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On being a female on a male dominated engineering team

A year and a half ago I was hired as the first female software engineer for what was then a team of ten male developers and two male engineering managers. When I first joined the team I wanted to "blend in" as much as possible. I planned to never bring up the fact that I was a woman, not that it wasn't obvious, but my hope was to act like one of the boys and do good work, and if no one noticed I was any different it would be a success. That all went out the door pretty quickly. I'm glad it did, and here's why.

I didn't so much as acknowledge my gender at first. I kept my head down and did my work. My company is fully remote, and shortly after I started, our CTO tasked each of us on the dev team to create a brief introduction video that other people in the company could watch to learn who we are and get to know us a little better. The video intros were shared with the rest of the company and everyone loved them. Many of the guys on my team could also be employed as comedians or musicians and they didn't hide it. But something definitely stuck out. The first e-mail we got back concluded with:-

My key learnings - Dark & Stormy, Topo Chico, and we now have a FEMALE WM Software Engineer!

Everyone was really excited about it, except for me. As positive as the feeedback was from everyone outside engineering about a woman joining the dev team, that didn't change my mind about wanting to not make a big deal of it. I was still fearful of being seen differently and others doubting my ability in the day-to-day work because I was a girl.

It wasn't until my leadership brought it up that I started to embrace my role. My managers are supportive of me, and they tell me that, and it's great. They encourage me to apply to speak at conferences, even going as far as to say they'd campaign for the whole team to attend any conference where I am accepted to speak. This may seem like special treatment or in some ways unfair. "Reverse sexism" some might call it. I don't see it that way. This industry treats women differently, so my managers treat me differently in the exact opposite way the industry does. Tech conferences have far fewer female speakers than male speakers, and that can be intimidating and discouraging for female software engineers. That was very true for me, but their encouragement counteracted my fear. I'm not sure I would have ever applied or put myself out there if it weren't for them.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about how a woman is perceived as bossy or bitchy more so than a man who says the same thing. To avoid this misconstrual women have to be more apologetic and passive. I often need remind myself to be LESS apologetic and to speak my mind. At my company, we remote pair program 100% of the time. Meaning I spend ~7 hours a day on a hangout or skype call with the same person for weeks at a time, while we work on the same code. It is my favorite thing about my job, but it's a lot. Every developer on my team has their own unique approach to the code, a different background and level of experience. Inevitably, there will be differences of opinion regarding the work, and debates, arguments, tiffs, whatever you'd like to call them, happen. One of my coworkers compares it to going from being friends to roommates. What I've learned is that just because I am a woman does not mean I'm going to fight with another developer about the code any more than my male counterparts. I've witnessed many senior male engineers in code arguments more tense and long-lasting than any I've been in. If I'm being assertive and confident while pairing and we go back and forth about an implementation, I will of course follow good pairing protocol, but I'm not going to apologize for it. That didn't come inherently, and I have to actively work on it.

A little over a year into the job I was chosen to be the engineering lead on a project. This entails writing the code (with one or more fellow developers), making decisions about it, being the point person for questions about it and attending meetings. Immediately I was excited about the responsibiltiy and proud that my work had led others to trust my technical and soft skills. My second thought was, did they choose me because I'm a woman? Do they, because I'm a girl, assume I'm super organized and just bossy enough that I'd be a good leader? After a few days of going through just about every explanation I could think of in my head, I simply asked my VP about it during our regular 1:1. He was honest with me and told me those ideas never crossed his mind, and that I was chosen for other reasons concerning technical ability and business context. I was then honest with him; I was happy to take this work on, but my desire was to stay technical and I didn't want to be pushed into management and away from code. He explained that this is a choice all software developers need to make at some point in their careers. I couldn't agree more. As we gain more experience, we need to decide if we want to pursue a technical, architectural role, a managerial role, or remain as a software engineer and continue to purely write code. I am given that choice the same way that any of my teammates are, and right now I'm glad for the opportunity to experience all three options for a short while. Just because I am a woman does not mean I have to manage, if I don't want to. And for what it's worth, I still write code all day long every day.

At the beginning of this year, our team had more than doubled and we finally hired our second female software engineer. She and I have discussed in depth our own experiences as women on the team, and we feel very similarly about the struggle to adopt a confident voice. It has been hard to find a balance between our assertiveness and the empathetic, sensitivity we possess as many women do by nature. I want to be taken as seriously as my male counterparts, so I do speak up in meetings. If some see that as a symptom of my gender, I can't help it. All I can do is stand firm in my opinions and back up my words with my work, but I shouldn't hold back because I'm a girl. Conversely, I've found myself less confident to push back in smaller interactions with stakeholders, like Product Managers, because I am empathetic to their position, noticably more so in my opinion than the guys. I have worked late at night to finish a feature to make a deadline, because to me that seems like a promise, which I would never want to break in my personal life, and that has carried over into my work. I'm cognizant of these differences, and I try to be thoughtful in my actions in relation to them, but most of it I wouldn't change. To expect men and women to behave the same all the time is unrealistic.

A lot of the points I've mentioned are things that we as women face daily, not just working in tech. They are exacerbated when the ratio of males to females is high because its only natural to compare ourselves to the majority and question our differences. I speak to my coworkers as my equals, because they are. I don't demand or expect special treatment. What I expect is to be held to the same standards as the men. I don't downplay my gender difference or emphasize them, I just be myself and work hard, and that works for me. And for those who think like I did eighteen months ago, it is a big deal to be a female engineer, especially on a male dominated team. Not just for you, but for your team. It's ok to be excited about it. It's not ok to change how you are because of your preconceptions of how others see you. For every person hired on the team, there might be 10 or more other people that weren't chosen, and they were probably 10 dudes. You worked hard to get here, overcoming obstacles that most developers haven't faced. Surround yourself with people that support you, avoid people that don't. I feel my experience has been positive and encouraging, and I think the positive experiences of female engineers deserve to be shared as much as the negative ones. It's definitely a step in the right direction, but not the last stop.

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