Being a girl nerd (in a mostly male nerd world)

A 6 minute read written by Kim May 1, 2014

pencil sketch of glasses

It's no secret that there aren't many women working in development. I've been in the minority for all of my professional career - one of two females in a class of sixty, the only female in a development team of forty. I wish I could say that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, but it still exists. Luckily there are lots of good people and companies that are making things better. And there's lots you can do (as a developer, company owner, or anyone working in tech) to help.

The tough times

When I was 13, I built my first HTML/CSS based website. It was for my rainbow unicorn Neopet, and I thought it was pretty much the coolest thing ever. In high school I started to program with C++, PHP, and Perl. And thanks to some amazing teachers and pushes in the right direction, I’ve been computing ever since.

But it wasn’t all rainbows. Back in my university days, gender discrimination was everywhere. Several people felt the need to tell me that I would never make it past second year. Guys would ask who I was waiting for in the computer lab, because of course I couldn’t possibly be there to work. Negativity, name-calling, and lewd comments happened way too often.

And things didn’t get much better after I graduated. The comments from male co-workers continued, which made every day uncomfortable. Management did next to nothing, and told me they were “just joking” and I should “lighten up”.

Blatant sexism aside, nothing is more frustrating than being laughed at when you tell someone what you do, like I’d just told them I was the prime minister. Or being asked to “prove it” (should I be carrying around code samples, or..?). People rarely believe me when I say I’m a programmer. I’d gladly talk to you about how I started in computing science, why I’m interested in it, or why I love it. But not when you automatically assume I’m incapable or lying.

The good times

So why stay in development? Why bother? Because despite everything, I still feel at home with my fellow nerds. I’ve played a lot of board games, watched all of Battlestar Galactica twice, and I used to keep DnD dice in my purse. I’ve spent hours with my friends coming up with ridiculous algorithms like the most efficient way to serve people at a wedding, or throwing juggling balls around a room to simulate packets in a network. These are my kind of people.

My interview at Yellow Pencil gave me a new (cautious) optimism. The team, my new bosses, and the fact that they liked my Neopets story, were all good signs. Not long after I’d started, I hesitantly approached our development manager about my concerns with a project. Not only did she agree (which was shocking enough at the time), she told me not to be so shy about it next time!

Since then, I’ve gotten amazing support from my coworkers at YP. Now I’m lucky enough to work in an environment where I’m not only supported, but encouraged to say what I think and share what I know.

Last year I spoke at DrupalCamp Alberta with my colleague Alaine. It was my first time speaking in front of a crowd, so I was completely terrified. And yes, we were speaking to a crowd of mostly dudes. But everyone was really receptive – multiple people told me it was great to see more women in Drupal. It was one of the most positive reactions I’ve experienced.

What you can do (as a fellow female in tech)

I know not everyone is as lucky as me. There are plenty of women in tech still dealing with the same (or worse) crap that I went through. Cheesy as it sounds, the best (and hardest) thing I did was to speak up. Whether it was calling people out or standing up for my ideas, I always spoke up for what I believed was right, even when it didn’t get me results right away.

Having a good support network is so important. Even one person standing by your side (thanks Pat) can help you overcome the toughest times. And even beyond your friends and family, there are lots of places to find support, mentorship, and leadership opportunities.

Find your people

Here are just some of the groups that have helped me find my footing:

In-person

  • Ladies Learning Code:

    • The name pretty much says it all! LLC is a non-profit organization that teaches beginner technical skills to girls, women, and men (though they are encouraged to bring a female participant). We have a chapter here in Edmonton that I now regularly mentor. It’s been a great opportunity to meet lots of people in the local development community.

  • Grace Hopper Conference:

    • These conferences spotlight the incredible work that women have done in their respective fields. They always have interesting topics, from extremely technical to soft skill-related. I hope to attend the conference again soon, and I would encourage my fellow lady-nerds to do the same.

  • Events like CHOICES by WISEST

    • Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology (WISEST) focuses on engaging and encouraging females into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) paths. It has programs like CHOICES, where grade six girls are introduced to different aspects of science. I co-led a session where we taught young girls about Artificial Intelligence through a simple cat and mouse game.

Online

You can also find your people on the web or social media:

What you can do (as anyone else working in tech)

It’s everyone’s job to help make things better. If you’re a tech company owner, a manager, or anyone else working in the industry, you can call out discrimination where it exists, and help build teams and workplaces that won’t stand for it.

  • Recognize existing gaps in your tech groups or workplace. Bring them to the forefront and identify what can be done to fix it.

  • Be conscious of the fact that discrimination still exists. If you’re a manager, make a conscious effort to seek out diversity, but don’t just hire ladies for the sake of hiring ladies. I’ve been called to interviews to fill that role and it doesn’t feel good.

  • Give lots of opportunities for feedback. Give your female techies a chance to speak up. Not everyone will reach out when they are having problems. Check-in with your teammates on a one-to-one basis to root out issues.

  • Dedicate resources to organizations that work in this area. Sponsor events, conferences, and most importantly, support your staff.

  • Call people out on their behaviour. Don’t sit idly by while your coworkers make remarks. Change can only happen if we all work on it.

  • Reflect on your own behaviour. Think about the way you talk or word your emails to female coworkers. Are you passively contributing to the problem?

  • Apologize. Get better. It’s scary how gender discrimination is almost hard-wired into this industry and into our language. If you say or do something (intentionally or not) and get called out, don’t get mad or defensive. Just get better.

Since I started writing this post, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the incidents in my past. At first I thought I got off easy, but now I’ve realized I didn't. People were terrible to me. But I've come a long way from where I was; I'm a much more confident person now. I have the support and encouragement I need to feel successful in this industry. I had to filter out negative influences in my life. I had to filter out the inner voice that said I wasn’t good enough.

 

“If you are someone who feels like you might fail at something and you don’t want to do it because of that, just remember me. The vast majority of people that I know in the world, who are incredibly successful, they’ve got this piece in their brain that’s saying, ‘I’m a failure. I’ll always be a failure. I’m not good enough.’ But the reason they’re incredibly successful is they’ve got this piece in their brain that’s says, ‘don’t listen to that part, just go forward. Do stuff. Make a difference. Work hard. Dream.”
- Maria Klawe