Women can suffer low self-confidence specific to male dominated industries

Jacinta Reid is a solo mother to three awesome daughters. She is also a sci-fi enthusiast, multi-blogger, re-enactor, open source acolyte, pedant, illustrator, and impending IT professional. Jacinta is about to complete a bachelors degree in Information Technology with a large side of maths and a particular fascination for artificial intelligence. She is finding the transition from carer to a career in IT to be challenging, but amply stimulating and rewarding.

Discussions about geek feminist issues seem to inevitably attract comments suggesting that the issue is a problem for men as well as for women. The recent Geek Feminism post “self-confidence tricks” attracted some such comments. The commenters do not appear to be deliberately derailing discussion, but to be genuinely missing the point: that low self-confidence is an issue for for women in IT specifically because they are women, not men. Or, more precisely, because as women, their confidence is depressed by the subtle (or not so subtle) sexism in technology industries.

I believe that the matter of women’s self-confidence is a specifically feminist issue in the field of IT because women are so often overlooked and undervalued. Women in tech swim in an ocean of stereotypes and misconceptions: that the real hard core IT work is done by males. That women in an IT related space must be in an administrative role or someone’s girlfriend.

That perception is, to a large extent, both the cause and effect of women being a bit of a novelty in technology environments. Without effort to counter those self-perpetuating myths, women will continue to be excluded, to be viewed as less capable and to be led to feel less worthy, thus channelled out of the “hard core” of IT.

So for every time a woman gets a startled look when she tells someone that she works in IT; for every time a customer asks the female hardware tech/salesperson if they can speak to a “real†expert; for every automatic assumption that a female IT worker must be in a support role, for every time a man is promoted over her, gets to go to the conference instead of her, is valued above her; for each instance of subtle, nearly invisible discrimination that it would be “unreasonable†for her to react strongly to, for each joke, for each leer, for each exchange about her sex life; for being assessed using different metrics than her male counterparts; for every one of those demeaning, dispiriting instances that male staff do not have to face, there has to be a counterbalance.

Without a way to counter the corrosive effect of sexism in IT culture, women in technology may lack the self-confidence to put their hand up for that awesome opportunity, or apply for that great role, to tell that workmate that their sexist behaviour is inappropriate, or even to persevere and work through that stubborn, hopeless coding problem just *one more time* — and solve it at last.

Self-confidence is a geek feminist issue because immersion in pervasive, sometimes overt, sometimes near subliminal sex discrimination erodes confidence in a unique way that men cannot experience. Certainly, male geeks can suffer low self-confidence, but it will not be because they are undervalued in their profession because of their sex. Women can suffer low self esteem for nearly every reason that men can, *and* because they are undervalued because of their sex.

Yes, nearly everyone has a set of challenges that they face that not all other people face. Individuals develop techniques to cope with the impact of the specific things that affect them, and they compare strategies and support others who share the same kinds of problems. For such exchanges to be interrupted by objections from members of the dominant group, people who do not experience the problem under discussion, that their tangentially related issues are at least as important seems, unfortunately, to be par for the course.

I do not know how to prevent those belittling and dismissive comments from happening. But I do know that women geeks have developed ways to preserve self-confidence despite the particular challenges of working in male dominated geeky environments, and that it is right and proper that geek feminists share their experiences and offer advice and support to each other. And I can confidently state that it is okay for our discussions about us, to be about us.

10 thoughts on “Women can suffer low self-confidence specific to male dominated industries

  1. Laughingrat

    This post rocks so hard. Thank you for writing it. It’s true: when a marginalized person speaks about their experiences, the first thing that happens is that someone in the dominant group(s) tries to shut them up. When that doesn’t work, they try to erase the marginalized person’s experience by co-opting it.

  2. Jennifer

    Thanks for writing this great post. As a woman in another male dominated industry (albeit not as severe – insurance) I recognise so much of the experience – both the actual belittling, and the minimisation of the problem.

  3. Katherine

    Bravo. I suspect many of the commenters who were posting these kinds of messages mean well, but don’t realize that their implicit and very damaging message is that the challenges women in STEM (or any %NON-PRIVILEGEDGROUP% in %SOCIETALCONTEXT%) face are nonexistent or trivial compared to those that everyone faces.

  4. Katie

    This is such a great post! Of course men sometimes have low confidence – everyone does. But it’s so useful to realize that women in male-dominated field have these extra, specific challenges to their confidence. Realizing the challenges are there puts you in a position to find ways to deal with them, instead of just reacting.

  5. Heather

    I appreciate this post so, so much. I spent the first 8 months of my current job answering the question, “Do you work in IT?” on a daily basis. Later, I asked new male co-workers if this ever happened to them and of course it didn’t. They always seem so *surprised* when they find out that this really did happen to me, that people still ask me, “I’m not sure you’re the right person to talk to about [insert thing that I actually do know a lot about].” Talk about your invisible doors of privilege!

    As you said so eloquently, I have to deal with all of the soul-crushing aspects of my job AND these questions about whether I should be there, doubts about my skills, users who can’t stop staring at my chest, insinuations about inappropriate relationships with bosses or subordinates, insinuations that I lack the proper equipment to solve a problem, and all the rest of it. I pay dearly for all that sexist baggage that other people carry into my office.

    Even though I’m a pretty confident person, I come home deflated and defeated more days than I would care to count. So for me, the confidence tips were timely and very much appreciated.

  6. Cessen

    “And I can confidently state that it is okay for our discussions about us, to be about us.”

    Absolutely. I need to be more careful about derailing. My apologies.

  7. Meg Thornton

    Add another to the list of people supporting this post.

    I’m facing an interesting situation as a woman who’s interested in working in IT – I’ve been out of work for a couple of years because despite five years experience in technical support and a strong work history behind me, despite knowing my stuff and being able to pick up the basics of a new environment quickly, and despite being a good prospect for interviews (I was regularly getting at least one interview a month for temp contracts) for some reason, I just wasn’t getting employed. I’d sometimes get explanations of why I wasn’t being employed such as “not enough recent experience” or “not enough hardware knowledge”, but most of the time it was just “we found someone else”, or no reason given at all. I’ve come to the bitter conclusion that my flaws are threefold: I’m too old (39 this year), too female, and too fat (or in other words, I’m not eye candy, so I don’t have this to offset my female-ness enough to make me employable). As a result, I’m now back at university getting a computer science degree, so when I go back on the job market in three years time I can be told I’m “overqualified” for whichever job I’m applying for as well (while my male classmates are snapped up in no time flat).

    Not that I’m bitter or anything like that, oh no.

  8. Jacinta Reid

    Wow. Thank you all for your endorsement and support. I will be filing these comments away in my “I’m Awesome” folder, to look at when I need to be reminded that I have reason to believe in myself.

  9. MarinaS

    “I do not know how to prevent those belittling and dismissive comments from happening. ”

    One word: moderation! Or if you’ve been reading Tiger Beatdown recently, BONERS. ;)

    Back when I was still actively in IT, and a technical team lead in a small start-up, one of my colleagues told me that she’d bumped into an old school frenemy of mine. When told that I work for said start-up, his response was: “what’s she doing there then? Sleeping with the boss?”

    Charming.

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