To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield 🌄
To a younger self, some thoughts on being a woman in a technical field:
Throughout the course of your career, you’ll encounter various types of people, all with backgrounds, skills, and stories different from your own. This presents a tremendous learning opportunity, and you should embrace it. Learn all you can from those around you who are willing to share their knowledge, especially as you begin your career. They can help further ignite the excitement you already have by showing you what’s possible–whether it’s ssh’ing into a server for the first time, exposing you to more advanced mathematical and statistical methods, or reverse engineering some software of interest.
With any luck, you’ll meet colleagues along the way who will enhance your journey in various ways–they’ll become close friends, mentors, and trusted confidants. The joy of returning this kindness can’t be overstated. In my experience, behind every badass woman in tech is a group chat of several other badass women in tech who rally to cheer each other on and provide unconditional support. Find your people, you will need them. And they’ll need you.
However, you may also encounter those who will tear you down. Whether intentionally or not, these people may discredit your hard-earned expertise, cast doubt on your skill, or question the value of your work. This may happen early on, when you feel the least sure of your abilities, and it may shake you to your core. You may begin to question whether you even belong in this industry. You do.
Let me say that again.
To quote a somewhat trite but true remark, “Your worth does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your value.” Easy to say from this side looking back, I know, but trust me. It may feel like the world is ending when a manager calls you into his office and proclaims, loudly, with the door open, that your work is “garbage” and insinuates that you are overpaid. You will be horribly embarrassed as you slink back to your desk, head down, avoiding eye contact with colleagues. But why are you embarrassed? He’s the one who should be embarrassed. Who talks to a direct report like that–especially a more junior one who’s eager to learn?
You’ll push through and you’ll rise above.
Over time, you’ll gain enough skill and expertise that you’ll speak at conferences! Rarely will anyone assume you are there to speak as a technical presenter, but it will often be assumed you are there to recruit for your company as a Recruiter, or that you work in Marketing*.
You’ll go to the speaker check-in line, the only woman in a sea of male-presenting folks. Someone from the conference will walk out, look you straight in the eye, and remind “everyone” that “this line is for speakers only, general check-in is around the corner.” You’ll then speak to an audience composed almost entirely of men, and pray that when the time for questions comes, you don’t get a, “Well, actually, this is more of a comment…”
Through all of this, you will grow. At first it will feel like you’re pretending to be confident instead of actually being confident, but after a while, it will be more difficult to distinguish between the two. This is progress. I’m still not sure whether this means you’re actually confident or just an elaborately disguised imposter, but maybe it doesn’t matter. If it’s good enough to fool even you, you’re probably doing okay.
There will still be bad days, though; the occasional days where you allow someone’s careless words or misinformed judgement to affect your own thoughts about your abilities. They may even hit harder now that you’re more experienced, but just remember: their opinion is just that. You know what’s in your brain and on your resume, you know all the great work you have done. You (hopefully) have a close circle of others who see it too and can help remind you when you need it most.
Anyway, now it’s time to start being who you needed, way back when. You won’t have perfect advice for everyone or every situation, but think of those awful days, way back at the beginning of your career, when an encouraging word from a more experienced professional would’ve gone a long way. Go do that for somebody whenever you can. Advocate for others who may not feel they’re in positions to do so themselves, or who may not know the appropriate ways in which to do so.
Make it your mission to ensure that no one ever has to feel small in your presence. Build others up. Above all, be kind. Be who you needed when you got started.
P.S. You’re not “bad at math.” It’s okay you didn’t get the CS degree. You found a way anyway.
P.P.S. 12-year-old you would be so fucking proud of you now.
(*These roles and fields are 100% valuable and very important, and some of the best and brightest people I know have roles in these fields. But to assume that a woman attending a tech conference is there for any reason other than interest or expertise in the subject matter is an outdated view at best.)