Memos Can Hurt

A lot of people discussing the Google memo seem to be unaware of how damaging even hinting at biological inferiority of women as software engineers really is. If it weren’t for my gender, I may have been blind to it, too, since I have an otherwise-full set of privilege, being white, well-educated, etc. As a woman, however, my otherwise charmed path to a decade-long software engineering career (programming exposure at home and high school, CS master's degree from an elite school) has been fraught.

I get it, software engineering is hard, and life is hard. Maybe you have impostor syndrome, too. It’s easy in a field where you’re constantly being told you’re wrong. “No, that doesn’t compile. No, that’s not what the spec meant. No, one of your hundreds of assumptions about how your code works is wrong.” However hard it is, being a member of a marginalized or underrepresented group can make it that much harder.

Starting with my junior high electronics elective, I’ve been the only woman in the room in countless classes and meetings, muddled through in work and academic cultures that are primarily designed for and by cis white men. In college, I circled around and around the third floor of the math department building before realizing there was no bathroom for me, only even-numbered floors had women’s rooms. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy; other groups have it MUCH worse. I only want to show no matter how much evidence you have to the contrary, it’s still so easy to get the idea that you don’t belong, since nobody planned for more than a handful of you to make it through all the obstacles.

Despite my decades of academic and professional experience, part of me still believes I simply don’t belong in software engineering. It’s a small part, but it was enough to convince me I might be better off leaving the field entirely when confronted with a particularly difficult situation at work. I can’t seem to weather a rigorous technical interview because they make me intensely uncomfortable. I’m currently 9 months into an extended maternity leave (another bit of privilege) and I question whether I belong because I miss making software, but maybe I don’t miss it enough.

This insecurity is in spite of the fact that I’ve had it really easy compared to what others have had to endure in this field. I’ve always had other female engineers on my teams, and once had strong female leadership. I’ve never worked with anyone who was openly hostile because of my gender, and I’ve been treated really well on the whole.

All the same, there are the little things that come up daily. People talk about looking to hire an iOS/Android/server “guy” (never even considering they could be female, like me.) Maybe I get interrupted more often, maybe I say something that only gets heard after a man repeats it, maybe my performance review was harsher and more personal than it should have been, maybe I didn’t get that job offer because my answers sounded too tentative. Is it because I’m a woman? Maybe.

And there are the big things. I was given a roughly 10% raise after a management change because of the disparity in salaries, even though I’d been denied the raises I asked for annually. (That’s right, women do ask.) When you’re so quick to devalue yourself and your talents, knowing what you’re actually worth to a company isn’t usually on your radar.

That tendency to devalue myself, to externalize success and internalize failures is why hearing it from someone else is so harmful. The part of me that thinks I don’t belong because I’m so clearly “other” gets a bit stronger. If I had ever worked in an environment with people who openly subscribed to that thinking, it could have crushed everything that whispers that maybe I actually am good enough to do this work. Some days it still feels like I’m balancing on a knife edge, and I have had every advantage possible. I can’t even imagine how hard people from underrepresented groups with non-traditional backgrounds, or who lack my cis white privilege, or who faced open hostility or harassment, have to work to make it into tech and to stay there, and what demons they might be fighting.

It only helps somewhat to know about impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect, and to be surrounded by a plurality in tech that at least pays lip service to diversity. I can intellectually know there is no basis for feeling I’m not as suited for the job as my peers, but my experiences have woven it deep into my psyche, where it will probably always linger.

That’s why it’s so important to be surrounded by people who emphatically don’t believe it at all. I’ve never developed a “thick skin” — with all my advantages I never had to. Perhaps that makes me a snowflake, but have you seen how beautiful snow is with its confluence of delicate, crystalline structures? It must be hard to imagine how good things could be if you’re frozen in the same tired old monocultural block of ice.

Maybe you think I’m being too sensitive, that I should just get over it. That’s irrelevant. The industry as a whole has seen the numbers on how much more effectively diverse teams collaborate and serve a diverse population. If you still think it’s acceptable to put the burden on underrepresented groups to adapt themselves, to coexist with people who hold — and worse profess — ignorant opinions based on stereotypes, to be proactive and autonomous instead of supported and encouraged, then it will start to get very lonely as the rest of the world marches on without you. You can always write a memo to voice your concerns, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn't end well.