Women in Tech: A Variation On Drunk History
I spend a lot of my time thinking about women in tech. I am one. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to talk about women in tech. That’s one of the barriers in regards to talking about the topic, that you have to present it in the right way, make sure you’re well spoken, and make sure you’re presenting your opinions in a digestible, convincing way. Don’t just complain, make your point. Create action items.
Unfortunately, that creates a barrier between having the opinions and making them known. Here, we’ll try an experiment with a stream of consciousness essay about women in tech, just to see how it works. This is partially inspired by my love for Drunk History, which is entertaining, hilarious, and also informative.
As a bit of background, I work at an education startup, Bloc, as a software engineer, where our focus is creating software engineers that are in high demand — they know computer science principles, they know how to talk about their work, and they are great contributors. As a woman on the engineering team at a startup which focuses on creating great engineers, the issue of diversity is at the top of my list.
So what are the things I’m always thinking about, but have just been in essays on the edit shelf for so long that they never see the light day? More specifically, why is diversity important? Who cares? Why is it important?
That last question — why is it important — is obvious to me, since I am a minority in engineering. I was interviewing for jobs last year, and at every company I interviewed with, I would be the sole female engineer to join the team. This is never as obvious to those in majority, so the question begs, why is this important?
I’m very fortunate to work at a company that actively thinks about diversity and how it impacts the culture of the company. At a recent Q&A with our Chief Operations Officer, he emphasized the need for diversity. While I absolutely agreed, I also pushed further and asked why. Why is diversity important? He’s a white male, I wanted to know how a member of the majority would explain the importance of diversity. His answer was excellent and actually pointed out some subtle nuances.
I thought he would be taken aback by my question, but his answer started very plainly and succinct: “I have a daughter.” He went on to talk about how he wants his daughter to have every opportunity, and that seeing diversity at every level in a company demonstrates to others that being a minority is not an issue to earning a title that is within your grasp. This hit home, and I remembered walking into the office during the interview process, seeing the diversity compared to other companies and feeling right at home. That was the tricky part I couldn’t put my finger on — why did this company feel so much more natural than the others? I saw women. I saw diversity on the engineering team. I saw that there was no barrier between my femaleness and my engineering skills.
I think this feeling of alienation is difficult to digest if you’re not the minority in the room. Why would it matter to you that people don’t look like you? It doesn’t matter, until you are the minority. I’m sure there are a ton of studies as to why this feeling of alienation occurs, but what I do know, is that I feel alienated.
That feeling of alienation can unknowingly protrude into the engineering team. Maybe since I feel like a minority, I think I’m not adept enough to introduce a possibly radical opinion, or oppose something that’s generally accepted, or maybe ask a clarification question regarding a common practice. Those kind of questions, when suppressed, can hurt an engineering team. Engineering teams should be able to question, second guess, and clarify whatever is needed to get the code base to its best possible level.
Diversity on a team will lead to a legit, well thought-out code base. Accessibility to all the possible positions that a company may offer is important. Seeing attainable goals, positions, and people of varying diversity in those positions, allows us to strive for the top, to not be restricted inherently by the lack of diversity we may see around us.
That’s a fair amount of stream of consciousness. Maybe just a few more thoughts before unabashedly publishing this. Let’s switch gears.
There’s definitely a hypothetical argument in here, where we consider: you have a pool of applicants and all are equally qualified, but they have different hair colors. 90% of applicants have blonde hair, 2% have brunette hair, and 8% have red hair. Do you hire proportional to hair color or do you hire according to skill level? In this instance, yes of course you hire according to skill level. But that decision is made on the basis that all the applicants have the same opportunities across all hair colors.
The issue that we’re often trying to resolve is that the real world is so incredibly complex when it comes to race, gender, and age, that you can’t recreate the situations with simple models. There are numerous factors that feed into a person’s eligibility to be hireable in the tech industry. Those factors are not even.
I’m not saying that I’m disadvantaged at all. I have been very fortunate in my education, I was able to attend UC Berkeley and enjoyed and prospered in my education there. I am saying that there are subtle biases that we’re not always considering. As a blonde female in lecture halls of hundreds, when a group project comes up, I’m not the first to be picked. Computer science students care about learning, getting good grades, and becoming hireable. The blonde girl is not the first person they choose in order to get that top ranking GPA. That’s not a sob story, I found groups to work with, and I did my best to prove myself, but that’s one hurdle. And where there’s one hurdle, there’s another, and another.
Accounting for those hurdles is difficult. So how do you try to fix some of them? Maybe make it a little more obvious how accessible technology and coding is, maybe make the market more diverse so that those biases aren’t so prominent. Hope that applicants can walk into workplaces and think, “cool, nice, everyone’s chill here.” Did I know that I was considering gender and race when I thought that about my current company? No. It was a technical interview, I was thinking about code and resumes and experience. But still, I just knew that it was somewhere that I wanted to work.
The inevitable question surfaces: “I’m very qualified, but I’m in the majority, why aren’t I getting this job? Don’t you want to hire the most qualified?” There are a lot of varying opinions on this, and I can only offer my own, but would love to hear your thoughts as well, comments section below. That’s right, I broke the fourth wall. This is a stream of consciousness essay, after all.
My answer to that question may be cold: “It’s not about you.”
Dear hypothetical person in the majority: Yes, you’re very well qualified. But that might be because of your advantages in society. Maybe you were able to pay for a quality university. Maybe you looked like you’d be good at coding so someone suggested it. Maybe you played video games and coding was an easy entry point to discovering your talents. Maybe you’re a natural genius and it all comes naturally to you. You may have to sacrifice your own success to allow the success of another that didn’t have the same advantages. If you don’t like it, be so good that they can’t ignore you.
That’s a phrase I used to apply to myself, and to women in engineering, but have recently appropriated to everyone: If you have a problem with it, be so good that they can’t ignore you. The italicized quote is from Steve Martin and I love it. I used to only apply it to women in engineering because I thought that the way for women to excel in engineering is to be the. absolute. best. But after a recent article regarding females in engineering, starting somewhere is also important. So now, it applies to everyone. If you feel misrepresented because of your gender/age/race, be so good that they can’t deny you.
Okay, one more thought, then we’re out.
Engineering is actually the perfect place to ignore diversity and instead concentrate on talent. One of the great things I’m thankful for is the career path I’ve found. I could create an online portfolio of my work, explain all the projects I’ve worked on, list out the languages I know in depth, the ones I know adequately, and the ones I have seen peripherally. I could do all that, and a company could know how hireable my coding skills are without even considering gender, race, or age. For that, I am extremely grateful.
A coworker was recently doing research on open source software, and wanted to know my thoughts on gender bias. I was elated! Talking about a space where bias didn’t need to be focal point is so exciting. Open source is the space where you are a coder. If you feel so inclined, you can omit gender, age, race. You are a coder, and you are your code. It is purely meritocratic.
At times, I’m happy that I’m in a merit based community, but I also struggle with the need to represent my gender. I want to be judged only for my code but I also want to shout from rooftops that I’m a female coder, and there should be more female coders in the world!
Consequently, this article has no conclusion. No thesis. Just thoughts in one large essay. Was it well structured and edited? No. This article would have died on the editing shelf, like many others. Did I contradict myself? Probably. A discussion is full of contradictions and opposing arguments. Will I take this article down? This is a variation on Drunk History. The speakers in Drunk History are inebriated, yet they still provide historical insight and encourage comparing historical events to present day events, with an emphasis on frivolity and humor. If this article provides no insight, offers nothing relatable, and adheres to too much structure, then yes, I will take it down. Otherwise, nope.