women in computer science

Fighting Stereotypes: #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Once upon a time a software company posted pictures of their employees. The end.

Or not. One of their engineers happened to be a beautiful woman. Out of nowhere she started getting comments and messages, “You don’t look like an engineer, are you sure you’re not a model they hired to pretend to be an engineer?” And ruder. Her response? #ILookLikeAnEngineer

When I first started down the path of becoming a programmer people would tell me that the money wasn’t good (it was just after the dot com crash) or the hours were awful or any number of negatives. Then they would say wouldn’t you rather be a teacher? Or a project manager? Or a product owner? Or a designer? No, actually, I enjoy the act of programming.

There’s a stereotype around what software engineers look like. The effect of that stereotype is that people who don’t fit the stereotype constantly have to explain why they want to be a software engineer. Since women are assumed to be worse at math than men the reason they want to be software engineers is often thought to be something other than love of the (at times) mathematical nature of the work. Instead of defending ideas that I have around programming I end up defending that I can even have those ideas as a woman.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign touched me. I may not look like a model but I have had been told I don’t look like an engineer. I posted my picture to twitter. I write software. I am an engineer. I look like an engineer.

A week later my boss at Billups asked me if I’d seen #ILookLikeAnEngineer. I showed him my post. He said they wanted to help with the Indiegogo campaign. Then he and the owner of Billups threw the weight of the whole company behind helping get the best possible out-of-home billboard campaign for the project. The team handled the campaign from conception to execution, organizing the printers, getting good deals through contacts in the area, making the whole thing bigger and better pro bono. Yes, pro bono, no charge for our services.

We got the message all over the Bay area – we have coverage in Oakland (Coliseum), Bay Bridge, 101 (Santa Clara & Palo Alto), downtown SF, BART stations. Media formats include: Bulletins (static & digital), Metro-Lights, 2-sheets. (Yes, I’m quoting a coworker who was talking about what we did. I just build the software that helps organize the data and process, everything I know about the process comes from amazing people like Kristana.) AND we partnered with a great data company called ESRI that makes it possible to provide a density map of people in the Bay Area that had a Computer / Mathematical focus for strategic targeted planning. (They also often host the local #golang meetup.)

All that launched this week. What started with me caring about how software engineers who don’t fit the stereotype are viewed became the company I work for doing amazing things for the community. The official press release is here. And yes, they stuck my face on the billboard. Luckily I wasn’t alone and one of the other women who builds Billups’ software was willing to have her picture taken too. So here we are, looking like engineers before going back to work programming in Go, writing tests, creating data structures, building databases, and maintaining our legacy PHP codebase.

Alex & Rebekah looking like engineers

photo credit: Victor Garcia

Categories: feminism, geeky, philosophy, women in computer science | 5 Comments

Compliments, Credit and Gender oh my

A friend of mine complained to me the other day that since we started talking about feminism he’s started spotting things he never saw before. In this case it was Bechdel Test related conversations around movies and TV. He can’t help but wonder if there are more than one named female character and watch to see if they talk about anything other than men. Once you’re in deep it goes beyond spotting instances of imbalance though and also thinking about the context, depth and possible real life reenactments of those imbalances.

For me, this post started with an episode of Agent Carter. In this particular episode Agent Carter goes on a mission with one of the office guys who regularly dismisses her abilities based on her gender. At the end of the episode they are reporting on the mission and he says, “Really Agent Carter was the one who made this mission a success.”

There it is! Acknowledgement! Change based on his observing her skills instead of clinging to stereotypes. Let everyone on the couch leap up and scream “Touchdown!”

Then it happened. Agent Carter says, “It was a team effort.”

This is where everyone goes “aaaawww” and thinks what a great job she is doing at creating allies and being a team player. They’ve both complimented each other and the universe is in gender balance.

Except not.

This episode followed me around for weeks replaying in my head as I tried to figure out why it wanted my attention. Then someone posted about Grace Hopper and I remembered how when I got started in computer science Grace Hopper was presented as a programmer who worked on the team who created COBOL.

This is how her work in COBOL was/is presented: “In 1952, her team created the first compiler for computer languages (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would be used around the world. Though she did not invent COBOL, Hopper encouraged its adaptation.

Which is different than this newer way of looking at her work: “She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944, and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and the one of those who popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.”

As an engineer I am really good at splitting hairs and I’m going to do it here. There are two stories about Grace Hopper. One is where she was on a team that created COBOL and the other is the one where she was instrumental to the creation of COBOL. Both are true.

Likewise with Agent Carter. She was the reason the mission succeeded and she did it as a member of the team. Both are true.

What’s wrong with being on a team that accomplishes things vs being integral to the accomplishment of things?

This is where we start getting into how credit is given. As people try to increase the number of women in science research is done into historical women who can be used as role models. This research seems to be uncovering a sad number of women who discovered things that men got Nobel Prizes for.

And it’s more than about Nobel Prizes. It’s about paychecks. Rock stars get paid more than the band. It’s about respect. Rock stars get more social credit than the band.

Just recently a coworker sent out a status report on a project she’s on. It was amazing, thorough and well written. More than well written – highly readable and entertaining while imparting a lot of real information. I sent her a “good job” email. She replied, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without the team” and named some of the people who helped her.

She wrote that status report. She made it readable. She credited the team. These are all good things.

But…

If all the men reply, “Thanks” and all the women reply, “Thanks, it was a team effort” then who is the creator and who is the support? Who is vital to the project and who is replaceable? Who gets the award for the successful launch and who did the other half of the work? Who gets a raise?

This ties the topic around to women in United States culture and how we receive compliments. I told a male friend today he looked good. He said, “Thanks.” I told a female friend she looked good. She said, “Thanks, this is a new top I really love it.” There are a ton of articles about how women deflect compliments. I don’t need to add to it. What I do want to point out is that women deflecting compliments regarding work also deflects credit away from them.

Grace Hopper was on a team that created the first compiler.

Larry Wall created Perl.

Nobody says Larry Wall worked on a team that resulted in Perl. Larry Wall alone magically created Perl in the basement of a tech company. The Lone Man Made Things.

There are important stories being perpetuated here and women themselves are helping perpetuate them. Grace Hopper didn’t want credit. She wanted to work. I  don’t want credit. I just want to do my job. Yet a side effect of not taking credit, of sharing the compliment, is that women are viewed as supports while men are viewed as creators.

This is a surprisingly actionable realization. The next time someone says “good job” all I have to do is say “thank you.” No more, “Couldn’t have done it without [insert team member name here].”

Is this a bigger solution? No. Because it sucks that the fact that I couldn’t have done it without my team can’t be acknowledged without diminishing my own part. Even if he acknowledges me back. It sucks that women are more likely to be viewed in supportive roles than as leads. It sucks that we want rock stars and not symphony orchestras.

But maybe over time as women accept credit, get credit, get respect maybe we can change the dynamic a little. Maybe a solid productive team will be valued more than a lone genius and then all those lonely geniuses can join really nice teams.

Categories: feminism, geeky, women in computer science | 1 Comment

STEM Scholarship for Women in Tech

Media Ocean, a really great company, is offering a scholarship for women interested in STEM. Details.

Categories: geeky, gratitude, tips, women in computer science | Leave a comment

Doing Something Re: #Gamergate

I just wrote to Intel:

Dear Intel,

At OSCON and through other sources I have heard of Intel’s desire to hire more women in the STEM fields. I believe your engineering department understands the benefits of gender diversity as well as other forms of diversity in programming.

Yet meanwhile your advertising department has pulled advertising from sites like Gamasutra because they allowed a handful of men claim any article discussing the changes in the culture of gaming bullies _them_.

How are female engineers (some of whom have left the game development industry) to trust Intel’s stated desire for diversity in STEM when you’re caving to the influence of the worst parts of sexist geek culture?

I am writing not just as someone who buys Intel products but also as someone who lives in Portland and had considered Intel as an interesting potential employer. Sadly, so long as Intel takes its direction from movements like #Gamergate the idea of Intel as an interesting place for women in computer science to work will have to remain past tense.

Thank you for reading all the way through,
Rebekah Golden
BS Computer Science
Software Engineer – 10 yrs

posted publicly in spite of the fact that it will probably get me doxxed and threats

Categories: feminism, geeky, women in computer science | Leave a comment

Self Confidence and Minorities

Yesterday I gave my pep talk to a friend. The summary?

  1. You do better than you think
  2. Don’t compare yourself to others
  3. Contributions don’t have to be equivalent to be valuable
  4. When you don’t feel as smart as everyone else just work to be handy, helpful and hardworking ™

The irony? Normally I give this talk to other women in the technology field who work predominantly men. Yesterday I gave my pep talk to a black man who works mostly with white people. It got me thinking. Is there an inherent self confidence issue to having obvious physical differences from everyone around you? Maybe particularly physical differences that have been labeled negative, like being overweight?

If I searched I’m sure I would find other stories, researched I would find data. Meanwhile it’s just a thought. Add to that some articles I’ve read recently about confidence and career advancement and I have some more thoughts to think.

Meanwhile, remember, you don’t have to be a super hero to be good at your job. You don’t have to be Bruce Wayne to have value.

Categories: philosophy, women in computer science | 1 Comment

Woman in Computer Science

In the United States certain professions have gender attached. You can be a nurse or a male nurse, a teacher or a male teacher, a chef or a female chef, a computer programmer or a female computer programmer. I’ve known men who worked as librarians, teachers, and speech language therapists and they are all minorities. They go to conferences with hundreds of people and see maybe two or three other men. The male teachers in particular have their motives questions. Why would you want to work with children? (Are you a pedophile?) I am lucky not to have to deal with that question. There is a rudeness to it that hurts my soul.

I am a female computer programmer. I get asked if I wouldn’t rather be a project manager or the person who knows about tech but acts as the go-between for customers and “real” programmers instead of programming. I end up doing a lot of documentation (because it is important) and then worry that I will end up on the Docs team instead of coding where I love the work.

Ignorance and minorities go hand in hand. Not ignorance on the part of the minority but ignorance about minorities. It can range from hostility and stereotypes to the more “innocent” sort of ignorance that I now call Can I Touch Your Hair?

Every type of ignorance deserves its own response and each response is based on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. In the land of computers people are often shy, introverted and have a history of being bullied. Men and women alike with years of high school under their belt where they were the ones who were beat up or had tampons thrown at them. Some grow aggressive, some quietly submit, some educate. I call these categories Malcom X, Uncle Tom, and Martin Luther King. I try to emulate Martin Luther King.

Being on disability as I recover from brain surgery gives me a lot of time to think. I remember back to a moment in time when I brought up how differently women write their resumes than men. We were looking to hire a new team member and we were comparing two candidates, one an over qualified male and the other an under qualified female. My male team lead said, “Since you’ve brought up the gender differences would you mind if I asked how I could tell if a woman was exaggerating her abilities or lying about something on her resume?”

The question really threw me off. I didn’t know how to answer. Instead I walked through her resume and showed him where she had chosen to do projects like move databases from MS Access to MySQL (a smart move) because she was bored with what she was being given. Her history looked a lot like mine.

We ended up hiring neither and kept looking for someone closer to the middle ground.

Now here in the future I feel haunted by this moment. I feel like I missed the chance to educate him on something about women in computer science. Women will only put on their resumes what they absolutely know they can do and have had actual experience with. We know walking in that our skills will be judged from the get go and there will be no time to “learn it on the side after I get hired.” We can’t afford to exaggerate on our resumes or, at the very least, we feel we can’t.

I wish I could go back in time and say, “She seems like a real go-getter. Let’s hire her.”

Categories: feminism, philosophy, women in computer science | 8 Comments

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