representing for the open bar

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at a women in technology luncheon being asked questions by women who were studying for computer science degrees. Mostly, the questions had nothing to with gender, but rather, what’s it like to work for my company, do I work night and day with no sleep, what’s the best way to go about networking and finding a job — normal stuff like that.

But then, one student asked me if I ever had trouble as a woman in the software industry. I thought about that before I answered. I gave her the short, positive answer, and it was mostly true. But of course, there’s more truth than a two minute answer can really say.

I told her that no, I don’t notice discrimination or have problems in my job because I’m a woman. That I did when I was first starting out, but not anymore. My first real job after college was in the home improvement industry in the early 90’s. You don’t get much more male-dominated than the world of lumber and power tools. I had a tough time as a woman. A manager once told me that people would pay more attention to me if I wore tighter jeans. And he meant it.

I didn’t actually tell her about the tight jeans thing, just that I’m not sure if times have changed since then, or if the software industry just doesn’t have the baggage that the home improvement industry did, but I don’t experience that kind of thing any more.

What I didn’t say is that part of it could also be that I’m no longer young and inexperienced. And I’ve learned not to let people walk over me or dump things on me. And that I don’t know if young and inexperienced men have to fight as hard for respect. Maybe they do, but I’ve never been a man starting out in the workplace so it’s impossible for me to know

I also didn’t say that when I look around at my coworkers, I mostly see men, and that even now, I feel a little out of place and wonder if any of my male coworkers take a little more time to accept and respect me because I’m a woman. I don’t think they do, but how can I know for sure?

My company works very hard to seek out qualified female job candidates. They work so hard, in fact, that sometimes women who work there joke about being the token woman and hope that our coworkers don’t assume we got hired because we were women rather than that we were qualified. As hard as they work, we have a lot more men than women in engineering. But we have a better ratio than other places. I was talking to a coworker today who told me that at her last job, she was one of only two women on an engineering team of 500.

I don’t know why there seem to be so few women in engineering. Since only a minority of computer science graduates are women, it makes sense that the ratio carries over into the workplace. As for why so few women study CS in the first place is a whole other issue with its own set of theories and studies. My two minute answer period was way too short to get into that.

At P.’s holiday party last weekend, all the women I met were wives. They were all there because this was their husband’s party. None of them worked. It felt a little odd to be at a table full of couples when I was the only woman talking to the men about technology and all the other women were talking to each other about kids.

So, do I feel discrimination? No. Not really.

But I do feel a little glad to be going to my company’s holiday party tonight, with P. in tow. At least at one one holiday party this year, women as technology workers will be represented. Which sounds a little stupid all typed out like that, especially since I’m mostly going for the open bar.

Maybe it’s a good thing my two minute answer couldn’t squeeze all this in.

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