go as Salavdor is wining about how bored he is and he needs to shoot something to stop him from thinking, a mate who I am with her main character is a mechromancer and she’s discovered that with the cursed shotgun from capt scarlet she can get to insane levels of anarchy (150+) which means she has zero accuracy but can parctically kill anything that moves. Cool huh!

    as i said got to go

  29. I forget to mention something
    back in the seventies and eighties computing was something that science girls got pushed towards as being a “soft science” which is why we had closedr to an even split between women and men, however since the microcomputer revolution I been in shops and watched girls who showed intrest in computer magazines being told by their mother that – that was boy/guy thing. Their has beena strong push across society that doing computers is for men!
    Besides that the whole brogrammer culture that has grown up subsquently, where men select men like themselves to run the company. This isoff course nothing new, people do this with age which is why coders in their 40’s can find themselves pushed out because a lot of startups want young smart people and once that culture has taken hold – you have to be young (and have a penis) to get a job.
    anyhew as I said salvador is complaining

  30. As a kid I had lego and dolls and cars and a train set. And a Commodore Pet on which I learnt to program very elementary commands in Basic (never mind that I wanted to use it to write interactive choose-your-own-adventure stories). Now I’m doing my PhD in computational linguistics.

    With computing being so ubiquitous these days, I’m really hopeful that the next generation growing up will have such easy access that learning to interact with the command line will be taught on a par with learning to read and write. I don’t think it should be a minority interest – and I certainly hope it’ll soon stop being a gendered one!

  31. @John Doe: I see you viewpoint and you echo Sergeys opinion that true engineering culture is almost entirely disjoint with the “geek” or “nerdy” culture. [which I passionately disagree with – to paraphrase an old anecdote: who are you Sergey to tell engineers what kind of character or which hobbies they cannot have].

    I don’t think that Google or any other company “pushes” people towards stereotypes. It selects future employees with “cultural fit” being one of requirements. It’s easy to see why. Google, Apple, JP Morgan or any other place where current team members have influence on selecting future team members end up with members more or less aligned in their hobbies/thinking/… (which is a different problem again). Choices are different between different teams/companies, but peer pressure works in exactly the same way. This isn’t “pushing”, this is “selecting” and yes, it can badly backfire in many ways – all of them extremely painful.

    Add media to blow out of proportion what a couple of companies look for during selection process, and I can definitely see how many people, especially young people without any varied work experience, start thinking that these examples represent “IT culture” or event “engineering culture”. Stereotyping where there is no longer a stereotype to be had.

    I know for a fact that not all companies foster IT or SW engineering teams with members that are “geeky” beyond talking about engineering they do. Others do. I don’t call this “pushing” but consequence of “selecting”. I would certainly not feel good in Sergeys’ “non-geeky” team in a same way as he would most likely feel out of place in my “geeky” team.

  32. >I said that’s what happens when we hold events for women in IT when there aren’t that >many women in this industry

    This is true, and Im glad you were able to inspire this person to continue their choosen path. Can we stop cancelling conferences now?

  33. This is hard to compose without sounding like I’m making this about me. Perhaps because that’s exactly what I am doing. I have been saying this for YEARS. I’ve been working in and around information technology for >20 years. If I had to put some numbers on it, less than 1% of my male peers have been harmful to my career. The remainder have been overwhelmingly supportive. By contrast, 2 of the 8 women I know have actively sought to derail me in a very aggressive way, 7 are either not experienced enough or simply do not talk to me at all. The last one also happens to be family, and I try to be as available to her as possible (though she tends to deal with tech I am unfamiliar with).

    So I have two kids. My son is very excited to learn to code. My daughter? Not so much. At least, not until we started talking about how creative it is. But I’m not going to give her a choice — she will learn basic coding in the same way that we all have to take English. It just seems prudent. I digress.

    I have never understood this apparent malignancy that exists between women in tech. I am beginning to wonder if there is some biological basis for it, like somehow we bristle when there’s another female in the vicinity and become competitive. For me, specifically, since so much of my experience with other women is negative, I’m filled with apprehension when one of you walks into the room. I suspect this is why the most accomplished and skilled women I know really don’t talk much at all.

    As it so happens, I’ve recently started taking classes in roller derby. This community is such a sisterhood that yesterday at a public event, I saw one of the women chase down another one headed to the port-a-cans just to give her some tissue. You know, because there was none in the can. I spent a lot of time on the ride home yesterday thinking about the contrast between these two communities, and how it has turned even someone as crusty and morose as myself into a total cheerleader. There’s some similarity in that these women work very hard and with dogged persistence to acquire a skill that is remarkably mentally challenging. Only they respect each other… and we don’t?

    But how do we fix that?

  34. Of course, you are too modest to miss the obvious. You were a positive role model for this girl who made it okay “to be part of IT just the way I am”. I think we all need role models when we’re young that we can identify with.

  35. I think what you have here is the contrast between:
    1. An event that advertises itself to be about careers in IT for women, that is actually about careers in the IT industry, partly to mask the fact that there are so few women in IT.
    2. A subculture within IT (Geek/Star Trek/Marvel/Dr Who) to which the writer and the girl she was talking to feel they belong, which is a big part of the identity of those in IT.
    I think we probably need to look at how both are acting as barriers to increasing female participation in IT. Actually, 1 may be easier to address!
    Surely, the message should be that you can be who you are and work in IT? I’m concerned, like Amy above, that geek culture defines IT and deters those who don’t fit this mould – and seeing the geek stereotype is predominantly male, it’s not surprising that many young women instinctively feel it’s not for them. To some extent there’s the same problem in physical sciences – I’m a physicist and often get the ‘does not compute’ look when I tell them this whilst wearing a skirt and heels.
    I can understand a teenage girl feeling the need to belong to a particular tribe but would hope that adults would be more inclusive and welcoming. There shouldn’t just be ‘our people’ in IT.

  36. I’m an employer in IT. We constantly get the whole “you don’t employ many women, do you?” shtick (2 out of 20 employees), but, had we any female applicants, we’d likely hire them. Both of the women who’ve applied to us in the last seven years now work for us. No positive discrimination, just the right people for their respective jobs.

    The irony is that while we’re a tech firm, we work almost solely with fashion retailers (big brands that are globally known, and lots of them), which you’d think would pique the interest of female applicants.

    But no. In fact, women working at our clients (fashion retailers) have, not infrequently, been very unkind to the women that work for us, on the basis of “I work in fashion and you’re a geek”.

    I don’t think there’s a problem with the acceptance of women in the tech industry by the tech industry.

    I do think that there’s a problem with the acceptance of women in the tech industry by the orthodox post-war consumption culture we are now bound into.

  37. If you went back 200 hundred years, you would find similar arguments about whether or not women should/could/wanted to read/write.

    Or even, “the masses”. Programming is currently in this phase.

    But that is absurd. You can think of reading as a way to communicate with people distant (in time or space). Programming is a way to communicate with computers.

    At one time, being able to read and write was a niche skill, but now,
    most people on earth can read. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WorldMapLiteracy2011.png

    Sure, not everyone reads whole books, but pretty much every one can do it.

  38. It’s not right or wrong to be into Dr. Who or Fashion. It’s cool to accept others’ interests, and to try and understand why those things are interesting to others. It’s not cool to ridicule someone over their interests. To be honest, it doesn’t seem like there’s much ridicule — the classmate went to the trouble of listening to the podcast, after all. Perhaps she should do a podcast explaining how those self-driving cars are going to change everyone’s lives, regardless of what they’re into. It seems like that’s something that everyone should be able to appreciate. Maybe the classmate can do a podcast about why fashion (or whatever she’s into) is important.

  39. Hmm… I actually fell upon this blog because I read one of your articles on testing, but I saw this.

    I’m a 45 year old guy, but the tale the high school girl told you. That really doesn’t sound much different then my experience in school. It’s not much different than my experience as an adult. Just substitute sports for fashion. So I don’t think this by itself is evidence of a difference.

    But the peer pressure aspect may be. Girls and boys have different social interactions, and I do have to say my experience was boys tend to avoid or ignore, whereas it seems this girl was getting a more explicit negative feedback from her girl friends.

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