The perpetual exhaustion of women in tech

The worst thing to experience as a woman in tech is not failure, I’ve realized, but success met with surprised congratulation. Maybe this is a solid showing in a technical interview in which I’m repeatedly commended on my impressive performance—you actually did really well! Or perhaps it happens when I’m discussing future plans with a random adult—interesting, good for you! Sometimes it’s when I’m confused for a fellow student during my own office hours—oh, you’re the TA. It feels icky to be reminded that 1) I am doing something I’m not supposed to be, 2) I am succeeding at it and 3) the combination of 1 and 2 is surprising. 

Conversely, doing anything less than well in a CS class or an interview doesn’t feel as bad because all I’m doing is living up to society’s low expectations for women in technology. The only person I’m disappointing is myself. And how can I help it? Women are naturally more adept at the humanities and social sciences—or so we’re implicitly told, even if the overarching narrative of today is inclusivity. 

While my male classmates come in with the expectation that they will succeed and have a natural aptitude for coding, I have to work incredibly hard to just get to the mean. I started coding in high school, certainly earlier than many, but late enough that I knew it would be impossible to catch up to many of my male peers who were socialized to think that programming was a natural career option. Credibility must be earned by every woman in the field, while men come in having, at least, the benefit of the doubt to begin with; heck, even I sometimes find myself having that same loathsome surprise when I see other women succeeding at computer science.

Despite this, I’ve now reached a level of credibility in the tech space, which I’ve earned because I’m a head teaching assistant for a tricky computer science course. I know it helps because I’m treated differently than before by people who know. However, the scales have now tipped the other way. I’m now the one who is magically supposed to know everything related to computer science; the one for whom everything career-wise should easily come together. Rather than feeling the need to prove my competence to receive respect, I must live up to the lofty expectations of such a title, and the pressure to appear capable never stops growing. I can’t win.

It’s funny, the more accomplished I’ve become in the tech field, the more sexism I’ve faced, rather than the other way around. No one wants to see a strong woman succeed, but it’s perfectly fine to watch an inexperienced one fail. In high school, no one batted an eye at my wish to go into engineering in college, but it seems like now, even some of my closest friends will make disparaging comments about the currency of gender in the industry—it’s so much easier for you because you’re a woman. However, pushing back on these microaggressions isn’t really seen as okay. We’re just supposed to laugh it off and joke about the extra resources affirmative action has provided us with—which in turn only reinforces the idea that it’s okay for men to make light of these issues. It shouldn’t feel played out to say things aren’t great for women in technology. The normalization of an issue itself doesn’t solve any problems. 

These things certainly aren’t limited to the corporate sphere. I’ve never had a female CS professor, and I could very well graduate without ever having one. The more advanced courses I take, the worse the student gender ratios get. We do have great resources at Duke for women in tech, such as DTech. Still, the very existence of such organizations—and of affirmative action hiring procedures at various tech companies—creates the wrongful illusion that the work has been done to level the playing field, and we can stop complaining about it. While great strides have been made to rectify inequities in tech, the implicit attitudes of people in the field—arguably the key reason for continued sexism—cannot be changed by policies and programs alone.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like a competition amongst ourselves rather than a concerted effort to make things better for everyone. If I’m thinking like this, I’m sure these subconscious feelings aren’t unique to me. Earlier this semester, I attended the virtual Grace Hopper Conference, which attempts to create a welcoming community of women and non-binary technologists. Instead, it just felt like a subset of the broader technical recruiting sphere. While the pool was all women, there was a latent theme of individualism—every woman for herself. Many companies held conference-specific events and sent special application links for attendees; we were competing against each other for limited spots in interviews and recruiter chats and for job opportunities.

Many of my male CS friends have made some type of comment to the effect of it being “so much easier” for me to get a job because I’m naturally better at communication or because I have access to the resources of DTech or because I’m a Grace Hopper Scholar (which all boil down to my gender). I’ll say this: it’s not easier for me. If I’m more successful than my male counterparts, it’s not just the results of affirmative action, it’s because I had to put in double the work to compensate for starting from behind while facing constant scrutiny.

I’m pushing back on the narrative that gender inequality, especially in technology, has ceased to become a problem—because it hasn’t—especially in the liberal places that like to pretend differently. I’m not alone; the number of women in technology roles hovers around a fourth and has even been decreasing. We shouldn’t gloss over the issue of equity in the technology field when current actions clearly aren’t doing enough to fix things. Saying that things are easy now for women in tech only makes things harder by pretending that we fixed the problem by simply identifying it. The real work comes in changing our ingrained, societal expectations for women, and it doesn’t seem like the tech field is prepared to reckon with that idea yet.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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