I asked my coworker politely if he could remove the bra descriptions and mock bra products from our base project template.
Without even a hint of concern, he asked, “Do you wear a bra?”
“That’s not a question appropriate for work,” I said.
“Do you wear a bra?” he persisted.
It’s not just that he asked it in the hearing range of 2/3 of our development team, consisting of all males except myself, and that all eyes and ears were tuned in to our conversation at this moment from the instant the “b” word was mentioned.
It’s also the fact that while we were team-coding a few weeks prior, he sat next to me and browsed the Target website’s bra section, knowing I could see the screen full of scantily clad women.
It’s also the fact that when I said, “Please make sure those products don’t end up in our base template,” he assured me they wouldn’t. He lied.
But this was only the tip of the iceberg. In my tenure as a computer programmer, I’ve been the recipient of the following remarks (and not all just at one company, and not all are listed here):
“We’re outsourcing your job to India. You should consider just staying at home with the kids. Motherhood is a wonderful thing.”
“She’s probably just got PMS.”
“Do you need me to accompany you to the bathroom? You know, you could be raped on your way there.”
“We should put porn on her computer while she’s getting coffee.”
“Woman, go to the kitchen and get me a snack.”
“You’re an HR risk.”
“No, you can’t come with us for lunch, that would be an HR liability.”
“How’s that sexy software coming along?”
In response to my question about who would be replacing the “back end” developer who had moved, on, “Oh, we have all the confidence in the world that you can service all the back end needs of the entire team by yourself.”
“What if I want to get my wife fake breasts?”
“Wow, you’re really fertile!”
In response to me saying that no woman would feel comfortable in the development atmosphere at a particular company, “Well, you were our experiment.”
These are overtly offensive comments. But guys, let’s face it. Sexism isn’t just about that unprofessional titter. It’s about the condescension and lack of respect we women experience in the field on a daily basis. I say “we” because it’s not just me. A female friend of mine, who was recently managing a team of developers, told one of them not to put business logic in a stored procedure. He went above her head to her boss, who told him to go ahead and put it in the stored procedure, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”–as in, she’s just a girl, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Or, when she tried to save the moment when her boss made a horribly insensitive remark about a segment of society, he rolled his eyes in front of everyone, dismissing her concern rudely, showing all those lower in the chain that she wasn’t respected. And then, during her first one on one meeting with the team members, an ex-marine came in the door with her resume printed up, and his printed up, and said that he was more qualified for her job than she was–apparently oblivious to the fact that if that had been true, he would have been hired for it and not she. While these examples may not shout “SEXISM!” as blatantly as the sexual comments, they occurred in a culture of bullying, which can be its own form of sexism.
When I’ve been at the brunt of this type of dismissive, arrogant lack of respect for women as computer scientists, I’ve suddenly felt that simply because I have a vagina, I’m seen as an “un-equal.” Do you forget, simply because I’m a woman, that yes, I have a brain, and that yes, I can code elegantly and efficiently? It’s so hard not to throw in “probably better than you” at the end of the last sentence. But this isn’t about competition. It’s about a lack of team work and respect in our field. I don’t care if I’m the worst coder you’ve ever met. Make your grudge about that, not about the fact that I’m a woman for pete’s sake.
Understand where I’m coming from–I’m not a feminazi or even a feminist, and I’m not advocating here or anywhere else that women should be “she-men” and men should be sensitive pansies. The blatant truth is that I’m a professional woman caught in one of the few sectors of the work force left that refuses to leave the 1950s behind. And I’m freaking sick of the sexism in our field. The “brogrammer” mentality is not only aggravating, men, but paramount to living in the stone age. How can you take pride in being a part of such a technologically advanced field, and yet allow this kind of outdated, absurd behavior toward women to rule the development environments you work in? You wouldn’t treat your wife or your sister or your mother like that, or allow them to be treated like that. Not only is it unprofessional, it’s beneath you.
You can do better.
So, what do I want? The answer is, I want a few things from you men and a few things from us women to get us beyond this bottleneck that prevents teamwork and productivity.
- Don’t say things to your buddies or to women developers that you wouldn’t say to your mother. (FYI, asking whether or not your coworker is wearing a bra is inappropriate. “Frenching the Hooker” is not an acceptable work IM status. In general, do not mention any part of the female body, particularly if it begins with “b,” and refrain from all 8th grade humor. Don’t mention strip clubs, your online porn habit, or what you did last night. Never mention PMS. Etc.)
- If you are in doubt about whether or not some comment you are about to make is inappropriate, DON’T SAY IT.
- Inquire about our thoughts regarding team policy, code policy, code strategy, etc., and take our answers seriously.
- Don’t be dismissive.
- Don’t treat us like “one of the guys.” Treat us as intellectual equals, and as ladies.
- Don’t say the “F” word. In fact, don’t swear–it’s just plain unprofessional.
- If another team member engages in sexism toward a female team mate, don’t stand for it. Be a man and stand up for her.
- Don’t dress suggestively. This will make anyone, including other women, cease to respect you.
- Don’t dress like men. We aren’t men. We are ladies. The minute you buy into the lie that we should be “like one of the guys,” all the boundaries become blurred, and it opens you up to being mistreated.
- Don’t take it. Realize that you are a human being worthy of respect, and that nothing should make you feel like less. Don’t make excuses. Then, gently educate whoever just insulted you or made you feel less: “John, what you just said made me feel like you see me as inferior.” Sometimes, a man really has no idea that what he said was sexist, and you have to be patient and point these things out. If it continues, take it to HR. But always, always stand up for yourself.
- If the management is sexist, leave the company. Management sets the tone for the rest of the organization. If it’s rotten at the top, it’s rotten to the core, right down to the cubicle next to you.
- Don’t work for a company that outsources its HR, or whose HR department is flimsy. On the flip side, don’t take every stupid thing a man says to HR. Use that recourse wisely. For instance, if you find yourself in tears, you’ve waited too long.
- Don’t hold grudges. Carrying the poison of the pain you’ve experienced as a result of sexist treatment from one job to another can work against you. Forgive and move on.
It’s only been by virtue of experience that I’ve gotten what I wanted: an innovative, respectful team with an amazing company poised to skyrocket. In my interview, I said, “I want to be seen as an intellectual equal, and still be treated as a lady.” And you know what? That is exactly what I got.
And I know the company I’m with is going to continue to succeed, precisely because of the awesome team we’re building, in which sexism doesn’t have any part.
Now, let’s put this garbage behind us and write some freaking awesome code.