On responsibility as a woman in tech

We need more female engineers. But what happens when that’s not what women want to do?

I’ve never liked fulfilling stereotypes. Female, Asian, young… a few descriptors, and you’ve already formed assumptions about who I am, what I do, how I see the world.

That’s not your fault; it’s how we’re wired. But even as a child, I sought to defy expectations, subvert first impressions. On the surface, I’m probably what you’d expect: an Ivy League student from an upper-middle-class family, planning to enter an industry where people of my race (who represent 5% of the population) consist of 30 to 40% of the workforce.

But I didn’t get into college by winning science fairs or debate tournaments, the stereotypically Asian formula. At fifteen, I bought a camera and started shooting photography. I founded an online fashion magazine later that year, then a nonprofit called Fashion Cares at sixteen. By the time the stereotype I fit had shifted solidly from race to gender and everyone assumed I would be another girl going into the fashion industry, I graduated in the top percent of my class, set on a career in tech.

Oddly, programming was never on my horizon. By high school, I knew that I wanted to found a tech company someday. I enjoyed my STEM classes and was a year ahead of my grade in math, taking AP Calculus BC as a junior. In fact, I took the vast majority of the AP courses that my school offered, with the notable exception of AP Computer Science.

Even now, it’s difficult for me to decipher the subconsciously gendered mental process behind that choice, apart from the pervasive sense that programming wasn’t for me. I never thought that it was too difficult or beyond my capabilities as a girl. But I’m sure that somewhere, in the back of my mind, there was the vague visual of a solitary hacker in a dark room, typing indecipherable lines of code between World of Warcraft sessions. I respected what programmers could do, but it didn’t feel accessible, and I didn’t have any personal inclination toward it.

It took a full year of college, involved on campus with CORE and immersed in the New York tech community, to shift that paradigm enough that I decided to double-major in computer science and philosophy, joining the estimated 18% of computer science majors who are female. I heard again and again that we needed more women in engineering, constantly experienced the assumption that I lacked competence because I wasn’t “technical,” listened to story after story of female founders who struggled because their products depended on outsourcing their engineering. So, at last, I took the leap. And guess what? Programming is really fun.

The catch?

I still don’t want to be an engineer. Not full-time, for the rest of my life, anyway. And a lot of the women I know majoring in computer science don’t, either. They often gravitate toward roles in product management and design that incorporate their technical knowledge, but also call for interpersonal skills or an eye for aesthetics.

Should we be concerned? After all, it’s crossed my mind more than once that I’m hindering the push for women in tech if I don’t use my degree to its fullest. When I talk to male computer science majors who know that they want to be engineers from graduation, it’s difficult to not feel like a cliché as I look for product internships or learn best practices for UI/UX.

“I sometimes wonder if even many of my fellow women might no longer take me seriously once I take off the engineer hat. I often feel like a fraud even among women, a pretender with no right to be as vocal as I am about marginalization, since I deserve the stereotypes — after all, I am a walking collection of them. I feel a need to prove myself to not only men, but also to a feminist discourse that seems to tell me women in tech are equal and valued — but only if they are engineers.”
Jessica Yang, Ladies Storm Hackathons

In November of last year, Mattel’s Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer caused furor by perpetuating negative views of women in engineering — namely, that they don’t program so much as “design” the products that men create. Some people argued that it was a harmless book for kids, but that assumption (explicit or implicit) is real. And it’ll persist until female engineers are too prevalent to be dismissed. Knowing that, I feel responsible for doing my part to challenge the status quo. After all, if it isn’t our job to change stereotypes, whose is it? And how do we change them if they fit?

A commenter on the Refinery29 “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer” article.

I think that there are two layers to the conflict that need to be addressed. First, women should do what they love. Yes, we live in a world that raises boys and girls differently, and that difference shapes the way we think, affects our interests and experiences. It needs to change. But your first responsibility isn’t to women everywhere; it’s to you. If systems engineering isn’t your deal, why should you feel guilty? What’s important is that you know firsthand. A lot of women never get that far because barriers, both perceived and real, prevent them from trying. Feminism isn’t about doing exactly what men do; it’s about giving women the choice to decide what they want and not allowing stereotypes to constrain their options. It’s one step to know that it’s possible as a woman to become an engineer; it’s another to see that as a future for yourself.

And second, we should place more value on the roles that women in tech most commonly hold today. In a world where people are separated into technical and non-technical, it’s easy to feel expendable or illegitimate if you fall into the latter category, even if it’s by choice. After all, engineers are the “makers,” typically considered the smartest and most crucial people in any tech company. While I strongly disagree with the main argument in Francine Hardaway’s “Why Women Shouldn’t Code,” she gets one part right — women don’t have to be engineers to matter. What they do now matters, too.

“Hire them [women] for the talents they have that tech companies sorely need: marketing, leadership, human capital attraction, and negotiating skills. And then don’t sideline them by calling those “staff” instead of “line” functions. Instead, recognize that a product does not make a company, and that even in a company whose product is software, many other skills are required at which women have always excelled.”
Francine Hardaway, co-founder of Stealthmode Partners