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Rebekah Cox


What Is It Like to Be a Woman Working in the Tech Industry?

Posted: 07/16/11 06:17 PM ET

TL;DR: Being a woman in the tech industry is awesome if you love technology enough to push through the more difficult parts.

Right off the bat, a disclaimer: It's very difficult to answer this question broadly. Not all experiences are the same. However, I can share my personal experience because it might contribute to some larger themes if enough women participate on this thread. So, here's my answer... an answer from a product designer who has spent over a decade building products and has spent the last four years building products and managing people in Silicon Valley[1].


The Environment is Generally Rough
Girls are raised differently than boys. Not all girls and not all boys are raised the same, obviously, but on average girls are more sheltered than boys in their formative years. Girls are typically raised with kid gloves and rarely receive the hard, direct and tough feedback of their male counterparts. This is important because the technical environment is tough and has been built on a foundation of direct feedback and there are very established and elaborate structures that facilitate nerd trash talk. So, if you enter this environment as a woman without any sort of agenda or understanding of this culture the first thing you find is that if you actually say something the most likely reaction is for a guy to verbally hit you directly in the face. To the guys this is perfectly normal, expected and encouraged behavior but to women this is completely out of nowhere and extremely discouraging.

As a technical woman, this is your introduction and the first thing you have to learn is how to get back up and walk right back into a situation where the likelihood of getting punished for participating is one. How you choose to react to this[2] determines the rest of your career in technology. If it's too painful you'll retreat to management, if you can tough it out your career will be limited because the very tools you develop to survive have other social consequences[3].

You Generally Feel Alone
Because the environment is so rough and generally hostile, the women who can navigate it are a very small, select group[4]. It's rare to encounter another woman and even rarer to encounter another technical woman.

Overall it's awesome to encounter other women because while you grow accustomed to quirks of a room full of men (the jostling, the chest beating, the pissing contests, the egos, etc.) it does get old. When another woman is thrown into that mix, you get to avoid the old script and reevaluate the dynamic so it's more interesting. However, you and everyone else is accustomed to women in the facilitator manager role, not in the making technical decisions role. Typically your collaborative and directional contributions almost always fare better than your technical contributions. If you pay attention to those social cues, you may start to subtly pull yourself out of the rough and tumble technical decision making and retreat into the facilitation role. If you ignore the social cues, you have to assert yourself aggressively into the technical conversation[5] and take some lumps. If you choose that aggressive path, you wil be even more alone because those likely less technical women in the room with you don't have the expertise to back you up.


You have Access to Opportunities (You are NOT Actually Alone)

Even the aforementioned nerd trash talk is actually a useful tool that can help you. The reason that culture exists is to make everyone in the group better. The fact that you are getting hit in the face means that someone is either wrong and you can hit back with a correct answer or that you are wrong and someone is letting you know that directly. Sticking that out means you are learning in an accelerated environment with instant correction.

Furthermore, if you stick around long enough, you can find people who aren't completely insecure and are confident enough to not resort to insults to assert themselves. Those people make the tough environment actually tolerable. If you can help each other then you can establish a safer zone to talk through ideas. And since those more secure people are typically so secure because they are really, really good, you can find yourself in an informational jet-stream. I didn't fully appreciate this until working with Adam, Charlie and Kevin Der but once discovered and taken advantage of opportunities abound.

Opportunities also exist in the form of help from others pushing you forward and help in the form of others who don't let you get away with anything. Help might be treating you like everyone else. Help might be from the powerful women who may not make the perfect guidepost but are available and will make time for you. For me personally a huge turning point was working at Quora. I remember realizing how the founders had trusted me with this incredible challenge involved with taking responsibility for building Quora's product and interface. It was the first time I was able to take responsibility directly which is a remarkable opportunity.

Results Matter and are Powerful

The technology world isn't a perfect meritocracy but it's close enough and awesome results do matter. Whatever barrier is in front of you, an amazing product that gets traction will cut through it. The same is true for an awesome abstraction that boasts a 50% speed improvement or generates elegant code which enables future efficiency. The absence of an outright block means that making something great can open many closed doors. Just knowing that is possible is very encouraging. Additionally, if you push through the crap and have major contributions to make, no one is going to be able to ignore your results nor will they want to. At the end of the day everyone in technology wants to turn a dollar into ten and then into a thousand; it's essentially a culture built on hope and results. The barriers to entry are pretty low and inexpensive. Start building, learn JavaScript, publish thoughts, all of these building blocks are readily accessible. Use them. Get results. People will give you money to get more results.

Being a Woman in Tech is a Competitive Advantage

Developing new technologies is about oscillating from extreme focus (for designing and programming and building) to wide open creative exploration (in order to understand people and their motivations as well as their problems). As a woman thinking about these complex issues, you have a rich and deep understanding around details like safety and privacy but also around tone and cooperative communication and gathering feedback. You also have this ability to obsess about the details[6] others may ignorantly avoid. That's not even the faintest outline of the unique characteristics women bring. When half of all consumers are women, being able to tap into those women to use your product is obviously huge. Not enough women capitalize on this advantage, but that doesn't make it less meaningful.


Technology is Awesome

Being a woman in technology means being surrounded by amazing technology and crazy smart and ambitious people all the time. Being a technical woman means being able to join in on the fun and building things for people as a path toward making their lives better. How awesome is that?


[1] Additional context: There are a lot of overlapping yet ultimately distinct cultures in SV right now. There is the founder culture and within that there are established founders and so-called founders of products that are even more likely to fail. There are run of the mill engineers and so-called 10x engineers. There are designers and product managers, each with its own 10x variety. There are people who speak at conferences and are good at promoting themselves and there are people who are actually extremely talented and fly under the radar completely.

On top of that there's what the press cares about and the press cares about founders and sometimes managers. There are precious few women founders and of that small subset they are generally not established founders with proven successes who are also technical. (I can only think of one woman who has founded a company that had a chance of succeeding and she's amazing and talented and impressive but not technical.) As a result most articles that are written about women are almost always exclusively about women in tech who are managers (product or professional), not specifically technical women.

So you read about these managers but then you also read these regular calls for more women in tech and how none exist and you look around thinking, "Hello! Right here! C'mon! WTF?" Now, to be fair sometimes the women written about are also somewhat technical in that they have taken CS classes but anyone who is actively technical knows that a few CS classes are not the same as being in the trenches and building a product hands-on. This context is important because as a technical woman, you are looking for something to cling to and determine how you fit in to the larger ecosystem. But because the larger ecosystem is nearly totally empty when it comes to role models, you have to look either at men or closer to home at the women in your immediate vicinity who are probably not technical.

The women who are actually ambitious enough to potentially make it in tech as technical women look at this landscape and every signal derails her from that technical path because the vicous cycle encourages her to chase only the most viable channels. Cheif among them: management.

[2] If you are lucky, you will encounter people (men and women) who are caring enough to help you in deal with this in exactly two ways: i) They encourage you to keep going and ii) They hold you to the same high standard as everyone else. If you are unlucky, you will encounter people (men and women) who validate your worst fears and allow you to give up.

[3] There's another dimension which is the girls club versus boys club which is situated on top of this mess. The girls club is very different than the boys club. Entirely different rules apply and if you've spent any amount of time optimizing to fit into the boys club, it will not transfer to the girls club. The girls club is full of managers, not engineers. Users, not builders. All the tools that allow you to survive the boys club as a technical woman become these huge liabilities in the girls club. You are seen as too rough, too aloof and too disinterested (because you actually probably are). In my case I am also seen as having far too many sharp edges, being too mean, etc. That's all true but not without purpose.

[4] You're also constantly looking to other women for someone to model yourself after. Because the set of available candidates is so limited, it's really hard to find someone you feel comfortable with having as a guidepost. So, you basically either choose a man to model after or cobble something together from fragments of women. A frankinmodel is usually always bad because the traits that make a product or professional manager successful are different from those that make a technical founder successful.

[5] The worst part for me personally was a stage where I was behind. I didn't touch a computer until I was in college. My male counterparts, however, had been programming actively for years before I even navigated the filesystem. But there is something far more treacherous than losing from being behind: it's not being considered a competitor. When you are strapped with low expectations it's easy for you to start believing those are true. People are also sometimes quick to validate your low expectations and even performance.

In college I had this racquetball class. The first thing the coach did was divide the group into boys and girls. The boys played against other boys and girls played against other girls. After a few weeks of this arrangement, I was destroying the other girls. Eventually the coach allowed me to play against the guys and even the worst guy promptly destroyed me. They hit the ball way harder than the girls and the play was very physical and intimidating. On the final day of class in the final match I lost by only a couple points. By that time I had finally started to hone a new strategy: I couldn't compete on speed or power, so I competed on finesse. That meant skating the ball along a wall and giving the guys less of an opportunity to hit the ball with any amount of power. I felt pretty good about getting to that point, but upset that I didn't have an entire term of play at the guy's level. Had I started earlier and had my competition been tougher, I bet I would have won a few.

[6] I have this trick where if I start to obsess about something that doesn't actually matter, I'll try to divert that attention to obsessing about something to make the product better. That obsession breeds focus and when directed productively toward real problems awesome results can sometimes be generated.

This post originally appeared on Quora.


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