Let’s be clear: Feminism has made visible progress throughout its various waves. Women have won the right to vote, attend college, own property, pursue professional careers, keep our names and nationalities after marriage, serve in the military, bartend, apply for a loan and lots of other things — many of which occurred far too recently.
But just as systemic racism has not been eliminated despite abolishing many explicitly racist laws, the removal of flagrant sexist laws that blocked access to equal opportunity has not actually delivered equal access in all professions. Specifically in tech, there are still very few women who occupy engineering positions.
One of the long-standing questions within the feminist movement has been about how to address the favoritism of male traits — also known as the sameness-difference debate. Should women challenge the notion that these traits are inherently male by arguing that women can be just as logical, strong and confident as men? Or should we promote the overlooked qualities women have to offer and urge society to place greater value on traits like emotional intelligence, network building and organizational skills?
These divergent approaches — as well as a lack of agreement on the nature and true extent of the problem — have prevented a sense of unity within the women-in-tech debates: One camp believes that women have always been at a disadvantage and justifiably need more support to obtain an equal playing field. The other claims that, provided we receive the same access to technical opportunities, we should “do tech” on our own initiative.
As a female engineer working in tech, I too have struggled with my feelings of how grateful or aggrieved I should be. I recognize the privilege I enjoy in having my job in the first place, as well as the many changes to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Still, I can’t help but feel that the odds are stacked against women in technical fields.
Having started off as a less technical data analyst, I eventually pivoted into an engineering role, but the transition was not easy. I enrolled in part-time master’s courses in computer science in addition to working my full-time job. I became a regular attendee of tech meetups and a consumer of blogs and podcasts to learn the newest technologies and lingo. And I took on additional personal projects to prove I had the necessary skills for a more technical role.
It worries me that other women without my resources (both financial and social) might be unable to make this transition, and, like me, would not be nudged in a technical direction at an early age. While I am a big advocate for developing resilience and personal motivation to overcome obstacles, equating lawful access to technical roles with full and equal opportunity seems both imprecise and problematic to me. The data consistently shows that men outnumber women in tech roles — evidence that women still face significant internal and external barriers to accessing them.
As I’ve been thinking about this topic, I’ve come to wonder which issues — aside from general structural barriers such as work-life balance and the pay gap — make closing the gender divide uniquely difficult for women in tech sectors, specifically in engineering roles.
3 Intersecting Problems Facing Women Engineers
- There is no community for the female nerd.
- Women in technical spaces experience a double-consciousness because we are always outnumbered.
- Modern feminism has done little to improve the conditions for women in tech.
There Is No Community for the Female Nerd
There are plenty of TV shows about male nerds — Silicon Valley, The Big Bang Theory and Mr. Robot, to name only a few — and they largely reflect the reality of tech and STEM fields in which women make few appearances.
The one notable exception might be Halt and Catch Fire, which features a female software engineer as the lead character, but she still operates in a male-dominated environment. None of these TV shows portray female nerds who form their own communities. We know how empowering it is to see yourself represented in media. The void of examples in pop culture can prevent girls from projecting themselves into their own tech milieu, and it provides little social incentive to become a female nerd. Instead, it sends the message that women can aspire only to being accepted into the male nerd community.
At an early age, girls learn that boys are considered better at “brainy” tasks. This encourages self-selection out of social clubs and organizations that might foster more learning and preparation for STEM fields, like chess, math or science clubs or hobbies such as tinkering with computers and playing video games. This self-selection carries forward into college, where women may be less likely to pursue a STEM field due to the sparse female community or a lack of exposure to the area of study. Entering the workforce, women may be deterred by the male nerd culture, which — while mostly innocent and goofy — can sometimes breed an unpleasant or even hostile environment for women.
One engineering team I joined equipped me with a nerf gun, as they would routinely open fire on each other. While I appreciated the gesture of inclusivity, I would have rather participated in activities that didn’t involve being pelted with foam bullets while trying to work. Beyond the work environment, the male nerd culture can even manifest itself in the naming of technology itself. (My favorite example is the Groovy programming language, which has a string type referred to as the “GString.”)
The number of girls who excel in math and science easily exceeds the number that enroll in STEM programs, demonstrating that the social environment of STEM fields can be a key factor in deterring girls from pursuing a technical career path. Paradoxically, the rates of women enrolling in STEM programs and pursuing technical careers is higher in countries with lower gender equality. The likely explanation is that these women choose STEM professions because they offer a clearer path to financial freedom and personal autonomy, while women in gender-equal countries can be more selective and opt out of environments that don’t seem appealing.
These examples suggest that significant cultural issues can emerge in male-dominated fields and make them unwelcoming to women. While nerd communities offer many benefits to their members such as networks of support and camaraderie, they can be problematic if they exclude women or fail to offer a diversity of thinking styles and social interactions.
Furthermore, girls could benefit from encouragement at an early age to play with computers instead of dolls and to develop interests that would embolden them to apply for STEM programs in college and form communities of their own so as not to always be outnumbered by men.
Women in Tech Experience a Double-Consciousness
In any space where women pursue a technical ambition or interest — at university, in our career, at conferences and meetups — we will almost unfailingly be in the minority. While we may feel different degrees of comfort (or lack thereof) in these situations, most of us will inevitably experience a sense of otherness, leading us to wonder whether we really belong.
W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double-consciousness” to refer to the experience of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of the majority group. He describes how this situation can lead to judgmental self-evaluation and alienation from oneself. Feminist theorists have adopted this term to explain the similar experience women deal with in a patriarchal world. The central thesis of double-consciousness is that, even in situations where individuals of an underrepresented group don’t face explicit discrimination, they still suffer from oppressive stereotypes and an anxiety to conform.
Many women fight the subconscious or explicit assumption that technical roles are inherently male, because most of them are occupied by men. This was not always the case. In fact, computer programming was once considered “women’s work” because software was initially seen as a more secretarial task, while men dominated the hardware space.
Though they’re under-recognized today, women led the way on many achievements in programming history, such as developing the very first computer program, inventing the first compiler, devising the “break point” and overseeing the development of the Cobol language — still the one most government and financial infrastructure is built on. It’s these trailblazing accomplishments that prove technical aptitude is unrelated to gender and based purely on cultural perceptions.
Unfortunately, cultural perceptions can overshadow personal aptitude. And in some cases, this may also be perpetuated by women themselves. After joining a women-in-tech distribution list offering career advice on how to be a self-advocate, I was surprised to see linked articles entitled “How to Talk About Your Skills Without Sounding Like a Showoff” and “7 Ways to Talk About Your Accomplishments Without Sounding Like a Braggart.” These self-empowerment articles seem almost self-defeating, as they start with the premise that women shouldn’t be showing off or bragging in the first place.
When I decided to make a career switch into engineering, I found that my male colleagues generally had more practical advice on how to do so and encouraged me to be more assertive in my career choices. My female co-workers’ advice was typically to be patient and trust that I would eventually be assigned a fitting role. In my pursuit to become more assertive and confident in my technical abilities, I was occasionally called “arrogant” or a “know-it-all” — though only ever by other women.
These examples, while purely anecdotal, elucidate how challenging it can be to find helpful career advice on how to pivot into a technical role. In many cases, women are not just held back by external discrimination and their own insecurities, but by those of other women too. The issue I see is that we aren’t just fighting to prove that we can succeed in the role itself, we’re battling the perception that we shouldn’t be in that role in the first place while having to define for ourselves, for men, and for other women what success actually looks like.
Modern Feminism Has Done Little to Advance Women in Tech
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, received critical acclaim for her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In it, she shifted the narrative of feminism away from women as victims of patriarchy, instead portraying us as agents of self-actualization and personal empowerment.
Despite the accolades, Sandberg also received considerable criticism for ignoring many realities women in the workplace face: the systemic and unconscious biases, the privilege necessary to lean in in the first place and the failure to recognize the power women amass when we band together as opposed to promoting ourselves individually. The irony is that, while the pitch to lean in is positioned as a means of attaining career advancement, it actually benefits corporations more than individual women. When the responsibility is placed on the individual to further her equality, it relieves pressure on the company to make necessary structural changes.
This shift from the collective to the individual has also taken place in the political sphere, and feminism has been unable to regain the political influence it had achieved in the ’70s. While it has arguably generated more awareness in mainstream media than ever, my view is that the modern feminist movement hasn’t actually delivered meaningful policy changes — such as equal pay or federally mandated parental leave or subsidized childcare — and has instead enabled a consumerist feminism centered on empowerment marketing.
These same expectations of personal motivation and self-promotion are often placed on women in technical fields. While the industry has made progress toward understanding unconscious bias and improving upon hiring practices, I think more work is needed to explain why so few women pursue technical careers in the first place.
Universities and tech corporations alike could do more to encourage women to enter the field, as there are few social incentives to do so today. Society at large could expand efforts to urge girls to code at an early age and engage in the same computer-related hobbies that boys do, which could boost female interest in computer science and related majors.
Companies Must Choose to Drive Institutional Change
When I started my job as a data analyst and wrote my first Bash script, I remember the joy I experienced from automating a report, as well as the frustration of not having discovered coding earlier in life. I felt I would never be able to pursue a technical career path without going back to school and starting over completely. What I wish I had known then is that it’s never too late to start over. Learning doesn’t necessarily have to be achieved through a degree; it can also be attained through self-guided teaching, one-off courses or just being curious enough to Google around and ask questions.
I believe many women would enjoy coding and other technical work if only they were exposed to it earlier in life. Unfortunately for most women, entering a technical field requires a career change, which is ambitious and daunting for anyone, even without gender stereotypes and social deterrents. And personally, I don’t believe that self-determination and self-promotion alone are going to enable this shift.
The reality is that tech is hard — arguably harder than most other professions. It not only requires accruing deep expertise with a variety of tools and software, but the patience and diligence to debug these tools and the willingness to not merely make use of them but to understand how they work under the hood. What’s more, the tools change all the time! Tech professions require a fundamental comfort with discomfort. You can’t be afraid of the unknown, but you have to be humble and adaptable enough to embrace every situation as a learning opportunity.
I believe that companies — acting either independently or incentivized by government policies — have more power than individuals to bring about social change. While they might create short-term inconveniences, these changes can pay off in the long run. Here are some places to start:
- Waiting to fill a position with a qualified female candidate, which can attract greater numbers later and transform the work environment.
- Offering workshops to teach women technical skills and support each other in their education, making a career switch more accessible.
- Reviewing job descriptions and interview practices to ensure they are fairly evaluating candidates and not placing too many constraints on time or domain-specific knowledge.
- Establishing relationships with female university programs and bootcamps to generate a diverse pipeline.
If organizations will commit to implementing more inclusive policies, I believe we will see a snowball effect that increases the number of women in tech by creating more welcoming environments for the female nerd. The only question is how quickly we can get there.