By Allison Babka
The culture is what kills, many women in tech say. And a startling experience is the knife.
“I don’t even know who he was, but he was stopping by to talk to one of the guys I knew really well in the next cubicle,” Katie Mathews remembers with a grimace. “I was grabbing some cashews from my friend’s desk, and he was like, ‘Oh, you like John’s nuts?’ and kept saying it. And the guy who was my friend and sitting right there just did not do a thing.”
Mathews, then a software engineer at a large St. Louis aerospace corporation, was stunned by the visitor’s innuendo-laden “joke,” she says. For a newer employee at her first post-college job, the innuendo was a jarring wake-up call as to what it would be like working in an office, in a company and in an industry that predominantly employs men.
But she was just as shocked at her friend’s silence.
“I didn’t react. I should’ve said something,” Mathews reflects. “But he was aware of that and he didn’t say anything. He didn’t stand up for me or say, ‘Hey that’s not cool.’ He just apologized that it happened to me afterwards.”
Mathews’ experience isn’t an isolated case, and, sadly, it’s not the worst. Dealing with everything from gender-biased hiring practices to sexual assault to skepticism about their abilities, women in male-dominated workplaces often have to fight for both their livelihoods and their lives. But in tech-focused disciplines like engineering and programming, the problem has become especially pronounced.
According to figures released in March 2017 by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women made up only 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2016. Even worse, women who were not white held only ten percent of those jobs in the same year, with black women at three percent, Asian women at five percent and Hispanic women at two percent.
With figures like those, women are easily outnumbered by men when building an app or coding a company’s sales systems. And when those men — who usually are heterosexual and white — occupy most of both the leadership and worker-bee positions, the culture often becomes hostile to women, inadvertently or not.
Pool tables, basketball hoops, Nerf guns and video games are among the office comforts you’ll find in startups in Silicon Valley and, yes, St. Louis. Meanwhile, restrooms often are missing basics like tampons or even soap. Clients assume that women are office managers instead of lead programmers. A pregnancy announcement becomes a minefield, with possibilities like no family leave policy, loss of investors or a perception that pregnant employees don’t work hard enough all looming on the horizon.
And, as the news has shown us recently, the “bro” atmosphere can go well beyond office gadgets and basic inequality.
In 2015, engineer Kelly Ellis alleged through a tweetstorm and in subsequent news stories that executives at Google, her previous employer, had behaved inappropriately and cultivated a “boy’s club” culture. She said that her reports to HR were dismissed.
And earlier this year, Susan Fowler, an engineer who had worked at ride-sharing behemoth Uber, leveled multiple allegations of sexual harassment against her former company, disclosing that male employees regularly sent her lewd messages and requests for sex. She also said that her supervisors retaliated against her with bad performance reviews after she had repeatedly told human resources about the incidents. Since Fowler made her allegations public, additional women have come forward with their own stories about Uber.
If women are only going to be distrusted, marginalized and harassed like this, why would they even want to go into the tech industry in the first place?
Uh, they don’t.
A National Center for Women & Information Technology study shows that only 23 percent of the high school students who took the AP Computer Science test in 2016 were women. It’s the same story at the college level where, in 2015, 16 percent of the computer science bachelor’s degree recipients at major research universities were women; in contrast, that figure was 37 percent in 1985.
Can the trend be reversed? Could an influx of kick-ass professional women change the unbalanced, often-toxic coder culture? And if so, how will those women find their way into tech leadership positions or even to the industry at all, since younger women are showing their aversion?
One of the answers may lie with programs like CoderGirl, an initiative from the St. Louis nonprofit LaunchCode that’s determined to address the gender gap in tech and create a pipeline of talented female programmers. Through CoderGirl’s year-long program, participants of all ages, backgrounds and income levels learn essential coding skills while working on projects in a non-toxic, collaborative, woman-friendly environment. Women who successfully complete CoderGirl training may apply for LaunchCode apprenticeships with local big-name companies or explore other opportunities for full-time work in programming.
“It gives women the opportunity to just jump in right away, rather than having to work through that uncomfortableness,” CoderGirl director Crystal Martin says of the program’s inclusive female-friendly space. “It’s enough to get women to take that first step, get them in the door and to a place where they can thrive.”
The initiative seems to be working so far; since 2014, more than 600 CoderGirls have completed the program. (Worth noting: 58 percent of the 165 women in the current cycle are women of color.) At least 56 women who have completed the CoderGirl program have since moved into tech employment. A recent reimagining of the program from a casual meetup format to a more formal class structure portends continued growth and job placements.
And mentors are a huge part of CoderGirl’s success. Six previous CoderGirl participants have returned to the program as mentors on a consistent basis, with a few others dropping by to help when their schedules allow. As professional women with expertise in specific programming languages and skills, CoderGirl’s mentors work one-on-one with participants to not only teach, but also to directly empower.
“It’s not just about getting women jobs in tech; it’s also about building a network and a workforce of women who can support each other in whatever situations they’re in,” says Martin. “On a larger scale, programs like CoderGirl can have an impact.”
Mathews, who now serves as a CoderGirl mentor, says that she often discusses with her mentees the gender- and identity-based hardships that await in some tech environments. She notes that CoderGirl’s speaker series brings in female industry leaders and provides a framework for mentors to have honest discussions with learners in a comfortable environment.
“I don’t think we explicitly make a point to talk about it, but because you come there after your work day, you bring those experiences and debrief with people. I’m very open and vulnerable about my experiences,” Mathews says. “I think everyone in the space is learning from everyone’s experiences on that.
“I think it’s the multiplier effect: The more it’s all talked about, the more women you meet, the more you support women. It should just blossom,” continues Mathews. “Thinking of those male-dominated cultures, the only way to take them down is infiltrate; if you keep bringing women along with you, eventually something will have to change.”
When she was a young girl in India, Ashwina Dodhyani had her mind set on becoming a fashion designer. Her family — who viewed doctors, lawyers and engineers among the only truly worthy occupations, she says — had other plans.
“My brother pushed me to take computer science as a major in college because I was really good at math and had good analytical skills,” Dodhyani says. “You know, it was hard, if I’m being honest. But it was four years and then I thought, no I don’t hate this; this is what I want to do for my career.”
Today, Dodhyani is a business systems analyst for a technology integrator in St. Louis, as well as a mentor with the CoderGirl program. She recalls that she later took her brother’s advice again, applying to graduate schools and ultimately moving to the U.S. to continues her computer science studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“I think that was when I got really interested in computer science, because it was more practical. My undergrad wasn’t like that; it was a lot of theory and I definitely did not enjoy that as much,” Dodhyani says.
But Dodhyani is an outlier; many other women are pushed away from tech interests even before they realize it’s happening. No matter if it’s kids making fun of geeky pursuits or adults steering women toward careers that are perceived as more “feminine,” there’s a notion that something is “wrong” with a young woman with interest or aptitude in programming or mathematics.
One CoderGirl mentor — who asked not to be identified out of fear that her employer would retaliate — says that girls often cannot fathom pursuing an occupation in computer science.
“Whether it’s young girls or women, there’s a lot of fear. They feel like they can’t do it or they don’t have the right aptitude for it,” says the mentor, who is an analyst for a large technology company in St. Louis. “I think they see it as,
‘Oh, boys play with computers, boys play with electronics, so they’re made for that and we’re not made for that.'”
Even after growing up in an encouraging environment and securing a professional coding job while in college, young women still deal with outside skepticism about their interests and capabilities. CoderGirl mentor Jenny Brown says that her “Hogwarts for hackers” boarding school in Illinois nurtured her talents for working on software and servers and fully prepared her for college courses to become a software engineer. Unfortunately, not everybody saw that.
“I encountered a hardcore engineering program that was strongly biased against women. And it was typical that I would sit in a lecture with 300 men and one other woman,” says Brown, who now is a software engineer at a data-driven agricultural company in St. Louis.
Brown remembers asking a male teaching assistant to clarify some class requirements. The aide became defensive, she says, responding with, “If you have to ask questions, maybe this isn’t the right place for you.”
“It wasn’t until later that I had realized he had written the assignment. But when I was seventeen and all I needed was clarification so I could go keep working, that was very discouraging,” Brown says. “At the same time, I was already a professional software engineer working a part-time job outside of school. He had no idea that I’d already been programming for over fifteen years.”
Men doubting women’s abilities doesn’t stop at graduation, the CoderGirl mentors say.
Brown says that with each new tech job, men have assumed that she knew less than she actually did, so she was forced to prove herself again and again, unlike her male counterparts making the same job leap.
“They challenged my decisions, questioned my reasoning for things, made me explain myself more, gave me smaller projects to start with instead of trusting me with the big stuff,” she says. “They were generally just less trustful; I don’t think they even realized it. I think it was so automatic, so unconscious, that they just assumed they were accurately judging me.”
Meanwhile, the anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she’s faced contradictory assumptions and demands.
“When I first started out in my career, I got feedback saying I’m not assertive enough. At the time, it was probably my first year or second year of working. When I would go to meetings, I didn’t think that I had enough yet to contribute, so I would just try to soak everything in and learn as much as I could,” the mentor says. “But when I got more knowledge and I was more confident, I got that I ‘talk too much.'”
“This is something that I heard through a third person: ‘She’s too passionate.’ I was like ‘Make up your mind, do you want me to be assertive or not?'” the analyst continues. “I just don’t let it bother me. If I know I’m doing the right thing, then I’m going to keep doing it. If people don’t like it, so be it.”
Being a woman in a man’s world can be like walking through a minefield. Even something as seemingly simple as choosing clothing for work can become an ordeal. Mathews, who identifies as a queer woman, realized that she began dressing in a more traditionally masculine way partly to deter other people’s thoughts about her body. “I know I definitely felt more equipped to handle anything when I dressed masculine,” Mathews says.
Because Mathews was then a front-end developer at a large aerospace corporation, the attention was frequent and overt, and she grew weary of her male colleagues’ attention.
“I think at that time, I still had a concept of ‘If you dress in a certain way, you’re asking for male attention,’ which is not an ok way to think. But it’s a reality that women deal with. You’re on this balance of ‘I want to be taken seriously but I want to feel confident,'” Mathews says. “And the boys’ club culture definitely existed there. No one realized it was a gender bias thing.”
The anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she also has experienced perplexing and sexist comments about her looks.
“I had a male coworker tell me one time, ‘Hey, you can see your grey hair, you should really color it.’ I do feel like they pay attention to those things, especially when it’s women,” she says. “The funny thing was, they had grey hair! Why are you telling me?”
And it’s not just seemingly petty matters like clothes and hair. Women in tech simply don’t make as much money as men do or have the same opportunities to advance, something shown in numerous studies.
A study from online compensation information company PayScale shows that men not only dominate all levels of computer-driven companies, but they also make more money by a hefty margin. According to Payscale, there’s a 22 percent difference between what male and female executives in the industry make, with men taking home a median of $174,600 and women collecting $135,500. At the individual contributor level, the pay gap is at about 19 percent, with men making $70,900 and women making just $57,600.
Things are just as bad outside of the tech sector, however, with glass ceilings everywhere. In its study, PayScale says that salary levels off for women at $49,000 when they’re 35 to 40 years old; meanwhile, men level off at $75,000 at age 50 to 55.
In Missouri, things look even worse. According to “The Status of Women in Missouri,” a report prepared in 2016 by the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri, women here earned $35,759 on average for full-time work in 2015, compared with an average of $49,897 for men. The report also found that black and Hispanic women made only 66.7 percent of what their white male counterparts made in 2015.
The anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she has missed out on salary increases thanks to company reorganizations and bad processes. Despite being placed into a management role during one shakeup, she says that she wasn’t part of leadership conversations and had a hard time explaining certain high-level decisions to her team. With prodding from upper levels, she offered feedback about the new processes and was told “You should earn your money.”
That’s when things became interesting.
“I had a one-on-one conversation with my manager and asked, ‘What money are they talking about, because I didn’t get a pay raise when I got this promotion.’ My manager was completely shocked and was like, ‘Oh my god, did we not give you a raise?'” the mentor remembers. “I don’t talk about that with other people, so I don’t know if it happened to me because I’m a woman and everybody else was a man, but that was pretty shocking.”
Sexual harassment is a huge reason why women don’t feel welcome in tech, as well as in many other industries. According to a survey titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” women in tech say harassment is one of the biggest things they deal with, with 90 percent of female responders saying that they’ve witnessed sexist behavior at industry events and 65 percent reporting that they’ve received unwanted sexual advances from a superior. Sixty percent of women who reported sexual harassment to their company were dissatisfied with the resolution.
CoderGirl mentor Mathews didn’t report the “John’s nuts” incident to human resources and says that she now regrets it, not knowing if her harasser bothered other women. She kept seeing him around the office, though.
“I was creeped out seeing that guy in the hallways anytime after that, to the point I thought he was following me to my car. I sprinted out of the building or hid in a bathroom where you can see around the corner,” she remembers. “I kept thinking about it after it happened because that stuff doesn’t leave you exactly; you have a body response to it. And part of it was me being in this culture with guys, not wanting to appear weak or like I couldn’t handle that. But at the time being 23 and out of college, something this direct at me in a professional setting had never happened before.”
He wasn’t the only man who made her apprehensive, Mathews says.
“As I would walk through hallways, older men would wink at me, which is just uncomfortable,” she says. “And we had these trailers out back, so it was always in the manufacturing, isolated part. I would go into these trailers highly scared and hoping no one followed me because they were isolated within themselves. That freaked me out anytime that happened.”
But sometimes it’s not even the big stuff that gets to you, the mentors say. Brown says that her former male colleagues often named servers after male-centered films like Top Gun, so she reminded them about how alienating that was to women who needed to work on those servers.
And Mathews remembers when coworkers gendered the office salsa bar, joking that they should label hot ones for men and mild ones for women. “I was like, why? Why would you say that? Do you think that something spicy improves your strength?” Mathews wonders.
Still, good workplaces do exist. That’s true even in tech. For Brown, she had to change jobs to find one — but she says it’s made all the difference.
“I wanted a place that was supportive and welcoming to women,” Brown says. At her new company, she says, “I found women in leadership in various levels, especially in middle to higher leadership. I found women scientists who were being celebrated for their scientific work and their data science work. I found cross-training between teams and a real, true support for work-life balance. So all the pieces were there.”
Mathews also had to change jobs to find her happy place. Realizing that she was never going to feel appreciated at the aerospace company, Mathews desperately needed a break from the suffocating “brogrammer” environment and craved something engaging and meaningful. She chose to empower student athletes by coaching women’s basketball at her alma mater DePauw University and teaching mathematics at a nearby women’s prison.
“Going to a prison to teach math seems like a weird experience, but I have never found more motivated students in my life,” Mathews remembers.
With her enthusiasm and direction refreshed after two years, Mathews returned to the programming world in St. Louis, eventually landing her current dream job as a developer at a local innovation agency. Five months in, Mathews can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I’m going to give props to the head of the company: He really cares about his employees, and he wants to have fun at work and work hard,” Mathews says. “He’s super protective, wants everyone to feel safe and wants everyone to be able to enjoy each other at work and maintain this culture of inclusion. He’s created a great environment.”
Brown says that having women and supportive allies throughout all levels of the company means that they can influence the culture, removing the barriers that female employees must traditionally surmount.
“It is a tremendous difference in a professional opportunity to have a place that is supportive,” Brown says. “Women can get comfortable talking technology because they’re in a supportive environment that inherently trusts them. They don’t have to prove themselves, they just have to show up and learn. So they get a chance to build an identity for themselves as technologists that’s not challenged by all of this cultural bias.”
Dodhyani began mentoring through CoderGirl with a goal to help put more women into the tech workforce and encourage new coders to seek out leadership opportunities. She had learned about the program through a friend and immediately connected with its mission.
“I reached out to Crystal [Martin], and when I got there, I became really excited because I saw all these women trying to learn how to code,” Dodhyani says. “I want them to feel empowered, really. I don’t think this has an end, meaning you can’t stop learning; just because you finish the CoderGirl program or just because you’ve got another job where you’re programming, it’s not going to end there.”
As for Brown, she says she’s encouraged by her mentees’ determination, openness and curiosity.
“I remind them that nobody knows everything; just keep learning and gaining skills,” Brown says. “Practice talking about tech, using the vocabulary fluently, and get good at explaining your ideas, so that you feel like you belong. We do some whiteboard coding exercises ahead of interviews, and we practice describing code and code ideas during informal code reviews and goal planning. Many women come out of their shell during this process, and it’s a joy to see them light up with ideas, questions and confidence.”
Mathews, who previously went through CoderGirl’s parent program LaunchCode before later returning as a CoderGirl mentor, agrees. She says she works hard to help her learners feel secure in the skills that they gain in their inclusive, women-only space before heading out to apprenticeships and full-time employment.
“I think there’s a shared struggle among women all over the spectrum, but seeing each other struggle is empowering,” says Mathews. “Having visibility of the people running the program who are on the queer spectrum or Crystal being a bad-ass woman of color leading the whole thing, I think she really advocates for the diverse space that it is. It’s amazing.”
Ultimately, that shared struggle is what draws the mentors to CoderGirl. Having walked their own difficult paths through the tech industry, they can’t help but want to make it a bit easier for the new army of women who code.
“This is meaningful because I spent so long alone as a child and even into my early career days as the only woman doing it,” says Brown of programming. “When I would try to talk with people and friends about it, they didn’t understand; there was just no connection.
“So this was a chance to bring in more women in a field that desperately needs them and give folks the opportunity to succeed. It feels good to be able to help them in a way that I wish I could have had and to know how much of a difference it really makes in their lives.”