If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

As a person who has always been good at math and science, I’m not sure why it took me so long to get into technology.  Basically, I just never envisioned myself as a science or math ‘type’ of person (with whatever connotations that stereotype carried).

Things have really changed.  In order to become an engineer, I had to let go of the notion that I needed to fit a personality stereotype of the girl-nerd who memorizes digits of pi in her spare time and gets involved in pedantic debates with strangers in the grocery store line about the nuances of the Silmarillion.  Letting go of this allowed me to focus on what I’m really good at (solving problems, working in details that relate to a larger picture, learning languages, working primarily solo but in the context of a team) and move into a field where these strengths can blossom.

The paradigm shift was essentially a change in my personal narrative. When I was growing up, I thought of programming as an anti-social activity that women only did if they were socially awkward.  Just as most little boys today don’t imagine themselves as nurses or secretaries or pre-school teachers, I didn’t picture myself as an engineer.

Even now, I sometimes feel that I don’t belong here.  And that’s not uncommon among females in tech.  If you ask a woman how she got into the field, you’ll likely hear some version of “I don’t really belong here.” A few common responses:

  • “I’m an English major who just stumbled into this field by accident.  Lucky for me!”
  • “I’m just doing this because my old company needed some help with their HTML, so I said I’d do it.”
  • “I’ve always wanted to do this!  I’m weird like that.”

Each of these narratives serves either to minimize our tech skills or minimize our femininity.

Taking time to intentionally rethink my own story has really helped me recognize my own very real belonging here.  Here are some of the things I remind myself of when I feel like the ugly ducking of engineering:

  • Engineering is all about communication, and as a writer with an English background, I have a lot to bring to the table here.
  • I’ve been using web technology for the last 20 years, and as someone coming into the field with fresh eyes, I tend to have a clearer sense than seasoned engineers of how people will use our apps and what behaviors users will expect from the software.
  • Although I’ve always thought of myself as a humanities person, other members of my family — men and women — have pursued science successfully.  My parents work in physics and medicine, and I just found out that my grandma graduated from college with a math major!  Without realizing it, I followed in their footsteps.

Sitting in the office, although I’m surrounded by a the trappings of a tech sub-culture that I don’t care much about — debate over the new Microsoft game system controller, Jar Jar Binks conspiracy theories — I know more than ever that I belong here.  The things about me that make me an unlikely coder are the very things this industry needs — fresh eyes, all kinds of people who can help broaden the potential uses of technology, better communicators to pass our technological skills to the next generation of junior engineers.  I’m not going anywhere.

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5 comments

  1. There is something masculine about coding. So what, right? Hammering away at logic problems and herding electrons until your eyes are dead from forcing the elements of nature to bend to your will… Of course this shouldn’t stop anyone from doing it. Playing with dead things and sharpening mind spears is fun sometimes. Some of us are motivated by the sense it is what we *should* be good at. Consider yourself blessed if it is something you *want* to be good at. I do not know if femininity is something you prize as much as technical skillfulness. There does seems to be an oppositional element in the workplace that could treat you less because of this. But the “you cannot impress me” people are there for us female or not. Keep it up. Sadly guys are rarely good enough to be nurturing. If a person wants to compensate for a perceived loss of femininity, wear pink on the weekends, or whatever you think gender demands.

  2. It’s weird. My husband was the computer science major and I was the biology major but I just have a curiosity where coding is involved. I like to know how things work. He keeps saying to me that I should make a profile on elance for coding because there are so few women who do it. I guess I didn’t really believe him until now.

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