Survival Tips For Women In Tech

Patricia Aas, 06 September 2018

Yesterday I saw a tweet from Erin Fox @erinfoox where she asked a simple question: “Who else is the only woman on their dev team?” When I answered her that I’d been the only woman dev most of my career, she asked be if I had any survival tips, and I wrote her a list of 24 tips. Quite frankly it could easily be 50. I will list the 24 here, with a little more elaboration.

1) Don’t try to be “one of the guys” you’ll never be able to bring your full self to work.

It is so hard to be “different” in the long run, and most of us try at some point to fit in by being more like everyone else, being “one of the guys”. However, this will often make you into a person you are not, and that you probably don’t even like. It’s harder to try to hold on to yourself, but for your own mental health I recommend you try.

2) Document all your work. It’s hard to steal credit for public work.

When you are “invisible” at work, it is very easy to steal your work. When people are inclined to think you are less capable because of your gender, it is very easy for them to believe you didn’t do the work. People might ask you what you have actually done, because all your work is invisible, because it’s stolen. Protect yourself by making all your work in progress very public. Make an internal blog/wiki where you write about everything you make, do internal presentations, upstream all your patches…

3) HR is not your friend

In my experience the less HR knows you’re alive the better. Even though they are often women, they will, in my experience, never really help you. They’ll say all the right things, but you can consider yourself to be on an unofficial “troublemaker” list if you tell them anything negative. It is not uncommon that the woman is the one that is subtly made to leave after being harassed.

4) Avoid everyone who is really enthusiastic about you being a woman.

This seems like a strange one, but from experience these people are usually the most dangerous. They sneak up on you. Because they seem like “allies” in the beginning. But in the end they don’t really see you and you are often just a pawn or a prop in some other angle that they are working. Harassment is only one angle, many times they are just trying to improve some statistic and will gladly replace you with a woman than is “less trouble”. Smile and nod, don’t tell them anything and stay out of their way. Note that they can be both men and women.

5) Leave functions before your colleagues are drunk. Neither you nor them want you to know their inner thoughts

A lot of things that should have been left unsaid and undone, come out when people are intoxicated. You might say things you didn’t really want to share, and most of all you don’t want to end up having an awkward time at work because of something a drunk coworker said.

6) Try to convince yourself when you begin to doubt yourself: “It’s not me, it’s them”

Gaslighting (look it up) and self-doubt are powerful things. You might have people tell you to change, that it’s not about you being a woman, it’s about you being: less capable, less likable, less friendly, less … something that makes this all your fault. Try not to believe it.

7) On Bad Days try to lose yourself in the work, try to remind yourself why you’re in this business

You’re in this business for a reason, but on Bad Days that is hard to remember. Some days you will feel like a fool to be putting yourself through this. That’s when you have to immerse yourself in the work, put on blinders and dig into why you love the work. Because if you lose that, you’ll give up.

8) Find good people and bake them cakes just for being great people. Great people should get cake.

And “cake” here is a metaphor to a certain extent. Its about appreciation, good people can make all the difference, so show them your appreciation. Angle your job to get to work with nice people, and lift them up when you can.

9) Make lunch dates with other women in tech.

But be wary of women in your own organization, you don’t want to share anything that could be used against you later, remember point number 3 about HR. Find women in other companies in your area and just talk about work and life. Just talking with other female devs can make you feel less “strange” and hopefully you can cheer each other on.

10) If you have a great idea, call a meeting and send out your slides in advance (See Hard To Steal Public Work)

Since you are often “invisible” at work, any ideas that you present without prior written work, are very likely to be attributed to someone else, probably a man.

11) If you have a great idea, make a demo. Hard To Argue With Running Code

Don’t get caught up in people trying to “put you in your place” by talking down to you. You can’t win that one. Instead, when people roll their eyes and say that it can’t be done and you’re being silly, show them.

12) Never participate in any “team-building” activity that involves you dressing differently

There is some history to this one, but in short, team-building activities that make you feel uncomfortable, examples can be: go swimming, sauna, strip club, wear a dress, dress up party with a theme that requires you to dress in a certain way. If you can’t not go, fake an illness, stomach flu is great ;)

13) Don’t be afraid to quit. Don’t sacrifice your mental health for Bad People

No one will compensate you when you struggle for years after a bad job. Protect yourself, protect your future income, by leaving sooner rather than later. This is hard. We want to work things out, we try to focus on the good parts. The work might be great, but your mental health is important.

14) Introduce Rules for Communication, like praise in public, criticize in private

An all men team will often have a very rough tone, when you come in as the first woman I would recommend you try gently to introduce some rules for communication. Most men will appreciate this, but some will fight tooth and nail, but if you manage it will be so worth it. A lot of public shaming will fall on you more than the others, because you are an easy mark.

15) Try to make it possible to choose who does your code review

Code reviews is a power structure and all power structures can be used for oppression. You might find that you have a much harder time getting your code approved. Try to find someone that doesn’t care that you’re a woman, that only cares about the code, and have them do your reviews. Work on that becoming possible, it will be worth it.

16) Learn. Learn. Learn. Knowledge is power

You will often find people talking down to you, using words you might not know. Look everything up. You will quickly realize that oftentimes they have no idea what they are talking about.

17) Try to make the team more diverse in any direction. That changes the tone. But get more women devs, if not in the team then at least in adjacent teams. It is hard being alone.

Anything that makes the team less homogeneous will be good for you, people will stop expecting everyone to be the same, and you won’t have to deal with other types of hate speech in addition to everything else.

18) Walk out at any Locker Room Talk. It’s easier than discussing it. And they’ll get the message.

There is no use discussing it, it will be used against you. Just walk out. That will still be used against you, but at least they have none of your words to use.

19) Get a Powerful Ally and plot (literally plot) to compensate for social power being unequal when it really matters. Like having them back you up in important meetings.

Sometimes it really matters that you get your point across, and that is when you will need help. If you have found someone you trust enough to tell, then ask them to help you.

20) Don’t waste time catering to people that won’t give you the time of day.

It’s so easy to be caught up in trying to make people like you, and working your ass off to fit in. But it’s a waste of time, find the good people and work your ass off for them instead.

21) Ask awkward public questions about any inappropriate “decoration”

This is where you should pull out all your Just Asking Questions tricks. Examples of “decoration” could be literal porn. Don’t tell them how it makes you feel, that might be used against you. Just keep on asking awkward public questions about why they think this is appropriate, whether it is against policy etc.

22) Don’t become like them, you won’t like yourself anymore

It is so easy to become jaded and abrasive, please try not to. It won’t make the business any better. Try in small ways to make the instruments of oppression just a little less sharp and pointy, and when you can, protect someone else who is struggling.

23) Stay far away from non-technical work if you want to stay technical. You’re already typecast as soft-skills.

A promotion for a woman is often a demotion. It is very hard to get back your technical credibility. You’re already fighting everyday to be taken seriously, don’t risk it if you really want to be technical (whatever that means).

24) Finally, don’t let anyone convince you that this is your responsibility. These are Survival Tips. You shouldn’t have to fight to survive doing your job on the same playing field as your colleagues. These tips don’t make this Your Fault. You are great just the way you are.

This is the most important one. Because even though these tips work, you shouldn’t have to work so hard to be treated like everyone else.