Don’t become a programmer like me

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I recently stumbled upon this Quora post by a concerned parent asking for advice in discouraging her daughter from becoming a programmer:

How do I convince my daughter not to become a programmer like me?

At first glance, I was furious. I couldn’t fathom why a parent would purposely crush her daughter’s dreams of entering an exciting and challenging profession — particularly since she was a programmer herself.

My anger subsided somewhat as I read through the responses. I even found myself empathizing with the parent to a degree. The discussion reminded me of a similar debate I’d had with my own step-father when I told him about my career change to software engineering. His reaction was far from positive, and he warned me that “engineering is very difficult for women.” As if I couldn’t handle it.

I eventually realized that his negative reaction, however misguided, came more from love than a lack of faith in my abilities. He viewed tech as a discriminatory workplace, and he foresaw an unfair battle for me as a newcomer in a male-dominated industry. To be fair, the more I delve into the tech world, the more I discover that many of his fears were well-founded; I’ve been lucky to have limited trouble with discrimination in my professional life. It seems that the situation for women and minorities is indeed worse in tech than in other industries. That being said, I still disagree with my step-father’s opinion.

Avoiding the problem does nothing to fix it, and walking away from tech simply because it’s “not for girls” would make me as much a part of the problem as the concerned parent from that Quora post. Gender bias isn’t a problem we can sidestep. We’re far from a solution, and I hope that sharing some of my perspectives on the issue can add to the public discussion.

My own experience

The circumstances of my own life have sheltered me somewhat from having to address discrimination as a factor in my decisions. My mother is a tech consultant, typically the only female on her team, and she raised me to view a woman being the boss — even in a technical field — as normal. Growing up I was a tomboy with a goofy bowl cut and spent most of my time hanging out with “the guys.” I outgrew the bowl cut, but I never outgrew the notion that I was equal to my male peers.

Now that I’m entering the world of software engineering, I’m realizing that my experience as a “woman in tech” is not the norm. Everyone I meet seems to have a discouraging story to throw at me. Here are a couple of the anecdotes I’ve heard just in the last few weeks:

  1. A female engineer and three male engineers walk into a meeting room to meet with a client. The client immediately assumes that the men are engineers and the female must be a designer or marketer. The woman has actually been an engineer for 20 years.
  2. A tech entrepreneur hires a female engineer and gives her what he thought was the typical bump in salary relative to her previous job. A year later, he realizes that he had been unknowingly underpaying her relative to another male engineer in the exact same position.
  3. A woman teaching at a coding bootcamp observes that women are intimidated to apply for senior positions because they subconsciously feel they can’t go up against men, and so they end up applying for junior roles. Meanwhile, their male peers graduate from the same program directly into senior roles.

If you look at all these stories, you’ll notice that none of the incidents are directly malicious. Of course, there are some evil people in the world who are truly discriminatory and don’t want gender equality, but I would argue that most people aren’t that way. Instead, the main factor at play is unconscious bias, by men and women alike. It’s a problem we’ve all created together — a problem deeply rooted in the evolution of humans.

We all have a lens through which we make sense of the world, and that lens is greatly influenced by our culture, upbringing, education, etc. For example, in the traditional Indian culture my family comes from, women are typically considered the supporters. They are expected to stay home, nurture children and perform household tasks. This is definitely the case for a significant portion of my family. The men are encouraged to pursue challenging and lucrative careers while the women are asked to focus on marriage and family as soon as they graduate from college, even if it means sacrificing their career goals.

Moving forward

Unraveling ourselves from gender bias shouldn’t be a finger-pointing competition. We can’t lay all the blame on men for being jerks, or women for being timid, or the companies for having atrocious female-to-male ratios, or the media for being… well, media-ish. The issue is too complex for a silver-bullet solution.

Moreover, the way forward isn’t to find hacky ways to patch up problems but rather to work together towards a more systematic solution, considering the interrelationships and interdependencies of everyone involved. We need to accept that “equality” and “fairness” aren’t just buzzwords and that we’ll have to work together to address our own biases before we can change each other’s. We created the issue together and we can fix it together.

For women, progress means empowering each other to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. We should expect each other to be more assertive and persistent when applying for jobs, and teach each other not to second-guess our abilities and value. Most of all, we must not be scared to expect the same things from life as men.

For men, progress doesn’t require letting go of entitlement; it simply means accepting that women are entitled to an equal piece of the pie. It means becoming aware of how biases affect other people and resisting labels. It means learning that gender equality is not a zero-sum game and that gender equality isn’t a bad thing. A fair world is in everybody’s best interest.

For companies, engaging in the debate means putting support systems in place that don’t make the women in the workplace feel like they have to choose between being a good mother and being a good professional. The statistics prove that policies like increased maternity leave actually save money:

“When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50%. […] Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready. And it’s much better for Google’s bottom line — to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills and perspective of our employees who are mothers.”— Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO (Source: WSJ)

Gender diversity shouldn’t be a quota to meet — after all, no one wants to be hired because they are female. Study after study show that a diverse workplace leads to higher rates of retention, happiness, and productivity. It leads to a more qualified, creative, and innovative workforce, which is critical for long-term success. This requires fundamental changes in how companies hire — not just who they hire — by implementing criteria that favors the strengths of men and women equally.

Finally, we have to look at the media as part of the problem too, not some external third-party providing impartial reports. I find that the media is too often focused on gender issues among high-profile attention-grabbing executives, which is fine, but diversity at the CEO or Board level does not imply a diverse company. The attention seems to be misplaced. Furthermore, interviewers and journalists need to stop asking female engineers about work-life balance and instead ask about their hard-earned technical accomplishments. Trust me, women love to geek out too.

The movement has begun

Gender bias isn’t going anywhere fast, but the prominent public discussion about it makes now an exciting time for women to enter tech.

We’re already seeing the beginning of a movement where men and women are encouraging one another to confront gender discrimination head on. I’m excited to see organizations like Girls Develop It, Women Who Code, #ILookLikeAnEngineer and others working together to bring more women into technology. I’m excited to see men recognizing this as an issue and standing up to address it through movements like HeForShe.

The changes are slow, but the awareness women have worked so hard to create is finally being taken seriously, encouraging women to be trailblazers and follow their dreams — and helping men to become better co-workers, husbands, and fathers. We have the correct end goal in mind and now it’s upon us to figure out how to get from here to there.

My step-dad may have been right to worry that I’m fighting an uphill battle. That doesn’t mean it’s not a battle worth fighting, and I believe it’s one that we will win together.

There is no reason why any father should have to worry about his daughter becoming a programmer.

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Why am I sharing my travel stories?

Founder & CEO of TruStory. I have a passion for understanding things at a fundamental level and sharing it as clearly as possible.

Preethi Kasireddy
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