On being a girl in a guy's world

Girl Geeks    2009-04-15

The question has been raised on many occasions: Why there aren't more women in the Python community, or even the programming community at large?

I have at least one answer: It's hard to trust that our colleagues are going to treat us as equals.

I'd like to be able to share in the camaraderie that my male counterparts enjoy. I'd like to be 'just one of the guys', so to speak. But all too often, lines are crossed and those friendships veer into uncomfortable territory.

When that happens, it leaves me wondering if I am actually accepted and respected as a fellow developer, or if the friendships that I think I have are based on something else entirely. Situations like that take a sledge hammer to my self-confidence. At best, they make me want to withdraw from having any social contact with the community; at worst, in the past they've made me consider leaving the technology world for a different career.

The easy solution, I suppose, would be to jettison my femininity. I could shamble around in crocs and flannel shirts.* I could stop wearing lipstick, throw away the mascara, donate all my heels to Goodwill. I could strip away any evidence that I am, in fact, female.

At least then I could be sure that I am taken seriously ... right?

But I wouldn't be happy with who I am then. I'm not willing to change myself at so fundamental a level, and I don't believe that I should have to.

So you see, it's a fine line that we women have to walk. And I don't have any easy solutions to propose. But maybe the topic bears some open, frank discussion. I can only say that I would feel a lot more comfortable if I could be sure that my friendships in the programming community were genuine, if I didn't have to spend time deflecting innuendo or worrying about the unintended subtext in every conversation.

I just, you know, wanna be one of the guys. In high heels.

* (That's a terrible stereotype, and for the record I have never met another female developer who actually did that, I'm just using the image for the sake of argument.)

I hope this post does generate some discussion - and now I am more sorry than ever that I never put in threaded comments.

Edited to add (April 27, 2009):

While there was a specific incident that prompted this post, I was really trying to address the much larger issues of misogyny and predation. In an effort not to call out any one person or situation, I was deliberately vague, even cliche, and I apologize for that. It left my words open to a lot of different interpretations - people judge opinions through the filter of their own experiences.

Now that the dust has settled a little, let me see if I can make my point more clear.

The question of how to get more women involved in the Python community came up several times at this most recent PyCon - both in Guido's keynote and in Ian Bicking's now-legendary presentation. There were the usual joking answers - "shower more often", "shave the beards" - but I think there might be some serious answers too. And maybe women are the only ones who can provide those answers, so I've been thinking about it for some time.

If you'd like to attract more women to the programming community, the first step is to stop doing things that push them away.

a) Friendships/relationships are one thing, but inappropriate attention is another, and you need to learn the difference. Unwelcome advances are more likely to repel women, not attract them. You're all math geniuses, figure that one out.

b) Stop insisting that we need to be more like men. We are who we are, each of us an individual first, with some traits that are masculine and some that aren't. The high heels I mentioned were largely metaphorical - I maintain my right to continue to be as feminine as I please and still write code. To those of you suggesting that we 'man up' - so you don't actually want more women around? What is it you want then - men in dresses?