Women and the Software Industry: The Truth about Stereotypes, Retention, and the Gender Gap

Just Another Day at the Office

The Gender Gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and in Silicon Valley is a hot topic right now. We hear the same questions over and over, from many different directions:

  • What are the causes of this phenomenon?
  • What are the solutions?
  • Is it even something we ought to be concerned about? (I won’t dignify that last one with an answer.)

Recently, my colleague Mallory wrote about early exposure as a key way to get more women involved in software and technology.

My own introduction to the software field is evidence of the importance and success of early exposure. My family got our first computer when I was seven, and I remember being absolutely fascinated with it from day one. Drawing in Microsoft Paint and writing stories and “news articles” in Microsoft Word were some of my favorite activities, and I could set up a peripheral device or upgrade Windows before I became a teenager. When I was 14, I taught myself HTML, and soon I was selling my skills — building websites for friends and acquaintances at the rate of $7 an hour.

If you take a look at how many successful Atomic Object employees showed early interest in computing, you’ll see that my story isn’t all that unusual. I was just another nerdy little kid. It’s only a memorable picture when you realize that I was a little girl sporting neon-bright flower prints and a giant purple hair bow in my ponytail as I clicked and typed away the hours in my parents’ basement, instead of a little boy in a Ninja Turtles t-shirt.

Getting Girls Interested… and then Keeping Them Around

Getting girls interested is an important first step towards increasing the numbers of women in STEM fields. This is why Atomic Object is holding BitCamp, an exciting computer camp for girls ages 13-14.

But exposure is only the first step—retaining girls as they grow up and start their careers is the next hurdle. This hurdle was recently discussed at length in a piece by NPR’s All Things Considered: How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science. By analyzing audio samples of workday conversations between scientists, psychologists Matthias Mehl and Toni Schmader were able to observe the phenomenon of stereotype threat at work in the careers of female scientists. (You should go and read the article right now. It’s eye-opening.) The article compellingly describes how stereotype threat affects women in STEM fields:

When women look at tech companies and math departments, they see few women. This activates the stereotype that women aren’t good at math. The stereotype… makes it harder for women to enter those fields. To stay. To thrive.

I was very glad to read about this study, because stereotype threat has had a real impact on my career and how I function day-to-day in my workplace. The key to my continued success in this industry has been learning how to be aware of it and how to counteract its effects on my interactions with my colleagues and clients. In my career, this has been both more difficult and more important than learning any single tech stack or design technique.

Stereotype Threat in the Software Industry

College was the first time stereotype threat became a roadblock to my budding career in software. As a kid, I was incredibly fortunate to have had a very friendly environment in which to explore my interest in computer science: I had (nearly) unlimited access to the family computer, lots of free time, a fondness for problem-solving, and a peer group with diverse enough interests that my penchant for desktop publishing was surprisingly well-received.

The Computer Science department at school was a totally different environment. I was getting A’s and I was interested in the material, but I felt wildly out of place and unwelcome as the only female student out of 25-30 people in my freshman computer science classes. In labs, I worked alone while other students grouped up. Nobody asked me to work with them, and I felt too scared to invite myself. After my first year, I was so discouraged that I left the CS program. I decided high school teaching might be a better career track.

Fortunately, when I graduated from college a few years later, the siren song of the CPU won out. I returned to the software field. With it, I returned to the pressures and psychological strain that come when you’re often the only woman in the room. In the NPR article above, Schmader eloquently describes how stereotype threat can color a woman’s interactions with her colleagues:

“For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype.”

This is an exhausting, unhealthy state of mind to be in. Unconsciously monitoring your every action and interaction takes valuable energy away from solving the problems at hand and growing in your career. It’s totally destructive to a person’s self-confidence and causes her to question whether or not she really belongs at her job. It’s no wonder many young women drop out of college CS programs (like I did) or change careers after only a few years. Stereotype threat is a real problem when it comes to retaining women in our industry (and in other STEM fields), because the fact that we have so few women is a constant subliminal reinforcement of the stereotype. So what can we do about it?

Eliminating the Threat

I think there are several facets to combating stereotype threat.

1. Education & Awareness

Education and awareness are important first steps. Young women entering STEM fields need to be told that stereotype threat is something they will encounter. They need to be taught that when it hits, they need to remember the truth about their talents and abilities instead of believing the lies that the stereotype tells. Understanding how stereotype threat works enables me to recognize when it’s hindering my interactions with my team or my effectiveness in a meeting. By remembering and focusing on the truth about our skills and the value that they bring to the world instead of losing confidence and dropping out, women can become more bold and effective in STEM fields.

2. Encouragement from Colleagues

A woman’s colleagues can also be instrumental in minimizing her experience of stereotype threat. At each of the organizations I have worked for, I have been surrounded by men who generally make it clear that they value my participation, experience, and skill. Certain colleagues have encouraged me to speak up when they felt I wasn’t being assertive enough. Others have gone out of their way to make sure I knew I was welcome at the company, especially when it came to impromptu gatherings such as going out to lunch or beers at the bar after work.

At Atomic Object, the openness and transparency of our culture is something that colors all of our interactions with one another, regardless of gender, but it has been especially helpful to me in this area. Being communicative and open with colleagues goes a long way towards helping me feel like I belong. I remember one instance in particular when I was feeling particularly isolated at our company. “I feel like an outsider! Like the guys don’t want me here because I’m a woman!” I whined to one of my male colleagues. He looked at me and replied, “Well that’s dumb. Of course they want you here. You’re great to work with.” In that situation, his bluntness was comforting. If you’re a guy working at a company with few women at it, don’t underestimate the effect that you can have in making your female colleagues’ work life really great or really painful. Be fair, forthright, and respectful.

3. Networking & Mentoring

I’ve also found that connecting with other women in the industry is essential for combating the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that often plague women in the STEM fields. Getting to know other women in my field, especially Lane Halley (@thinknow) and Kendra Shimmell (@kshimmell), has contributed to my own self-confidence. Working with them and witnessing how successful they are in their careers has helped me appreciate my own, and it also inspires me to set higher goals and work even harder. Here at Atomic Object, my colleague Mary has been a great friend and support as well.

Likewise, those of us who are more established in our chosen STEM field should be constantly reaching out to and mentoring the younger women entering our field. Doing this will directly contribute to minimizing stereotype threat and help us begin to close the gender gap in STEM fields.

Replacing the Lies with Truth

At Cooper UX Bootcamp, Kendra and I had a very honest conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in the software industry. At one point, I think I asked her if she had any advice for me. Her words still ring in my ears whenever I feel like I’m having trouble fitting into my field: “Girl, just be yourself! Be proud of who you are!” And while that might feel like a cliche, I think Kendra’s advice really cuts to the core of how we as women can be more effective in our careers.

Stereotype threat negatively affects productivity and innovation in the software industry and other STEM fields. Developing the self confidence to separate the truth of reality (“I’m a talented software designer.”) from the lies of stereotype threat (“I’m a girl and don’t belong in this industry because girls aren’t good at it.”) enables women to truly flourish in their industry and make a difference in the world.