Imagine two software engineers working at their desk. Just close your eyes, and picture them trying to fix bugs and arguing about which portion of the code is problematic.
How many of you pictured two young males?
Now let’s add that one of them is a woman. Close your eyes once again and imagine her solving the issue and impressing her colleague.
What did she look like in your mind? Was she neglected, weird-looking, and/or boyish?
For most people, the first idea that comes to mind when they hear about someone in a technical role is that it’s a man. If they learn that it is, in fact, a woman, they assume she’s not feminine.
It is true that a lot of women in technical roles do not wear makeup or dress in a feminine way. And it is perfectly fine if they don’t feel like it. But the problem is that those who do want to look their best are not taken seriously, so they may end up changing their habits and not looking the way they like just to be accepted in the tech industry. For instance, Eileen Carey, a Silicon Valley CEO, has changed her entire look to be “taken more seriously”: she switched her contact lenses for glasses, dyed her blonde hair dark, and started dressing differently.
Just google “fake geek girl” and you’ll see that there’s an ongoing bias against pretty nerds. Some people assume that because they find a girl attractive, she can’t also be what they consider a geek/a nerd. This creates a vicious circle: girls who identify as real geeks/nerds try not to look too attractive because they fear people would doubt their nerdiness.
Being manly might also be a way to shield oneself from harassment. There are many, many stories about harassment in tech (especially in Silicon Valley), and women are aware that being one of just a few girls in their company or team is already drawing attention to them. Sadly, looking feminine may be viewed by some people as wanting to stand out even more and some women might not want to take this risk.
It’s sad that women who dare go against bias and dress however they please are deemed less capable, and that those who do not make any effort on their looks because it suits them better feed, against their will, the stereotypes about women in tech.
Let’s try another exercise:
Imagine you’re a developer and you’re having a conversation with a woman who tells you all about her passion for dancing and cooking and fashion. Then you speak to a man who talks about cars, football and *insert other gender stereotype*. Both ask you about details regarding your job, specifying that they have a great interest for technology.
Would you explain what you do the same way to both? Or would you explain in a more technical and passionate way to the man?
I think many people would assume that if you like girl stuff, you can’t also like computer science and vice versa. The thing is, if you’re a girl in the tech industry you’re most likely to hang out with men because there are just close to no girls for you to be friends with, so you might tend to shift your interests. But being interested in girl stuff, as well as wanting to look feminine, is not incompatible with being interested in technology.
Actually that’s the situation I’m in: except for girl friends I had before specializing in computer science, I only hang out with men, and I can’t talk to them about the same things I would discuss with my girl friends. With some people, I deliberately leave out some topics of conversation because I know it can paint me as too girly and I want to be taken seriously.
Now let me tell you about how I’ve felt these clichés my entire life:
When I’m not feeling lazy, I usually like to dress well and to wear makeup, so I do look feminine. It doesn’t require much, less than 10 minutes before going out, and it makes me feel more comfortable. On special occasions, I even put in extra effort, so I’m pretty sure a lot of people see me as the “shallow girl” stereotype. The fact that I was the French equivalent of the Cheerleading Captain in my school surely didn’t help.
Well my whole life, whenever I said I wanted to develop softwares or videogames, people would be startled. Whether it was boys or girls, it always came as a shock to them. Some would say something like “Oh, you don’t seem like someone who would want that”, whereas others would think it’s cool or weird – but the fact is, it should just seem normal. I can’t think of one single time when I told someone what I wanted to do or was doing with my life and they just said “Ok”.
I remember one time, I was working as a hostess in a convention, and a man started talking to me and complimenting me on my job. He was saying that it was great being a hostess, probably in a failed attempt to coax me. I replied saying that this wasn’t my actual job, and when he asked what was my main occupation and I told him I was an engineering student specializing in computer science, he could not hide his astonishment. Sadly, situations like that happen way too often. People see you working as a hostess, or wearing makeup or a nice outfit and they just assume there’s nothing more to it.
To be honest, I do let myself be affected by the stereotypes: I know that if I have to go somewhere where I’m expected to prove myself as a programmer, let’s say a job interview for example, I’ll want to dress as blandly as possible so that I don’t seem too feminine.
In general, I do what I want when it comes to doing girl stuff and taking an interest in technology at the same time, but I’m pretty sure there are some girls who let themselves be deterred by the general opinion. It might be because they think on their own “That’s not for me, I like girl things” (though it is never truly on their own that they developed this point of view), or because they too often met obstacles that ended up discouraging them.
So, to girls out there who feel attracted by technology: don’t be ashamed or afraid to learn! It doesn’t make you less feminine, it just opens you up to new interesting things that you may well come to love someday.
A girl in tech.