Multiple small broken window panes, through which greenery outside can be seen.

Does the sexism in CS ever get better?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

Dear Geek Feminists:
I have a little story for you, and then a group of related questions. About two years ago, I was miserable, isolated, and overwhelmed in my undergraduate computer science (CS) program at a male-dominated polytechnic institute. I went to my advisor, an accomplished woman professor who had taught and studied computer science at quite a few schools, and asked her if she had any advice about dealing with sexism in our discipline.

“It never gets better. Either you learn to deal with it, or you leave,” she said. I was crushed by this, and I believe her fatalistic assessment contributed to my failing out of that school in that semester.

My question, then, is in several parts.
1) If you’re a woman in CS, does it ever get better? If it got better for you, where and how did that happen?
2) If you’ve learned to deal with it, how?
3) If you left – as I left, as Skud left – would you go back? Did you go back?
4) If being ostracized and viewed as gross and weird for being feminist and female “never gets better,” why stay in CS?

What do you think?

40 thoughts on “Does the sexism in CS ever get better?

  1. Katie

    I think it sounds like you’re in a hostile environment, and you need a better mentor. That’s a remarkably harsh response from your advisor. If a young woman came to me with concerns about sexism in the program, I would never be that harsh. I think most women in CS (and all geek feminists everywhere) would tell you that we love our chosen fields, and that’s why we go back, even when our peers are being terribly sexist.
    Don’t give up on something you’re passionate about. You may have to work a little harder to find positive mentors. It can be a little isolating to be one of a few women, but we’re out there, and we do support each other.

  2. Amber

    Hmm, better? Yes. It does get better… then worse… but it never goes away. The key is to look for places with great culture. A lot of times this is in a large organization, but can exist in smaller places too. However, there’s not really a litmus test that I can see. You’ve just got to meet a lot of people when you interview and get a good feeling for them. You’ll make mistakes too, just pick up and move on. Even in a great organization, a bad apple can exist, which is what happened to me. I ended up getting a lot of support after the fact, but during the confrontation, it was scary. The fact is, sexism can exist anywhere. It’s never going to magically go away, because prejudices are deeply ingrained in people. It doesn’t even make them evil. Sometimes really good guys have certain expectations about how women should behave or think, and they don’t want to be sexist, but it’s hard for them to even see when it’s happening.

    My answer is: if you’re very sensitive to it, then maybe CS is not the right place for you. It can be a struggle. But then again, this is the world we live in. I’m not sure you’re going to be able to go your whole life and not experience it sometime or someplace. Still, it will probably be less in a female dominated profession.

  3. Anne

    I’m in construction, and I’m fortunate enough to come from a prestigious school that allowed me to choose my jobs carefully to avoid sexism: The first was at a firm with a female president. Oddly, it seems even more rampant in CS and I’m wondering what the responses will be.

  4. tanine

    I can’t really tell about any sexism at my university.

    School was horrible. People thought in male – female. And females didn’t study cs.

    But in my cs department nobody thinks about gender. I have many friends (almost male) and can (after removing some prejudice about feminism) even talk to them about feminism, gender pay gaps,…

    I think, it depends on the people, but can’t answer your questions..

  5. H Cautrell

    I graduated from a community college from a computer programming course that lasted eighteen months. I got an associates degree from it. I think part of the reason why I did so well was that the number women was almost equal to the number of men in the course. And it helped that at least half the teachers were women who had been programmers for years, dealt with sexism when the field was still in its infancy and were very good at what they do.

    When I graduated I got a job at a company that had a very good mix of men and women in the programming area. And when I went to my next job I was lucky again in that most of the people I dealt with treated me well and not as if I had no idea what I was doing.

    I’ve been very, very lucky so far in my career as a programmer. My current job has more women than men as programmers, which is pretty great if you ask me, but definitely not a norm in this city or industry.

    I can’t say what I would have done if I hadn’t been in situations where my gender wasn’t called into question often. I haven’t gotten completely away from sexism, but most of it was not aimed at my ability to be a programmer.

    I really wanted to just answer the final question, number four. They say it never gets better. And for many women it may not. But I’m thankful to all the women who do stay because they prove that those who ostracize us are the ones who are gross and weird. Women can do this work. We can make a difference. And nothing will get better if all of us just give up.

    Not to say that you should stay if it affects you negatively. No one should be a martyr for a cause. But if you can stay or you can return and find a way to cope, I hope you do, because it means there’s just one more woman showing that we really can do this and we should be treated as equals. You being the general you, not specifically the woman that asked the questions.

  6. Bee

    I’m an undergrad at a school where women are ~20, 30% of CS majors and I’ve never had any issues, actually. The automatic assumption is that if you’re here, regardless of gender, you’re smart. Not that it’s always super-comfortable, but it’s way better than what I’ve experienced elsewhere and there are enough men in my department who will openly declare themselves feminists / call out douchebaggery that I don’t worry about it most of the time. (And yes, I’ve had enough issues with being a female in a geek space in other places.)

    This summer I’ll be interning at a tech company, so we’ll see how that goes, but my school at least is pretty darn good.

  7. Meg

    It hasn’t gotten better yet. That doesn’t mean it can’t. We know it can be better, because it was and because other fields have gone through this painful, backlash-inducing adjustment.
    I’ve watched software development get worse from the early 90’s to today, and begin, slowly, to get better over the last two years. Nothing is static.

    Things do get better after college. I can seek out companies that aren’t devastatingly sexist and if they were I could sue. Right now it’s an employee’s market: employers do want to keep you happy. While it is effort, I can be an instrument of change wherever I am. I can choose small teams, where I am a large percentage of the culture, or teams with non-programmers as valuable participants, which is how I’ve been able to be a coder in a predominantly-female company.
    I am very, very good at what I do, which helps. I am well paid for what I do, which helps more. I have done far more demeaning work for far less money. I still face less harassment and less sexism than I did working in a hospital.
    I do meet wonderful people, male and female, with whom I can collaborate as an equal. I have communities like devchix and geek feminism where I have an absolute sense of belonging. I don’t have to put up with the ridiculous BS that existed in my college classes, and I’m very seldom the only person speaking up or bothered by things that I find alienating.
    And finally, I love the work. I love that I create thing and I am changing the world. I don’t want to let only men decide what the future will look like. I refuse to leave them to it. I’m still far better off than the woman who came and fought before me for basic, fundamental rights and recognition. We don’t have that far to go, even with all the resistance we encounter.
    I have technology and tools to employ in this effort. I have the opportunity of a world where I can be my own boss if I want to, where I can own my own means of production, where I can rally data and numbers to back up my assertions. I have the advantage of knowing my opponents are provably wrong.

    Is it easy? Not yet, but I can make it easier for those who follow me. Post-college I have found there are a majority of men in the field who do take me seriously, and that gives me the energy to face down those who don’t. We are trying to undo the very real harm the internet bubble did to our culture, the entitlement some of our members developed, the anxiety/fear that comes from success unearned, the internet-fueled hypersexualized cover for that anxiety, the lack of empathy and low standards of behavior which were enforced. It isn’t a boundless problem.
    If I chose some other field, if I found a bubble where none of our cultural sexism ever penetrated, it wouldn’t make it all go away. It would be easier, but my life would be less purpose-driven and I wouldn’t be engaging with the ongoing sexism in management and politics. No field is completely free of sexism and those that penetrate all others, business and software and advertising, are some of the worst. I’d probably still have to deal with an IT guy where ever I worked. I would rather choose the field where I want to work and then work to make the culture a place I want to live in than choose a culture I want to live in and be stuck with whatever that work is.

  8. Cthandhs

    Industry is definitely better than college. You might have to look around a little though. I have one friend who went through several jobs until she found one where she was treated like a person.

    I was lucky, my first technical job didn’t have more than the background sexism that everything has, and the glass ceiling is pretty high. I worked in QA for several years, and the hate and loathing for QA almost drowns out the hate and loathing for being a technically adept woman. Lots of companies are eager to hire Software Developers in Test, and I have seen a lot more female management in QA than in other tech fields. Hey, if you’re going to be hated anyway, might as well be because you’re doing a good job.

    One thing that WILL make things better for women in tech, more women. So while I don’t expect things to be better next month or next year, the more of us who can hang in there, the better it will be eventually.

  9. imayer

    1) It got better for me. Everywhere I went where, essentially, the people got older and the assumed level of competence got higher, things also got better.

    It will never go away completely, though.

    2) Calling people on it immediately helps, even if they argue with you or blow you off. Venting to your roommate/partner/other CS people helps.
    Meeting an online community of people who are just as upset about this as you are helps a lot: not just here, but watching sexism blow up in companies’ faces on twitter, and I’ve actually found a group on G+ (to which I’d be happy to add anyone who emails me).

    4) I’ve never felt like I’ve been assumed weird/gross — more like assumed not-an-engineer or not a competent/”real” one. And of course being expected to be decoration / available to other (male) programmers. And being, as a group, forgotten about or presumed not to be interested in [foo].

  10. Addie

    (1) It doesn’t necessarily get better, but it changes, and as you gain experience you acquire the language and support network to cope better. That said, since the ways the sexism and isolation manifest themselves change, there’s always something new and deflating to deal with if you’re finally over the thing that bothered you a few years ago.
    (2) A good support network (several women-in-tech groups, both in-person and mailing lists), and discovering that research and language exists to explain what I’ve been dealing with (Geek Feminism and other feminist / activist blogs). Being able to track the progress of my career and expertise. Keeping a strong social circle outside of tech so I can keep a balanced perspective.
    (4) I can’t change the climate for the better unless I stick around. And I do love the work when the headaches are out of the way enough to focus on it.

  11. Lindsey Kuper

    I would say that for the last 10 years — as long as I’ve been doing CS — I’ve become increasingly perceptive of sexism in our field, so over time I notice subtler and subtler manifestations of sexism — things that I wouldn’t have noticed when I was starting out. So in that sense, for me it hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten worse. On the other hand, I see my increasing awareness as part of growing up, and I’m better prepared to fight injustice in our field now that I’m not as ignorant of it as I was when I was 20.

    Also, as one stays in a field, one can develop a specialty that becomes one’s professional home. My subfield is a pretty tightly-knit community, and the more time I spend in it, the more people in that subfield tend to know me as a person, or at least know a little about me. I like to think that if people know me, they’re less likely to make generalizations about me based on my gender. I’ve come to know a number of people (of various genders) in my subfield whom I trust and respect, and who I feel trust and respect me. There’s still sexism, but an environment of trust and respect means that I can usually feel comfortable pointing out sexism to these colleagues and feel like my point of view is being acknowledged. (Moreover, having a specialty that becomes part of one’s professional identity is good for inoculating oneself against impostor syndrome: you can tell yourself, “Well, if nothing else, at least I know a lot about X!”)

    For another angle on why some women stay in CS, I recommend this blog post by a college student on “What I Learned From My College CS Class”. I think a lot of women stay because point 6 is so great that it outweighs points 1 through 5.

  12. Rachel/Alii

    I hate the idea that something as ridiculous as sexism should chase me away from something I think is fun.

    The sexism isn’t gone, but it’s definitely different now that I’m out of school and into the work world. It’s more mature and institutionalized sexism and much less girls-are-gross college age sexism. It’s not really better, but it’s easier to navigate. I have more tools, more support, and more awareness of the odds. There are people I can talk to. My coworkers make an effort not to discriminate, so when their sexism shows up as the ingrained garbage I’m now used to recognizing, it ends up being annoying rather than toxic.

    That said, I’m the only woman who works at my office and it’s just hard. Especially because I’m very very new to industry, only a handful of years out of college and I have to both navigate my ‘I’m seriously a noob at all this stuff’ and the pressure to be a female ambassador to the male world of programming. There’s this constant fear that my failings make /women/ look bad, when I should just be trying to go through the fail/learn cycle that the others don’t seem to have a problem with.

    That’s actually been my biggest thing I’ve learned that’s made it so much easier: that other people are used to compensating when their male coworkers fail, so they don’t necessarily think less of me when I fail as long as I pick my ass back up and LEARN from my mistakes. I’m human. They get it.

    However. I’m lucky that I’m fiercely obstinate, to be perfectly honest, and that my workplace *tries* really hard. When it fails, I’m both too stubborn to accept it and my workplace sort of scrambles to recover. So while sexism is still present (And present where I least expect it. It’s like surprise!sexism leftover from the 50s, tucked in closets on broken shelves just waiting for me to open the wrong door.), there ARE good software/CS/tech companies that will try and meet you halfway.

    I guess my best advice for staying in industry and finding a job is to remember that YOU are also interviewing THEM. Can you work there, is their administration both sensitive and efficient, and what is the environment like? It took me nearly a year after I graduated college to find a job that was mutually acceptable. While sometimes you simply can’t avoid a less-than-optimal work environment – especially if your field is pretty specialized – you can try and give yourself as many advantages as you possibly can. In my experience, those advantages can be the difference between enjoying your job most of the time with moments of crap, versus a job you tolerate (or even hate) that drives you screaming from CS.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  13. Tim Chevalier

    1. I’m not a woman in CS, but for the first 12 years I did CS (out of 17 total, if you count from my first computer science class), most people perceived me as a woman. No, it has not gotten better. If anything, it has gotten worse:

    1995-2001: Computer science major at historically women’s college. Hey, things are awesome, and CS is fun!
    2001-2003: CS grad student at top-4 university. Hey, everyone’s ignoring me because I’m not a peer (being perceived as female) and not dating material (being married). Well, that sucks, but maybe it’s because I’m not smart enough anyway and not because they think I’m a woman.
    2004-2006: Software engineer and intern at various companies, plus one academic year of trying out an academic field that wasn’t CS (that year sucked). The least sexist places were the ones were I worked for managers who were women. Things that happened elsewhere included my otherwise-awesome internship supervisor discussing my marital status with a potential future employer.
    2007: Realized I was actually a guy. You’d expect it would have gotten easier after this, and it kind of did, but not being seen as a woman anymore made it easier to see sexism happening to others, and sexism-and-homophobia (hard to separate those, really) happening to myself and others.
    2007-2011: CS grad student, everything was great until a male grad student made rapey comments to a genderqueer grad student who was presenting as female at the time, and the faculty stood up for him and vilified me for supporting my friend. I quit.
    2011-present: software engineer at Mozilla, where I also thought everything was great until two separate debates in one month started over whether intolerance is something we should tolerate (towards queer people in this case).

    2. By being as loud and angry as possible. My male privilege helps me get away with that. Anger beats self-loathing any day of the week.

    3. I did leave, to go to information school (admittedly, not that different from CS), and I went back because I decided I’d rather deal with CS than be intellectually understimulated.

    4. For me (and my version of this is being viewed as gross and weird for being feminist, somewhat femme, trans, queer, and poly — different labels affect how I’m seen at different times) it’s because the compiler doesn’t care about who’s a bigot and who thinks less of whom. When I’m actually able to focus on the work, it’s beautiful and it takes me away from the anger and hate that seem to dominate my life when I’m focusing on anything *but* work. Given that CS involves collaboration, focusing on just the work, to the exclusion of the culture, is possible for me only in fleeting moments. Ultimately I do it for a purpose that transcends today’s petty bigotry. That doesn’t mean I don’t expend a lot of energy dealing with the petty bigotry of the day as embodied in CS culture. I like to think the purpose justifies that expenditure of energy, but I’m not always sure, and I’ve been especially unsure lately. Also, I’m good at CS and I’m not sure I could be as effective working in another field, given that living where I live, I’m likely to have to face equal or greater amounts of bigotry working anywhere except a human rights organization.

    One more reason I stick around is because as a guy, I can use my privilege to let other guys know it’s not acceptable to be sexist, especially in situations where people aren’t aware that I’m a guy who has a trans body. Sexism isn’t going to stop until men make it socially unacceptable for other men to be sexist — so that the reward of being sexist no longer exceeds the cost — and I can be part of it. (This doesn’t mean that sexism has stopped being like a knife to the heart for me, because I can vividly imagine what it would mean for me if I had never transitioned, or if I’d been born neurologically female.) I know that’s not a helpful answer for women, but maybe you could think about setting an example to let others know it’s not okay to be racist (if you’re white), that it’s not okay to be ableist (if you’re not disabled), that it’s not okay to be homophobic (if you’re het)? It’s not that being there to help include people along one axis of oppression makes up for the pain of being oppressed along a different axis, at all. Just that it’s a possible source of meaning.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Also, in re: 4, Meg’s comment reminded me that I have also met some really wonderful people working and studying in CS, and while they sometimes seem few and far between in a sea of brogrammers, their presence in my life in the past and in the present means more to me than I can say. I do think that being in a minority group within the culture can bring about stronger bonds with other minority folks who are resisting the oppressive aspects of the larger culture, as well as with those people who deserve the label of “ally”. Solidarity is rewarding — if not through immediate social change, than through the personal relationships it fosters.

  14. Dawn Kinman

    I am not, nor have I ever been in CS, but I do consider myself to be a geek feminist and I think I have some insight into your questions. My experience with sexism in the workplace/profession is this:

    1) I was a Fire Controlman in the Navy for 6 years.
    a. My ship had a crew of approximately 330 people, of whom, approximately 30 are classified as “female”. (I only served during “don’t ask, don’t tell” years, so I won’t get into the lack of various gender identification options on a ship.)
    b. My department had approximately 30 people, of whom, approximately 1-3 at any given time are classified as “female”. For most of my time on ships, I was the only female in my department.
    c. I faced a lot of sexism during my time in service and people often ask about it. That is a whole other conversation, but I will point out that I was very naive when I joined the service and had no idea I was getting into such a male-dominated field. I chose the job I wanted to do in the Navy based on my interests and abilities. I was actually pretty shocked to realize just HOW male-dominated my rate was. That being said, I worked hard, was very good at what I did and stood up for myself. Over time, I found myself well-respected, albeit in a manner “Oh, she’s actually a good worker!” like it’s SO unbelievable that a female could NOT SUCK at my job. Over time they began to see me as just another person on the crew, more or less. However, I know if I had stayed in, every time I had transferred I would have to start over. I did not leave the Navy because of this, mind you, but because I really, really, really wanted to be a music teacher.

    2) I am now a music teacher at an elementary school.
    Ah, a nice gender-appropriate profession! No sexism there, right? Ha! While I certainly do not encounter sexism on a conscious, daily basis the way I did in the Navy, ask me how many of my superiors are females. Now, ask me how many of my coworkers are females. In such a female-dominated field, ask me, how is it that the majority of principles, superintendents, and other administrators are male. It’s crazy! And don’t even get me started on “the change” that happens in my young female students when they start to get indoctrinated into our culture. Previously well-spoken, intelligent female students suddenly respond to everything with “I dunno, like, what was the question again,” because they have recently discovered that in our culture, intelligent woman ≠ attractive woman.

    So, just because you get out of CS, you will not avoid sexism. It is everywhere. It is our culture. And while it may seem tiresome sometimes, it does get better. Look at the 50’s-thank god we’ve come a little ways since then! My suggestion is that you do what you LOVE and fight the battles that come with it. Because you will have to fight the battle either way, you may as well do it in your own way, through your own passion.

    1. MadGastronomer

      Just for the record: the repeal of DADT has no affect on discrimination based on gender identity. Trans people — and, I assume, people of non-binary gender identities — are still considered mentally ill by the US military and cannot serve openly.

  15. June Park

    Seeing that the commenters above are very experienced and have been in industry and higher education, I am carefully sharing my thoughts on this topic, which I am very happy to.
    My answer to the question is No. It has not gotten better, at least while I have been in an undergrad program, and it will be challenging to get incredibly better unless we somehow get a miraculous number of more women in the field so that we can forget about the ratio.

    I’m a senior, and I have been in CS for 2.5 years, and as little experienced and immature as I am, I do have to admit that it is inevitable for me to exclude the notion of “sexism” as a CS female student. As a matter of fact, I am a non-white female foreign student, which makes me qualify for multiple minority groups.

    Ironically, I developed the idea or the perception of “sexism” by the efforts and resources the institution, the industry, and the world has put forth for me. As you all know, there are LOTS of events that are targeted to the female audience. Many different institutions, organizations, and companies are creating events after events for women. However, is it really benefiting women?

    The answer can be both Yes and No. However, they do need to realize that the programs can hurt the current CS women while recruiting new people into the field.

    My school has done a variety of programs and events to promote female students in the field, keep the retention, and recruit more underrepresented and female students, and I am one of student ambassadors who assist in brainstorming ideas and facilitating the events. However as I grew more mature, I’ve started discovering lots of “wrong”ness in those programs. Specifically because, thanks to programs like these, “IT Women’s Networking Night” or “Sisterhood Program in IT”, I acknowledged that I AM a woman, and I AM one of minorities. Staring off as a new CS major, I had never heard about women being minority in the field, or even while going to classes, it had never bothered me that there were far more male students. But now I know so well that I am one of very few, and those events make me look like I am incapable of what I am doing. My reaction to these events has changed from “Thank you. I feel very welcomed.” to “Ok. I know that I’m a woman. Stop reminding me.”

    I believe that the approach to reach out to women should not involve pointing out to women directly. LinkedIn lately announced that the company will host a hack-a-thon called “DevelopHer” and that does not sound appealing to me at all, and then it makes me think, ‘Why does the world keep picking on me when I’m doing fine already?’

    I do not need a big group of ‘sisterhood’ club and do things I’m not interested in. I don’t need to do slumber parties or single out female students to remind them that they are minority.

    Other things I’ve experienced include- my Algorithms professor made female students wait after the first class meeting of the semester because he thought we should organize a math club as apparently female students in his class have historically been underperforming with math skills. OR I’ve heard things like “Oh, she got a job from Microsoft because MS probably wants more women in the company.” OR I was told, “Make sure to check off the box that you are a woman on your job application.”

    I chose the field and will stay in the field because I love what I am doing. Coming to college, I merely thought I’d get a degree and a job, but I did not know that I would find something that I can honestly, genuinely, and eagerly passionate for 24/7. The field is interesting enough that I will never leave. If I need an advice or support, I will ask for it as I have. People who have helped me throughout my college career are both male and female.

    In conclusion, at the undergrad level, it can get better, but not any soon unless institutions change their methods of approaching to female student as a lot of them set a goal on increasing “the number”.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      My school has done a variety of programs and events to promote female students in the field [...] and those events make me look like I am incapable of what I am doing. My reaction to these events has changed from “Thank you. I feel very welcomed.” to “Ok. I know that I’m a woman. Stop reminding me.”

      Yeah. I often come away from those events feeling more alienated than when I arrived. I think that tech events for women can help, but not by constantly reminding us that we’re women (as if we didn’t know!). To the contrary, a goal of such events should be to let us not have to think about our gender for a change. When I walk into a classroom in which I’m the only woman and a bunch of guys stare at me, or when someone refers to my team at work as “the guys” as though I don’t exist, or when some guy cracks a sexist joke, then I’m forced to be aware of my gender, whether or not I really feel like thinking about it right then. I think that at its best, a tech event for women should be an opportunity to hang out, learn, socialize, and talk shop without having to fear that any of those things is about to happen. It should also be a place for women to compare notes on their experience of what the rest of the world is like.

      1. Rachel/Alii

        Exactly! Yes!

        There were two ‘women’s groups’ at my University to help women in engineering and computer science. One I absolutely hated and refused to have anything to do with outside of my requisite appearances to be grateful for my scholarship. The other was a fun place to commiserate about the challenges of being the only woman in a sea of men, and then to talk about stuff we all had in common, and to get support when I needed it.

        The only difference I could see was that the one I hated made me feel awkward and endangered. The one I liked made me feel supported and useful. I don’t know what they did structure-wise to foster that, but I vastly prefered learning concrete ways to encourage other women than to being reminded again and again that I am the odd one out.

        1. Lindsey Kuper

          It’s good that the second group existed. I think a lot of women only experience the first kind of group and are frustrated. Then, women who’ve only experienced the second kind, and think it’s great, can’t understand why women who’ve only experienced the first kind of group have such a negative opinion of such groups.

          It would be great if the GF community could come up with a list of concrete, reality-tested advice for making women-in-tech groups more like the second and less like the first.

  16. confluence

    I read horror stories on the internet, but I have personally experienced very little sexism in four years of undergraduate study, eight years of working in the industry, and over a year of a postgraduate CS degree. I’m not saying there’s been no sexism, and I’m sure I was a lot more oblivious to it when I was younger, but I can count incidents that made me uncomfortable or upset on the fingers of one hand.

    There hasn’t been a particularly high percentage of women (doing CS stuff) in the places where I have studied and worked, but I can definitely see the percentage of women doing CS at university increasing.

    I suspect that the biggest factor is geography, but I can’t personally verify this because I’ve never studied or worked anywhere else. I think many people consider the Anglophone “Western world” to be a culturally uniform blob, but it really isn’t. I’m sure there are regional differences too, especially in a huge country like the US.

    So before you give up on CS and change fields, consider changing your location. I realise that sounds like trite advice — it’s not an easy thing for someone to do. But seriously, it is possible to be a woman in CS and not have to deal with gross people all the time. If you ever have the opportunity to see what the field is like in another country or even another city (an academic conference, a Linux / Python / whatever convention, etc.) — go for it.

  17. Shiny

    No, it doesn’t get better. I’ve got more coping strategies now though (15 years into my career).

    The nature of the sexism changes — glass ceilings only affect you once you hit them etc.

  18. Ari

    I was in one of those corporate ‘It Gets Better’ videos last year, repping the lesbian talent at my company. Now I’ve had some time to reflect on the phrase, and I don’t like what it implies.

    Compared with being a female software developer in, say, 1984, I think it’s clear that conditions are much better for being a woman in the industry now. Critical mass, visibility, and feminist + anti-kyriarchical (hey there, Tim!) history to draw upon has helped us get there. Comparing my own single experience in college to my experience as a developer now, yes, my life is better, but the sexist issues that have impacted my working life mostly weren’t incidents that happened at a job.

    I am frustrated by people who claim “it” has gotten broadly “better” or “worse” for women in tech, based on single-serving statistics like the recent one about fewer women invited to panels in conferences in the last two years. All that does is point out a problem with a worrisome future. It shows us where to focus attention and solve the problems. This is meaningful, but I won’t claim that it personally drags me down as a technologist.

    Furthermore, getting “better” does not mean we’re done. An acquaintance just left her job in tech management over a sudden and really awful-sounding episode of sexual harrassment. Her estimation of women’s standing in tech, as a group, is much worse than it was last week. I think we should see these problems as bumps in the road, and know that we have a strong and awesome community who will have our back when things do get bad.

  19. John C Barstow

    I think that it is, in fact, getting a little better. I think there is far more awareness in general about the existence of sexism within STEM fields (thanks. in large part to sites like geek feminism) and more people working actively to improve the situation.

    Nowadays most reports of overt sexism are decried by both genders (they used to be mostly ignored). A fair number of outreach programs have been started by assorted organizations. And there are now communities and comunication channels that didn’t exist a few years ago.

    Mind you, there does seem to be a regression in the wider culture which may embolden any backlash against our progress. But I hold out hope, because we own our own futures.

    1. Julia

      What programs? I found it rather impossible to find programs addressing sexism, but lots “women learn to code” and “women professionals network”, and Human Rights activism addressing contraception.

  20. Mary Post author

    Note: I am completely aware that this is personal experience. I apologise for any unintentional universalising!

    I have generally found academic CS to be far less overtly sexist than free and open source software. Partly I think this is due to it not seeming to be as all-consuming a culture. I realise it can be in sheer hours, but in my personal experience CS academics don’t rely on the CS community to share opinions on how to conduct relationships, or how women’s brains do or don’t work, and there isn’t porn in the slides.

    On the other hand “less sexist than FOSS” is a pretty low bar to jump.

    This may also be related to my choice of subfield: computational lingustics (and I believe AI in general) has a lot more women in it, including as leading researchers. That’s relative though, as a sample take the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients, of whom only two of ten (Karen Spärck Jones and Eva Hajičová) are women. There are lots of other leading women I can name off the top of my head in CL (Marilyn Walker, Julia Hirschberg, Marti Hearst, Jan Wiebe, Bonnie Webber…) and very prominent early- and mid-career women (Regina Barzilay, Mirella Lapata, Rada Mihalcea…)

    Once you get into that, it becomes a “girl stuff” problem: that is, a subfield where the number of women is higher is likely to be perceived as less intellectually serious, and some women will feel pressure to be a trailblazer in a lower ratio subfield.

    But it might be worth asking around about women’s experiences in different parts of academic CS.

    1. Mary Post author

      And it’s probably worth noting that I am presently inclined to not continue in an academic CS career, but sexism wasn’t part of the decision process.

    2. Tim Chevalier

      In programming languages, I always thought people were pretty free of overt sexism (with occasional glaring exceptions)… up until I got kicked outta grad school for opposing it. I feel like not having porn on slides is one level of “not sexist” (a low bar, I agree), but then there’s the level of “actually willing to stand up for the oppressed person when a conflict arises between a cis het white man and somebody else”, and that’s where I encountered disappointment. And unfortunately, you don’t know whether your colleagues are cowards or not until you need them to stand up for what’s right, at which point it’s usually too late to back out gracefully.

    3. Lindsey Kuper

      I have generally found academic CS to be far less overtly sexist than free and open source software. Partly I think this is due to it not seeming to be as all-consuming a culture. I realise it can be in sheer hours, but in my personal experience CS academics don’t rely on the CS community to share opinions on how to conduct relationships, or how women’s brains do or don’t work, and there isn’t porn in the slides.

      This agrees with my experience. On the other hand, the overt sexism in FOSS is at least out in the open where one can see it, and condemn it. Sexism in academia can be harder to pin down. You’re never going to see a “perform like a pr0n star” talk, or an event that lists “women” under “perks”. But you’ll see a lot of more subtle stuff, as the Female Science Professor blog has done a pretty good job of recounting over the last several years. And as Tim says, there are people in academia who just won’t confront sexism that’s happening right in front of them. (This is true in FOSS, too, but it might even be more acceptable in academia for people to just keep their heads down and keep working in those situations.)

      1. Tim Chevalier

        (This is true in FOSS, too, but it might even be more acceptable in academia for people to just keep their heads down and keep working in those situations.)

        Based on my experience, I agree. There is much more of a culture of closedness and silence in academia, and frankly, academia is hierarchal and authoritarian, neither quality lending itself well to criticism of the top from the bottom. It’s sort of a self-maintaining silence, because you’re not supposed to school your teachers.

        Whatever might be said of FOSS culture, I think its openness and (at least aspirational) democratic-ness makes it easier to talk about oppression when it’s happening, even if the talk sometimes seems to be endless and unproductive.

  21. RG

    1) Nope. I find people get friendlier as I get older, but the core issues still remain.

    2) I deal with it by being exceptional. I deal with it by always being at the top of my game. I deal with it by leaving absolutely no doubt that I belong in the room.

    I deal with it by being active, and not complaining. I changed the way I thought. Instead of thinking “there aren’t any women in the room”, I started thinking “I am in the room”. I stopped worrying that there weren’t any women presenting at the conference and started presenting.

    I deal with it by being kind to everyone, especially people who are unkind to me. It makes a big difference, letting go of your anger. Any you know what, a lot of people, when they someone being sexist to you, and you say something nice to them in return, they start to stand up for you.

    I won’t pretend I don’t have bad days, where I want to give up, but when I do, I try to go through what I’ve started to think of as my “work values”. I do my best. I do things. I treat everyone, without exception, the way I want to be treated.

    3) Never left.

    4) Because I love it, and it’s worth it to me to do what I love. And the big pile of money I make doesn’t hurt either.

    More seriously, it’s something I think of from time to time, but when I start to practically think about the alternatives, I realize I’m happier doing what I’m doing than I’d be doing anything else.

    Also, I’ll admit that it’s somewhat become part of my identity. I’ve been the only woman in a group of men for so long, I don’t know who else I could be. If I wasn’t the girl who ‘looks normal’ but has strange, consuming technical hobbies as soon as you talk to her, who would I be? How would people see me.

    So there’s my answer. Maybe in the end you don’t learn to deal. Maybe it slowly bends your personality until it fits into a hole it wasn’t supposed to fit in. And then it just seems right.

  22. Restructure!

    1) If you mean whether it gets better after graduation (not continuing on to CS graduate studies), then from my experience, it got worse. It might be because when I was in school, I avoided interacting with other people, but at work, I was forced to interact. However, now it is better, because I am in a different company.

    2) The Geek Feminism community helps a lot. I also allowed myself to be more assertive and unapologetic, and talk back (versus holding my tongue). However, right now I am a bit burnt out…

    3) I actually left and went back. I switched to another geeky field, but I found that while it wasn’t so sexist, it was much more racist. As a woman of colour, I had to pick my poison. Since there seemed to be no way of escaping the *isms grinding me down, and I prefer programming to the other thing, I decided to go back.

    4) Actually, I experience more mansplaining under the assumption that I am less knowledgeable because I am female. I stay, because I have to eat and I have very few other skills that could allow me to generate income. I stay, because I can more easily avoid people on a given day if they are being douchey. Of course, I also enjoy this much more than the other thing I tried, and I am much better at this.

  23. Itamar

    My wife went to grad school at Brown; in general she felt it was a pretty good environment for women. To be fair she was in same subfield as Mary (and the one NAACL I went to was probably the CS conference with the highest percentage of women I’ve ever seen) but there were also women doing e.g. crypto. She’s working in industry now and doesn’t feel sexism has been much of a problem for her in her current job as a software engineer. Which is not to say sexism (or racism) is not an issue there, but the really bad stories I’ve heard were actually outside the direct software engineering group.

    In some places, for some people, it is better.

  24. Lin Clark

    The right community can change this.

    I stayed away from an undergraduate degree in CS partially because of this phenomenon. I wrote about it recently, the reason I got involved in hardcore FOSS geekdom years after college was that I found the right community.
    While it isn’t perfect, I’ve found that there is a strong culture in Drupal of active inclusivity, and it has paid off in terms of female involvement. Two of the 4 core committers are women and estimates show that the DrupalCon audience is about 20% women.
    If you are a student in CS and you’re interested in getting involved in Drupal, a great way to do it is the GSOC program. You get paired with a mentor who helps introduce you to the code base and the community. I will be mentoring a woman this year (if the project is accepted, fingers crossed).
    Unfortunately, the deadline for this year just passed, but if you’re a woman who wants to apply next year and need to find a mentor, send me a note via the form on my site or my Drupal.org profile. If I’m not the right person to mentor your project, I’ll try to hook you up with someone who is.

  25. jlstrecker

    What a lot of commenters have been saying — and this has been my experience, too — is that if you’re lucky enough to find a safe place (a feminist school or workplace) then it gets better.

    A few things you can do to improve your luck — Go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (scholarships open until May 15), meet people and find out about their jobs. Find good mentors, maybe through MentorNet. Get as much work experience as you can (internships, consulting, research projects) while still in school. Get experience with another field besides computer science (linguistics, biology, whatever) so you have the option of working amongst non-CS people. The more people you meet and collaborate with, and the more flexible you can be about where you work, the better chance you have of finding safe places.

    I should point out that you can do all of those things and there’s no guarantee it will get better — there really is an element of luck, and privilege too. I’m sorry you’ve had such a lousy experience so far. Whatever you decide to do next, whether CS or not, I hope it gets better for you.

  26. Dorothea

    More anecdata here… Sometimes it gets better, but not for you.

    I left a tech community some years back over sexist (sometimes borderline-misogynist) practices. My departure, and my public and private explanations for same, caused enough internal questioning in that community that it made a conscious decision to try to clean up its issues. I honor them for that, and believe they’ve done a remarkable job of it.

    Are things perfect there now? No. I saw an issue crop up over Twitter just the other day, but to the group’s credit, it’s being handled seriously, sensitively, and without mansplaining or defensiveness. This would NEVER have happened at the time I left.

    I’m comfortable enough with this group’s practices now that I refer colleagues and protegees to it without significant concern. Will I myself go back? No, and the group wouldn’t want me to, given the drama my departure caused.

    The relationship between this history and my departure from my profession’s tech arm is… complicated. It’s definitely not the group’s fault that I’m no longer a library technologist! Lots of other things played into that, a decidedly sexist “tech isn’t for girls” workplace particularly. But the history does play into me preferring library-school teaching (where I’m at least a role model for up-and-coming female library technologists) to trying to get back into library-tech per se.

  27. Julia

    1. It depends on the environment. Some places might have a policy of zero tolerance to sexism.

    But in general, I do find it getting worse, both with moving from Jr to Sr roles, and for the past 2-3 years. I graduated in 2005, my school didn’t have any hint of sexism, and my first jobs either, without a single “recruit women” action. I first time experienced sexism in 2008 (with new hires), and in 2012 it seems to become blatant. It’s true that it’s an employees market, but employers have to make the SEXISTS happy. Less companies care about explicit anti-harassment policies, and more about “team fit” (i.e. boys like). I look at many new teams, and they are so homogeneously white male, no bother to apply.

    2. I’m somebody who stands for myself and the others. But I find it impossible to deal with “silent sexism”, when somebody ignores you or talks behind your back.

    3. I’m not sure if I’m staying.

    4. I never experienced being called weird or feminist. I was an A+ student in uni and graduated top of the CS class, and it would be challenging to call me incompetent. My experience is more with jealousy, backstabbing, ignoring and pushing me out.

    BTW, you may find that the boys club is not necessarily defined by gender. Probably, the most working recipe is to merge into it, and stop talking about sexism. If you’re outgoing (not like me) or easy to blend, it would help a lot. I was very unlucky that many of my friendly acquaintances got scattered around or left the industry.

  28. Julia

    (geek misogyny demystified)

    Typical male geeks argue that to be a geek is to be masculine by interpreting the scientific, mathematical, and technological achievements of overwhelmingly male persons as definitive proof that science, math, and technology are inherently male and define maleness. Such male geeks typically argue that there are innate differences between male and female brains that make success in science, math, and technology exclusive to men. Thus, arguments and studies that suggest otherwise are perceived as a direct attack on the masculinity and male identity of male geeks. According this male geek worldview, if women are equally capable in science, math, and technology, then male geeks lose their claim on masculinity and become low-status, beta, and “effeminate” males once again, because there would be nothing left to separate male geeks from women. Thus, male geeks—much more than non-geek men—tend to be emotionally and socially invested in maintaining the idea women’s brains are hardwired against understanding science, math, and technology to the same extent as men.

  29. S

    1) It sort of got better? After the first few years of undergrad, the people who were still there in the program (high major-change rate) were still serious about being there, so most of the casual sexism went away or at least went unexpressed (also, I think, a function of young men getting used to having women in their formerly bro-club tech space). Contrast: in freshman year I was treated to sexist jokes while helping two classmates prepare for a test, and accusations of favoritism for my and my women classmates’ good grades; in senior year, I was volunteered and supported as a team leader.

    It’s better, in some ways, in grad but I think that’s because my program is interdisciplinary, with more women and broader sets of experiences (fewer stereotypical CS nerds). On the one hand, someone actually asked me “Wait, what *is* it like to be a woman in CS?” which I thought showed a real curiosity and compassion. Too, the more I learn on the grad side of the fence, the more women’s names keep popping up attached to important contributions that I had already heard about! Where were these mentions before? On the other hand, a professor used stereotype threat (not intentionally, but I think he’s never considered how posing a brain teaser, and then noting that women tend to do less well on such problems, might affect the women in his class) on the very first day of this semester.

    2) I’ve tried to “talk back” when my peers are sexist (feel like I can’t do this, at all, with my professors), trying to engage them in discussion about the bases of the stereotypes or assumptions they’re employing, but that’s very hard and not for everybody. It works for me only because it’s an active thing I can do, against the continued sidelining and marginalization that sexism “feels like” in both the classroom and my personal history. Otherwise, parsing both the sexism and my reaction to it is still a burden that I have to undergo mostly alone because I don’t have much of a support system — but I’m working on that.

    3) I have/haven’t left. I moved into an interdisciplinary program, and still have interaction with CS. I moved because of my interests, but I still feel relieved that I’m not “wholly CS” now. Part of this relief is a reaction to my experiences with the CS program at my school which did not, I feel, adequately support students from non-default backgrounds after expending so much effort and rhetoric to recruit them. I can definitely see myself leaving if things get worse or no better, but I don’t yet know where I’d go and that is a scary thing to contemplate.

    4) Thankfully, my love for what I am doing still outweighs the sexism I experience(d). I feel this might change if/when I leave graduate school and begin to participate in the “real world”, whether it is in academia or industry. I’ve heard a lot about how women faculty/employees are slighted, and I’ll do what I can to avoid/stop that. However, I don’t escape the non-CS sexism (and the other -isms, blech) no matter what I do, so the CS-sexism sometimes just fits into the background.

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