A female computer science major “floored” by the sexism: Valuable first-person perspective

March 13, 2015 at 7:34 am 9 comments

While disturbing, these first-person accounts of the sexism that women face in computing are also fascinating (see another one here and another one here). I haven’t had the experiences, and the accounts give me fresh insights into what others’ experience might be.

But dresses and kimonos stand out in a sea of techie uniforms—jeans and free tech company t­ee-shirts. I noticed I got better feedback from interviewers when I “looked the part.” So on days I had on­ campus interviews, I sacrificed my dresses for boxy company tee­-shirts. Even when I did wear company tee­-shirts, I was sometimes assumed to be a recruiter in the same way women in scrubs are assumed to be nurses.

My high-pitched voice also became an unexpected source of frustration as team meetings became small battlegrounds for respect. At another company (which I prefer not to name), I noticed that management listened more to what my male counterparts had to say even though I was offering insightful feedback. Managers asked my male coworkers about the status of projects, although I was touching all the same files. The guys were praised more on their progress although I was pushing the same amount of code.

via A female computer science major at Stanford: “Floored” by the sexism – Fortune.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Leigh Ann  |  March 13, 2015 at 7:37 am

    I wrote a little about this back in 2012 (http://csadvocate.org/blog/?p=144), and it pervades academia just as much as it does the industry.

  • 2. Doug Blank  |  March 13, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Here is another one, from this week: http://www.blog.juliaferraioli.com/2015/03/engineering-first-run-experience.html

  • 3. dennisfrailey  |  March 13, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I’ve worked in this field for over 40 years and I’d say that most of the jobs are not this way at all. Most of the jobs are in companies and application areas often seen as “mundane” and thus not emphasized by those promoting computing as an attractive career. I’ve worked side by side with (and often for) very capable women in telecommunications, manufacturing, financial, education and defense contracting situations and although there definitely are pockets of sexism and individuals who show preference for the opinions of male colleagues, the general situation is one of mutual respect and cooperation. These also tend to be workplaces where the extremes of dress (such as company t-shirts and jeans) are uncommon and where software developers work extensively with individuals in other disciplines (engineers, medical professionals, financial experts, etc.). Such workplaces are often wonderful for careers, especially for those of women. They also tend to be places where the emphasis is on the quality of the end product (an airplane or a financial system or a telephone switch or a radar system), not the features of the software.

    Perhaps we need to quit lauding the highly competitive workplaces where people are valued for their “macho” programming skills and focus on where most of the real jobs are.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  March 13, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Dennis, I know that you have decades of experience in this field, and I have great respect for all your contributions to computing education, but you really don’t know the experience of females in computer science. I’m sure that you’ve spoken to many women in computing. They’re not necessarily going to share their experiences of sexism with you, even if you ask them. Volunteered evidence like in the blog post I link to, and the one that Doug linked to, and the story of Leigh Ann is much better evidence on the experience of being a female in computing than any white male’s perception from his personal experience.

      These first person testimonials provide insight that we can’t get as white males, but they don’t really give us a sense of the scope of the problem. For that, I’d recommend research studies, which use sampling across multiple companies to get a measure of pervasiveness. I recommend the Athena Factor report (see PDF here) sponsored by Alcoa, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, and Pfizer, which found that women in science, engineering, and technology fields face hostile macho cultures, isolation, and unfair work pressures. I also highly recommend Caroline Simard’s work at the Anita Borg Institute, such as the Climbing the Technical Ladder report (see link here) which sought to explain why women are under-represented in technical fields and leave at twice the rate of men.

      Most of the real jobs in technology are like this.

      • 5. Dennis Frailey  |  March 13, 2015 at 2:26 pm

        I’m married to a woman in this field who has given me plenty of comments on this and her experience is consistent with what I wrote, above. It all depends on where you work and who you work with. I don’t doubt that these first person accounts are accurate, and that there are a number of places where women face discrimination for various reasons. I find, however, that the severity and depth of the sexism varies greatly depending on the workplace and the field. Both my wife and I found that women in traditional engineering fields, for example, faced much more discrimination than those in computing. And among those in computing, workplaces that emphasize coding skills tend to be among the worst as far as sexism. There is no doubt that women in many fields face varying degrees of discrimination, but if we are singling out computing and asking whether it is more sexist than other professions, I claim that it depends a lot on which employer your work for and the culture they promulgate.

        I would go so far as to claim that a computing background is often very helpful for a woman’s career. I’ve been concerned for many years about whether women have good opportunities for career success and whether women who could be highly successful fail to enter the computing field because they’ve been turned off by the culture as it is portrayed in the media. In my experience, the kinds of companies I recommended tend to have a lot of women in positions of responsibility and a great many of them came from computing backgrounds – it was seen in some places as a good way for a women to break the “glass ceiling”. For example, in one company I worked for, a disproportionate number of the engineering managers and technical vice presidents were women and almost all of them came from computing backgrounds.

        This is obviously a complex subject and I don’t in any way mean to discredit those who report discrimination. But I’ve seen another side of the situation too.

    • 6. Cynthia L.  |  March 13, 2015 at 12:16 pm

      “I’ve worked in this field for over 40 years and I’d say that most of the jobs are not this way at all.”

      How would you know if they were? That’s one of the hard things about discrimination–it happens invisibly right under the noses of those not directly affected.

  • 7. sylvia martinez  |  March 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    I think Dennis would be closer to the truth if he said “all jobs are not this way” instead of “most”. I’ve worked as a programmer and engineer in aerospace and gaming, and in my experience, the former was run like an old-boys network, and the later a new-boys network. Slight differences, but I did find that at least the old-boys tended to come from experience enhanced by their own feeling of superiority but the new-boys came from their feeling of superiority enhanced by unearned luck. I did find, that in all cases, the behaviors changed fairly rapidly with different leadership. Culture in a company is a reflection of what happens day after day, in meetings, hallways, and hangouts. And if certain behaviors are tolerated, not even rewarded, just tolerated, they will flourish. But if leaders model different behavior, and enforce that behavior, it changes. Not perfectly, but I’ve seen it happen for the better (and for the worse).

    The nice part of seeing these anecdotes coming out is that many times, you just feel stupid recounting one incident. It’s too easily dismissed as a joke or aberration. “Oh, so what, you had to wear a t-shirt instead of a dress”…. “oh, so what, your idea wasn’t heard until a guy repeated it”… “it happens, just get over it”…

    Even if you aren’t in an overtly hostile place, it takes a toll. It’s wearing and tiresome, and day after day these little things pile up. So if there’s an option to make a living with less wear and tear, you take it.

    • 8. Dennis Frailey  |  March 13, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      I’ll accept Sylvia’s suggested change from “most jobs” to “not all jobs”, because my knowledge is limited to only some jobs. It would be helpful to see better data on this.

      And I strongly endorse the comment about leaders setting the expectations of the culture.

      By the way, I just asked my wife about this and she had an additional observation: in her jobs for government agencies, the sexism wasn’t as common as in her jobs for private companies, although the private companies differed greatly. (There did tend to be favoritism in her federal government jobs, but not so much by gender as by two other factors: whether one had previously served in the military and, in a few cases, political view. A particularly frustrating aspect was the assumption that anyone who had served in the military, especially in a position of command or as an aircraft pilot, was automatically better qualified for a management position than someone who had been working in the organization and knew the workings well but did not have military experience. This often led to some disasters (and we taxpayers paid the bill). A tall, good looking person with an air of authority and a commanding voice was often not very good at actually running an organization. (I had similar experiences working for some defense contractors.)

  • 9. Bonnie  |  March 16, 2015 at 8:16 am

    I worked in industry as a software engineer for 12 years, at a software company, and then at a healthcare IT company. I really did not experience any overt sexism at the software company. Granted, it was not a hip, Silicon Valley startup style company (though we were doing some really interesting high performance stuff that was really a precursor to today’s NoSQL dbs, but I digress). It was a very laid back, family oriented culture, where both the men and the women were parents and most conversations revolved around our kids.

    However, I saw nasty sexism, and even more, ageism, in the healthcare IT company. Women were routinely devalued, insulted, and given lesser roles. It led to a couple of projects derailing because the young inexperienced guys were given the lead roles instead of experienced women or older men. I think the culture in healthcare is so physician-oriented and so old school that a lot of old fashioned sexism is just accepted.

    My takeaway is that sexism does exist, intertwined in many cases with ageism, but the company culture is a big determinant of what you may encounter. Some companies just permit nasty behavior, and others discourage it by setting good examples from the top. And my sense is that family-oriented company cultures may be less prone to bad behavior.

    One more thing – this never seems to get discussed, but since I teach at a school with a large number of African American students, I have become sensitized – and that is racism in the industry. I think it is just as pervasive as sexism, and is deeply ingrained in a number of industry practices. Ever notice how few African Americans are in the tech industry? IN fact, a bigger percentage of African Americans graduate in CS than are actually employed in the field. One reason: tech companies do not recruit at schools with a large number of African American students. They need to look beyond the obvious schools and cast a wider net. Another problem: interviewing when you don’t meet the interviewer’s cultural expectations. I have seen a number of our strongest African American students go on the job market, get invited to interviews, and then not get the job. Over and over and over. I strongly suspect that interviewers, deep down, don’t see these students in the role of software developer. It is a big problem, and it is related to the problems of sexism and ageism.


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