On several occasions at WordCamps or other similar tech events, I’ve been asked (almost always in a thoughtful manner) what my experience has been like as a female web developer in this largely male-dominated field. My answer hasn’t changed much over the 6 or so years I’ve been doing this professionally, aside from the addition of more anecdotes along the way. For the curious, it goes a little like this:
Up until a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware that being a female software engineer was anything but totally normal. I’ve been asked a few times if I was a graphic designer, I’ve gotten a raised eyebrow or two when responding “no, I’m a developer”, but on the scale of offensive things to ask a female dev, those are low. I’ll even venture to say a large part of my experiences might be based in blissful ignorance: both my mom and step-dad were software engineers at a large bank and I just never thought that it was unique, special, or unusual for myself or my mom to hold a developer position.
Even after moving to Arizona for college and meeting friends that also enjoyed building websites, I don’t think I ever took note of the fact that all of those friends were guys because it was pretty normal for me to have mostly guy friends, and they treated me like any other person at the table. I knew other women had experienced those gender bias issues, but even though I’m a woman and a developer I didn’t have any personal experiences that made me feel strongly about the issues that female engineers face.
Let’s fast forward to this summer.
I was looking to buy a car. Specifically, I was looking for a side project to enjoy and that I could keep for myself not as a daily driver but as the kind of thing you collect and tinker with. Even more specifically, I was looking at the 5-speed Turbo Nissan 300zx models that came off the line in the 80’s and 90’s.
The first one I went to look at was in Ohio, and my dad joined me on my little Craigslist adventure. When I pulled into the driveway of the person’s house, a woman was out front and paused from mowing the lawn, and I stepped out of the car saying I was there to look at the car. She somewhat apologetically, but without pause, replied “Oh it’s gone, we just sold it.”
I was shocked. I had just sent a text to the people confirming I was fifteen minutes from arriving, and told her as much with a frown. “Are you sure? I’ve been texting with [the number listed on the ad] most of this morning and just fifteen minutes ago said we were on our way in. You mean you sold the 300zx in the last 15 minutes?”
Finally, she replied “Oh, that car? I thought you meant the old $900 car we just sold this morning. You want to look at the 300zx? Are you sure?“
“Yep, that’s the one!”
She looked at me dubiously. “How old are you? That’s a lot of car.”
At this point I was surprised and honestly uncomfortable that she’d asked my age and then implied that I didn’t have the skillset or know-how needed to drive a car with twin turbos. I’m a grown adult and can make that decision for myself, for starters. Not to mention I shouldn’t need to explain to a complete stranger that I know my way around cars and grew up hanging out in my father’s shop while he worked on cars for a living. Oh, and I currently drive a turbo 6-speed car…
The next car I went to look at with my dad, I told him “when we go, we’re just going to tell them it’s for you.” We both looked it over and it wasn’t quite in the shape I wanted, but otherwise that trip was uneventful.
To look at the third car, I dropped by a small dealership since it was on my way to an appointment. When I stepped into the office and asked about the car, the guy asked “Is this for you?” with a tone of surprise and what I read as disbelief. “Yep.” “Really? You know it’s a 5-speed, right?”
I’m not sure why it is (I can guess, but that’s a different blog post entirely), but people implying I probably don’t know what I’m getting into throws me off so much. In this instance, I was taken aback and slowly responded with a spiel that was starting to sound familiar “All of my cars have had manual transmissions, father’s a mechanic, etc”.
It was at that point that I started to think this would be a common theme in my car purchasing adventure, and it had already gotten old.
It wasn’t until these recent experiences in looking at cars that I really became aware of how any minority in the software engineering world must feel… that is, to be downright offended and in disbelief that anyone could judge your ability to do something strictly based on age, gender, or general appearances. I have even heard the surprise on the other end of a phone call when inquiring about a car that went something like “I’ve had a few calls about it, but you’re the first woman.”
None of us are perfect, but to adjust our initial perceptions is often as simple as using the good ol’ brain-to-mouth filter. As for the car… well, that is still a work in progress to find the right one in the right condition for the right price. It’s an adventure and I’m sure I’ll add a few more entertaining stories to my repertoire in the process.