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.

  • Angry Dave says:

    This is sexist. Why does it matter if women are in the industry or not? What does having women, just for the sake of having women accomplish? Does individual merit not count anymore?

    I see no concerns about having more men enter the nursing and teaching(k-12) fields. Nor about any other female dominated industry.

    Having diversity just to have it is ignorant and completely irresponsible. Focus on opening this up to EVERYONE and not just women or a specific race of people. This whole ‘men are repressing women’ mentality is pure crap, they get equal pay and benefits and more opportunity. If they don’t make equal pay, it’s because they work less HOURS and not due to pay rate. (men don’t get paternity leave and have far less flexibility in being able to take time off than women)

    This isn’t the 1800’s where only white men have power and make all of society’s decisions. If women arn’t in the field it’s because they don’t want to be, they have a choice

    • C says:

      Wow, Angry Dave. I hope you’re not in tech, ’cause if you are, you are definitely the problem.

    • Katie says:

      “I see no concerns about having more men enter the nursing and teaching(k-12) fields. Nor about any other female dominated industry.”

      Actually, in female dominated industries, men still make more money than women. Obviously men make more money than women in male dominated industries, but surprisingly, women in male dominated industries make more money than men in female dominated industries. Isn’t that interesting? It’s like society values “male skills” like math over “female-skills” like teaching.

      I think the point of holding BitCamp just for girls aged 13 to 14 is to allow girls to learn more about computer science in a way that does not threaten them/does not make them feel like an outsider.

  • Not Angry Dave says:

    “if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype”

    I just love the irony of this sentence (and the entire article in general). The female holds a stereotype against the male that might have a stereotype. Loving it.

  • The idea that individual merit doesn’t count isn’t anywhere in this post, Angry Dave.

    The shortage of developers in the US is bad news for our economic competitiveness. Missing out on 50% of the potential talent would just make this problem worse.

    As a business owner I value diversity (in many dimensions) because it makes my company more resilient to stresses, challenges and change.

  • Rob VS says:

    Brittany, thank you for acknowledging that stereotype perceptions held by women are part of the problem. Yes, there are still plenty of male ass hats out there, but whining about them isn’t productive – you have no control over them. What you can control is your own actions.

    For example, by staying in a STEM field regardless of stereotypes (both real & perceived), you are helping to blaze a trail for other women to follow – hopefully making things easier for them, and this blog post helps to widen that trail.

    Thankfully, institutionalized sexism is nearly extinct. Just the individual bigots and irrational perceptions are left, and one of the best ways to defeat them are to prove them wrong. It may be difficult and unfair, but that’s what I believe needs to happen.

    Stay strong and continue to prove the ass hats wrong.

    • Brittany Hunter Brittany Hunter says:

      Hi Rob VS,
      Thanks for your encouraging and insightful comment. You are right on the money that the only thing we can control is our own actions. That’s why it’s so important for women (and other minority groups) to know about how stereotype threat works — by knowing the signs, you can identify them in your thoughts and behavior, and then work to change them. I think it’s a little like how people with eating problems learn about the destructive patterns of thought affect their relationship with and behavior towards food. Learning to identify destructive thought patterns in yourself is the first step towards replacing them with healthy ones.

      • Julia says:

        Unlike test marking schemes, the real life ones are highly subjective. It’s not just the test receiving party feeling anxious and scoring low, but the evaluating party gives lower grades to certain groups based on their perceptions of the group. There were experiments like that too, among similarly qualified individuals women are perceived as less qualified. At least, food doesn’t have any destructive behaviors of its own towards the eaters to make their ailment worse.

        I blame the whole stereotype situation on early childhood segregation and gendered toys, when those stereotypes make it into the subconscious level long before the kids show any occupational preferences. Children also learn that they are supposed to feel “confident” in their gender space and occupations, and “uncomfortable” in groups dominated by the other gender. Solution (just dreaming)… make it illegal to treat little kids differently based on gender, it’s too late when they are adults. A college math book referring to the reader as ‘he” wouldn’t be published. Why is it ok to make a gendered reference with books and toys for little kids? Such as, ‘Toys”R”Us” was reprimanded in Sweden for gender discrimination (i.e. about toys advertisements portraying ‘gender stereotypes’)…

  • Mike says:

    The point about unconscious monitoring resonates with me as a (non-minority) male in the field as well; when interacting with female colleagues (and frankly, any potential minority category) I’m frequently just as concerned about trying to avoid anything that could be perceived as stereotype-painting than I am about the actual substance of the exchange.

    This is exhausting and unhealthy for me as well, and I can’t imagine that it’s invisible to others.

    I have noticed that the more “minority” parties there are to the conversation, the less worried I become; perhaps because I feel less like I might be taken as a threat, or that with more participants I feel that I might receive more guidance and thus the risk of doing or saying something that might be taken badly is reduced. The precise mechanism isn’t clear, but the conclusion I draw from it is that any change that numerically addresses the imbalance is also going to make the overall situation better for me, and hopefully others that experience it the way I do.

    Is this “stereotype threat threat”? Probably. I think the ultimate solution is the same though, and that you have the right approach – be aware of it, don’t let it distract you from doing what you really want to be doing, look for and contribute to long-term solutions that will reduce or eliminate the problem.

    Thanks for everything you’re doing to make the field a better place to be.

  • Lane Halley says:

    Brittany, thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate hearing about the things that supported your career path and I’m honored to know I’ve been helpful to you. It’s a tricky subject for me. I feel uncomfortable when someone invites me to present at a conference “because we need a women” yet I’m also glad that someone is trying introduce some different perspectives into the mix. Even though it’s sometimes awkward, I think women can create positive change by just showing up, doing our best work, and being our (most awesome) selves. (Thanks @kshimmell!) Our allies are out there, ready to work with us. At a recent Startup Weekend a young male participant approached me and said “There’s a woman on our team. I’ve never worked closely with women before and it vastly improved the quality of the work we did because she brought a different perspective. How can I work with more women?”

  • Anas says:

    Actually, I think the most effective solution seems is obvious but also quite unpopular: segeregated education. It has been shown that the rate of women going into STEM is much higher for women-only schools compared to mixed schools. And I think it would solve most of the problems that you talk about. The solutions that you suggest seem to be, with all due respect, just patchwork.

  • Great post Brittany! Thanks for sharing the Stereotype Threat idea; there’s a lot there for both women and men to think about. Thanks especially for giving us guys a way to help address the possibility (threat?) of the Stereotype Threat in our female colleagues. We can all benefit from hearing & saying, “Of course they want you here. You’re great to work with.”

    I wonder if this article in The Register is showing an effect of the Stereotype Threat:

    The gist of the article is:

    “Women won’t apply for IT jobs unless they are certain they meet every single criterion for the gig… Men, by contrast, happily apply with only half the skills an employer lists as desirable.”

    Is the Stereotype Threat keeping more women for applying for these jobs, or is something else happening here?

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