By John Sonmez May 22, 2017

Women in Technology: A Guide for Men AND Women

Oh boy.

That’s probably what you thought when you saw the title of this chapter.

That’s what I’m thinking right now.

When I originally wrote the outline for this book, there was no chapter titled “Women in Tech.”

But, after doing this .NET Rocks podcast interview, I got a tweet that said, “Loved it. @jsonmez, you should include Women in Tech chapter in your new book.”

And this tweet was from a woman, mind you.

I thought to myself, “What do I really have to lose?”

And then I imagined in my head an angry mob chasing me with pitchforks, but since I’m a guy that cares more about truth and helping people than danger—and I’m a bit stupid—I decided to write it anyway.

The goal of this chapter is pretty simple.

I want to talk, honestly, about women in technology, how they are perceived, what the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding them are, and why I honestly think that so many men do really stupid things like send death threats and make comments about rape.

By understanding and really taking an honest look at these things, we can begin to move past them, because you can’t change reality, until you honestly look at it, as painful and sometimes politically incorrect as it may be.

I also want to give some real, practical advice for both women and men on dealing with women in technology in a way that is beneficial to both sexes.

Now, you might be asking what makes me “qualified” to speak on this subject.

Or perhaps you have the mistaken belief that just because I am a man that I don’t even have the right to have an opinion on women in technology.

Well, the answer is that I don’t need to be “qualified” to offer my opinion on this subject, based on my personal observations, experience, and coaching both male and female software developers.

And, really, just like the rest of this book, that’s all it is—that’s all any of this book is—my opinion.

I don’t really see how my opinion on this matter really differs that much than my opinion on how to negotiate or salary, deal with QA, or learn a programming language.

If you wanted a book on facts, you probably should have picked up a history book or a biography.

With that said, let’s dive into the fascinating topic of women in technology.

Stereotypes And Stigmas

I’ve addressed the idea of stereotypes several times in this book so far, and that is because I truly believe we need to be upfront and honest about the stereotypes that exist, the fact that all of us have them, and if we want to be able to overcome them, or at the very least work around them.

Women in technology are stereotyped.

Many men—and some women—often assume that a woman programmer is not going to be as technically competent.

A woman in technology can also be thought of as either not as passionate or dedicated as a man, or seen as a geeky anomaly who isn’t very feminine, but hangs with the guys and plays Zelda.

Women are often thought to be good testers, but not taken as seriously in software developer roles.

Of course none of these stereotypes are universally true, but it’s important to be aware of them, whether you are a woman in technology, needing to know what you’ll likely face, or a man in technology, needing to understand that you may hold these views and they may not be correct.

(I could write an entire essay on how forced diversity often increases and reinforces these negative stereotypes, but the goal of this chapter is pragmatic action you can take, not political advice.)

The point is, some women in technology will be similar to these stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean all are or even that most are.

There are plenty of technically competent women software developers who are just as passionate about programming and technology as any guy and are not “guy-like” in nature.

Why Guys Harass Women

Ok, so we’ve taken a look at what I think are the most common stereotypes women face in the technology world, but let’s talk a little bit about the social stigma that gets applied to some women or, why guys harass women.

And it does happen.

I’ve known enough honest, non-attention seeking women in technology to know that guys do send pictures of their anatomy, threaten to sexually assault women, actually do sexually assault them at conferences, and even send death threats.

But… before I get into why I think some guys engage in this absolutely horrid behavior, I want to say that not all guys do this and that it is a very, very small minority who can make the environment seem worse than it is.

In general, from my experience, most men in the technology industry are supportive, welcoming, and even protective of women in the technology field—although the protective bit can be overdone and cause its own problems.

With that said, let’s dive into male psychology.

Am I a psychologist?

No, but I’ve spent enough time reading emails from guys writing into my YouTube channel, coaching them, and being one that I understand a pretty good deal of male psychology, especially when it comes to women.

Getting back to stereotypes, many men who are software developers came from a background of being a nerd or dork.

They were picked on and bullied in school, socially awkward, flabbergasted around girls, and rejected quite often.

For many male software developers, these conditions drove them deeper and deeper into technology as both an escape and a way to prove themselves worthy to society.

They also harbored a deep-seated resentment towards the cool guys and jocks and especially, especially, those girls that they wanted, but couldn’t have—the ones that rejected them.

What happens when all of the sudden in their “safe,” mostly male, environment of programming and technology, where they have become the “alpha male” based on their intellectual prowess, a girl enters, especially a good-looking one?

All of the sudden, they are back in high school.

All of the sudden, their “alpha male” status is challenged, because the rules change.

They can’t “pretend” to be an “alpha male” just based on intellectual superiority.

Now that there is a female in the room, the dynamics have shifted.

Rejection—in fact, all the rejection from their life—is staring them in the face.

So, how do they react to this?

How do they respond?

They secretly hate.

They seethe with anger and jealousy.

This woman represents everything they wanted but could not have, all the bullying and rejection they faced, and the torment they went through.

What do they do?

In public they smile and bend over backwards to be nice to her, trying to win her affection and approval, since it represents the acceptance and approval of all their past rejections.

But of course that doesn’t work, because that desperate, needy behavior is not attractive and never wins anyone’s approval.

So, out of frustration, in private and anonymously, they type that nasty email.

They make threats.

They send inappropriate pictures.

They lash out in any way they can, taking their rage out on the wrong target.

I could go on and write an entire volume about this subject alone, but I think you get the point.

I’m not justifying this behavior or giving an excuse for it in any way, I’m just trying to help you to understand it, because it is so misunderstood.

Advice To Women

In the next sections of this chapter, I’m going to address men and women separately.

First, I’m going to give some advice to women, based on my experience.

Remember, my own perspective is limited, because I’m not a woman in technology. I’m a guy, but I’ll try to do my best.

And one more word of caution.

Remember, I’m approaching this from a pragmatic perspective of what you can do, not what is wrong with society and how it needs to be fixed.

This advice is geared towards how you can best deal with and navigate the technology world as it is, not how you or I or anyone else wants it to be—there is a huge difference.

Try Not To Look For Reasons To Be Offended

No, I’m not victim blaming.

I really despise that phrase anyway, because it’s a great label to put on people so you don’t have to hear their ideas and you can talk over them.

But I do think it’s practical, for not just women, but really anyone in the software development field to grow a thick skin.

If you go around and look for reasons to be offended, you’ll find them—trust me.

It’s like going out in the wrong neighborhood at night and looking for trouble.

If you look for it, you will find it.

Plenty of guys will says inappropriate things.

They will make offensive comments and jokes.

They will do silly, childish stuff, that you should just ignore, because it’s not worth the fight, it’s honestly not a big deal, and you don’t want to get a stigma attached to you that causes everyone to walk on eggshells around you all the time.

Like I said, there are plenty of reasons you can be offended, and you will find them pretty easily.

But I would personally suggest making that list of things very, very small.

The less you let things affect you, the fewer things will affect you, and that makes for a much less stressful life.

There are some women in technology who have made it their mission to find any kind of offensive or other behavior they deem inappropriate and call it out, embarrassing people, stirring up trouble, and not really advancing their cause at all.

I’m not saying we don’t need social activists and reform, but we need to deal with real issues, and in the right way, not jump at every perceived slight or slightly inappropriate joke.

With that said…

Don’t Ignore Real Issues, Though

There are times when growing a thick skin and turning your head or ignoring grossly inappropriate behavior is not the right thing to do.

I’ve been a whistle blower myself, when I witnessed a woman at one of the environments I worked at being blatantly sexually harassed by her superior.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, and it didn’t exactly boost my career, but I reported this person to HR and made sure that the harassment stopped.

If you see or experience something that you know is just not right or acceptable, I suggest you do the same.

I’m only saying to tolerate the minor offenses or unintentional behavior that can be easily ignored.

If someone is blatantly or intentionally harassing, discriminating, touching, or doing something else wildly inappropriate and offensive to you or someone else, do not ignore it.

Go find someone to report the behavior to and/or confront that person.

I know that one of the difficulties with actually taking action against completely inappropriate behavior is the possible negative repercussions it can have on your career, or even that it can make the problem worse.

And that is exactly why I suggest, from a pragmatic standpoint, overlooking things that are slightly offensive—it’s just not worth the fight.

You’ve got to decide where that line is for you, and when someone crosses it, you have a choice to be a victim, or to be the kind of person who will not allow themselves to be victimized.

Sometimes it’s a difficult choice.

Sometimes there are real consequences for not allowing someone to victimize you.

But sometimes it has to be done anyway.

I leave it to you to decide where that line is.

Don’t Try And Be One Of The Guys

There is nothing wrong with being a software developer, or involved in some other technology-related field, and still being a woman.

Being a 100 percent, unapologetic, I like to go shopping and I like shoes, woman.

Don’t get me wrong, you can still be a woman and not liking shopping or shoes for that matter, but what I am saying is that you don’t have to act like a guy to be a woman in technology.

You can still be that 100 percent feminine woman that you are—if you are—and not only can you be, but you should be.

I know this can be easily misinterpreted, but I mean this in the nicest, most sincere way.

I mean that trying to “fit in with the guys” by being one of the guys is a bad strategy and it actually hurts the team and environment.

The problem with changing who you are to fit in, is that you lose who you are.

And who you are as a woman in technology is valuable.

Your viewpoints, your softening of a masculine environment, the way you see the world and interact with it differently, are valuable.

By trying to fit in with the guys, much of that value is lost, and it reinforces some of the behavior that you probably aren’t going to like.

Maybe I’m a bit old school, but I don’t think guys should treat women like guys.

And I think when guys start treating women like guys, they start losing respect.

And I think if we trace the loss of respect to actions, we get some pretty bad actions.

But, ah, I promised to be pragmatic, and here I have gone off a little into the theoretical.

Let’s bring it back to you.

If you act like one of the guys, you’ll probably be treated like one of the guys, and you probably won’t like that.

You’ll also be sacrificing much of what makes you, you— you probably won’t like that either.

And quite honestly, you’ll never be accepted as one of the guys, because you are simply NOT one of the guys.

You’ll feel this rejection, and it will probably hurt, to be honest.

So, don’t do it.

Be a woman, be yourself.

Yes, you’ll have your own set of issues to deal with that you could alleviate to some degree by pretending to be one of the guys, but in the long run figuring out how to be 100 percent authentic to who you are and how you work in technology will be a better choice than sacrificing who you are to make things easier.

Use Your Advantages

If you ever had dreams of me tightening up the knot in my tie and writing a chapter in a politically correct tone, I’m sure you’ve abandoned them by now.

So it should come as no surprise to you that I’m going to bluntly honest here.

Women have certain advantages over men, especially in male-dominated environments like technology, and they should use them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should, for lack of better a term, “sleep your way to the top.”

I’m really not suggesting that at all or anything that even slightly resembles doing that.

But I am suggesting that, all other things being equal, I’d rather hire an attractive woman to work on my team than a hairy, sweaty, I haven’t showered in three days, man.

Gasp! How could I say that?

Really, how could I put down on paper something that we all already know, but we aren’t allowed to say?

Remember how I told you I wouldn’t be politically correct and I’d be extremely pragmatic?

Well, there you have it.

This whole section could simply be summed up by “if you got it, use it.

That’s all I’m saying.

And it’s not just looks, it’s womanly charm and eloquence as well.

A feminine woman who knows how to “turn it on” a bit has a power strong enough to conquer just about any man.

Take a look at Cleopatra and Mark Antony or Josephine’s control over Napoleon.

History is littered with examples of the awesome power of the feminine mystique.

Again, I’m not saying to manipulate and deceive, but I’m just saying that there is nothing wrong with using an advantage that you have.

You’ve got enough disadvantages in a technology workplace that you should have no problem leveling the playing field a little bit.

Negotiate

Speaking of leveling the playing field, one of the areas where men have historically done better in the workplace is with negotiations.

I don’t mean that in any kind of derogatory way, just trying to address the truth so we can learn from it.

I’m not sure if there is a pervasive problem with pay differences between men and women or if a large portion of it can be chalked up to the fact that men are more likely to negotiate, and negotiate harder, than women are.

If you are still having trouble digesting that last sentence because you can’t believe I would say that I’m not sure if men and women are paid differently when so many studies show it to be true, let me remind you about pragmatism.

Can you affect whether or not women are unfairly discriminated against, as far as pay goes, in the workplace?

Not really.

I mean, you can if you stage a million woman march, have a large platform, and a good deal of money, but for all practical purposes, you can’t.

But can you do something about your pay—you individually?

Yes, you can.

So, let’s talk about that.

(Oh, and sidenote, if every woman does something to improve her pay—from a purely pragmatic perspective—guess what happens on the larger scale? That’s right; problem solved.)

All this is to lead up to say what was already in the section title, which is to negotiate and to learn to negotiate better.

The best book I know on how to negotiate is one called Never Split the Difference.

Read that book, read my chapter on salary negotiations, and the next time you are given a job offer or trying to get a raise, negotiate.

This is one time where it might make sense to try and be one of the guys, although using your advantages may also be an ace up your sleeve here as well.

There are some perceptions that a woman playing “hardball” isn’t a woman.

I don’t think that is true at all.

I’ve been on the other end of a woman playing “hardball” plenty of times in my life and I have never thought she wasn’t a woman.

So don’t be afraid to get in there and “mix it up.”

Negotiate.

Advice To Men

Alright guys, it’s your turn.

I can speak a little more freely here since I’m actually a guy and one who’s worked with women in the technological workplace many times.

I know that working with women in the workplace can be difficult.

It can be a bit awkward and intimidating.

You might not know how to act.

The political and social justice warriors may have made you so afraid of being part of the “rape culture” that you are afraid to do anything.

You might want to just ignore the issue and put “feminist” on your Twitter profile, so people will just leave you alone.

It doesn’t work like that.

There is no easy way out.

So, let’s get into it.

Don’t Patronize

One of the first solutions that most men devise to dealing with women in the technology is to try to be overly nice to them.

It’s a sensible strategy.

It actually probably comes from 50 percent a good place of actually wanting to be supportive and help women in technology, because your think they are valuable and frankly you’d like to see more of them, and 50 percent fear.

The strategy is wrong though, because it results in creating a feeling and environment of patronization.

(Wow, I can believe patronization is an actual word.)

Anyway, if you don’t know what patronizing is, here’s the definition:

pa·tron·ize

verb

  1. treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority.

““She's a good-hearted girl,” he said in a patronizing voice.”

Synonyms: treat condescendingly, condescend to, look down on, talk down to, put down, treat like a child, treat with disdain

“don't patronize me!”

Yeah… I know. Whoops. Didn’t mean to do that.

But, you did, I did, we all did, it’s ok.

We just have to learn to stop doing it, because it’s not helping.

I’m not saying to not be nice, helpful, and supportive.

Even perhaps to show a little extra consideration to women working in technology, who may appreciate a little more welcoming kindness in a mostly male-dominated field.

The key is to do it in a way that doesn’t say “Hey, you aren’t as smart as me or as good of a programmer, so I need to help you.”

Don’t bend over backwards trying to be overly nice.

Don’t become the personal defender of all women in technology and decide you need to aggressively attack anyone who is displaying any chauvinist characteristics.

This kind of behavior does come off as patronizing and it only makes the environment more difficult for women, not better.

I’ll give you an example from the classic book, Ender’s Game.

Early on in the book, when the main character, Ender, is leaving his family and joining a group of other soldiers who are going to be heading to a training camp called Battle School, the instructor in charge, Graff, singles out Ender and appears to be showing him some favoritism.

Can you guess how the other boys reacted?

They slapped him in the back of the head as they got out of their seats and passed by him.

This happens quite a bit when there is a blowup about some women in technology incident online.

A bunch of well-meaning guys rush to the defense and it ends up creating more hostility and resentment and now something that was a small issue blows up into something much larger.

I’m not saying don’t step in if someone is verbally or physically harassing a woman—I’m right there with you that one—but, I am saying, don’t try and be the defender that fights people’s battles when they don’t need help.

Not only is that patronizing, but it makes the situation worse for them.

Women Are Not Guys

Even though women want to be treated equally in the workplace, it doesn’t mean they wanted to be treated the same.

Equal and the same are not the same things.

Equal means have the same value.

The same means not taking into account a person’s differences.

If you have kids, you might love them equally, but you don’t treat them “the same.”

You don’t treat a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old the same.

You don’t treat a girl and a boy the same.

Don’t treat women in technology the same as you treat guys.

Again, I’m a bit old-school in this regard, but I believe that men, real men, should treat women like women, regardless of the environment.

That means not palling around with them and making crude jokes and slapping them on the back like you might do with your guy friends.

It doesn’t mean not being friendly.

It doesn’t mean not including them in social activities or as equal members of the team.

It just means altering your behavior to show a little respect.

For lack of a better term, to act like a gentleman.

Not a chauvinist, not a white knight, but just a gentleman who understands that there are differences between men and women, and that one should pay attention and pay respect to those differences.

Don’t Take Your Relationship Frustrations Out On Women

Women are not the enemy.

I realize that many of you reading this have been hurt and rejected by women.

Believe me, I get it. I understand.

I realize that you may think that women like jerks and treat nice guys poorly and that makes you angry, because you feel like you deserve better.

Again, I get that—I don’t agree with it, and I’m not going to get into why here—but I get it.

Regardless, you shouldn’t let those feelings and frustrations spill over into your professional life.

(In fact, you should really not let them spill over anywhere, and you should find a way to deal with them, but again, this isn’t the place to cover that.)

It’s important to realize that women have just as much right to be programmers or software developers as you do.

And they are here to stay.

Get used to it.

And don’t hide behind anonymity either.

Bullying and harassing online behind a pseudonym is just plain cowardice.

At least have the guts to say or do what you are going to do with your real name attached.

This book—and this chapter—might piss off quite a few people, but I’m still using my name.

Just Act Normal

Honestly, the best advice I can give overall is to just act normal.

Really.

Don’t bend over backwards being overly nice, walking on eggshells.

Don’t be a jerk and harass women.

Just be a cool, normal guy and treat everyone equally with respect.

Again, not the same, but equal.

Women don’t want special treatment, they don’t need you to defend them, and they don’t need you to be a jerk either.

I know it can be difficult to “act normal,” but the best thing you can do is to just not make a big deal out of the whole thing.

It’s really not even a big deal.

So there are women programmers, big deal.

As long as you have that attitude, you’ll be fine.

Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but it doesn’t matter, because that is all part of being and acting normal.

I Sincerely Hope This Helps

Like I said at the beginning of this chapter, I’m not a woman.

I’m a man, giving my advice based on my experience, trying to do what I can to give the most pragmatic guidance that I can.

I’m not perfect.

You may not agree with me.

Heck, you may not even like me, but I’m hoping that you can at least get something from this chapter that will help you.


About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."