What does it mean to be a feminist coder in 2018?
xiaowei Mar 8 Updated on Mar 09, 2018
It's been a landmark year since International Women's Day 2017. From the #MeToo movement to the Google Memo, to the crumbling of the Weinstein empire and the fall out events after Susan Fowler's blog post, issues of sexual assault, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and equality have been pushed to the forefront in the US. Most of all, it's become clear that pervasive gender discrimination, inequality and oppression are not just within tech, but sadly rampant from the media industry to the military.
Difficult conversations on diversity and gender discrimination have been happening across all parts of the political spectrum, including how activist and organizing communities can be inclusive across different genders and races. Many of the positive advancements over the past year have come from years of organizing within marginalized communities.
Rachel Nabors, tells us:
The good things that have been happening have taken years to come about: the success of women of color organizing and educating other women of color (I’m thinking about the awesome women of Atlanta’s Women Who Code chapter here), the spread of inclusive feminism, the challenging conversations white feminists have been having with white women in the wake of Trump, welcoming transgender women into the fold: none of this happened last year. It’s been rolling out year over year.
There are no short term wins. There are only hard conversations and the forging of longterm alliances across artificially drawn lines in the sand. We’re all human beings. We all share the same planet. Learning to act like that? Takes time, patience, persistence, and a hell of a lot of disappointment—which in turn becomes the motivation to make meaningful change happen.
So maybe the most positive thing about last year was what a wake up call it was to double down on these issues across the board.
In 2018, part of being a feminist coder means to be continuously standing strong and uniting with others across different industries, genders and races in the face of oppression. This includes breaking down mental barriers that we place for ourselves in self sabotage, and breaking the barriers other people place on us within our careers.
Being technical, being human
At a company I previously worked at, I wrote on an internal messageboard that was a handful of non-male engineers over the age of 30. Within our workplace, there was no other engineer who I felt I could turn to for advice about what it might be like to be on maternal leave and not coding for a few months, what it would be like to have an infant and deal with PagerDuty alarms.
I thought I was alone. Yet I wasn't -- one of the women on the operations team messaged me over Slack to gently say that she understood my point, but that ultimately I should not make the demarcation between what I faced as a female engineer at the company versus as a female non-engineer. The division I had was an artificial one: ultimately, whatever policies our company set for diversity hiring and retention, to health insurances, maternal leave policies and flexible work hours affected her as much as me. Together, we faced the real challenges of being working non-males in a country where just 60 years ago, female participation in the workforce was under 35%.
This past year was a year of dismantling silos to come out stronger against the patriarchy. When we break down these artificial silos, we can contextualize ourselves more clearly as engineers that build and support tools, educational material, products, and projects that contribute to our society more broadly, and as humans that have impact in the world.
Sonia Gupta writes:
"I'm most interested in the ways that technologists, rather than technology itself, can change the way we think about each other and the world. I believe that folks who are naturally progress-driven are drawn to tech, and I'm excited to see the impact we, as humans, can have to improve our world through our words and actions rather than simply through the technology we build."
Every piece of technology we touch today was made by a person, and no person is without their stories, biases, experiences and insights. Our insistence on more diversity in tech is an insistence on technology that enables a more equitable world.
Amelia Gapin writes:
We all know how toxic our industry is for anyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender man, but I’m so excited for this to change. Sometimes, it feels like it’s getting worse, but I truly think it only feels that way because we’re finally calling the toxicity out and having these conversations. It’s no longer something we keep quiet.
We have so far to go still, but with millennials finding their voices more and more each day and Generation Z entering the workforce in a few years, I think we’re going to continue to make progress towards a better industry.
The most exciting thing about this is how much better the things we build will be when we have more diversity and a wider range of people involved. We’ll build things that are more accessible, help more people, handle a wider variety of use cases, and leave no users behind. Algorithms, machine learning, and AI in general are terrifying to me because the biases we have in our society get built into them if we’re not careful. We’ve seen this happen over and over again. But with more voices and diversity in our industry and a more heterogeneous group of people designing and building the technology we rely on, we can avoid many of those biases. We can make AI that isn’t racist, sexist, heteronormative, etc.
History + Diversity
In order to create technology that is inclusive and built for everyone, we need a diverse workforce. Despite the current male dominated computer engineering profession, "[computing] was originally the province of women, a fact innumerable articles and books have pointed out but which still seems to surprise everyone every time it’s 'revealed'" writes Miriam Posner.
From non-males who started coding when they were young, to those who have made a career switch into programming, retention and staying in engineering might be an even bigger challenge than learning new technical skills.
Rachel Nabors explains how she got into coding:
As a teen, I built my first Geocities site on computers donated to my rural library system. It was a gallery of my art and comics. Eventually I got a contract to make those comics for an iVillage site, and I used Drupal to build a community site for other teen girls making comics. We didn’t have Etsy or Mailchimp back then: I had to install and run OSCommerce and Tin Can PHP to sell printed copies of my work and mail my newsletter to my readers. In the end, I couldn’t afford to keep making comics (even popular, award-winning cartoonists still struggle to turn a profit), but I was able to do something else I loved for a living: building web sites!
Molly Lloyd took the plunge into tech after complex statistics and coding at the Federal Reserve:
I learned how to code first through statistical software (R, SAS, Stata, Matlab, etc) while working at my first job out of college at the Federal Reserve. My job as a research assistant involved working with economists on research and policy briefings, and often I was responsible for data processing and analysis or writing scripts to generate charts and graphics for briefings and reports.
After a year or so, I decided I didn't want to pursue a PhD in economics and, because the programming work was my favorite part of the job, I decided to try and do that for a career. I then made the impractical and poorly thought through decision to move to San Francisco with no job and use the money I'd saved by living in a group house with too many people to enroll in a coding bootcamp.
Jenn Schiffer started with coding fan sites in high school:
Leadership, company culture
No matter where you are in your engineering career, leadership and mentors play a huge role in retention. While having more non-males enter into tech is a big step, having more diversity in leadership positions, especially technical ones, is key.
Despite myths about the meritocracy, the implicit biases and discrimination against putting non-males into leadership positions have been surfaced extensively over the past year.
There’s a lot of bootstrapping mythology in the USA, especially in tech: “If you’re the best, you’ll naturally rise to the top.” This is a way of saying, “If you’re struggling, it’s your fault.” Don’t buy into that game. This attitude glosses over the infinite kinds of isms and alliances that subtlely help some folks “rise to the top.” Since everyone is playing politics, play it better than they do.
I think the Susan Fowler post and subsequent reckoning brought about some important conversations, but I still feel that, unfortunately, the majority of the work that needs to be done to make tech an equitable and healthy place to work for marginalized folks is still being done by the people who are being marginalized. I helped started a gender-minority employee resource group (ERG) last year, and while a way to surface concerns and harness the power of a group was very needed, the work was extremely emotionally draining and absolutely not what I should have been focusing on at this stage in my career.
We need leaders from all levels to become active in assessing their behavior and thinking critically about why things are the way they are, and then work to intentionally unwind the oppressive systems in their organizations or we're just going to keep burning out the junior people from underrepresented backgrounds with unpaid 'diversity' work that doesn't actually change anything at the top.
This type of "unpaid 'diversity' work" can take a toll, especially when balancing the everyday challenges of a job alongside the glaring inequalities that arise for opportunities and recognition.
Don't feel like you have to take part in events and stuff about your underrepresented group for free. Don't let people guilt you into doing things "or else there won't be any women". People do that! And it sucks because it's unfair and it's lazy and it shows a complete lack of respect for your time. For my fellow white women, stop tokenizing women of color and learn to handle the shame of being called out better than men seem to be doing. We're also a "protected class", sure, but we are also, like, literally protected by our white privilege.
Speak up, don’t be afraid to use your voice! Get over your imposter syndrome because if you didn’t belong here or weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple. Instead, use that energy to influence what you build. If you don’t agree with something, say something!
I used to work for a major blogging and social networking site and there were multiple times I spoke up to stop us from following through on decisions that didn’t have our users’ best interests in mind. Sometimes, that even meant calling our CEO out in front of our entire company an an all-team meeting.
Using my voice helped to make our product better for our users and allowed us to do right by them. And what I found when I spoke up was that I wasn’t always the only person who felt the way I did. Many times, people are afraid to speak up, but just having one person break the ice can help so much. Be that person!
Stand up for the things you believe in. You don’t need to be silently complicit in building something that goes against your morals and ethics. The unfortunate reality is change often happens from the bottom up and that means it’s on all of us to make it happen.
Inspiration: learning from those around you
Supporting and learning from others in underrepresented groups can be a healing and illuminating process. We heard about some inspiring people from inspiring people themselves:
I’m inspired by every woman in tech, whether she’s younger or older than I am, whether she’s a fresh-faced junior or many times my senior. I’ve had teenage girls inspire me to be more curious and ask more questions and elderly women remind me to be patient and move strategically across proverbial minefields. But if I could give some specific shout outs:
- Code Newbie podcaster Saron Yitbarek, who has changed so many lives with her work (check out her new intro to computer science collaboration: Base CS)
- software engineer Stephanie Hurlburt and her unending stream of tweets about running her own company
- illustrator, artist, cartoonist Sophie Campbell whose work on the Jem and the Holograms comics demonstrated that you can represent all kinds of girls beautifully—I wish more media aimed at girls took a cue from her work!
- zine creator, illustrator and infinite learner Amy Wibowo, whose tireless efforts to bring pink to tech sit at the epicenter of the FemmeTech movement
- cool mom Elle Osmani—the matching custom hoodies she makes, her mix tapes, and wry humor are solid gold and remind me it’s ok to be a person outside of some epic career trajectory
There are a lot of folks, but these are a few who come to mind:
1) Kathleen Dollard - I first met Kathleen when she delivered a presentation at Turing School while I was a student there. I was immediately inspired by her energy, technical prowess, honesty, and dedication to nurturing the growth of others who are entering the profession. She has been a true friend and mentor to me as I make this career transition.
2) Nina Baliga - Nina is a cofounder of Diversity which is a startup devoted to improving the diversity of tech talent at inclusive companies. I've seen her fight to advocate for herself as a woman of color, and as a founder. She is tireless in her efforts to improve the industry, and is actually taking action to improve tech in measurable ways. Watching her build her company is an incredibly inspiring learning experience for me.
3) My Mom(sorry, she's not on Twitter) - My mother is an Original Badass. She founded her own physician practice in Southern Louisiana and has helped families in the community for decades. She is outspoken and compassionate, and she has taught me what it means to be a powerful, kind, self-sufficient, and confident woman.
Kimberly Bryant (https://twitter.com/6Gems) created Black Girls Code and I don't think there is anything quite as inspiring as putting your life's work into an initiative as good as Black Girls Code's mission to empower young black girls to become STEM innovators, while also not sacrificing your ideals to make it easier (like how she rejected Uber's donation offer). She's my model for how to bring good change to the world without losing your soul to corporations in the process. I want someone to say that about me one day soon, hopefully in the same breath as "and she made the best website ever back in 2002".
Stephanie Hurlburt has been an inspiration and bright light since I started following her about a year ago. She is a graphics engineer who worked in big game studios before starting her own business. She tweets a lot about tech culture and entrepreneurship, and makes an effort to be public about her life, priorities, and schedule to show how you can be successful as an engineer and a founder without sacrificing your values and your other interests. She also does quite a bit of amazing work connecting folks with mentors in her Twitter network and spends (it seems) a significant amount of time herself mentoring and advising people trying to get started in the tech/gaming industry. She is basically my unpaid (and unknowing) therapist – her tweets consistently give reality checks and confidence boosts when I'm feeling discouraged about working in tech and the industry as a whole. Her voice is an important and needed counterpoint to the self-important savior complex ethos of a lot of public figures in the startup world.
I have this friend, Corinne, and she’d never expect me to say her, but just knowing her has made me so much stronger of a person in my career. I’m not the kind of person who eats, sleeps, and breathes code. I love programming and building things, but I have other hobbies and I believe in keeping a strong work/life balance. I used to think I didn’t belong in this industry because of that. The culture in tech makes you feel that way if you’re not working on side projects constantly. When I met Corinne a few years ago, she was very much someone who cares about work/life balance and does things besides programming. And she’s still a great coder. On top of this, she is also very vocal about pay equality and reaches down the ladder to pull up those behind her.
Knowing her has made me feel much more confident in my place in tech as someone who does have other hobbies and doesn’t think we should have to have tons of side projects just to be taken seriously as a developer. I work on side projects if I have an idea for something I want to build, but I don’t worry about it if I go months or a year with nothing.
If there's one thing this past year has taught us, is that progress is constant and inevitable. Maybe that's why the patriarchy is so nervous.
We've seen that building the workplaces we want, and the world we want is not an individual effort -- it's been a chorus of voices and supporting each other that has created meaningful impact. This International Women's Day, let's celebrate the collective effort that we embark on everyday in building the world we imagine.
We invite you to share your stories today, either on dev.to or the Twitter hashtag #SheCoded -- or both.