Being a “woman in tech” is extremely romanticized. Articles and blog posts highlighting female software engineers are usually intended to attract talent and keep more women in the field, and most of them paint a rosy picture of these women living the dream, being super successful and feeling very accomplished by what they do. I love being an engineer, but I’ve experienced so many sexist micro-aggressions (and macro-aggressions, for that matter) that I wonder how women manage to stay in the tech field until their 40’s, because I’m 25 and I’m exhausted.
Sexist comments are not whispered behind closed doors among sexist people; because male engineers think that they’re so “logical” and are used to explaining their reasoning, they use your stereotype as justification for why they assumed you’re good at baking cookies, not smart or that you are the office administrator.
My experiences with sexism are anecdotal, but they are not unique. I don’t go into each day looking for incidents of sexism; when something uncomfortable happens, I’m taken aback but I think over it for a few days and try to figure out if I’m overreacting, and to this day there are still a few interactions that I don’t know how to interpret. I don’t discuss these experiences with people, and so I didn’t understand how common sexist micro-aggressions are in the tech community until I asked some friends to look over my notes for this article and they each pointed to different parts and said,
“Yes! This happens to me and it’s the worst part of my job!”
I’ve categorized my experiences into eight general categories, but they all relate to the aggressors considering themselves superior and smarter, and believing that they know us better than we do.
Don’t comment on my appearance
I wear a dress and heels most days, and the days when men compliment me on my appearance is when I wear a skirt that’s a little too tight or my top is a little too revealing when I sit down. I’m not “asking for it,” there are just times when I try on clothes that look great standing up and then I make the mistake of not moving in it before I wear it out of the house. I know why you like my dress, perverts. My eyes are up here.
Don’t make assumptions about me because of what I look like
When I say I’m a software engineer, some people will pause and ask me,
“Do you mean like a sales engineer?”
Strangers are not shy about expressing their surprise when they learn that I am smart and capable. When I first started interviewing for engineering jobs, I attended a recruiting event with two male friends, who were both also entry-level, and we talked to a recruiter while I stood between my friends. The recruiter skipped over me when asking questions (and blatantly ignored me when I answered them anyway), and when I finally caught his attention 20 minutes later, he said,
“Wow, you’re actually really smart.”
But what majorly crosses the line for me is when people say,
“I didn’t expect that you were an engineer. You just don’t look like it.”
Well, sir, do I look like MYSELF? If so, I look like an engineer.
Don’t disrespect me when I take care of my body
Please try bleeding uncontrollably for a week every month and then worrying about your health, finances and the future of your career but also being really excited when it doesn’t happen on time. Do that, and then call me antisocial when I need to skip your stupid little happy hour because my uterus hurts and I don’t want to medicate myself. Also, I’ve never been pregnant, but I hear you stupid people commenting that women who are mothers shouldn’t be considered for promotions to executive roles because
“they’ve taken so much time off for maternity leave and aren’t committed to the job.”
Get out of here.
Don’t speak for me and then talk over me
The tricky thing now is that some men acknowledge that sexism is bad, but still do sexist things. I had a coworker who was very vocal about politics and social justice. Let’s call him X because that makes him completely unidentifiable. While X and I were preparing to interview a male candidate, X said that we should see if the candidate addresses X or me, or whether he makes eye contact with me when I ask him questions as a way to evaluate sexism. I started to suggest another method for evaluating whether the candidate would respect me, but X interrupted me and reiterated his idea. You are not an ally if you don’t listen to me.
Help me not be mistaken for the office manager
Don’t leave mugs in the conference room until their contents become green furry mold. I so badly want to clean up our shared spaces and Lysol wipe down everything during flu season, but I can’t pick up after you or bring a diffuser into the office without becoming
“the girl who makes the office pretty.”
It has nothing to do with me being a girl and has everything to do with me respecting you and our office. I don’t care what your demographic is, there’s nothing pleasant about working in a space that smells like garbage, and sharing unsanitized keyboards is absolutely disgusting. Pick up after yourself, because I can’t get ahead in my career if you let other people think I’m something I’m not.
Don’t tell me what to wear
On my second day at a new job, I wore black pants and modest three-inch heels (modest as in Stuart Weitzman Nearly Nude sandals, so really they ain’t seen NOTHING yet), and a coworker told me,
“You know, you don’t need to dress up for work.”
No shit, Sherlock, we work at a startup and you wore a hat from a brewery during my interview. I will wear what I like, and you will not comment on my clothes. I don’t work in a business-facing role, I like wearing clothes with flowers on them and my appearance is no part of what I bring to the table.
Listen to my answer when I say it
There have been several times when I’ve been in a meeting, answered a question, had my answer unacknowledged until someone else says the same thing but louder, and then everyone oohs and aahs over MY ANSWER. It annoys the bejesus out of me, but the reason I’m not calling out your bullshit is because I don’t want you to think I’m hysterical or “bitchy” (what an awful word). The last time this happened, I went to a public bathroom in a parking garage across the street to cry because I was just so tired of not being heard. I have yet to cry in front of people, but maybe I’ll do that sometime and that experience might be worthy of another article altogether.
“Women in tech” events are not hate groups against men
When I invite men to events hosted by female interest groups, they often assume that they will be attacked for being men. Women in tech groups are about providing support for people who have a disadvantage in the industry and finding a safe space to discuss issues among people who can empathize with them, and not at all about men or hate. By assuming that these groups are intended to bash you, you’re missing out on opportunities to learn from engineers who happen to be women. But thank you, your fear and anxiety about being treated poorly for your gender, an aspect of your identity that you had no control over, is what we experience every day, so maybe you are learning something from these events.
The current, publicized general consensus in the tech community is that more diversity is good, but you can’t tell me that I’m not a good culture fit because I wear dresses with cats on them and then wonder why we don’t have more female engineers. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas to make some fast money (an outrageous Reddit shitpost and frivolous lawsuits) so I can retire immediately because I’m just drained. But the only way I can fight for change is to stay, continue to be unapologetically myself and become a better engineer. It’s everyone’s responsibility to stand up for those who are disadvantaged, and allowing people to continue to behave poorly and ignorantly is backwards and harmful for everyone.