Misadventures in Conversations Experienced by a Woman in Tech

By Nathalie Simons

Have you ever had that moment right after you’ve said something and your first thought was, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” I’m sure many have been there before. I’ve personally been in situations where people made statements that sounded patronizing, condescending, or downright offensive, whether they meant it or not. Most of the time, people aren’t aware of how hurtful their words are no matter how insignificant they might think their statements are.

From my personal experience as a woman in the STEM field, or more specifically the male dominated tech industry, I’ve both witnessed and received a lot of undesirable comments. While it’s easy to tell someone to just brush it off and ignore these comments, isn’t it better to fix the source of the problem rather than finding a bandaid solution? Here’s a very short, and in no way all-inclusive, list of things people have said to me that I found inappropriate or offensive.

“Oh, you don’t look like you’d be in the tech industry.”

Upon telling people what I studied, or what I now do for a living, I’ve heard responses ranging from the mildly annoying, “Wow, really? You don’t look like a software engineer!” to the outwardly offensive, “Really? You don’t look that smart.” This prompts the question: Well, what do you expect someone in the tech industry to look like? The unfortunate answer that most people don’t want to admit, is a male, or more specifically, a stereotypical nerdy male.

This assumption is usually made by people outside the tech industry but there have been exceptions. This stereotype not only undermines our community and the amazingly diverse people in it, but it also adds to the toxic idea of what someone in the tech industry should look like. Once you start defining what someone in an industry should look like, people will start to think that those who don’t fit the stereotype are out of place. So simply put, by telling someone they don’t look like they’re from the tech industry, you make them feel that they shouldn’t be there.

“You’re probably their diversity hire.”or “Yeah, you’ll probably get a job really quickly, they’re always looking to hire more women in tech.”

Well, I suppose my degree in computer science and my previous work experiences had nothing to do with why I was hired, right? We all know there’s a diversity issue in the tech industry! Claiming that someone’s success is directly linked to their gender, or anything other than their talent, is just dismissing all the hard work they put in to get to where they are. It also undermines their value to the company to nothing more than just their gender or appearance.

These comments are not only demeaning, but if the individual has any kind of imposter syndrome you’ve just kicked it into overdrive. Imposter syndrome is a term to describe a person who doesn’t feel they deserve the position or success they’ve achieved. Why would someone feel this way? It’s hard not to when you receive statements like the ones I’ve listed in this post.

“She’s really bossy.”

I think what you meant to say is, “She gets shit done.” Because yes, I imagine she does. At TribalScale we reward people who have what we lovingly call, boss mentality. When I see people putting women down for simply doing their job, I’m enraged. It reminds me and other women that if we need to get something done or need to exercise any authority, we have to do it while walking on eggshells. Generally, when a man demands respect, attention, or exercises his authority, he’s seen as driven, productive, and “normal,” whereas women who show any sign of authority, will quickly be labeled as bossy or sassy. In my opinion, she’s just doing her job.

In general, professional women get caught in a Catch-22 where not asserting yourself means you won’t be taken seriously, but showing any assertive behaviour is perceived as bossy and unlikable.

This article is meant to be educational and written from my perspective as a woman in tech. I’m by no means claiming that every women in the industry has had the same experiences. If you’ve ever said anything on this list, I hope you will think twice and be more understanding next time. Remember, it may come off as more hurtful than you intended.

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About the author

Nathalie was born in Suriname and raised in Trinidad. Growing up, Nathalie was a creator interested in building physical products. Her love for creation and architecture quickly led her down a path to creating digital products. Now a Lead Engineer at TribalScale, Nathalie has the pleasure of building products that are experienced by millions of users.

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