Follow the technical road (in high heels)

Photo by Svetlana Boyko on Unsplash

In recent years we’ve seen an explosion in content about and for women in the workplace, and women in tech specifically. Broadly speaking, there are two types of approaches to this subject:

Play the game: Represented by the esteemed and critiqued book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, this type of content focuses on getting women to succeed within the existing framework, hopefully getting them into positions of power where they will be able to help others.

Smash the patriarchy: Represented by the 2020 book The Fix by Michelle King, this type of content focuses on highlighting all the ways the system is broken and has to change for women to succeed.

Smash the patriarchy is often opposed to play the game advice because they feel it’s literally playing into the hands of the existing power structures. While this is true in some ways, I personally think waiting for the revolution to come is not the best course of actions for all individuals, we should probably try to do both, in appropriate contexts.

There is a 3rd genre, represented by books like Brotopia by Emily Chang. This type of content can be summarized as “everything sucks, you’re not imagining it, it’s not your fault”. I’ve stopped reading this kind of book because I already know I’m not imagining it and it’s not my fault (though not everything sucks, at least not all the time), so I feel it doesn’t help me grow, it’s just depressing. This content is important to understand, but not for me, not right now.

Most of the content written about women in the workplace targets women on the management track. I think women trying to make their way up in technical roles face a unique challenge which is not being addressed yet. In this post I will try to share my perspective on some of the obstacles in our way and how to overcome them.

Before we begin:

  • I will not go into nature-vs-nurture. Let evolutional psychologists and sociologists figure that one out, not my field of expertise. For the sake of this post, the only thing that matters are behaviors and attitudes as they are observed, whatever their root cause is.
  • Women behave differently on average as a group. I am writing from accepted research and from my own experience. Of course we are all individuals and some of what I’m saying will not apply to everyone, this goes without saying (there, I said it).
  • I am well aware there are other under represented minorities and intersectional identities in tech with their own problems, some of the content here will be relevant for them too, some won’t be. I don’t presume to speak for them.

Whistling Beyoncé

Starting from an early age, girls get the message they don’t belong in STEM. Even the best intentioned parents can’t control everything their children hear and see – popular culture, teachers, friends… We are constantly exposed to messages and images telling us girls aren’t good at math.

Photo by Teo Zac on Unsplash

In his book Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele describes a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” which occurs when there is a negative stereotype associated with a group or social identity we feel we belong to. Our awareness and fear of confirming that stereotype will undermine our efforts, sometimes causing the stereotype to appear true. An example of this is that simply believing that women are expected to do worse on math tests will make women perform worse on math tests. Another group who was told that while some tests have a bias against women, this specific test does not – performed just as well as men. This effect is very strong, and it causes a negative feedback loop that is holding women back.

Story time

When I started out my CS degree I had no idea what I was doing. Other guys there seemed to know their way around a CLI and Linux but my last programming experience was in 3rd grade, telling the turtle in Logo to do something 1M times and waiting for it to finish which was after the class ended. There weren’t many girls around, so I don’t know how much they knew. I was so clueless I assigned variables from right to left instead of left to right. Like this:

public class Point {
   private int _x;
   private int _y;

   public Square(int x, int y) {
       x = _x;
       y = _y;
   }
}

(Our intro to CS class was in Java)

My private members weren’t getting the right values and I had no idea what was going on. So I turned to the guy sitting next to me and asked for his help. He looked at my code and said: “Are you stupid or what?”.

How it works

Obligatory xkcd #385

Let’s look at this interaction: The guy was obviously a jerk. He may have been a jerk to other guys as well, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter – being the only woman in the room, and aware of “girls aren’t good with computers” meant that as a woman, the comment is taken differently than if I were a man. For a man it’s an unpleasant interaction, but for a woman it’s more than that. It has a broader context. It’s read as another sign she doesn’t belong.

Even without such interactions, which unfortunately do happen from time to time, just being aware of the stereotype can cause women (and other stereotyped minorities, of course) to be afraid to speak up and ask questions. If they are wrong the penalty (real and perceived) will be larger than for other majority groups who don’t have to prove themselves. Instead, they try to figure it out themselves, without getting help and essential feedback. What if, after that interaction I’d tried to figure it out myself – I could spend hours on a simple problem where someone could have just pointed me in the right direction in a minute. You have to remember there was no Google back then, but also that when you are that clueless – you wouldn’t even know which terms to search for or how to read the results.

On top of the time wasted on doing things by yourself, the mental energy spent on fighting the stereotype in your own mind takes its toll as well. Sometimes this leads to getting lower grades, which seems to confirm you don’t really belong and so on.

Don’t believe the stereotype: you belong.

You belong just as much as any dude who tells you they’ve been programming since before they were born. Even if they are good programmers, which is not necessarily true, you can definitely catch up. Don’t sweat it.

Get a support group

One of the easiest and most effective interventions from Steele’s research was to work in a group with other women (this applied to other minorities as well). Seeing that other people have similar struggles helps you feel normal and allows you to feel safe asking for help when you need it. Facing things together, helping each other, celebrating successes together – improves performance further, creating a positive feedback loop.

All’s well that ends well

After Mr. “what are you stupid” finished, I looked at him and said: “I guess you don’t want to help. I’ll ask someone else.”. Which I did. And someone else helped. Just to show you that not everyone in tech is a horrible person. And here we are, almost 20 years later, and I still know how to assign variables.

Do I have to wear a hoodie?

No, you do not have to wear a hoodie. But it can get cold in offices, so you should probably have some kind of jacket handy.

But seriously, when we think “software engineer”, we think classic “hacker”: a young man, wearing a hoodie (or maybe just a black t-shirt if it’s warm), sitting in a dark room in front of green letters running across a dark-mode screen. Sitting alone in a room in front of a computer screen for 9 hours a day wearing a hoodie over your head is not attractive to most women, and not just because of the lack of style. Women, on average, don’t enjoy working in isolation. They tend to choose occupations that include human interaction.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

There’s a lot of talk about women in STEM, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of women in biology, and that’s a science. So I think this image is one of the root causes that deter women from a career in specific branches of science – those associated with “lone geniuses”. So – math, physics and computer science specifically, which is what we’re talking about today.

How it really is

Good news! You can, if you really want to, sit in a dark room in front of a computer all day with little-to-no human interaction, but most software engineering jobs are not like that. In fact, one of the most common complaints of software engineers is they have too many meetings. I’m not saying useless meetings are a good thing, but a lack of human interaction is not usually a problem when working in tech.

In your daily work you’ll probably have a quick standup meeting with your team every day or at least a few times a week, you’ll also have a 1:1 with your manager, a sprint planning and retro every so often. But that is not all! On top of regularly scheduled meetings, you’ll have a lot of impromptu communication with product managers, designers, other software engineers etc. This is all required for you to be able to do your job – you will have to communicate with people a lot to understand what you’re supposed to be developing, ask questions, help others etc. The more senior you get the more talking, presenting and collaborating you’ll have to do. And of course, tech jobs are not devoid of casual conversation and office gossip, even if these days it’s just over slack. Fun!

Juniors: Careful, it’s a trap

Women are often good at all this communication and collaboration work (called soft skills, even though they’re hard!), and tend to gravitate towards it. Especially if they have doubts about their software engineering skills. This can cause junior women to focus on and get rewarded for exhibiting soft skills too early, before they’ve established their technical credibility. This will hurt the professional options they have open to them later. So be careful about balancing the different aspects of your work: when you start out your career focus on the tech side of things. Doing diversity work, collaboration stuff etc. is not as important. You can do some of those things if you want, but get consistent feedback from your manager and more senior peers to ensure you are on track for delivering software, which is what you are paid to do and what you will get promoted on at the early stages in your career.

Story time

During my career I was asked several times if I wanted to become an engineering manager. Often, when I expressed some feedback on the direction I thought the product should go, I was asked why I’m not a product manager. I was never asked if I wanted to become an architect, even after showing my strength in software design. In fact, I was deemed to be “not passionate” about technology (you can read more about that here) and discouraged from following that path. If I refused a management position I was deemed to be unambitious instead of just… not interested in management, despite being vocal about my actual ambitions. I felt, everywhere I turned, women were being discouraged from following technical paths, it was like no one, including women themselves, could imagine a woman in a senior technical role.

This hit me hard after seeing several threads where women were asking advice on dealing with pretty normal workplace dilemmas in women-in-tech Facebook groups, and all of them got answers basically telling them they should leave the technical path and become PMs. This response was so common it started to look something like this:

Software engineer who is a woman: I don’t like my manager, what should I do?
Responses: Become a PM.
SWE WIAW: My work is getting boring, what options do I have to change things up?
Responses: Become a PM.
SWE WIAW: I want to learn a new programming language, where can I find good resources?
Responses: Become a PM.
SWE WIAW: Sneezes
Responses: Become a PM!

Don’t sneeze

Why is it so hard to imagine a woman in a senior technical role? I think it starts with preconceptions I mentioned above about what software engineer looks like. If you read about what makes a good senior++ engineer it will probably include excellent technical skills combined with communication, collaborating and mentoring. But when women exhibit those same skills – the technical skills somehow become invisible and they are pushed into engineering management and product management roles.

There is nothing wrong with being an EM or a PM. If that’s what you want to do. However, if you’re being pushed into that role because you have excellent soft skills, but you’d like to have a chance to develop your technical skills and see where that takes you… Then that’s what you should do. I think as more women make this choice, the message that soft skills enhance technical skills and make us better technical leaders may become more obvious. Then it might be easier to imagine women in senior technical roles, and it will become a legitimate and even expected choice.

Being Glue

Most of what I discussed in this section is explained clearly in Tanya Riley’s must-see talk “Being Glue”. Watch it. Re-watch it. Send it to your manager. Make them re-watch it. I hope this gives you what you need to be able to push back on the pressure of anyone trying to push you off the technical path. It’s not easy, but you owe it to yourself.

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

Presumed competence

According to the latest statistics, women are still only 25% of software engineers. When people think “software engineer”, they think “man”. When a woman walks into the room, she’ll be assumed to be someone from HR, or maybe a receptionist or a designer – not a software engineer. And if she’s recognized as a legitimate software engineer, she’ll be assumed to be junior or just incompetent.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with being HR, or a receptionist or a designer – those are all important roles and should be respected. However, in this context – it means having your professional competence questioned all. the. time.

Story time

I have so many stories about this I don’t even know which one to choose!

Should I share the one where I was having lunch with a candidate (that used to be part of the process before COVID) and he assumed I was from HR. When I corrected him and said I was a software engineer, he asked if this was my first job in the industry. I was 36 or so at the time. I guess I could take that as a compliment I look young but… I don’t think he would have asked a man my age if it was his first job.

Or maybe that time when I came back from maternity leave and my team lead asked the new guy to fill me in. The new guy proceeds to ask “Why should I? What does she know about this?”. The team lead looked at him and said “She wrote this code”.

Oh, I know! Maybe about the time when a technical expert came in to do due diligence on the company where I was leading the development. He walked into the room and asked: “I thought there would be two representatives from R&D here”. My colleague looked confused and said “Yeah, her”. The technical expert continued to talk over my head to my colleague who kept trying to redirect the conversation back at me because he didn’t actually know the answers. It was so ridiculous I wasn’t even mad.

Anyway, the point is: Men walk into a room and are presumed to be competent. Women “don’t look the part” so when they walk into a room they are not presumed to be anything.

May I see some credentials?

The day before I started my CS degree someone I knew called me to talk (back when this was appropriate behavior, somehow) and tried to convince me I didn’t need a degree and I should just start working. I told him that as a woman, I couldn’t just “start working”, I would have to prove my worth constantly everywhere I went, and my degree would help prove I was “the real thing”. I have no idea how I had this intuition at the time. But it was true. I’ve had to metaphorically wave my credentials in people’s faces so many times it’s just, sigh.

Who needs titles?

Women, that’s who. Having a senior title helps you prove competence men are presumed to have. No additional cost.

Some companies pride themselves on not having titles or levels. Everyone here is a software engineer, they say. If you want more responsibility – take it! If you want professional respect – prove you’re worth it! Anyone can call themselves a senior engineer – so it means nothing.

This all seems to make sense on the surface, but the reality is that if you don’t assign titles – people will assign themselves titles. And since, on average, women tend to undervalue and be cautious about how they present themselves – the people assigning themselves senior titles will be predominantly men. Thus contributing to the perception that women are not senior.

If your company gives out titles – make sure you get one that accurately presents your skills. No, not that one. The next level up. If your company does not give out titles but it’s common practice to have an external title (e.g. on LinkedIn) ask someone that you know has your back what they think your title should be, and give yourself that. Or check out how your colleagues are presenting themselves and do the same. You’re worth just as much as they think they are.

Is that always a good thing?

This is not to say a senior title gives you a free pass to make decisions unilaterally without convincing other stake holders your solution is correct. It does, however, give you some authority so not everything you say is second guessed and you don’t have to build your credibility from the absolute bottom up.

The other side of this is when you don’t have a senior title yet and you do have to prove yourself. That’s annoying, but remember – it’s only temporary. First, presumed competence is only when you walk into a room where no one knows you. If they know you and you’re doing well (of course you are!) there’s nothing to presume. Second, if you prove yourself consistently (and loudly in the right places) you will eventually get that title you deserve, and when you do – it will save you time on proving yourself over and over.

Affirmative (re)action

Sometimes people will think all this equality stuff has just gone too far! Equal opportunity is fine and just, of course everyone should be treated the same, but we’ve taken it all the way to equal outcomes! The bar is being lowered for women!

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

No one is lowering the bar for women.

Never in the history of the world would anyone hire a less qualified woman over a more qualified man for the same job with the same pay. This is not a thing that happens.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Let’s imagine, just for one second, there is a man with objectively equal qualifications and skills (as if we can really measure such things objectively) and a woman got the job because of “extra bonus points” for diversity. Where is the problem? They have equal skills, why shouldn’t she get the opportunity? Not giving her the opportunity because she’s a woman… that would be the exact mirror image of the same “discrimination”. Only… who knows how many opportunities she didn’t get because she’s a woman? And how many opportunities were open to this man because of presumed competence, bro-culture, or not having the weight of negative stereotypes dragging him down constantly? If this were really a problem we’d see the numbers of women in tech going way up in the recent years, and that hasn’t happened. So let’s not worry about this imaginary scenario too much.

How to respond

Sometimes, someone will find it important to share that you were hired for diversity. First, refer to the previous section to remind yourself why this is not true.

If it’s a colleague – try to recruit allies. Your manager can help (if you trust them), but from my experience, management can shake their finger at people talking like this, but as long as they feel it’s socially acceptable – they will shake management feedback off and continue to say such things. They’re so cool and edgy saying things everyone knows but is just too afraid to say, management won’t keep them down! If you can get even one senior person, best if it’s a man, to push back when they hear something like that, it will work wonders. You will feel supported and that person will not feel comfortable saying things like that again.

If it’s your manager and you feel they have good intentions – try to explain to them why saying things like that is hurtful and wrong (or ignore it, if you think it’s not worth the confrontation). If you think their intention is to put you down or they’re not listening to what you say – try to get out of there as soon as you can. Staying under a manager like that will mean a constant uphill battle. You’ll have to do your work while proving you’re good even though you’re “just” a diversity hire… It’s quite likely to have a damaging effect on your career and your self esteem.

If you’re a manager or a colleague thinking of saying something like this – don’t. Ever ever ever. Even if your intentions are good. Especially if your intentions are bad (WTH!). There is no possible positive outcome from saying something like that. Your “diversity hire” probably already feeling insecure just by being one of the few women around, adding this bit of information is just going to make her feel stressed, probably hurt her performance, and maybe make her question if she should stay at all. If she feels confident in her skills – she’ll think you’re an idiot, and that’s not good for your relationship. Just don’t.


I stopped wearing high heels a few years ago, after I was convinced they’re bad for me. But I still wear dresses and I’m doing fine professionally. Just saying.