It Happens Earlier Than you Think
A Tale of Teenaged Boys and the Inculcation of Sexism in Tech
So, as a minor tale on sexism in tech, one I was witness to, I give you the story of the Boy Who Could Not Learn.
I have a good friend, N. N. is ridiculously smart. Multiple degrees, she’s worked on programs that everyone, at least in the macOS universe (and a few in the iOS universe) have used. When she makes a point, she tends to have massive amounts of data at her disposal. She’s even penetrated my thick skull a few times, not a minor feat, as my family and friends can attest to. She’s a coder, a researcher, she is far, far smarter than I am, and I feel lucky to be her friend.
This was one of the last Macworld Expos in the Moscone West, we were at an IT event that involved food and drink, and a vendor showcase. N’s company had a booth, (yes, I am being deliberately vague here. Those of you who know me know N. and don’t need me to tell you, those who don’t know me probably don’t know N. in which case her identity is unimportant. But I’m not unaware of how women get treated on da internets), and we had stopped by to see how her coworkers were doing.
At some point, as we’re standing there being snarky and smartass-y, two teenaged boys come up and start talking to us. Since I didn’t work for her company, and they had questions about her company, I did the “you really need to talk to her, I’m just here for the free food and comedy” thing. The guys, who we’ll call T(hing)1 and T(hing)2 start talking to N, asking her what she did at her company. She truthfully responds that she’s a software engineer along with her other titles. Now, at this point, I’d known N. for…oh christ…like ten years and across three employers (in my case).
T2’s eyes go a bit wide, since unsurprisingly, he hadn’t encountered many women who were software engineers, but his response, as I recall, was “huh. Cool.” T1 though…T1 just isn’t playing. He knows she must be a designer. He literally says “no way, you’re really a designer, right?” This is the thing about teenaged boys. They’re stupid. Mostly because they’re young, but they will use bluster to an extent that few others even try to. And T1…T1 was all in.
N., a little shocked to be told by someone who was not her, what she really did for a living, patiently explains that no, she’s not, she can’t draw a stick figure, she’s much more likely to be the person coding the app with which other people do graphic design things. Even lists the products she’s worked on. T1 will not believe it. He looks at me (because I’ll agree with him???) and I’m like “Dude, seriously, she’s not lying. She’s a nerd’s nerd. She codes things. I’m just a sysadmin, she knows things.” T2 even tries to throw T1 a lifeline. “Come on man, she told you what she did.”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I don’t think T1 ever believed she was telling the truth about herself. He couldn’t.
The story is funny in a way. I mean, for me, about 15 minutes in and all I can do is laugh, along with T2, because fuck man, it was so over the top stupid. Like, other than just punching the shit out of him, how do you drill a hole through that wall of idiocy. It was absurd in the extreme, and I was laughing at the time, because other than getting physical with the kid…it was just too ridiculous to believe, and I WAS RIGHT THERE.
But it’s very much not funny in too many other ways. I’d guess T1 and T2 were…15–16 or so. Somehow, in a very short time on this planet, post toddler, T1 had been told so many times and so constantly that women couldn’t possibly be technical. The concept was so impossible for him to believe that he would not believe a woman who was literally telling him something that should have been of no controversy at all: what she did for a living. At some point, he, as young as he was, had been taught that women could not be technical.
I’ve another friend, M. I’ve known M. for decades. Like over 20 years. She is also wicked smart. A brilliant data slicer, she’s who I go to when I need Excel help. Databases, statistics, just brilliant. Her resume, her background, they all reflect this. What’s she been doing in her spare time? Teaching herself R.
Yet over and over, she is told “she’s not technical enough” for gigs that are what she is currently doing. Da Fuque? How does that even work? But it happens over and over.
Another friend, I., she’s been a SysAdmin as long as me, she’s brilliant. Literally was asked, at an after hours tech dinner at a tech show why “someone like her” was hanging out with nerds. The other (male) folks at the table had to explain, because the guy saying that wouldn’t believe her when she told him what she did for a living. Once we did it, then she was allowed to be what and who she actually was.
The idea that there isn’t systemic sexism in tech (along with basically everywhere else) is laughable. It’s not funny, but it is laughable, and when you have crap like the Googlag Manifesto, it’s not getting better anytime soon. But it is fucking real and it happens young.