Women in Dev: Stories, Struggles and Support in a Male-Dominated Industry
After three years working in the tech industry, it’s refreshing to finally see women being represented in the dev community. Though the ratio still favors men, there are companies out there (like Crema) that are working to level the playing field. Through a culture that values diverse perspectives and a philosophy driven by personal and professional development, Crema and companies like it are working to combat this state of affairs and reduce the underrepresentation of women in tech. We have a long road ahead of us, and have definitely not arrived, but my hope is that we will move closer and closer to a day where female and male developers are seen as the equals they are.
I sat down with Crema App Developer Gabi Dombrowski and our Developer Apprentice Lex Sanders to dig into the struggles they’ve come against as female developers, dive into some of their greatest successes and hear what actionable steps they have for women (or men) new to the dev industry. As a bonus, we’ve also included an interview from female developer and KCWiT’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Rhia Dixon!
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into dev?
Lex: “I didn’t really consider being a developer until my Junior year of college, and even then, I was more geared towards IT and tech support. I didn’t seriously consider pursuing development as a career until I moved here two years ago. All throughout college, I took programming classes as part of my minor in CS. I was also president of the game development club at my school. I majored in IT, so more tech-support heavy.”
Q: Why did you gravitate toward the tech industry?
Lex: “I wanted to get into coding because I saw an ad that said ‘everyone can code’ and believed it. I was a Psych major before, but I knew I wanted to do CS. I talked to a counselor about it and said ‘I’m a Psychology major, but I want to change to computer science’, and he responded with ‘hmm, are you sure though?’ He said Computer Science was for people who had been building computers since they were kids and that I might want to consider IT, since there’s some programming in that too. So, I went into IT.
It turned out okay because the IT program was a way better program than the Computer Science program, and what I ended up doing was pursuing a minor in CS instead of a major. I took all the programming classes that they would have provided anyway.”
Q: What were your classes like? Would you say it was pretty mixed gender or skewed one way?
Lex: “It was definitely skewed. Both IT courses and development courses were mostly men, but I think there were more women in the IT courses compared to the programming ones.”
Q: Do you think this was because the counselors were leading women toward IT and not the programming side, or do you think the women just tended to gravitate toward IT?
Lex: “I never considered being a developer even though I always excelled in math. It just wasn’t in the forefront of my mind, probably because I didn’t see a lot of that representation growing up. I think my counselor assumed that I was throwing myself into the deep end and would have a harder time graduating if I went straight into Computer Science.”
Q: Was it an assumption at your school that IT was easier than CS? And is it an assumption in the tech community as a whole?
Lex: “The Computer Science curriculum at my school involved higher math courses. You’d have to go further into Calculus (2 and 3). But in IT courses, you took Discrete Mathematics (which is more like logical math) and then your standard Algebra course. Beyond that, you got right into your IT courses.”
Gabi: “I would say IT is more practical and Computer Sciences is more academic.”
Q: Gabi, what about your background?
Gabi: “I grew up with computers, since my dad was always in tech. I always got to play in server rooms and stuff like that. I went to three different schools and switched majors a lot. I was doing a Computer Engineering degree at UCF in Orlando, and then basically had reached a point where I had so many credits that I was like ‘what can I do with this?’ and ended up coming out with an Information Systems Technology degree.
Then, I was a Sys Admin for a long time and started looking for a more creative outlet in a better community by transitioning into development. I also took programming classes-I did C Sharp and C++ in college.”
Q: What have each of you created that you’re most proud of or a project you’ve worked on?
Lex: “Building a blog-a full application. And in college, I used to make small, buggy video games that were super fun. We used to do these things called Game Jams where you go to a location and you’re locked in for three days and build a game. You would collaborate with Berkley (the music school) remotely, and they would do their Jams and try to make music for us. We would do that and go to game conferences.
In the club, we would work on the game for a semester and then we would have an end of the year showcase. We set up all our games on the PC and then people from the school would come in and play your games.
I made a game called Silent Night that you will never see. I might remake it. Basically, you’re Santa Claus delivering presents and while delivering presents, you get trapped in a haunted house that you have to escape. I did the development and a friend did the art for it. “
Q: Gabi, how about you?
Gabi: “I would say two things. Probably my short time at Crema, honestly. Because of the way our product teams work. They’re so smooth and intent on delivering good products. That’s been a super fun and supportive experience. I would also say my work with Kansas City Women in Tech, which isn’t necessarily code that I’ve written. A lot of the curriculum and community-type stuff that I’ve done with them.”
Q: Can you think of one event or project that stood out to you in particular?
Gabi: “Yeah, I wrote a mentor playbook to help mentors better mentor women who are there to learn how to code. It’s online, and I wrote the content for it”.
Q: Has there ever been an instance where you thought you were treated differently or discriminated against because you were a woman in the tech industry?
Gabi: “I could go on for a while. I can remember where I was when I considered whether I wanted to have a coding career, and I remember thinking ‘I could do this’. And I remember looking around and noticing that no one looked like me. I’m in a room with a bunch of people that don’t look like me who I can’t relate to. I was in a programming class and everyone in that class was a guy. Our classes were huge (300, 400 people in an auditorium) and there would be maybe 3 or 4 women in there.
When I was working as a Systems Administrator, I was walking someone back to a server room which I managed at a client site and they were doing some phone work and I asked them ‘what are you working on today?’ and they just looked at me and said ‘oh, you know, tech-y stuff. Don’t worry about it’. And I was the one with the keys, because it was my server room. There’s been other little moments like that. I once had someone tell me that I was too pretty to do my job.”
Q: Is it harder being a female in the dev industry because people don’t take you as seriously?
Gabi: “That’s the thing. You have to think about your image all the time, because you want to be taken seriously but you also want to be presented as a professional. There’s a balancing act that has to happen, because you can’t be too girly. You feel like you have to fully commit to something that can be taken seriously by men. Which isn’t fair, and that’s where having more diversity in our industry helps.”
Lex: “It’s been more passive so far. I was at a large software company for two years and then started looking around for dev opportunities. I’ll say this: Just from my time at Launch Code, I noticed that women tend to look at the requirements and apply to jobs where they think they match every single requirement. But guys tend to apply for jobs that they think they can just do. Very fortunately, that was mentioned to me early on when I first started Launch Code, and it changed my world (apply like a man!). So, I applied for all these positions that were way over my head and I got interviews for them.”
Gabi: “I have a theory behind that. I think it’s the whole idea of when you’re being constantly told that you don’t look like someone who would fill that position, you’re looking for evidence of why you should be in that position. So it’s harder to bypass something that’s a ‘requirement’. Where a guy fits in, so he’s like ‘sure, I could do that’.”
Lex: “To add to that point, employers might be thinking ‘he could probably learn it on his own and figure it out. He might not be there yet, but we can get him there’. Versus with a woman, they might be thinking “she’s not there quite yet, and we don’t have the extra time it will take to train her up’.”
Q: Why do they assume that a woman will never get to that point?
Lex: “They just haven’t seen it happen a lot.”
Gabi: “They haven’t seen enough women in that position. It’s about representation. Again, when a lot of people, especially men, think of a capable developer, they think of a man. When a woman comes to you, your internal bias needs extra confirmation that she’s going to be able to handle it.”
Lex: “Yeah, that extra reassurance. That’s sometimes why I feel like I have to be a lot better at what I do. There’s an even higher bar”.
Q: Do you have any stories of sexism that you’ve experienced in the workplace?
Gabi: “Oh, plenty. I worked at a company that was a software startup. The Director of Development had said (in a professional space) that he would never hire a woman again, because they had hired one woman developer and she didn’t work out. That environment was just not a good place for me to be as a female. It was another reason why I had to move on. It was too entrenched in ‘the good ol’ boys club’.”
Q: When’s a time when you felt empowered as a female in the dev industry?
Lex: “The tech community here is really great. Women in Tech is here, and this charter is everywhere. They’re super supportive. I mean, it’s incredible how much support there is. Everyone is trying to uplift women and young girls. Even guys are jumping into it. I did a bit of coding workshops (as far as mentoring) and the support is insane. Now that it’s super cool to be inclusive and have a diverse group, a lot of companies are trying.”
Gabi: “It’s kind of required if you want to have good people at your company. Whether it’s genuine or not, at least it’s in the right direction.
I have to agree with what Lex said about the local Kansas City Women in Technology community. The guys are just as supportive as the women. I think it’s cool because the KC tech community is very open to bringing in new people and it’s still accessible (not exclusive). I think that really helps.
I’m the Mentor Director for Coding and Cocktails, and I help out with a lot of the Mentor Director Initiatives. What I do is try to bring in more women and men who want to volunteer and mentor.”
Lex: “I would hear ‘maybe girls just don’t want to be developers’ at my college and in my previous jobs. And it blows my mind, because I don’t think it even gets to that point. For me, I never even considered it as an option, so it’s not like I was thinking, ‘huh, developer? Nah’. It wasn’t even a possibility.”
Gabi: “Nowadays they’re including a lot more coding classes in school curriculums.”
Lex: “I think some of it has to do with how parents raise their kids and what they expose their kids to. For instance, I always excelled in Math. So when you see a kid excelling in Math, where do you usher their talents to go to? Computer Science is a pretty ‘up there’ one, but it was never presented to me. People said I was a great communicator, so I could be a Math teacher.”
Gabi: “You mentioned how people say that women and girls aren’t interested in coding. To that point, I would say that we don’t really know until we remove the barriers.”
Lex: “I try to think about where I was. Because it’s so awesome to see a lot of these development programs popping up in elementary school. I try to think ‘at that age, would I have considered programming?’ I liked computers, but I don’t know…it may have to do with marketing in a sense. I’m not saying ‘let’s make everything pink to attract women!’. I think of Marvel movies and big Blockbuster hits and how things are geared and marketed towards people. I think anything could be for someone if you tell them enough that they need it.”
Q: What’s a good first step for girls and women interested in coding?
Gabi: “It’s about finding those programs and communities where you can learn how to code in a safe and supportive space.”
Q: Do you think Crema does a good job of making sure women feel included? Be honest!
Gabi: “This has been a super supportive environment. I’ve been in other environments where I expected it to be supportive, but there wasn’t really consensus among the leadership and everyone else about what was important and what the priorities were. A lot of inclusivity initiatives or intents fell to the wayside. But I think the Crema values are a great buffer to keep anything like that from happening. As long as you’re truly living out the Crema values, it’s a supportive environment”.
Lex: “I agree. I think there are people here that are actively fighting to make sure it’s a good space for everyone. I remember being super surprised that there were tampons in the bathroom. It’s a point to have those items available. I remember at my other job, I had to pay a quarter to get that.”
Gabi: “I also think that people here are aware. I’ve come across men in Kansas City who have said “oh, what do I know, I’m just a white man” and they’re being serious and genuine in making that super nice gesture. That’s because they’re trying to be inclusive, and they’re aware.”
Lex: “Even with pronouns sometimes. Instead of saying ‘he’ or ‘her’.”
Gabi: “Yeah, that happens a lot in meetings where people will be like ‘we gotta hire a dev guy-or gal!’”
Lex: “I make a point to do little things, because it’s also in my head, too. I still have an idea of a dev person as a guy. Whenever I do my coding demos and there’s a name that needs to be added, I always put a girl name like ‘Jane’ or ‘Kate’. Even when I’m testing my code.”
Gabi: “It’s been a growing process for me as a woman, too. To get over the same barriers and my own internal bias. I just have a different perspective on it because of where I’m coming from. It’s the same issue.”
Q: Any advice for women applying to dev jobs?
Gabi: “There’s this whole ‘fake it til you make it’ thing when applying for dev jobs, which I don’t ascribe to. That’s at times an entitled perspective. But if you’re super honest about where your skills are at and it sounds like an interesting position, you should apply. You can contribute meaningfully without checking all the requirements checkboxes right from the start. It just takes a willingness to learn and grow.”
Rhia Dixon Interview & Suggested Resources
I got a chance to talk with Rhia Dixon, Software Engineer at VeriShip and Diversity & Inclusion Director of Kansas City Women in Technology (KCWiT), about her role in the KC dev community.
Rhia fell in love with coding because of a Coding & Cocktails event that she attended in 2017 when she was still new to tech. She was blown away by how warm and welcoming the members were, and decided to become KC WiT’s Director of Diversity & Inclusion after being involved with the program for several months. Because of this, she suggests attending this event as a good first step into the KC WiT community.
On top of Coding & Cocktails, Rhia recommends TechTalks as a great way to break into the KC tech community. These panels focus on a different theme each month, and gather experts to answers questions on specific topics (previous topics include remote workers, product management, and professional development). A big initiative of KCWiT is to include diversity on these panels, gathering professionals of all genders, orientations and races to share their expertise. Afterward, KCWiT members may host attendees in a Coding & Coffee session (a more intimate setting) to dive deeper into the topics discussed.
Rhia’s role as Director of Diversity and Inclusion is a new position, but she’s learning a lot as she develops strategies around the role’s purpose and initiatives. One of her key goals is to make sure that she’s getting input and asking questions of the community that KCWiT is trying to reach, whether that be through Slack channels or helping to retarget their marketing efforts. Rhia says that within KCWiT’s Slack workspace, they already have channels set up for people of color in tech, LGBTQ+, and Generation X. She says, “I want them [minorities] to use these channels as their own special place to encourage others”. Not only does she hope that people will attend the events, but she also hopes female members will step up to become mentors.
In addition to Slack channels, Rhia is working to make sure her own network is kept up-to-date on KCWiT events and tech career opportunities. KCWiT also invites the Girl Scouts to attend CoderDojoKC so the girls can participate and receive their tech badges.
Rhia also speaks on three main topics: (1) Professional Networking, (2) Diversity and inclusion (team building) and (3) Creating More Useful Logs & Alerts with AWS. If you’re interested in booking Rhia to speak at an event, visit her website.
If you’d like to attend one of these events but are a little apprehensive, feel free to reach out to Gabi or Lex for more info or a familiar face in the crowd :)
Lex Github- https://github.com/Alexandria
Have you experienced similar things as a female in the tech industry? Voice your stories in the comments section below!
*** Men and women alike are welcome to apply to our open App Developer positions as well.
Originally published at https://www.crema.us.