I am neither a hero nor a victim. I’m just a tech woman, the ugly duckling, the odd one out.
The world is torn in two directions. On one side I read articles about how difficult it is to be a woman in the world of information technology, I see statistics showing the low percentage of female programmers, studies trying to analyze the facts, find the root cause and give an explanation for this phenomenon. Such „negative publicity” presenting tech women as victims and emphasizing the negative facts does not encourage young girls to follow this path, it rather scares them away.
On the other hand organizations and institutes are dedicated to motivate and inspire girls to follow the path of incredible women who actually became famous in this domain. The heroes and role models are preaching to be strong and not to give up, preparing others for the rough path and fight of their lives. This kind of exaggerated representation of women could have the negative effect of transmitting high expectations which can be easily disappointed later on.
I would like to express my deepest respect to the ones engaged in both directions but I believe that there no reason to portray tech women as victims or heroes.
In our world full of prejudices we tend to think in stereotypes. It is true that tech women are rare and some say that prejudices are to blame but aren’t also women driven by their own prejudices and so called legends around the reserved and non communicative IT nerds or the cruel, direct and unfair male dominated world?
At the end it all comes down to being the odd out one, the one who does not fit into the picture. The human brain is constantly seeking for balance and harmony thus it automatically focuses on the one disturbing element which does not fit to the pattern. It starts to search for reasons and explanations. In stead of trying to answer the question „Why is the one in the picture and why it is so different from the rests?“ we should rather ask „Why are all others there and why they all look alike? Wouldn’t they look boring without the one?“.
I know how it feels to be the ugly duckling. I have been confronted with questions like „What sort of creature are you and how did you end up here? Wouldn’t it be better for you somewhere else?“. I grew up in a country where I was a part of a minority. During my scholar studies and later at the university of information technology I was suddenly representing the minority of a minority. I left my native country to start a better life somewhere else and ended up switching countries several times. Now I am woman and I am working in the IT in a foreign country so I guess that makes me a triple minority. The minority effect branded my whole life.
Having everyone’s attention, being the focus of discussions, the target of jokes or left aside can be difficult to handle sometimes. I know what I am talking about. As a tech woman I had the opportunity to experience such situations. I went through the stages of outrage, acceptance, resignation and ignorance, until I learned to use it to my advantage.
It takes time but with a good portion of tenacity and perseverance I have learned to laugh at typical jokes I did not find funny at all. I have also learned to accept and ignore the jokes about women although some are actually funny. Meanwhile I am trained to talk about or listen to the newest IT trends, frameworks and gadgets, even though such topics are not my main point of interest. Honestly speaking, topics like the latest fashion or the newest make up hype are not that exciting either.
Of course it is easier to judge and blame others for not being accepted and treated how we would like to but let’s face it, women could improve in some aspects as well. Here are some best practices that made my life easier.
Do not take IT personally!
I used to take everything more personally, I felt often offended or misinterpreted some words or reactions. Being sentimental does not help in this business. Objectiveness is something women can learn from their male colleagues. I used to think that I was the subject of discussions or the target of jokes whereas the others had absolutely no intention to offend me. Of course I am asked sometimes to get the coffee rather that to be a part of serious discussions. At the beginning I was indeed not amused but with time I learned to accept it with a smile and ignorance.
Be loud if needed!
I am often involved in discussions with alpha males and I do have difficulties to get their attention and to bring my opinion into consideration. The trick is not to give up, if I am not heard the first time I try again with slightly raised voice paying attention to remain polite and not become sentimental. Nobody will hear a trembling low voice begging for attention. Every beginning is hard, to win respect and acceptance takes time and does not come for granted.
Stop reading between the lines!
With time I learned not to question every single reaction and the behavior trying understand the background of every decision. It often turned out not to be true and I realized that it was a misinterpretation based on my own prejudices. Reading between the lines can lead to disappointment in one way or another. There is often nothing between the lines, just our imagination and the projection of our own thought and fears.
“The things we see are the same things that are within us. There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”
Hermann Hesse, Demian: The story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth
Fill the gap!
Let me tell you about the typical programmer behavior.
Programmers tend to loose themselves in details. Ask them to explain a solution in few sentences and they show you a code labyrinth, ask them to start implementing the best case scenarios and they give you the solution for rare, exceptional cases focusing to solve them before even having a solution for the rest of the cases.
The IT experts tend to overcomplicate the problems and solutions. Striving for perfection they transform the solution into a dissertation covering all possible, maybe not even valid, scenarios. A typical case of „over engineering“.
A true technician does not know compromises, he or she has the vision of creating the perfect system no matter how long it takes and how much it costs.
Nowadays, these characteristics are hardly tolerated in the IT world. Talents and visions are often suppressed by market driven organizations focused on mass production and cost savings. Exactly here I see the potential! The tech woman can be the link between the binary world of the information technology and the versatile world of reality. Having a different mindset they can fill the gap between the hardcore programmers and the rest of the world. A feminin touch can bring some benefit.
I experience this almost every day, talking to software users and to programmers who wrote the software. It is rewarding to see how two different worlds get aligned and understand each other and to know that I made it happen.
The life of a tech woman can be a challenge but I confess, I like to be the ugly duckling, the odd one out. My life would be much more boring on the other side.