Women in Tech: Keep Showing Up

Sandra Chung

Not long ago, I went to a Denver area Drupal meetup. Three dozen or so folks packed into a studio at the Open Media Foundation to talk about Drupal over pizza and drinks. When it was my turn to introduce myself to the group I announced my name, took a look around the room and blurted out “... and I’m the only woman here.”

I immediately felt weird about saying that out loud. But I’m glad I did. Why? It’s complicated.

It starts with this fact: I’m a developer. As a Technical Account Manager at Aten I also do things other than develop - I manage relationships with clients, I plan and project manage larger bodies of work, I juggle budgets and priorities and emergencies. But the heart of my job is writing software, fixing software, talking to other people about software and how it works and what it should do.

That doesn’t make me a computer scientist. But it does make me keenly aware of the fact that there aren’t many women in computer-related fields. This graph sums it up:

Source: National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

I was born not long before that red line began to plunge downward, and I was one of the many girls who turned away from computing careers in school. I loved AP Computer Science and I excelled at programming tasks in computer and math classes; but when I was around other people my age who liked computers (mostly boys), they would often drown out any other possible conversation topic with highly caffeinated and opinionated discussions about video cards and violent games. This behavior did not inspire any confidence in me that I would enjoy a career working with computers.

But a few years ago, I began to think rather seriously about bucking the trend. I’d been dabbling in web development on and off for more than a decade, and I found myself increasingly pushing my decidedly non-technical job in nonprofit communications toward more analytical and web development work. I started taking four-hour coding workshops on the weekends, and then on weeknights. After a few months of this I realized that there was no turning back: my next job had to be in web development.

Making a major career transition can be kind of like summiting a peak. You work work work, push push push to get to the top of that peak, and when you get to the top, it’s a huge thrill. Then you happen to look aaaaall the way down at the old career at the bottom of one side of the peak, and aaaaalllll the way down at the career at the bottom of the other side of the peak, and GULP. It was a long way up, and it’ll be a long way down.

Aten has been great company on that journey since I joined the staff five months ago. I felt welcome and at home here from day one, and I feel privileged to be able to learn and grow as a developer and communicator in the company of a fantastic bunch of fun, smart, talented people.

I’m painfully aware that not every woman moving into the tech industry lands as well as I did. I’ve read scores and scores of stories with titles like “Why I’m Sick to Death of Being a Woman in Tech”, “The Loneliness of the Female Coder”, “Being a Woman in Tech is Like Dying by A 1,000 Paper Cuts”, “Why women leave tech: It’s the culture, not because ‘math is hard’”. I will never know exactly how it would have been different if I were a man, but I can better appreciate what the differences might be when people like Naomi Ceder share what it’s like to have experienced it both ways.

I know that all other things being equal, my gender will affect my experience working in tech. But I can’t help but think that it’s a fascinating time to be a woman entering a software career, or a man entering a nursing career. We’re slogging through a long, lumpy cultural transition from a rigid set of gender roles to a much more flexible identity and career space. Sometimes I bump up against resistance, sometimes I get an empowering boost; most of the time I get nothing at all (which I think is about how things should be when the dust settles on the new normal).

The women and men who volunteer and participate in Girl Develop It Boulder and Women Who Code are responsible for the some of the boosts. They played a central role in my career move with a supportive community and low-cost coding workshops. I attended my first developer conference on a Girl Develop It scholarship. It was PyCon, the same event that just one year earlier was the scene of Donglegate. In addition to learning an overwhelming and exciting amount about everything from machine learning to analytics, I was also surprised and thrilled to find that a full one-third of the Pycon speakers were women. On the last day of the conference there was a Pyladies luncheon where I saw something I’ve never seen before: hundreds of awesome women who like to code, all in one place. The message was clear: We are trying to change this environment to make sure women are more comfortable here.

Women in Drupal meetup at Drupalcon Austin 2014

At PyCon I met Erynn Petersen, who’s on the board of Girl Develop It. I also managed to land a scholarship to Drupalcon in Austin this past year, this time from the Earth Sciences Information Partnership Working Group. Erynn was at Drupalcon too. She gave a keynote speech on the importance of diversity in tech

Erynn pointed out that increasing the number of women in tech fields isn’t just about recruiting more girls to learn coding; it’s about retaining the women who are already interested and/or employed in tech. That’s me. If you’re a woman and you’re thinking about a new career in tech, know that you’re not alone. You have more allies in more places than gloomy stories on tech industry sexism might make you think, and more skills that apply to this industry than you might realize. And there are many men and women who are working to make you feel welcome in this field. I’m taking my cue from them.

I’ll continue speaking up and wearing my gender comfortably on my sleeve at every event I’m at that involves developers and technologists. I hope that my presence signals to other women that they’re welcome and they’re in the right place.