I remember when the story about the engineer from Uber first came out and all of the emotions I felt at that time. I was happy and proud of that woman for having the courage to speak out about her experiences. At the same time, I was terrified. Could I handle the tech world if this is what women in the field faced? It was one of the first times I felt fear to enter the workforce out of fear of harassment. I had always known that technology and other STEM fields were ones dominated by men, and I had always felt that I was prepared to handle this because I knew I could prove myself if I needed to. But how to deal with harassment was not something I studied in my engineering courses.
If you claim that a lack of diversity is not a problem in the technology industry, then I hope that you never have to experience what other women and minorities have had to go through in this field. This opinion is part of the problem. Some of the stories I read were shocking, like Susan Fowler’s story from her Uber experience, and others were not as surprising, like Bethanye Blount’s story of trying to give an interview. The ones that were not as shocking were still difficult to hear. The reason they were not as shocking is because it was the type of indirect sexism that even I am used to by now.
When I think about subtle sexism, I think back to my intro to engineering course. I was a sophomore at Saint Mary’s at this time (for our engineering program we start taking classes at Notre Dame our sophomore year). And even though I had only been at our all girls’ school for a year, I had become so used to working with only women. During our monthly Saint Mary’s SWE meeting, the juniors in the program warned us that we might experience some “arrogance” from some of the incoming freshman boys. Then, during our second project of the class, I was in a group with three boys and a girl, all from Notre Dame. And overall, the project went very well and I have no complaints about my group members. There was one day though, where we were figuring out some heavy math figures. And me, being the sophomore math major who was currently in physics and had just learned all of the equations we were using, figured I could help with this task. I struggled to get past two of the boys going back and forth arguing about two sets of equally incorrect figures. Eventually I just sat back, quietly did all of the calculations myself, and waited for my chance to say, “oh hey are these the numbers you were trying to get?” And suddenly it was like my invisibility cloak had been lifted.
Indirect sexism is the hardest thing to combat in our field. While more severe forms of sexism like sexual harassment are definitely a very real issue, sometimes the more subtle forms of sexism are more dangerous because of their less obvious nature. I’m sure the boys I was working with were not trying to make me feel like my opinion did not matter, but their intent is not the issue. People need to be more aware of the affect their actions have on other people. It is true that people have biases. The only way we can begin to close that gender gap and work towards a more inclusive environment is by learning to recognize when we are feeling those biases, and then choosing to ignore them.