Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

I need imperfect women in my life.

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of a woman in tech that you admire? What is your criteria for an admirable, memorable woman? Maybe something like this, “She’s so cool! She’s a software engineer, she’s amazing at everything she does, she’s assertive, and she’s so pretty!” When I started studying computer science, at a school with only 20% women — and only 8 women in my major, this was the kind of woman I aspired to be like because this is the kind of woman who smash stereotypes for a living.

From Left to Right: Barbie Careers Doll: Scientist, Barbie Career’s Doll: Computer Scientist, Barbie Careers Doll: Scientist. Courtesy of Matell.

It’s amazing and absolutely necessary that these kinds of role models exists. This is proof that perfectly normal (if there’s even a thing as normal) women are capable in excelling in tech and that they should be taken seriously. We have a LONG way to go if we want to achieve this abstract idea of equality — I will acknowledge that I’m grateful for the fact that I can think of several women whom I look up to and aspire to be like. These aren’t the women I’m against. They’re not the issue.

The problem starts when we reject women who don’t fit the mold of excelling in every possible way. We don’t have to look far and beyond to find examples of people advocating for women in tech, and in other fields, by claiming tech isn’t just for socially awkward, unhygienic men — its also for women who go against these stereotypes by being charismatic, stylish, and talented beyond compare.

For example, if you watch the She++ Documentary, you’ll find handfuls of inspirational, multifaceted women who reject the notion of being a stereotypical computer scientist in favor of extroversion, sororities, manicures, and Gossip Girl. The cause is promoted with “#goodgirlsgonegeek.” As a She++ Ambassador I support the community She++ built over the years. I do however believe there’s more that can be done to promote the cause. This suggests that we are looking for good, sweet girls to turn into programmers. You shouldn’t have to be pretty, or nice to please others, or anything really besides interested in tech. She++ is still an organization I respect because throughout my time as an Ambassador, I’ve met women who’ve excelled in their own right without fitting in any mold, and I’m honored to call them my role models. As much as I support these groups, She++ wasn’t the only group I’m thinking of — She++ is one of the very few groups thats heading in the right direction as well as Tech Ladies, Women of Silicon Valley, and Code Like A Girl. There’s this unnerving feeling that the kind of women we value are the ones who can be everything at once — that we’re only worthy if we can destroy the curve in the algorithms class and write beautiful lines of code while painting our nails. Otherwise, if we’re just okay programmers, or if we’re introverted, or just socially awkward, no one gives a shit. We don’t matter.

I’m disappointed that we keep perpetuating this idea that women in tech have to be good at everything and be the best of the best because we shouldn’t have to be better than anyone else to be in this field or any other field. We belong in this field because we want to be here and deserve a shot, not because we’re geniuses. Nicki Minaj puts it best:

When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice, and you have to — it’s like, I can’t be all of those things at once. I’m a human being.

We put so much pressure on women to be brilliant, attractive, personable, successful, and everything in between. We can’t be surprised at the amount of stress, anxiety, and other destructive repercussions ensued if we berate the next woman who doesn’t meet these expectations — the next woman who’s not wearing the perfect shade of red lipstick to go with the color of her A+ on her final exam before she’s off to Google. These pressures are even more egregious for minority women as we continue to only celebrate blacks and latinos who fit this mold but with additional qualifications including an Ivy League education, and no “black” accent. You can be a respected politician and still have journalists ask you where you like to shop, be the highest paid actress in Hollywood and still be known as a bitch just for not smiling all the time, or really be in any field and still considered a social failure if you don’t plan to have kids.

I refuse to combat misogyny at the expense of women like me who don’t fit into molds prioritized for Barbie dolls. I refuse to combat misogyny by showing people who hate women that there’s nothing to hate. That’s not how you garner acceptance for women — that’s how you put some women on a pedestal and put down anyone who isn’t perfect, who doesn’t want to be perfect. This trend of glorifying brilliant women is great for the short-term, but it’s not going to create lasting acceptance for all women. We don’t deserve to be in this industry because we’re all so incredibly exceptional and talented. We deserve equal treatment for no other reason than the fact that we are people.

It needs to be okay for women to fail. We need flawed women who’s mistakes represent just that — their own mistakes. Not reflections upon our entire gender, not held up as reasons for why women aren’t meant to be in tech. We need to accept women in this field who aren’t incredibly talented, who didn’t attend the “best” university, who aren’t going to send shockwaves through the industry, who want to be here just because it’s a great place to be.

xkcd’s “How it Works” illustrates exactly what we need to combat. Not by portraying women as geniuses, but by making us into fallible people.

Had I started this piece with “Think of a man in the tech industry,” I wouldn’t have been able to predict the responses. When I think of men in tech, I don’t think of one particular skill level or one particular personality. I think of the guy who’s been coding since he was 12, the guy who’s pretty good at front-end development but not so great with functional programming, or the guy who actually kind of sucks at coding. I think of brogrammers, nerds, guys who love ultimate frisbee, and guys who love Overwatch. And they’re all welcome in this field to find their own varying levels of success. If the tech industry were only for geniuses, I would have a different message. I would say sure, only let the brilliant women in (or hey, let the rest of us in, too). But that’s not how it is. There’s room in this industry for everyone. There are plenty of men who are terrible at what they do, and they’re still here.

More than women who are at the top of their fields, I need women who suck at programming. I need women who went to schools they could afford. I need women who are okay at their jobs. I need women who sometimes have to ask questions and admit weakness. I need women who are antisocial, who love video games, who fall right into the stereotypical depictions of a woman in tech. No matter who you are, if you want to be in this field, you should be allowed in. The way we keep promoting only the exceptional isn’t going to create more acceptance for women in tech as a whole. It’s going to reject all the women who don’t meet those impossible standards. It’s only going to make us lose sight of what’s really important.

I can assure you that I am not saying “hire terrible female engineers.” Not at all. Hire the best person for the job. If a woman sucks at software engineering, it is not sexist to acknowledge that. In a perfect world, this would be perfectly fine advice. But we all have our own biases, whether conscious or subconscious, and people do tend to get this idea that women are either incredibly talented programmers or completely useless. People sometimes need to be reminded that one woman’s failures do not reflect the entire gender as a whole. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that people examine their biases and consider whether they’re truly judging men and women’s performances equally.

Being expected to be either a “perfect super-human” or a “girl who can’t code” puts a huge amount of pressure on women and comes with repercussions. I’m suggesting that showing women it is okay to not fall into those categories would help the tech industry feel more inclusive as a whole. Women, like men, fall on a spectrum and having a diversity of talent would relieve the pressure for all of us who feel as though we have to be on one of the extreme ends.