"You’re pretty smart for a girl."[caption id="attachment_327714" align="alignright" width="322"] PNSQC volunteer Heather Wilcox describes the challenges and opportunities for women in technical roles. The path is not always easy, but here are some ideas for balancing the scales.[/caption]
I know now that this sentence is a micro-aggression. However, In January of 1995, when I started my first job in the software industry, it was something I heard all the time and, although I hated it, I got used to it. After deciding to abandon an advanced degree in Anthropology, I looked at my talents and decided that maybe my skills in small network administration and my lifelong love of technology might serve me well in the software industry. It took a few job interviews, but I finally snagged myself an entry-level position in technical support for a large software company.
First Day Foreshadowing?
My first day was an indicator of what was to come. We were given a tour of the building, which had 3 floors: The first floor was Customer Service. It was probably 80% women and 20% men. The second floor was Technical Support for the simpler completely software-based products. It was a dramatic shift – probably close to the exact opposite of the first floor: 20% female, 80% male more or less. The Third floor was Support for the technically heavy products – Network administration, remote control, and large customer account support. These products required network skills, the ability to troubleshoot hardware, both Windows and DOS knowledge, and a boatload of patience. There were roughly 80 men on the floor – and two women. When I finished my training and was placed in the remote control product’s support group, the number increased to three.
My placement on a support team marked the beginning of my education in how difficult the software world is for women. I learned right away that I needed to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as my male counterparts. It was not uncommon for male callers to ask to speak to "Someone with more experience" immediately after I got their name and personal information and they realized I would be the one helping them. If I could, I transferred them to the other woman who worked in the group. If she wasn’t available, I would grab a guy out of the training pool, plug my headset into his, put myself on mute, and tell the guy exactly what to say. I didn’t want to waste the time of someone who was answering calls, so I just grabbed a newbie.
Another common occurrence was that, once I got a person’s name and information, they would ask, "So, are you going to transfer me to tech support now?" My only option was to use my best ‘smiley’ voice to say, "Actually, you’re already talking to tech support." This rarely happened to my male counterparts.
The Glass Ceiling Career Path
Those kinds of calls were always kind of annoying, but hitting my head on the glass ceiling hurt much more. The initial bump was my first attempt at a manager position. The competition was someone younger than me with less experience. I figured I had a really good shot at the job. When I lost out to the younger man, I politely asked what I needed to do to get a manager position next time around. I was told that I just needed more time. I tried to dig deeper to find out what kind of "time" I needed – more management experience or training perhaps? Unfortunately, I got an answer I’ve become used to: Ummm…. Well…. You know…. In other words, I needed more time for the job to open up when there wasn’t a man available to fill it. There were no female managers in the support organization at the time – I should have figured it out, but I just thought it was because there were so few women on the tech floors. But there it was – that glass ceiling I’d always heard about and never really believed existed. It was real and it was solid.
After that first introduction, my adversary, "The glass ceiling" has followed me for my entire career. I have always been in the minority and I’ve been the "only" a lot. I’ve often been passed over in favor of men. Each time it happens, I ask, "Why not me?" Sometimes, I get real and useful answers on things I can improve. Unfortunately, I also sometimes get the "Ummm…. Well…. You know…." - That uncomfortable silence that tells me that my gender had more to do with the hiring decision than any of my skills or talents.
Pivoting and Pivoting
Many of the folks I’ve worked with over the years – men who were my equal or junior to me, have gone on to become managers, directors, principals, and CEOs. I was recently promoted to a "Staff Engineer," which is my company’s technical equivalent of a manager. It took five years of trying and it only happened after I pointed out that, although we had female managers, we had no female technical leads – no architects or Staff Engineers. Upon my promotion, I became the only female staff engineer. (As an aside, there is at least one other female Staff Engineer now – a developer.) My original goal had been to become a manager, but I finally gave up the idea – I’m not sure I’m such a good fit for that job anymore. However, I’m very happy in my current position and that’s really all that matters to me these days. I must admit that I do sometimes wonder what trajectory my career would have taken if I’d been born with that ever-popular Y chromosome. Would I have been considered "A real go-getter" instead of "An opinionated woman"?
I could fill a book with uncomfortable stories about 27 years of being female in the technology world – working with Brogrammers, managers that enjoyed intimidating someone who couldn’t fight back, reports who chose to talk to another manager instead of me because I was "poisoned with estrogen" – but I don’t think it’s necessary. The important thing is that we know the truth. Technology is not always an easy place for us and not all companies are equal in their treatment of women. Things are better than they used to be, but not anywhere as good as they could be. We are still under-represented in technology. There are still not enough young women and girls in STEM classes. We are still a minority in most development teams.
Now, as a member of the PNSQC Program Committee, I have an opportunity to champion the cause. Our cause. Women deserve all the same opportunities that men take for granted. We are roughly 50% of the planet’s population and we should have that much representation. But the only way we can get those opportunities is by stepping up and trying. Take a few minutes and write a paper proposal. Submit your idea – get yourself out there. Become part of the PNSQC community. Get your voice heard. How great would it be if HALF the speakers at the 2022 conference were female?
I promise that, no matter what happens, you won’t hear, "Ummm…. Well…. You know…."