An empirical experience of why there are gender disparities in technology

Every so often a male programmer who would otherwise posit themselves an rational intellectual offers some psuedo-scientific evolutionary psychology theory as a rationale for why the ladies just can’t seem to cut it in the tech world like the guys. I get a little chuckle each time this happens because I’ve had the rare experience of having been a programmer who was perceived to be male as well as being a programmer/techie who is perceived to be female. My life experience has taught me the somewhat painful lesson that gender disparities in tech aren’t really the result of ancient hunter-gatherer gender roles extrapolated into modern times. Unfortunately, it’s mostly about good ol fashion sexism.

I’m a transgender woman. In highschool I didn’t yet know such a concept existed, so I dealt with with my gender confusion by retreating into the computer lab. I started programming in junior high and was writing a clone of DOOM by the time I was in highschool. I went to a fancy school for computer science and got an award freshmen year for being the most accomplished freshman programmer. I got summer internships at the hot tech companies of the first internet boom. I didn’t actually have any startup ideas but that didn’t stop several of my parents friends from offering to invest just in case I did. I came to think I was pretty good at programming, cause literally every single person in my life told me I was. Parents, teachers, friends, and bosses were all pretty universal in their praise. After five years as someone the world perceived to be a (white) male programmer, I was pretty sure that I was smart, talented, and destined for great things in the tech world.

Then after college, transition happened. It was a life-altering time-consuming proces that took at least five years to begin to stabilize. I left tech in part because internally I convinced myself that programming was a male thing, and I didn’t want to be male anymore. But more pointedly, when I did decide to move forward with transition, I ended up out of work for over a year and when I did get a part-time job it was selling clothes at a thrift store. I worked my way for several years through various non-profit jobs, doing mostly human services type work. Eventually I ended up an office manager at a mid-size non-profit that happened to be in the middle of an office tech upgrade.

To help with that upgrade, the non-profit brought in a team of IT consultants who’d generously offered to donate their time at a discounted rate (read: three times more than I was making per hour). Unfortunately, they really could only give a few hours so my female manager who knew I was kind of saavy asked me to cover the slack. Only, when I tried to help, they let me know it was best I stand aside because I wasn’t qualified to install computers (Macs no less!). However, they let me know I could “watch” because what they were doing would “look pretty cool”. Such was the beginning of my life as a female techie.

After that team bailed early, I ended up running IT in that office, despite still getting paid as just the office manager. It gave me the confidence to eventually apply to work at the Apple Store, and jump back into tech full time. I spent five years in IT, then eventually found enough time to bring myself up to speed on modern programming languages, and only in the last year ended up back working as a computer programmer. While many people eventually find out I’m trans, in all of my IT jobs, I’ve initially presented myself as simply a woman without explicitly disclosing my trans status. In the five years since I jumped back into tech, I’ve literally have lost count of every time a customer/client asked for a male tech instead, or I’ve solved a problem a male tech couldn’t solve and then had them deny that I actually found a solution, or just heard all manner of sexist, offensive, disgusting language from men in the tech world. Honestly, what’s kept me going is the distant memory of when people used to tell me I was smart, talented, and destined to do great things in the tech world.

At my last job in IT, a male tech coworker directly lied to me about a user interaction because he didn’t think I was smart enough to understand what was going on. After I complained to a manager, we had a group processing session in which the male tech admitted he lied and then claimed he did it because in general I wasn’t ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ enough to him (and specifically that I didn’t thank him for opening doors for me). Rather than take sides, my manager attempted to diffuse the tension by saying “we all have to understand that we come from different backgrounds. Hannah, you went to college for this stuff, where as [the male tech] is a self-made man”. I spent weeks piecing out all of the assumptions that went into that statement. Of course, I was a self-taught techie too who knew programming well before I went to college. And of course, while I had plenty of privileges growing up, I had to rebuild my career from nothing once I transitioned. But I finally reasoned that my manager thought that because I was a woman, my skills must have come from a college course and not innate abilities, whereas this male colleague who went to a private high school carried the male gene for self-made tech skills. And therefore I should excuse this person’s utter and complete lack of social maturity.

Now that I’m a programmer again, and in my late thirties, I feel more successful and respected. I’ve only been back in the programming community for a year, and honestly I’m both somewhat shocked and really glad there is at least a dialogue around sexism happening here (it certainly wasn’t happening much the last time I was here, and it certainly still isn’t happening in the IT world). What is sad for me is that so many people, mostly guys, are still stuck offering crazy theories about why all this is happening, as if there were some grand rationale waiting to be discovered, instead of just calling it sexism. There’s really no difference between being a global warming denyer and sexism in tech denier— the overwhelming consensus among those who would know (scientists, women) is that both are real. I’ve just had the unique experience of empirically, if anecdotally, getting to experience the gender disparity from both sides. Maybe if you’re one of those sexism in tech deniers, this essay will convince you. Though likely it won’t.

So, to be truthful, this essay is mostly for women in tech. I still worry about where I would be without having had that early and repeated positive affirmation. Let me just say that — it’s not you. It’s not in your head. You actually do know what you’re doing. You’re almost surely very good at programming and technology. You’ve just never had the opportunity to be a (white) man and have people constantly tell you that.