Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

How I Overcame Sexism Early in my Career

and how you can too!

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

According to a recent survey, 60% of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed. One of them, Ellen Pao, brought a gender discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. She lost but hasn’t given up the fight. Ms. Pao is currently writing her memoir addressing sexism in Silicon Valley.

We all know that sexism isn’t limited to Silicon Valley. Our glorious president continues to display how men like him get away with disrespectful behavior towards women. I thought about the times I was victimized by men like him. I also remembered the times that men, unlike Donald and his cohorts, protected me in the workplace and showed me a lot of respect. There are many, many, good men out there.

During my summer break between freshman and sophomore year, I decided to get a job in New York City. That was 1970. The newspapers at that time categorized Help Wanted classifieds as male and female. Typical female jobs were secretarial, bookkeeping, and teaching. There were no programming jobs available for women. Since, I didn’t have teaching credentials or accounting experience, I applied for the secretarial jobs. This meant taking a typing test. I knew how to type and thought that would mean I was qualified to be a secretary. However, each position required a certain speed and accuracy, I failed them all. So a job as a secretary was out.

My father asked his clients if anyone would hire me for the summer. One company, with a computer, hired me as a favor to him. Two programmers at the company, Joe and Norm, men much older than me, chuckled when they heard I was going to be helping them for the summer. Norm wanted little, if anything, to do with me. I reported to Joe who gave me simple requests to code in FORTRAN, the language I knew best. He checked my code thoroughly. Both men were surprised at my abilities. After a week, Joe agreed that I could handle the job and stopped supervising me so closely.

Then came the sexist attitude of the men outside my team. In the morning, they walked into the office and asked me to make coffee if there was none ready. I told them I didn’t drink coffee, nor did I know how to make it. They thought I was joking and sent me to the break room. I did the best I could, but one of the guys tossed out that pot of coffee. I was never asked to make coffee again.

Every woman in the office, except for the saleswomen, were expected to answer the phones. I never liked speaking on the phone and my nature is to be very abrupt. After a few complaints from customers, they removed me from being a phone operator, too.

Joe asked me to return for summer, winter, and spring breaks for the next four years. When I returned the following winter break, he assigned me to phone duty. But this time was different. I wasn’t supposed to answer the phone, but to program it. They handed me a bunch of instructions and told me to make it work. It looked something like the PBX system in the picture below. I became the resident expert. Joe liked my work so much, he had me coding the company’s second computer, the grading machine and the digitizer.

PBX System

By the following summer, I had earned the respect of the men (and the women) at the company. Joe and Norm valued my skills. I was not just a young girl (I was a whopping 19 years old by now) who was there only as a favor to her father.

All in the Family

One of the events that helped reduce the sexism at the company was a TV show called All in the Family. The show was about a working-class man, Archie, and his family in Queens, New York. The location was familiar to everyone at the office since we were located in Queens. Archie was a bigot. He had a problem with women’s rights, racism, homosexuality, etc. His daughter, Gloria, was a feminist. Her husband, Mike, was a part of the counterculture of the sixties. Archie’s wife often deferred to her husband’s every wish.

The show aired on Tuesdays. Wednesday morning Norm and I would have discussions (sometimes heated) about the previous night’s episode. We learned to see each other’s point of view, but rarely agreed. By the time I left the company to go to graduate school, sexism was almost gone from their culture. I believe standing up for myself and other women contributed to the change.

If you like this story, please recommend and share it.

For further reading, please check the comments section below for an interesting discussion I had with nderground.