Yesterday marked the beginning of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an event produced by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI). More than 18,000 women in tech have gathered in Orlando to learn from one another, network with leading organisations, and honour women who have blazed a trail and succeeded in the face of great obstacles. Here, Elizabeth Ames, ABI's SVP of Marketing, Alliances, and Programs, shares some of the advice being echoed throughout the celebration.
In 2017, it’s still unreasonably hard to be a woman in tech in many ways: Recruiters make assumptions about our abilities, HR people steer us down less technical paths, managers tell us our opinions come across as bossy, and jealous coworkers write vicious manifestos about why we’re supposedly unsuited for the industry. With "friends" like these, it’s no wonder women drop out of tech careers at twice the rate of men.
To make matters worse, other people — even those who are supposedly trying to help us — give terrible advice. Pretty much every woman in tech has heard at least one piece of well-meaning but misguided advice: Don’t dress too cute, don’t be bossy, be nice, know your place. But the horrendous advice some women hear goes beyond the status quo. We recently talked to 27 women technologists from a wide range of companies and asked them to remember the worst “helpful” ideas they had received during their careers. Their stories ranged from head-shakingly odd to flat-out wrong.
Consider a few of the most alarming “words of wisdom”:
“Before my interview with [a tech company], the recruiter instructed me not to wear pink, a dress, or florals, because it might be interpreted subconsciously as ‘not a fit.'”
“You would be better off in an art program.”
“You are too pretty to be working.”
“Hold your face still in meetings.”
“Don’t bring baked goods to work.”
Really? Does baking make us less capable of coding? As if it weren’t enough that we have to deal with sexual harassment and systemic exclusion, women in tech undergo such intense scrutiny there’s even quiet condemnation for something as benign as a plate of cookies.
And it doesn’t stop there. Even compliments are often veiled critiques. “I was once told that I would go far in technology because I was tall,” one woman said. “I stood there speechless thinking, ‘I guess my brain has nothing to do with it.’” Another was told, “You’re doing great! Especially for being a female. I'm sure you'll get on the fast track to management.”
Sadly, these stories are not as surprising as they should be. Studies show over and over again that it’s not a lack of ambition that holds women back from advancing in tech. Successful men are perceived as more likeable than their female counterparts, and they are more readily judged to be “leadership material.” It’s no wonder that cringe-worthy Google memo claiming women are biologically unsuited for tech jobs struck such a nerve: Every woman in tech knows how unconscious behaviours chip away at our ability to persist and hold onto our passion.
Still, there’s something to be learned here. Although the women we talked to were palpably frustrated, they were also understandably proud of how they overcame obstacles. They told us their stories of finding mentors, allies, and support systems. They drew power from their communities to build the confidence to advocate for permanent solutions. They found the courage to act not just for themselves, but on behalf of other women.
They also offered some practical and uplifting advice to women who come after them in the sciences. It’s the opposite of the guidance they were given:
“Dare to speak up when a situation makes you uncomfortable.”
“Pursue opportunities at your job. If you are denied, push some more. And if you are still denied, find another job. Life is too short to spend your time convincing sexists to change.”
“Negotiate for yourself and do not accept being underpaid.”
“You can still be feminine and work in engineering. But if you are not feminine, that’s fine, too.”
“Don't be afraid [to fail]. Failure is okay, and you can learn so much from it.”
“Keep going! You are amazing! You are capable of so much more than you realise.”
Right now, if you hold a mirror up to the tech industry, you’ll see a boys' club reflected back. But change is coming. When more women in tech share their stories and experiences, we can recognise problematic behaviour more easily, and empower ourselves and others to respond.
The more light we can shine on the ignorance in our field, the more we become unstoppable. We can use these moments as opportunities to assert our rightful place at the table, particularly for those who have been underrepresented. We belong here.