BRB, Being a Woman in Tech

Ever So Scrumptious has been a little thin on entries this year partly because I’ve been busy being a Woman In Tech â„¢. With the many dialogues about Women In Tech lately,  and because today is Ada Lovelace Day, when we honor and share stories about women in STEM, here’s my experience.

I consider myself a Woman in Tech who focuses on documentation, communication, design, and usability. Like many Women In Tech, it’s a second career for me, and I made the transition with a master’s degree in Scientific and Technical Communication at an engineering-focused school. (In New Zealand, I see people transitioning into tech comms with this diploma, and into programming with intensive Dev Academies like this one.)

A high percentage of web administrators, STEM marketers, and technical writers are women. Is this an interstitial way to be a woman in tech? Yes. Am I “not as technical” as a programmer? Yes. Does it mean that I am one of 4 women out of 100 technical employees at my workplace? Yes. If you aspire to be a Woman in Tech, those of us in interstitial roles have been dealing with tech office politics and sexism for you, often years in advance, and smoothing your way.

The personal qualities that have helped me in tech are: being resilient and persistent, being totally transparent with employers and clients, being personally on the geek continuum*, and making time for a second shift of self-education. People in Tech have a second shift of staying informed, via self-driven learning, going to talks and conferences, and participating in professional groups. My American accent has also helped in workplaces where the programmers come from around the world. I’ve been told, “You sound like the TV and we can understand your English!”

For me, working in tech is fulfilling because I love intellectually engaging work that makes a difference. Often, I’m providing training, and trainers know that empowering reluctant tech users can be the hardest part. Male reluctant users are more stubborn than female ones. A freelance client who never really gets a grip on their web site/social media and comes back to me for changes is more profitable, but the clients I never hear from again because they GET it, and run with it – those ones give me a warm happy glow. (And referrals.)

What about the negatives? Harassment, ageism, men not wanting to work with a woman? I have encountered all of these, but in the earlier part of my tech career – later I learned to seek out employers and workplace cultures that made gender less of an issue. They are out there! A good guideline: even though I don’t have children myself, workplaces that support parents with their policies are often OK workplaces for women with their culture. This is vital: when women leave tech, it’s usually because they are fed up with the culture. I have noticed a quiet dynamic of software development teams hiring 1 – 2 women, but no more, and replacing this woman with another woman if she leaves….

Another factor about working in tech is that, to anyone not in your immediate field, more than two sentences about what you actually do will zone them out of your conversation. (Someone once actually fell asleep while I told them.) I have a few glib, nimble sentences to describe what I do, and unless my fellow conversationalist is in the field, we usually leave it at that.

Do you want to be a Woman in Tech? But not in marketing? May I suggest the following, based on your personal strengths:

  • Good at math but hate programming – Search results optimization and web site/software use analysis.
  • Great with people – Training and support.
  • Multi-lingual – Localization/translation management. This is an enormous field.
  • OK with both programming and interpersonal communication – Information architecture. Documentation. Wrangling WordPress or Drupal. 22% of websites around the world are now WordPress. And I was recently asked, “Do you know any Drupal programmers looking for work? Drupal experts? Please?”

Also note that:

  • If you have an undergraduate/graduate science degree but aren’t working in the field –particularly with physics, mathematics, and geology – tech employers will pay attention.
  • In New Zealand, about half of the interesting jobs with open-minded companies are in out-of-the-way industrial neighborhoods. The other half are in the cities where we’d all prefer to work.
  • There’s an increasing trend of women operating tech businesses with women as clients – for apps, e-commerce, and communications. I’ve just wrapped up a site for one independent business owning woman and I’m about to do another. Mind you, I do see some of these businesses peddling very girly blog designs that, perplexingly, cost 30% – 50% more than non-girly blog designs. Because, presumably, they are DESIGNED?

To bring this back around to style…As part of the Women In Tech dialogue, we are getting scrutinized in fashion magazines and style spreads. 70 Startup Women Show Us What They Wear to Work is an interesting glimpse – look at who’s there and who isn’t. This piece, How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, is one of the best guides I’ve seen.

From what I’ve seen, if you are very good at being a Woman in Tech, you enter the blessed realm where you can wear almost anything you want. I’ve seen bushels of goth jewelry, pink hair, and other forms of edgy dressing. As a mere mortal, my default Woman in Tech outfit is: a third layer/jacket, sleek comfortable trousers, booties, and business-time makeup with lipstick. Eyeglasses are important and often strategically deployed. Modest tops are essential, because if I’m not framed sitting at a desk or table, I am walking up to someone at their desk, or leaning over them at their computer. With their eyes at my chest level. I’ll fill necklines in with necklaces (jewelry is where vintage fits into my work wardrobe).

None of this is as chic as these women here, but I’m not a forward-facing staffer of a retail website or Marisa Meyer: I’m writing about programming microwave radios to send cellphone transmissions, or setting up websites. When I want to wear a skirt or dress, I will, but usually in the same colors the tech guys are wearing – blues, grays, blacks.

This is the face of a woman in tech – me! Photo courtesy of a fellow woman in tech, Sarah Wheaton.

If you too are a Woman in Tech, be it coding, STEM academia and research, or interstitial roles, I’d love to hear about your experiences and style thoughts in the comments.

* The social meaning of being a nerd/geek has changed tremendously over the past 30 years – a great piece about that here.