Being a woman in tech should not be controversial

by Marijke Luttekes – posted in Tech

Ah, Twitter. The cesspool where white men publicly, and with their own name, publish the weirdest and most harmful takes towards people who are not like them. The so-called “Tech Bro” opinion reflects many things going wrong in companies worldwide, but with a broader audience.

This week was especially rough. Someone asked why there are so few women in tech, and it opened the floodgates to misogynistic tweets about how women’s brains aren’t wired to do maths and thinking and who-knows-what.

I’m going to reflect on some things I read on Twitter this week, supplemented by years of personal, “offline” experiences and conversations.

Some of the takes you’ll find in this article:

  • Gender makes no difference in programming skills.
  • Diversity is not about adding some (white) women to your organization.
  • Can we stop talking about what it’s like to be a woman in IT yet?
  • Sexist men only listen to other men.

Warning: This is a personal rant. I’ve written this in an hour right before publishing while still really mad at a dude on Twitter who dared suggest that women are all juniors and need to get training to fit into a company instead of the men who harm them.

Warning 2: I’m using many “us” and “we” in this article as a general address. I do not speak on behalf of other people, though.

For context:

I’m a white, cisgender, neurodiverse (high-functioning autism/possible ADHD) woman who’s been navigating through male-dominated environments since high-school (approx. since twelve years old). This is also around the time I wrote my first HTML. A couple of years later, I enrolled in IT studies, making my time in IT span between one and two decades.

I live in the EU, where programmers are scarce. It’s relatively easy to get a job (not necessarily a nice one) as a developer. This is different than, for example, in the US, where IT jobs are scarce. Like any woman, I’ve plenty of stories about sexism directed at other women or myself.

Gender makes no difference in programming skill

It doesn’t matter whether you identify as man, woman, non-binary, anything else. Any person can be good at programming. Women actually invented and dominated the field before men smelled opportunity and took over.

That’s it. We shouldn’t need to have this conversation.

Diversity is not about adding some (white) women to your organization

Personal pet peeve incoming: Often have I been part of (or heard about) conversations where people think that diversity means adding more women. Usually, the assumption is that these women are white.

This is wrong on so many levels.

For one, hiring people who are not “the status quo” (cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical, white, abled, men) is doable: you interview and hire them. Retaining people, however, there’s the challenge.

Also, it’s hardly diversity if gender is the only difference between the status quo and your new hire.

On top of that, you can’t stop at hiring just one not-a-white-male. Diversity is not: six white guys, maybe one using a wheelchair, a white woman, and a black gay man.

You want to hire a mix of people with different biological traits, cultural backgrounds, ages, class, anything. And then you want to treat them all with respect and pay them fairly and equally between levels. You also have to work on a healthy environment: do not tolerate poor behavior, and punish the perpetrator—not the victim—when they go off the rails.

While there is so much more to this, the bottom line is: you have to actively work to be inclusive, value every person, and treat them with respect.

Can we stop talking about what it’s like to be a woman in IT yet?

I wish I got paid for every time I saw or heard someone ask: “What is it like being a woman in IT?” Likewise, I cannot vouch for my sanity if a man hints at me again how he would hire me because I’m a woman or how special I am just because of that. I did not spend years studying and honing my craft to get hired based on what I look like.

If you ask a woman what it’s like to be in IT, you reinforce the idea that it’s not normal for us to be there. It’s also assuming that women are all the same.

Let me tell you, our stories overlap only in experience with sexism and misogyny. I cannot tell you what it’s like being an engineer in the US, where jobs are scarce. Neither can I tell you what it’s like to be a black woman in IT (except that they have to handle a lot more bullshit than I do). Likewise, neurotypical women in IT will not experience some of the struggles that I face daily.

Instead of asking women what it’s like, ask us what you can do to help us. This also goes for helping people in other minority or suppressed groups.

Sexist men only listen to other men

Sad but true: sexist men will not change their behavior because a woman asks them to. So if you are a man and you see another man misbehaving, call them out!

We all make mistakes; that’s how we learn

We all make mistakes sometimes. As an autist, I have a larger-than-I-like track record of mistakes I made in social interactions. Even recently, a situation where I was unwillingly racist and missed important social cues (still pissed at myself for letting that happen). We need to learn from these situations, be better people, and help others who have less privilege than ourselves.

One of my web developer heroes, Sara Soueidan, recently shared a quote that roughly went like this: “If you are ashamed of who you were in the past, you have learned.”

If even one man reads this and changes their mind on women, it’s a win.

And to all women out there in IT: You belong here. Don’t let anyone bully you out of doing the thing you love. Above all: we need to support each other; sometimes, it’s all we have to get through the day.