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Cover image for Persisting Past Dissonance: Adapting to the Identity of a Female Developer

Persisting Past Dissonance: Adapting to the Identity of a Female Developer

rizz0s profile image Summer Rizzo ・3 min read

By no means is it concealed that software engineering is a male-dominated field - nor is it that a push for gender diversity in tech has been a recent, necessary development (for which I am grateful for). Nonetheless, in my experience, there still exists a looming feeling of otherness when adapting to the label of "developer" as a woman - yet another layer of feeling like an imposter. I'm still in my infancy as a software engineer and one of my biggest hurdles thus far has simply been the adjustment of identifying as one.

For the majority of my life, I've opted towards the arts as my primary career path. At an early age, I picked up photography and film, which followed me through college. I grew up with two boys as my best friends - both of whom are still very close to me - that were likewise interested in computer science. A solid line was drawn in my brain early on: they were logical thinkers, and I was the artsy one. That’s how it ought to be, right? I was a girl, they were boys. Though I was always intrigued by technology and other "boyish" interests, there was a certain glass ceiling that I hit every time I tried to pursue them past entry-level. I lingered on the sidelines of my friends' projects, attempting to learn enough programming to join in, but consistently flickering out. Making the decision to switch my career path to software engineering did not come without an internal struggle. It felt right, on one hand, since programming had always been a backseat interest of mine, and I had been surrounded by it since youth. Yet, there was - and to an extent is - a lingering cognitive dissonance when I think about myself as a developer. Although women joining technology and sciences is becoming more common, I didn’t feel like I could be of those “special” girls. And, in a sense, it feels very one-or-the-other - either I'm a girl, or I'm a "one of the boys" girls - defeminated.

In the midst my struggles making the decision to pursue software engineering, I came to a realization that has been key to pushing forward. This line that I’ve drawn so solidly in my head, between logic and art, film and programming, boy and girl, is just that - in my head. The world doesn't exist in black and white, and software engineering is no exception. Moving beyond the binary is crucial to expanding self-identity in many cases. Furthermore, not doing so reinforces arbitrary and limiting gender norms rooted in our current social schema.

Though this realization has been freeing for me, I want to underline that my looming discomfort with identifying as a female developer is still apparent. I am proud of myself for pushing through and taking the leap, and I can say with confidence that is a label I feel comfortable identifying with. That being said, it remains a plight. When I fail at understanding a concept or solving a problem, it hits twice as hard - I fail as a beginner developer and I fail as a woman. Aesthetics tend to be overtly masculine. The community - made up of mostly men - is opinionated and prompts gate-keeping. At each turn, it feels reinforced that this space isn't meant for me.

I don't anticipate this fading away any time soon. That's okay. I can applaud myself for being here, and I can find comfort in knowing that other females and non-binary identifying people are here, too - among other affected minorities. It's a cross to bear, but one that elicits a stronger and more diverse community.

With ❤️, keep programming. I will too.

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Summer Rizzo

@rizz0s

Freshly baked programmer and general blob. Software Engineer slippin n slidin in NYC.

Discussion

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The most important kind of confidence you can have is in yourself. Imposter Syndrome to some degree exists in all of us. I see it in my colleagues, my students, and in this community on a daily basis.

And its important to remember that programming is a uniquely egalitarian career path.

No one is safe from its relentless march forward. One day that thing you're an expert in will be a relegated to the trash been of yesterday as the new thing sweeps over all of us.

You've already taken the most important step in acknowledging yourself, and for that I welcome you to this amazing global community. You are our peer and we're proud to have you!

 

Hey Brandin, there are a few points in your response that baffle me. For instance, although programming may seem as "a uniquely egalitarian career path", this argument does not hold under scrutiny. If it were so egalitarian, we would have more women and diverse folks at managerial positions, more women would not only join tech but also remain — maybe you'd be curious to see that due to hostile work environment, women leave tech within 5 years.
I understand what you are saying about the relentless march forward. However, imagine that folks at margins are affected by that even more. This kind of statement does nothing but potentially diminishes the legitimacy of the distress a code newbie may feel.
I know your intentions were right but for heaven's sake, it is a post written by a woman about her experiences and with three hashtags that leave no clue that perhaps she is adding to the general conversation on the pressure, anxiety and distress women feel, and yet, you try to abstract and generalize it, totally sweeping under the carpet the fact that yes, tech is male-dominated, and yes, it is tough especially for folks who are not-men.

 

The world of software development is more open than a black and white picture of privilege and mysogony. There are few career paths that offer as wide a breadth of personalities, identities, experiences, and opportunities to engage with those around us.

Anyone can be a programmer.

Our job as members of this community is to make everyone feel welcome and to encourage them when they feel misplaced - to assure them that they are among friends and respected amongst their peers.

I've spent more than half a decade doing just that in my pursuit of pushing forward that diversity by working with minority and women's groups to reinforce those ideals.

I'm disappointed that you were focused more on putting another member of this community back in their place than joining me in that encouragement.

Of course everyone can be a programmer — just with how tech is run at the moment, not everyone's achievements will be considered equally. It is not egalitarian and by putting it this way, you are contributing to more distress women feel (as in, for instance, "if I am not advancing in an egalitarian field, what's wrong with me").

As for your five years in working towards inclusivity, please check my comment to miniscruff with regards to providing your cv as a standard answer women get to anything they say. I wrote it before you published your comment — that should be a red flag to you that this kind of comments just don't have the intended impact. I believe in your good intentions and efforts and it is important that you continue the work you're doing. However, it is even more important that you are receptive to what women are telling you and not diminishing that.

Please trust me that telling a woman in tech "it's not such a big deal, everyone suffers from that" is not an encouragement — you have loads of psychological studies that prove this point, if you don't believe my lived experience. Validating the distress and saying "it sucks, you will build resilience, I'm here for you" does.

 

(let's see if I can say this without being awkward...)

As someone who is always looking for ways to help, guide or teach others. I find that the feelings you express are not limited by those in a minority position (just as Brandin said). I find a lot of the people I try and help get intimated by those with more experience or that may seem commanding. I have been running workshops and things like that internally and I try and help everyone I can. Unfortunately, I still see a lot of people who refuse or hesitate to ask for help.

Part of getting better is knowing when you are out of your area of expertise and you need help. I am considered the main person to go to for help in our section of the office. But I still need to ask others from time to time.

I would say by in large most developers are willing to help, but you do need to reach out. We simply can't go around asking everyone if they need help. But if you messaged my for example I would, within reason, do my best to assist. They're is also slack communities, discord has some, gitter, message boards, Reddit. Finding a place you feel comfortable is important, some are more welcoming than others. Looking at you Reddit...

Other than that, just know a community this large is bound to have a few bad apples, I will apologize in advance...

 

Hey miniscruff, I'm happy you take time to respond to posts like this. However, while I agree with you that the feelings of pressure, dissonance, anxiety and impostor syndrome are not limited to only minority folks, it is so much more pronounced in these demographics. It is not a competition of who’s stressed more — stress is stress — however, how you frame it feels quite invalidating and very much contrary to inclusive.

It is also not "a few bad apples". This time we are not talking about personal experiences but data, studies, lawsuits and reports that are out there. It is not "a few bad apples". It may actually be "a few good apples", if we look at the stats closely enough. Fun fact — tech is the only prestigious profession where there are fewer women than 70 years ago (according to a tech author and programmer, Clive Thompson).

I want to leave with you one thought. Please notice that 40% (6/15 sentences) of your response is about you, your expertise and professional standing. That is a bit odd response and sadly, a response that women oftentimes get, as if it's saying "okay, okay, let's talk about me now". Sometimes it's just enough to say "that sucks, I'm sorry — if you need anything, reach out".

 

Your post on JavaScript under the hood shows a much deeper understanding than many JS devs have of it. The more you share (in writing about your journey and in code reflecting this impressive and undoubtedly growing understanding), the more you'll make a case for yourself which becomes impossible to ignore.

I know you have a much different road ahead of you, to which I can't possibly relate on all levels (and in some cases on any level at all), but you're on the right track. Keep your head up. You belong.