I recently created a group called Suffolk Women Do Code. There are a few ways to read that, they are all valid. This article is a background to why I created it and my hopes for our future.
Thoughts of a female developer
Having spent many years as a software developer sometimes I get people asking me what it’s like being a woman in the industry. I’m not sure I can answer that. Just as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED Talk about the danger of a single story, mine is a single story. I certainly don’t feel able, qualified, or comfortable in speaking for all female developers. I only have my story and those I’ve personally connected with. That I will share.
I grew up in Suffolk, in a small village, not far from Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill. My village primary school had just 42 pupils in total, so our friendship group was small, tight-knit, and mixed. Outside of secondary school, I kept that friendship group. We were boys, girls, punks, new romantics, rockers and mods, or whatever the 6 or 7 of us felt like that week, and we all hung out together. We didn’t do much that split us into boys versus girls. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t too fazed when I started my computer science degree as one of 8 women out of 160 students.
I made friends and sometimes my friendship groups were all male. As we sat and worked our heads around the vagaries of Pascal, Lisp and Cobol, being the only woman in the room was the least of my problems. Actually, I don’t recall it being a problem at all. I did optimistically assume that things would change and there would be more women around me over time.
The only woman in the room
After graduation, I wasn’t the only woman in the company but often I was the only one in the room. Sometimes I’ve worked in teams with several women, sometimes none. Yet overall it’s been clear that there are many more men than women around me. I found this most evident on the day our CTO decided to bring all the various development team leads together. I turned out to be one of three women in a room of 17, including the PA who was taking the minutes. It seemed clear that things had not moved on much since my uni days.
Advantages of standing out
Being the only woman in the room hasn’t always a disadvantage, for instance, people seem to find it easier remembering my name. Many hirers also understand that a gender mix is healthy. I can anecdotally say that some are really willing for a woman’s CV to be better than the rest. It doesn’t always work out but I’ve always seen positive reactions when it did.
Struggles of being heard
Despite the advantages, there are definite downsides in the workplace. Much of development is a collaborative enterprise, whether pair programming or solitary coding. At some point, your code will affect, influence, and work with other code. Collaboration sessions can be loud, stubborn, opinionated, and very very passionate. Good developers care deeply about their systems and are often stubborn in their opinions. Women don’t always fare well in these exchanges, can come across as less confident, less uncertain in their opinions and find themselves overruled.
The biggest problems I’ve seen are with the informal and semi-formal relationships. Who do you chat with by the coffee machine? Who do you grab a sandwich with, go to the canteen with, or a drink after work? It’s in these moments we unload frustrations, offer morsels of news and generally bond and build trust. Sadly, these conversations often become gender split simply because our interest in football, fashion, Love Island and family, or whatever floats our boats, tends to have a gender split. I know I’m generalising but these conversations often form into our informal support networks. Sometimes those support networks morph into external side projects and collaborations. As these informal networks grow the bonds between the men get stronger and the women increasingly get left out.
When the workday stops the problems increase. It’s often more awkward to ask a colleague of the opposite sex out for a drink after work despite having the same motive as asking someone of the same sex. For many women, going out after work is just out of the question anyway. Women are still less able to abdicate responsibility for childcare, the evening meal, and family than men. Even when they can, women are less likely to shirk such responsibilities. If you wonder what I mean try counting how many times men declare that they are ‘babysitting’ as opposed to women who are ‘getting back for the kids’. To clarify here, I am talking about their own children. Overall, it’s not that we are exactly excluded but that we are just not as included.
How can companies manage this?
Some organisations recognise and try to minimise or avoid altogether these problems by not creating out of hours events. Companies can work to ensure that performance is assessed on measurable values alone and avoid requiring out of hours working. I don’t believe that this works or solves the true issues.
In the 1950s, Mary Lee Woods (later Berners Lee) had to push for the right to work into the night. She was navigating the same issues as her many female successors. If someone is restricted to working for shorter periods and unable to spend as much time simply talking to (and therefore learning from) colleagues they have to be smarter to get the same results. Problems arise and rarely at convenient moments, leaving the fix to later is not always an option. Although we might appreciate a company that helps us get to know each other few of us would want to work for a company that bans us from forming friendships as we see fit.
Turning up and turning out
I’ve experienced and observed all these issues at some time but my personal experience has been remarkably easy. Through a mix of luck, arrogance and an amazing husband I’ve had more freedom than many women to spend on my career. I’ve been able to go to after-dinner drinks, company socials and work with some wonderful people. I suspect my early experiences have helped me too. Being out with a small close-knit team where you are one of very few, sometimes the only woman, is not unlike being with my early group of village friends.
Whatever the circumstances most women have, at some point, realised that they are the only female developer in the room. Whether that’s in their office, a meeting, a social meetup, or a conference. Time and time again we find ourselves in the minority and there are many reasons for that. We may not have anyone to go with and just don’t feel like going on our own. Perhaps we find the atmosphere just a little too testosterone-driven and such events offputting. As women, we are also more likely to spend time considering our personal security, access to the event, and parking. We ask ourselves if a lone walk back is worth the risk? Are we going to feel safe on the last train home?
Creating Suffolk Women Do Code
Recently, I decided I wanted to connect some of these “Only Women Coders In The Room” with each other. My hope is that they will feel less isolated, more bonded and more able to attend events together, at least know each other existed. In this group I also wanted to include the amazing women who organise events, run coding clubs, game jams, meetups, teach, and otherwise inspire. All of these women living, working and being “not yet quite a community”, right here in Suffolk, England.
I’ve called the group Suffolk Women Do Code, just in case anybody thinks we don’t. It’s local, rather than national, because if we are to truly get to know each other then we must be able to meet and support each other in person. It’s women-only to give us a space to talk and vent if we need to. Currently, it exists as a closed Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/suffolkwdc/) and the wider community can interact with us on Twitter @SuffolkWDC
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