Programming as a way to let more women show versus say what they can do

When I was in high school I was not one to assert when I was good at something. Spring semester of 10th grade, my school had tryouts for our first-ever musical — Grease. I started singing when I was 4 years old after falling in love with Annie and had developed a talent for it after years of voice lessons and performing in musicals and choirs in earlier grades.

The nice thing about tryouts as a shy kid was that I didn’t have to sit down with my teachers to convince them I deserved the part. I could just prove it by singing to them.

There have been times in my adult life when I have wished that things operated more like high school musical auditions. I have been lucky that in a decent amount of my work I have worked in organizations and with people who value and take the time to assess my outputs, but even so, success in most jobs requires not only quality work product, but managing your own reputation. If you’re experience has been anything like mine, you’ve encountered people who spend at least as much time trying to get credit for what they’ve done as they do actually doing the thing they purport to do so well.

In a former life, I worked with a bad ass woman who was one of the first female Navy fighter pilots in the country. I worked alongside her on one of her first projects in a more office-like environment. She talked about the beginning of her career when she was the only woman in a 25-person class of aspiring pilots. As you can imagine, she initially got a lot of crap from her male peers. How did she respond? She outperformed them in flight school. When you’re a fighter pilot there are objective measures of performance. So while the men in her class may have been louder and more assertive about their dominance, [Nicole] could prove her worth in the program by showing her skills.

That ability to work hard and objectively show she was ‘the best’ was one of the reasons [Nicole] decided to become a fighter pilot.

I have known a lot of people, male or female, who underestimated their own abilities and worth. But I do think that lack of awareness of your own value and not to mention discomfort pointing out your value in the workplace are more of an issue for women.

There is a good amount of research that backs this up. One study I found particularly stark is from Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. She found, in studies of business-school students, that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.

For myself, having to concern myself with getting adequate credit for my work does not come naturally to me and in addition to general awkwardness, I also think it wastes time that could be spent getting stuff done. But before my conversation with Nicole I had never considered objective measures of performance as an input to my career choices.

This has been on my mind recently because as I’ve been learning to program, it seems that relative to a lot of other jobs, coding has the potential to facilitate more skills and outcomes-based recognition. So, the contributions of an individual are not quite as stark as what Nicole experienced in a fighter jet, but I still think it’s a big opportunity.

But talking to engineers at tech companies, my sense is that programming is not nearly as meritocratic as it could be. Women get stuck on teams with more dominating personalities who take credit for the work. Creative leeway in choosing how to implement your code can lead to very different implementation decisions where a manager’s determination of the “right way” could come down to which engineer they relate to more. And getting in the door to a programming job is often as much about your ‘cultural’ fit as it is about your code.

So I guess what I’m saying is (1) I wish someone had told me earlier that jobs that facilitate more objective meritocracies should be a consideration in my career choices, (2) programming has the potential for that to be true relative to a lot of jobs, (3) but there are flaws in how engineers are recruited and managed that are making that less likely.