Hey there prospective computer science student. I’m assuming you’re excited to get started. I have just completed my fourth year as a computer science student and I believe I’m well suited to give you advice about the journey you are soon to begin.
I’ll start with this: there are no average female developers. That’s a weird thing to say, but it encapsulates my experience as a woman in tech. You are either the best of the best or you’re not seen as worthy of being in the field. For the past few years it has been easy for me to feel like I am not allowed to make a mistake, lest I be called unfit for a position in a field I worked so hard to get into. In contrast to my experience as a developer, I am also a designer but the standards for designers are not the same for women developers. There can be average designers. I can create stunning visual images with ease, but minor mistakes never made others question my skill set as a whole. It’s almost as if the people I was interacting with, my peers at school, new individuals I met, and people I was working with professionally had expectations that I would be a designer. It made sense that as a woman, I would be working in some sort of art field. I lost self worth and sense of accomplishment, I felt as if I was a fraud trying to convince people I wasn’t.
I didn’t always feel this way about being a woman in tech. My slow descent into the black hole that is imposter syndrome started on a pretty happy note.
Step 1: Actually enjoy the field
I started my journey into the tech world at the age of 10. The online game called Neopets let me dip my toes in the field and gave me a chance to explore the field in a fun and challenging way. I got my first copy of Adobe Photoshop and got to work making layouts using the HTML/CSS guidelines on the Neopets website. I knew web development was fun for me because even after my interest in Neopets died down, I would keep making websites and fan sites for other things I enjoyed.
Step 2: Have your childhood geared to a career in literally anything else
Web development was a hobby for me in childhood, but it wasn’t a career path. I used to build little sites throughout high school just for fun but I never thought it could be a career option. That’s not to say I didn’t know there were computer scientists, I didn’t even know that what I was doing counted as software development. My knowledge about the breadth of career options was limited by my parents. They wanted me to be a doctor. My whole childhood was built around me eventually becoming a doctor. My dad came to canada in the hopes of getting me into the University of Toronto so I could study medicine and because I was totally clueless, I decided to follow their direction and took biology, physics, chemistry and calculus in high school. The thought of any other potential career was foreign to me and completely forbidden to discuss with my parents. I just accepted my fate, took the biology courses and kept web development as a hobby.
This cluelessness followed me into university because I applied for only life science majors in various universities, thinking I was going to love it.
Boy, was I wrong.
I hated my first year, I wasn’t doing well and I disliked a majority of what I was learning. It was boring. Luckily, I met someone who was studying in computer science and I’d sit in some of his classes and I loved it. It was then did I realize that this was where I truly wanted to be, so I made the switch.
Step 3: Have peers and “supportive” communities put you down
Things started changing for the worse. In my transition between second and third year when I started having to rely on partners for projects. That was when I truly had to depend on my peers and for the first time, I was put into the ‘women are bad at tech’ category. I’d heard that everyone has some horrible experience with at least one group project and this for me was no exception. My posts asking for a partner on class discussion groups like Piazza would almost never got replies ,and when I did end up with a partner, they weren't exactly kind. I had to resort to asking random people in class to be my partner. I would pitch ideas and be met with variations of “No, your idea does not work”. Even trying to explain what my thinking process is would be met with endless streams of “No, that is not the answer, we are not doing that.” Then, after all of inter-team discussion, I’d still end up doing most of the work.
Even outside of pure academics, there were toxic communities within University itself. The Computer Science Student Union, claimed their mission was to make it a safe and equal place, but actually did the opposite. Walking into the room was almost suffocating. While words flowed from opinionated mouths, I found no place for myself. At one point, I walked in on two guys talking about why there weren’t a lot of women in tech. I sat there baffled, listening to them spout how it’s because woman just don’t want to because they’d rather go into women dominated field like nursing. I wanted to hear what they had to say about the issue since they were expressing their opinions so boldly. I finally built the courage to ask “Have you asked an actual woman why there aren’t women in tech?” They sat in stunned silence. The thought to ask a woman about a topic pertaining to women had not even crossed their minds.
Step 4: Feel so bad about yourself that you want to want to escape the situation entirely
This experience completely ruined my self esteem. No longer was I the 10 year old who enjoyed drawing things on Photoshop and making websites. Suddenly, my self worth became tied to my ability to do computer science tasks. I felt like I was no longer allowed to be wrong in fear that someone would see me as incapable. For most of those years, I suffered through imposter syndrome even though I was constantly given proof that I was thriving. It made me feel even more intimidated by men in tech, especially those who knew what they were doing. Making a mistake in front of them seemed like the end of the world because I’d be seen as an imposter, undeserving of the position. I still struggle with seeing myself as someone who has worked hard and it is something I am trying to actively work on because I know I am capable. I am trying to separate my skill set from my worth as a person and see that mistakes don’t make me totally incapable, even though it is what I’ve been led to believe for a large part of my adult life.
I feel that I lost that excitement after taking my first computer science class. Instead, I just wanted school to be over, I wanted to escape the confines of people’s views of me. Part of me was just trying to graduate just so I could do something else and learn in a different environment. There had to be some sort of change.
Step 5: Getting out of there and moving up and on
I knew my escape was somewhere outside of university, somewhere that people were open and saw skills as being outside of the person.
Part of this change came from joining ParseHub. I accepted a position at ParseHub after listening to the leaders of the company talking about their views. I read a handbook before I even interviewed that made me feel better about what I was getting into. Despite that, I still came to work very afraid that I was incapable and was instantly intimidated by the strong male presence. People knew what they were talking about and were not afraid to actually talk about it. Since my start date, I have worked with many intelligent and kind individuals who didn’t see me as less of a person for not knowing something, but rather had already separated my worth from my skill set. The ParseHub policy to ask for help if you’re stuck for more than five minutes allowed me to feel comfortable in not knowing. If I expressed that I felt incapable, I was met with rounds of “We will catch you up” or “Here is how we do what you’re confused about”. For once, I felt more like an equal. To be completely honest, I still feel very intimidated by men who know a lot but it’s something I’m striving to fix. I am always asked for my opinion on company policy and encouraged to point out any flaws in the system. Everyone has always been open minded and accepting of ideas and different views.
Perhaps my fear came from a mixture of my own experience and hearing about the experience of other women in the field (and there is a lot of it). it is a reality for many women in tech. It is so easy to feel like you don’t belong, especially when people around you don’t do anything to remedy the situation and make you feel like you really don’t belong.
My story might seem very scary and intimidating, especially for someone who is considering joining the computer science community, but the intention is not to scare prospective computer scientists off. My story’s purpose is to show that while things may seem really hard and scary and it might feel like the whole world is fighting to put you down, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the hardship I faced and continue to face, my graduation is fast approaching and I am working at an amazing company that values my opinion and teaches me when I am wrong instead of cutting me out.