Being a Woman in Tech (Part One)

- 7 mins

I’m not proud to admit it, but early on in high school, I wrote this in my journal:

Girls who are good enough for STEM don’t care about the stereotypes. The girls and women I admire who are good at math, science, and engineering don’t give a shit about how females are underrepresented. They gravitate to these subjects regardless of how many other girls are interested in it too. These are the girls we need to encourage, not those who shy away just because of some stereotypes.

I look at this and cringe. This is how I used to feel because I was blinded by my privilege, and I realize how damaging this view is to women. I used to believe that we should be “gender-blind”—people who are fit for the field will stick it out. But just like it’s damaging to say that we need to be “color” or “race-blind” because it undermines the systemic and direct discrimination faced by minority races and ignores that cultural background is an integral part of identity, we need to recognize gender differences to combat years of ingrained social conditioning. Over the years, I’ve seen that we can’t just see the women who stay in tech as strong and resilient, and the ones who drop out as weak and scared. We need to nurture people towards what they want to do and recognize that there are biases and ingrained thought patterns that have formed since childhood.

As a woman in tech, I can attribute my reasons for staying in this field to my fortunate circumstances. My mom is a powerhouse woman who reports directly to the CEO/CTO of a medical device company. My sister is strong, beautiful, and resilient woman who has mentored me throughout my life (being my hype girl while keeping my ego in check), and my dad supports strong women (he brought me to martial arts for over ten years and introduced me to robotics, iOS development, hockey, and more). I grew up in Silicon Valley and attended school where some of the strongest students were female. I was in an all-female robotics team and led a female tech club, and I’ve had wonderful mentors along the way. My girl friends are fiercely supportive and ambitious, and we openly talk about our struggles. There are countless women mentorship programs and a lot of support that I’ve received throughout the years.

Yet somehow, it has taken so much for me to feel like I belong in the field. To this day, I still struggle. Not from overt sexism, but often just my own feelings that are hard to explain. And it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault—it’s not like men try to put you down. Most have the best intentions and some of them go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Pretty much all of the places I’ve worked at had executives who cared deeply about gender imbalances in the workplace. They all did or said things that made me feel like they cared. But it’s the small things.

It’s in your first CS class in college, where the only people who ask questions are guys with a certainty that you’ve never possessed, while you’re too timid to even attend office hours. It’s when you’re walking through the engineering group and it hits you that they’re all men and then you feel so young and girlish and out of place, but you sit down and continue with your work. It’s when you’re a young girl still feeling uncomfortable in your own body but wanting to use fashion as a form of expression, so without confident women in the room to show you that you can rock heels and a pretty dress while still being respected, you wear the typical jeans and hoodie to fit in. It’s when the guys get dinner without asking you, and you wonder if there’s something wrong with your social skills or because you’re female. It’s when you’re leading a project and the guys talk about hitting up parties later that night—not that you’d really even want to do that, but it’s just that you wish you could do girly things with your team. It’s when your guy friends talk about building their own computers for gaming, and you see how video games (often targeted to the male population) are a gateway drug to programming and tech. It’s when you get a job and a small part of you believes that it’s because you’re female, and you feel like you have to prove your worth to sit at the table. And when you realize that you’ve never really brought your full self to the table.

Admittedly, a lot of these issues stem from my own shyness and lack of confidence. And ironically, as I’ve grown more aware and emotionally mature, I’ve become less confident—as a kid and teen, I wouldn’t even care what others think and said what I thought; now, I feel almost hyper-sensitive. I’m also at the point in the Dunning-Kruger curve where I feel like my competence is around average/above average, so my confidence is fairly low. I’ve told myself many times “to get over it” and “just be confident.”

But a lot of females feel this way, and much worse. I’ve heard stories of my friends getting taken advantage of and/or unwanted attention when working on problem sets with guys. I’ve heard stories of blatant sexism, and I’m fortunate to never have experienced that personally. People can say to just “lean in”—and I agree, but that’s sometimes not enough.

There are many reasons on why there’s a gender imbalance in tech. One that I think people don’t talk about often is that, based on my limited and biased observations, women tend to want to understand the bigger picture of how tech can be applied to help people on an individual or societal scale. A lot of people will say that girls simply aren’t interested in tech, but I believe that’s because they aren’t fully exposed to how tech can actually help people so very much. Technology is form of power, and we need to leverage it to do good. So in classes on computer architecture and OS and data algorithms that seem completely esoteric and intimidating, these women are turned off because they seem irrelevant to helping people. Even math, when taught in school, can seem so dry and far from its beautiful and highly useful nature. It’s not like the material is impossible to get through, it’s that sometimes the material isn’t packaged in a way that seems like it is even remotely useful other than being cool and intellectually fulfilling. And when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, women lose interest and drop out to something more humanitarian and directly impactful to people’s lives.[^1]

In reality, learning and using these technical topics can help women immensely in the areas they care about—like healthcare, education, gender equality, climate change, etc. And we need more women working in tech because at the end of the day, these systems affect us all. Furthermore, diversity—and not just in gender, but across all boards—breeds innovation.

As a college student, I’m still young and naive, and I haven’t really even begun my career yet. I’ve experienced maybe a tenth of my journey. My thoughts and beliefs will invariably change, and I’m still learning. I have many more thoughts on this subject as well as many ideas on potential solutions. But I’ll save that for another post.

[^1] That’s why I think the entire point of education isn’t necessarily just to instill knowledge—it is to inspire. It is to spark the pursuit of knowledge and develop tools, skills, and frameworks for the individual to continue cultivating his or her fire.

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