A year ago, I wrote about how I got into coding and some obstacles in the way.
It was a story about how I got into tech. This year, the theme of this celebration is "Choose to Challenge." I started thinking about the challenges I've faced, and there is one above everything else. I've been thinking for a long if I am ready to share this challenge openly, but I decided it's finally the time.
Being a woman in a male-heavy industry is a challenge itself. While I have fantastic colleagues building a more diverse and inclusive company and culture outside the company, not everyone is like them. Unfortunately, there are still people who say that "women aren't suited to coding because of biological reasons" (I don't even know what that means, like what they mean by biological reasons? 🤷🏻♀️) or have similar opinions.
In addition to that, people have unconscious biases, which often makes them see women as being less capable of, for example, coding or being a team leader. So, as I have these disadvantages because of my gender, something else on top of that most certainly won't help with being seen as a professional developer.
It was about 3,5 years ago when I had a fall. I was at a roller derby practice, lost my balance, and found myself lying on my back. I got up and continued with the practice but felt pretty disoriented and, after some minutes, realized that I have to stop. (And for those wondering: I had all the protective gear on.)
The following days were full of nausea and headache. After those immediate symptoms went away, I started discovering new things. My memory had been really good, and I used to have the ability to remember events in great detail. All that was gone, and I realized I have problems recalling terms and sometimes events. I was fatigued, and there was this brain fog lingering above everything. I felt super sensitive to noise and colors.
Some of the symptoms got better or disappeared during the following months. But not all - I still struggle with my memory, and it's the worst with terms. When I hit my head, I was about four months into my tech career, and I was still learning the tech vocabulary, which has definitely affected everything during these years.
I still get very tired from too much cognitive load. If it's one day, that's fine, and I usually recover before the next day. If the stress and load are prolonged, the brain fog appears, and recovery takes longer.
During the last few years, I've had to learn to cope with the symptoms. Also, the symptoms have changed some things that have been an essential part of who I am, and I've had to get to know the new me. It has been the most challenging part of all this, and I still sometimes struggle when I believe I can do something (like, remember things without writing them down), and then I realize I can't.
I could write only some inspirational stuff about rising to challenge and overcoming all the obstacles. I'm not going to do that. These years have been freaking hard, and while I have learned techniques to cope, every day can be a struggle. Some days are, but luckily most days aren't anymore.
This all, however, affects how my credibility as a developer is perceived. If the starting point is that someone sees me as being less capable as a developer because of my gender, not being able to use the correct terms because I can't recall them in the moment certainly doesn't help.
I'm good at my job. Of course, I have a lot to learn, like everyone working in this field. That's something I try to remind myself when I get tired: no-one knows everything, and everyone has something to learn.
I can also do my job pretty well if the environment is good enough. By this I mean that information is available in logical places, conditions aren't too stressful for too long, and there aren't too many context switches per day. I guess anyone would benefit from these requirements.
What I have is something that is not visible. Most people around me don't have any idea about my struggles because I hide them pretty well. I am also privileged. The work I do is pretty demanding on the cognitive side, and I am able to do it. It helps with hiding, as I maybe don't fit the stereotype of someone recovering from a head injury.
I want to emphasize that you don't know what people around you have going on. There is a wide range of conditions (situational, temporary, or permanent) that you can't see. Especially now, as the last year has been challenging for many.
So, how could you be an ally for someone like me? There are three things that I can think of right now:
- Check your biases.
- When someone tells their story, listen.
- Don't assume.
Before diving into details on this advice, I want to emphasize that people usually have good intentions. The behaviors I'm describing in the following steps usually come from having good intentions. So, if you find yourself from the examples, don't beat yourself up for that. Just try to act differently next time you're in a similar situation. That's my plan; even I'm not perfect. 😅
Do you assume that someone is a better developer because they happen to be a man? I hope not consciously. But if you write a sentence about a general developer, what pronouns do you use? I often see sentences like "A developer codes this. He does that".
We all have unconscious biases, and unfortunately, there is one rooted deeply in many of us about women being less competent when it comes to tech. Another one concerns people with disabilities - even without knowing the exact cause of disability, there is often an unconscious bias about us.
Why is it a problem? Well, these biases actually guide people with their decisions. If you have a negative unconscious bias about someone because of a trait they have, you tend to judge them based on that bias. They have to prove themselves to you with more evidence than a person who does not have that trait.
I've collected a couple of readings about how to check and fix your biases:
- Lewis Kelly - How to check your unconscious biases
- AESC - Checking Your Blind Spot: Ways to find and fix unconscious bias
I want to note that it's an ever-going battle to check and fix unconscious biases. Be merciful to yourself and the others for the mistakes they make — concentrate on the future and how you (or they) can do better then.
Listen, and ask for clarification if you need it. Also, in many situations, it's a bad idea to start talking about your own experiences. I'll give two examples of times when it's not a good idea.
If you are a man and someone from gender-minority in tech tells you about what they feel or experience, do not start talking about how men too face discrimination. Just don't. I hope I don't have to explain the reasons here.
Another situation is when someone tells about their disability, symptoms, or sickness. It's not a good idea to start comparing your experiences to theirs. (Unless you have actual experience from the same things). So, for example, if someone tells you about their migraine, don't start saying that "heh, yeah, my head aches sometimes too." Or if someone tells about memory problems from some disease or trauma, don't start telling that you too have some difficulties remembering everyone's names.
I know people usually mean well. However, I just want to say that for me, it has been one of the hardest parts when people have reduced my struggles with memory and other symptoms, and the work I've had (and still have) to do with the changes in the building blocks of my identity, to a simple notion of "Oh, I forget some names sometimes too." I know that they do it with good intentions, and it makes it even harder for me, as I can't even be mad at them.
Every person has their own story and needs, so don't assume anything. By this I mean that if you know someone representing some group, don't think you know how things are for everyone in that group. For example, if you have a female friend or colleague, who has never faced any sexism or biases, don't assume nobody else has either.
It also means that if you know someone with a disability, don't assume that you know everything about people with disabilities. So, as I've shared bits and pieces of my story, don't assume you know how all people recovering from a head injury are doing. 😊 We can circulate this back to point 2 - listen to people and their stories, don't assume you already know them.
So, this was part of my story. Thank you for reading it. It wasn't the easiest to write, and I've left a ton of details out. But if you have any questions, feel free to ask. 😊 If you have faced something similar and want to talk about it, my DMs are open!