Women in Tech: It’s Complicated

Header image: “The Hacker Fight” by Arne Halvorsen. CC BY-NC. I am a woman in tech. At least I might be one. Maybe.

I don’t have a technical degree. I don’t work in IT or at a company on the bleeding edge of technology. The code I write isn’t written in Python or Ruby, but rather Excel and VBA and SQL.

Even though women helped to build the computer industry, by the time I went to college in 1992, it wasn’t a viable option for me.

Recently, a friend shared this article with me and my jaw dropped when I looked at the graphs and the dates of the decline of the number of women in computer science.

Now, despite the fact that most of my work does involve writing some sort of code to manipulate and display or transform information, I usually don’t feel like I’m a “woman in tech.”

It’s been made clear to me in the way the outreach is worded and by the audience, that since I “don’t code,” I don’t count.

Seriously? If you could see the hot mess of a database I have to work with you’d be amazed that I get anything coherent out of it. Instead, using the tech I know well, I generate data that helps my company make the right investment decisions at the right time.

Writing Excel formulas that check multiple conditions and return a variety of results depending on the questions being asked is coding. So is writing a SQL query. Ditto writing a sequence of VBA macros to automate a bunch of steps not only to save time but also because if you write a technical document that explains how to do it manually, no one will actually read it and the task won’t get done while you’re on vacation.

I also lived through an SAP implementation. I helped improve the implementation.

None of this is sexy and none of it’s going to change the world. But it does keep my small part of the company working and functional.

Which brings me to women in tech — who are (or seem to be) primarily people who do code for a living.

A lot of the rhetoric I read online seems to imply that women who have a background or career like mine are a part of their past, not their present or future. I wonder why that is. I wonder if it’s because many of us don’t have technical degrees or if it’s because we’re too old or if it’s because so many people simply don’t see the work we do as being particularly worthwhile. Even though we’re out there solving problems with limited resources and constraints. It takes a lot of creativity, flexibility, and a willingness to make mistakes to be successful under those conditions.

There’s a lot of knowledge and wisdom in the ranks of the data wranglers, in the admins who learned how to do their work on computers because their managers wouldn’t, and in the English majors who work side by side with engineers making sure that not just apps get built but also actual, tangible items that help to make our lives better.

A lot of the focus seems to be on high tech companies and on women at the beginning of their careers. The problem with that is this: by only concentrating on the beginning of women’s careers, you’re not doing anything to mitigate the reasons why they move out of code-focused careers or to help women who are interested in moving into those careers.

Very often I feel like I’m on the outside looking in–so many of these organizations’ concerns are also mine, so many of their workplace conflicts are shaped similarly to those I’ve faced–but I simply do not feel welcome.

So I’m setting myself a personal goal: try to be more engaged with discussions about “women in tech” and make it clear that I do, in fact, belong. That my years of knowledge and experience are valuable and that I can make real and lasting contributions.

P.S. People who talk smack about Excel are invariably the people who can’t use it.

5 responses to Women in Tech: It’s Complicated

  1. Fran Wilde says:

    I hereby resolve only to talk smack about Delaware. Not Excel.

    Thank you for this essay, Natalie. I think at one point I might have been one of the code snobs you talk about here. I’m glad I’m not anymore.


  2. Dichroic says:

    Why limit it to coders? Was I less a woman in tech when I created hardware for the space program than when I switched to software? Or now when I help a bunch of architects and engineers to design high-tech fabs more effectively and efficiently? I guess I tend to assume “tech” = STEM work – do you use the term differently?


  3. Natalie says:

    I didn’t intend to limit it to coders–but most of the online outreach I see is aimed at that segment of the population. It feels narrow and limiting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. piotr1600 says:

    A very hearty “ABSOLUTELY!” to that last line.


  5. Dana Cass says:

    I see a few complicated problems at play here. The structure of the hierarchy puts coders at the top, followed by “less” technical people like you (I use that term lightly. Listen, I took an intro to Excel class two days ago and it was pretty far out from what my English major brain likes to touch), then sales and marketing folks like me, then operations and administration. Women tend to be concentrated more heavily toward the bottom of this pyramid. So if as women in tech we reinforce the hierarchy by focusing on coders as the target of our efforts, we imply that women in other positions–but who still work in the tech industry and are still subject to harassment, disenfranchisement, etc etc–are somehow less worthy of our efforts.

    Not really sure if I’m expressing myself coherently. But I wonder what damage we do to our cause by putting less weight on the experiences of women who work in the industry in positions that don’t involve coding. I certainly suffer the ill effects of being female in a male-dominated workplace (in spite of, or perhaps exacerbated by, my English degree!).

    Anyway, thanks for surfacing this. It’s thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

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