Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My father would never have bought me a computer engineering barbie

The recent fiasco with Mattel's "I Can Be a Computer Engineer" barbie book made me recall events in my life.

Growing up being interested in math and science was never strange for me.  Both of my parents, as well as my older sister, were awesome in math and science, so it was never difficult for me to get help as a kid with any of those subjects.  Going into high school, there were plenty of girls in my math and science classes.  

I did not consciously notice that engineering was a mostly male dominated subject until I went to college and studied computer science.  I had two fellow female classmates and about eight male classmates in my study group.  The straw that broke the camel's back was about a month before I was to graduate with a computer science degree from the the University of Maryland College Park.  One of my close male friends said something to the effect of:

     "Wow, you've gotten far, being just a girl and all.  Most of the girls left in comp sci had lots of help from guys on their projects to pass.  You seem to really know your stuff and passed on your own merit".  

I opened a bank account recently, and the bank associate asked me what my title was, I said "software developer".  By the time the paperwork was printed for signatures, my title had been changed to "software sales".  My business partner, who is male BTW, didn't have his title changed to anything of the sort.  I was pretty upset, but I didn't ask the bank associate to change the title, I didn't want him to think it was such a big deal to me, but it was.  

In my 12+ years in the field, many incidents have occurred while interacting with male colleagues, some have included:
  • A new employee upon meeting me for the first time, asked if I was the company HR rep
  • A religious coworker casually pointing out "women are lesser vessels" while discussing software development
  • A coworker stating that "women are lessel vessels" in general
  • A comment that I was a good technical lead, even though I was a woman
  • A new employee asked what role I was in.  I answered "software development", and he said "Oh, you're a tester then?"
Rehashing my thoughts have culminated to today with a desire to reflect why I was upset in these situations. Was I upset because my ego was hurt, that someone did not recognize my capabilities? Was it because of the inequality I felt? Does it matter what others think of me - shouldn't I only care about thoughts of people that matter to me?

I agree that something has to change and that these types of events must happen to many female software developers.  There must be some correlation why less than 10% of the female software developers I started off with in my career are no longer software developers.  Organizations like or will probably make things better for female software developers out there.  My thought is that it comes down to what you are raised with.  My parents instilled in me from a young age that anyone can do anything, as long as you work hard, there was no limitation placed on me on what I could potentially accomplish or become.

I think the moral of the story is the realization that another person's perception of you may not complement your own perception of yourself.  At this point in my career this particular stereotype seems to only fade when I'm given the opportunity to perform.  I'm thankful even more now for the environment I was raised in.  I can only hope that more children will be given the opportunity to excel in a similar environment where they are not reminded of societies implied limitation on them.

1 comment:

  1. Barbie... the sheer energy, delight, and appetite people have for being offended never ceases to amaze me. If I was younger I would hesitate to join an industry that clearly has no sense of humor, restraint, or sense of proportion... really? All this attitude over a doll? How did our society reach the point where marketing brands are primary role models?

    I just read a review of Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" novels. Apparently most of them feature a Bond-girl type of woman: super-smart, super-sexy, super-competent. Should we prefer this type of role model? As a man I will never fulfill the Jack Reacher ideal. Will women feel better about themselves if all women in mass media are "Reacher-women"?

    See this Dilbert strip for an illustration of the challenges involved in dealing with the opposite sex at work:

    Not to mention, why aren’t people just as curious about the lack of Mexican, African American, or Native American programmers? I worked with lots more women over the years than blacks or Hispanics, and I've never worked with any native Americans.

    To stop ranting for a second, obviously everyone at work should be treated according to the value they bring. I don't want women pushed into note-taking or recruitment roles... both of which I've seen happen at my current location. I don't want men kept away from those roles... I want everyone to flow into the role that is right for them.

    Seeing people as they are is much harder than it sounds. Accurately assessing the true strengths and weaknesses of each person, and finding a way to accentuate the strengths and downplay the weaknesses, is the major task for any management type in my opinion. We shouldn't care about role models - not at work anyway - but only about actual roles, and the actual people we have to fulfill them.

    My 2 cents!


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