Dear fellow female devs,
I worked as a professional software developer for 2 decades, and I’m one of those people that absolutely loves what I do. For me, finishing a project at work is akin to having a checklist and checking every item off. You leave satisfied and accomplished. I’m extremely passionate about what I do, and even more so passionate about encouraging others females to become software developers. We are a rarity in this male-dominated industry. One might say we are “unicorns”. So I figured I would compile a blog outlining some advice for any woman navigating the path of a career as a computer programmer.
If there is one quality you must possess, it’s resiliency. You’ll face many obstacles throughout your career and your resilience is the only thing that keeps you coming back to work to tackle another day. You will often find yourself in a position to prove yourself. It’s not that our male counterparts don’t ever have to prove themselves, but you may encounter people that will judge your competency based on your looks. Don’t be discouraged, you’ll have an opportunity to prove them wrong. Then at some point in your career you may be tempted to take the “management” path instead, but for those of you truly love our craft, I encourage you to stay the technical course. Taking the road less traveled will have its rewards.
Walk the line of asking too many questions and not asking any questions
Ask too many questions, and you risk being known as a bimbo. If you’re too stubborn to ask help from others, you risk not accomplishing anything (or producing code at a slow rate). This piece of advice is something that applies to all developers, and it’s one I still struggle with myself. When you are just starting your career or meeting someone for the first time, it’s important to be mindful of how many questions you ask, particularly if the answer is just one google click away. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes we tend to hole ourselves away trying to solve a problem ourselves without asking for help. When there is someone who already knows the answer to your problem, it’s more efficient to just ask them so you can move onto your next problem. Once you encounter a problem that starts to take more time than anticipated (this happens all the time, right?), give yourself a time limit before you reach out for help. That time limit will be dictated by the complexity of the problem and the deadlines you are facing.
Use sexist remarks to motivate you and prove them wrong
Over the years, I’ve encountered so many sexist remarks, some blatant, and most very subtle and well-intentioned. At the beginning of my career, I had one client whisper to my male project manager as we were walking up the steps, “I would love to be walking behind that every day.” Gross. Thankfully, my project manager protected me from further remarks and limited my interaction with that client. I found that coding (in Cold Fusion, btw..hahaha) helped me remove myself from that situation. In my late twenties, I once walked into a room a software developers that were led by a very eccentric, outspoken manager. He looked at me in the middle of a meeting and said, “I don’t really feel comfortable with a woman in the room.” I was caught so off-guard, I didn’t even know how to respond to that. The irony of the situation was that the developers he managed were very green, and I had to teach them about web services. Someone once also asked me to Fedex something for him. Some men don’t realize how demeaning this can be.
Those were some of the more extreme cases. What’s more common are the very subtle remarks. People will make assumptions that you are either a Designer or CSS person before you get a chance to say anything. Sometimes, the comments are even more subtle and it’s the intonation of what is said where the sexism can be implied. “So what exactly is your role? Because we are trying to avoid having marketers and recruiters on this Slack channel.” I always just politely correct people and let them know I’m a developer (despite the many hats I’ve worn at the end of the day I consider myself a developer).
I personally use these comments to motivate me to be a better developer. Unless your rights have been violated (see section below if they have), then the comments are all just noise. There’s nothing more satisfying than proving someone wrong who initially doubted your abilities. Plus, that that doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger, right?
Know your rights
Honestly, I haven’t felt like my rights have been violated in a work environment, so I’m no expert in this field. I have heard of women having issues. For example, if you get pregnant and return to the working field, make sure that you receive the same position or higher when you return. A company cannot replace you or demote you just because you become pregnant.
If you do have a child and you breastfeed, make sure that you are given a private room to pump. Also your co-workers need to know that you have to leave at specific times and this is non-negotiable.
If you do have your rights violated, then perhaps it’s worth a friendly visit to your HR department. Stand up for yourself or you’ll just continue to be a doormat. I personally would not tolerate my rights being violated and would be out the door in a heartbeat. Life’s too short. Plus, you’re a female developer; it should be easy to find a job if you’re good at what you do.
It’s no secret that a life in IT can be very demanding. If you are a mother, achieving this work-life balance becomes even more difficult. Achieving a good work-life balance is the holy grail for all working mothers in any industry. For me, I always set aside my “family time” that I try not to interrupt. This is usually between 5pm — 8:30pm. Often, I’ll fire up my computer after my children have gone to sleep, but I try my hardest to have this uninterrupted time to dedicate to my family. As long as these boundaries are clear and communicated up-front, most people don’t take issue with it.
For all the women who are undergoing infertility treatments, this can be a tricky situation at work. How do you make time for all the appointments without blowing off work? My suggestion is to let people know up front that you need to allocate time for “personal medical reasons” and to leave it at that. If you’re comfortable letting people know your situation and you think they will be understanding, then go for it and let them know. Otherwise, most people will leave you alone if you aren’t comfortable disclosing information. As long as you communicate your need to make appointments at a drop of a hat, you should be fine.
As women, our biggest challenge can be prioritizing our time. Set aside time for what matters most. It is a sign that you respect yourself and the first step towards getting other to respect you, too.
Don’t work part-time
Many working mothers will consider working part-time in order to spend time with family. Don’t do it. At least not for an extended period of time. I have done this twice in my career when I gave birth to my daughters. “Part-time” in our industry usually means having a full-time workload but only getting paid part-time. People still expect people to meet deadlines and your scheduled can always get derailed by the inevitable fire drills that are rarely anticipated. For the first few weeks it may be easy, but your workload will slowly increase and before you know it, you reach a point where you might as well get paid a full-time salary and reap the benefits that come along with it.
The Gender Wage Gap
It’s no secret that computer programmers have one of the largest gender wage gaps amongst all professional careers. Unfortunately, being a female developer you inevitably will play a role in the wage gap whether or not you like it or not. Here are some of my thoughts on the wage gap issue and some ideas to help lessen the gap.
I have some mixed feelings when it comes to wage gap. For example, women typically take a pay decrease when they become mothers. I personally was an independent contractor when I became a mother, and my hourly rate dropped by about $10/hr when I had children; however, this was something I chose to do. I could have gone out and found another contract at a higher rate, but I didn’t want to work any overtime or need to prove myself to anyone. I had already built up good will on my existing contract, and I agreed to drop my rate in exchange for a better work-life balance. My hours were capped at 40 hours/week. Essentially, spending more time with my family meant more to me than the $20,000 salary drop. I later found out that my male colleague who became a parent around the same time as me, also dropped his hourly rate to the exact same rate I was receiving. In my opinion, this wage drop had nothing to do with me being female; it was more about parents valuing family time over money.
I’ve also read that the data shows that when women enter a predominantly male workforce, the overall average salary drops! I’m not sure if this is just a result of supply and demand (ex: when the supply of workers nearly doubles, I would expect salaries to drop) or it’s a matter of women not negotiating salary as well as men. Regardless, the industry was about 92% male the last time I checked, and it will take some time before these numbers change.
That being said, a female at the same skill level as a male and doing the same job as a male should make an equivalent wage. As a woman, what can you do to help close this wage gap? Doing a little homework can go a long way. Research what the average salaries are in your area for your skill and experience level. Of course, it’s not very PC to discuss salaries openly. You can broach the subject by talking in general terms and ranges. I never ask someone what their income is, but you can get a pretty good idea of salary ranges for your area. If you are negotiating a new job offer, it’s always good to know what the salary ranges are for the different levels, and striving to beat the average salary amongst your peers would be a good start.
If you aren’t comfortable talking about salary, then you’ll want to add this skill to your arsenal. I was an independent contractor for about 10 years. Being an independent contractor really helps you to discuss wages up front. You typically will negotiate an hourly rate within a few days (if not hours). Often times, you’re needed in a pinch so people don’t have time to waste going back and forth to agree on an hourly rate. Again, you’ll want to know what the going rate is for someone of your skill level.
Embrace your feminine side
As the saying goes, you do attract more bees with honey. As women, I feel we manage and interact with people in a very different way that our male counterparts and that can work to everyone’s benefit. Empathy and patience can be your greatest assets. Our ability to sense what others are feeling make us great leaders. This in turn, makes others want to be around us. It’s easy to get caught up in the male bravado that dominates our industry, but you should never be afraid of showing your feminine side. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge all the men in my life that have helped me get to where I am. I still believe that most people are routing for the underdog. The male programmers that have been the most supportive have also been the ones with the most technical chops. So embrace your “unicorn” self in all its glory and enjoy the journey.