My Experiences as a Female Software Engineer
It’s no secret that females in Computer Science, both in academia and industry, are scarce. While the percentage of females in other male-dominated fields has been on the rise, that of females majoring in computer science has been on a downward spiral in the past few decades, currently sitting at about 12% to 20%. When I was at Princeton, it was on the lower end, with the class of 2007 having 2 women out of about 20, and the class of 2008 having about 5 out of 50. I don’t claim to know why the numbers are so low, though I think much of it has to do with the culture of Computer Science and the type of people that go into the field. I thought I’d share some of my experiences both in school and in industry.
In high school, I took two computer science courses– Intro to Computer Science using C++, and AP Computer Science. Had it not been for these courses and the confidence they instilled in me (due largely in part to my excellent teachers), I doubt I would have had the guts to major in Computer Science in college. I had some female friends that took the standard intro course in college, and liked programming, but never really considered majoring in it. I can understand why–if you’ve never programmed before, that course is really very difficult. It is also very intimidating to take classes where it seems like most people know all the material already and have been programming since middle school or earlier, especially when they are very vocal about their technical knowledge.
Despite my own pre-college experience with Computer Science, it was not an obvious choice for me. During my sophomore year, I was struggling to decide between majoring in Chemistry, Evolutionary Biology, and International Affairs and Public Policy, none of which I was particularly passionate about, when I realized one evening that I could still major in CS if I loaded up on prerequisites that semester. It was a sort of revelation for me–I was pretty good at most subjects, but here was the thing I could stand to work on (and enjoy) for 10 hours straight, forgetting to eat and losing track of time into the wee hours of the night.
Something that frustrates me about the field of computer science is that there are a lot of jerks who think that just because they’ve “mastered” some programming language or know some obscure unix commands, they are gods and you are nothing. My worst CS experience was when I was working briefly with someone like this. He blew up in the middle of a computer lab after I asked a very reasonable question: “This isn’t some 200 level course, you know!” he screamed at me. Those few minutes made me seriously question my abilities, until I realized he was just an asshole who probably wouldn’t get too far in life anyways.
Most of my classmates were not that extreme, and from my experience, most mean well but are just socially awkward. They can say something so simple as “Oh don’t you know that command?” but in an inadvertently condescending voice that makes you feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t know it. As someone just testing out the CS waters, that type of experience in every class can be very daunting. I think women are more susceptible to these feelings of inadequacy, and it can deter some potential CS concentrators from the department. From my limited experience, the ones that stayed with it were pretty strong-willed and generally kept to themselves.
One of my professors, Kai Li, had a profoundly positive impact on me. There were only 4 girls in my Operating Systems class, and at first we were pretty quiet. Professor Li would ask questions about the reading material every day in class, but would often say “Let’s hear from some of the girls” and wait for one of us to answer. I can’t speak for the other females in the class and how they felt about being “singled” out like that, but for me, it was very encouraging. He once told me that even though the females are fairly quiet, and the boys in the class showed off a lot, when it came down to projects and exams, the female average was often higher. When I walked by a departmental career fair, I paused to look at some of the companies I might want to apply for next semester, and he told me to sign up for some interviews for that day. I said I didn’t feel prepared and wanted to wait a semester until I felt like I had more of a basic foundation. He turned to a professor next to him and said “Jean doesn’t know how good she is.” He probably would not remember that exchange, but for me his support was eye-opening. I realized that while I did decide to major in CS fairly late in the game, I really was good at it, and my harshest critic was really myself.
My experience in industry has been very positive in that I have never felt any discrimination or judgment based on my gender, and people seem to be less condescending (I don’t know where those people ended up…) in general. One of the challenges for me while I was at Google was to speak up when I didn’t understand something, as I often assumed it was common technical knowledge and that people would pass judgment. Up until recently, I could strongly relate to the Impostor Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which you feel like an impostor, and that despite concrete accomplishments, your success is just based on luck. As I grow as a developer, I realize that hey, I am really good at what I do and I’ve gotten to where I am because of that.
I do wish more women would go into Computer Science though, since all the women I have worked directly with are freaking good at their jobs and are really nice to work with in general. I went to a DevDays conference a year or so ago, and of the 200 some people in the room, I think 5 were women. The numbers seem to be even lower in the startup world than at Google–when I tell people I work on the Android app for Pulse, a few have said “Oh as an engineer?” I suppose it is pretty unusual, since I personally know only a handful of women developers at startups. Despite the condescending culture that currently pervades some of the field (I really only experienced this firsthand in college and secondhand on online forums), it is a really fulfilling career, especially since there are so many opportunities to choose from. I don’t quite know what is the best way to increase the number of women in CS, but if anyone has suggestions, please let me know. It can be challenging at times, but I hate to think so many young girls and women are missing out on something they could really love to do as a career.
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