Women engineers get real about the worst sexism they’ve experienced at work
When Annie, a 29-year-old software engineer in Austin, Texas, fixed her male coworker’s code while he was on vacation, she said, he got mad.
“He said to me in front of everyone that I was a cunt because I thought I could write better code than him,” Annie told Mic in a Twitter message.
Annie said she responded to her coworker during the team meeting, telling him that his comment was “out of line,” but none of the other men spoke up. She was the only woman on a team of nine at a mid-size startup.
“Shortly after, I asked to move to another team, which was approved, and he got promoted,” she added.
Annie’s story is not unique. I put out a call on Twitter asking for the most gender-biased feedback coders have gotten for their work, and I heard from dozens of non-male coders in a 24-hour span.
The responses ranged from more subtle biases — getting talked down to or having men take credit for their ideas — to the more overt. Polly, a 41-year-old software engineer in the United Kingdom, relayed the worst feedback she’s received in a code review: the line “I don’t care, I only hired you because you wore a skirt in your interview.”
Here are some more responses:
In July, software engineer Coraline Ada Ehmke wrote a blog post about her year at software-development platform GitHub. Her story shone a spotlight on the company’s persistent empathy problems and also noted the scrutiny she faced in the code review process that her male colleagues did not. Ehmke told Mic that while there was nothing overtly sexist about the comments, developers “dogpiled” her work, loading it with criticism — so much that the VP had to step in and ask them to stop.
“There is the assumption that women are only good at design and front-end work,” Ehmke said. “There’s an assumption that women are more amateurish in the way they write code. That they are not full-stack developers. There is … latent sexism, and I don’t think the people who do it are being overt in their sexism. … If you ask them, they wouldn’t say they are being sexist, but the pattern is still there.”
A study by computer science students at California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University published in February 2016 found that women’s contributions on GitHub are accepted more than men’s — but only when their gender is indeterminable.
“However, when a woman’s gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often,” the authors wrote in the study. “Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.”
“When a woman’s gender is identifiable, [her code is] rejected [on GitHub] more often.”
Jaana Burcu Dogan, a software engineer at Google, said in an email that when she contributes change to open-source projects under a ghost name, usually genderless or masculine, she gets fewer questions or suggestions at code reviews. She added that maintainers are “often surprised to see a woman with no help is contributing high-quality changes to a project.”
Vaidehi Joshi, a software engineer at Tilde Inc., has given talks on crafting better code reviews and collected research on its effectiveness through a Twitter poll earlier this year. Joshi said a great thing for leadership at engineering teams to do is to take away the opportunity for reviewers to nitpick at superficial or surface-level things, such as using tabs versus spaces. “Something very, very minor and isn’t getting at what the code is doing,” she said, noting that these are not things that should devolve into 200-comment-long threads, like what happened with Ehmke.
Maintainers are “often surprised to see a woman with no help is contributing high-quality changes to a project.”
Joshi also said that senior engineers, regardless of gender, should also be reviewed just as their junior employees would be.
“Sometimes the comments can be a little trollish,” Joshi said. “Sometimes they can really take down someone’s self-confidence. One of the things that I feel like the industry needs more of is more equal review.”
The sexism is not always so subtle. Kim Hart, a front-end developer, said in a message that she has heard comments like “I thought all tech girls were Asian or ugly,” “You’ll definitely get a job because you’re more fun to look at than some nerdy dude” and “All you need to do in your interview is show your tits — tech guys don’t know how to handle pretty women.” Men are often shocked when she tells them she, a woman, is a developer.
Jess, a software engineer at a gig economy startup, said in a message that her boss told her multiple times that her assertion that she didn’t want to have children was “just a temporary phase” and she would change her mind when her “biological clock started to tick.”
The same boss allegedly told her that “community organizing with the local chapter of PyLadies, a support network for women programmers, is ‘reverse sexism’ by virtue of the fact that the group even mentions that women exist.” Jess also noted that the group accepts men “with open arms.”
Software engineer Heather Nolis was told by a male colleague that she should write all of her thoughts out in a Google Doc instead of “talking so much” during meetings, she said. During a project where she was the most experienced programmer, Nolis said, she was assigned to do diagrams and documentation because “girls tend to love that kind of stuff” and because she was “so good at it.”
Nolis said she was assigned to do diagrams and documentation because “girls tend to love that kind of stuff.”
Alexandra, a technical writer at a cloud management tech company, said that when her company was interviewing women for a developer relations position, a manager said that he didn’t want “to hire someone who will just talk about women in tech. They have to be able to talk about the product.” Alexandra noted that the women they were interviewing all had over a decade of experience and were lauded in the field. When I asked her what the specific job was, she said that she wasn’t entirely sure that they had posted it on their website.
“Another common flaw,” she said. “Most of our hires come from referrals, leading to more and more cis white men.”
To solve for systemic sexism or gender bias, companies need to address discrimination that begins in the hiring process, and ultimately work toward hiring more underrepresented individuals into leadership positions.
And the sexism starts before women even enter the professional workforce. Perri Adams, a computer science major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said that she has had people tell her multiple times, “You probably get good lab grades because the TA thinks you’re hot,” and “You’re lucky you’re a girl; they’ll give you a job no matter what.”
“It’s exhausting to constantly have your work questioned, and it’s been hard on my self-esteem,” Adams said. “The most egregious examples of sexism are what we usually talk about, but what’s worse is the subtle death by a thousand cuts that comes with your intelligence constantly being doubted.”
“What’s worse [than egregious sexism] is the subtle death by a thousand cuts that comes with your intelligence constantly being doubted.”
Amanda Southworth, a 15-year-old developer in Los Angeles, said in a message that once a programmer on her middle school robotics team deleted her entire program, “which ran quite well.” She said he “rewrote it [because] I was ‘disagreeing’ with him, and he didn’t want my hormones to affect the robot.”
Southworth also said she faces rape threats, people stalking her and people taking credit for her work.
“As as a 15-year-old girl within the tech industry, it’s jarring to see that the rising generation too holds the amount of sexism that others have.”