I came into technology in the mid-90s. There was great demand for skilled staff, which created an advantage for me despite having no formal computer science education. As long as I was willing to do the work, there were opportunities. Computer security (as we called it back then) presented a constant game of one-upping the bad actors. It required a complex blend of technology, policy, practice, and knowledge to thwart. It was never dull, and I was happy to have a job I loved.
Even then, technology and computer security were male-dominated fields. In meetings, male technologists who spoke up were so confident in their knowledge and so forceful in arguing their points and counter-points. I’d sit timidly and listen. In retrospect, it’s hard to guess if their meeting behavior was based on their gender or personalities. Probably a little of both.
The only woman in the room
Sexism was overt. I was often called out as the only woman in the room. I learned to laugh about it. I heard all the caustic remarks about women. I mastered the quick retort, dropping expletives with aplomb. I experienced and witnessed sexual harassment. I reported it. Expectations were low regarding my comprehension of technology. I honed my technical skills, developed my professional acumen, and surpassed their expectations.
Technology became more sophisticated, demanding more workers and new skill sets. People of increasingly diverse backgrounds answered the call. My fellow technologists were generally very accepting of these new faces at the table. But sexism also morphed. It was less direct, a softer way of setting women apart, treating us differently.
Tips for successfully navigating a technology career as a woman
One of the biggest challenges for a woman in technology is taking on tasks traditionally associated with women in support roles. This is still something to which I pay close attention, but I’m not longer afraid to take on any task just because it’s a “woman’s” job. Sometimes they leverage my strengths and present opportunities to lead. For example, I’m good at taking notes. In doing so, I can focus the record of the conversation and formulate the follow-up tasks.
While this doesn’t happen as much these days, when I’m excluded from discussions about which I have clear responsibility, I ask to be included. If rebuffed, I have a few tactics up my sleeve. Often I’ll just crash the meeting. Most of the time, they’re too surprised or polite to call me out. Or I plan another meeting that re-hashes the original discussion.
I look for commonality with my male colleagues. They like sports. I like sports! They drink beer. I drink beer! Maybe they didn’t care about the shoe sale at Nordstrom’s or which Jane Austen novel is the best (“Pride & Prejudice”), but I had plenty of outside friends with whom I can discuss that.
I’ve seen women in technology dress in suits, in fancy dresses, and in jeans and sneakers. Women in technology wear makeup. Or not. I style myself the way I do because it’s comfortable and makes me feel confident. I don’t worry that it’s too casual, too professional, makes me look too attractive or makes me look unattractive. I wear what I wear because it pleases me. Everyone should, as long as it meets the dress code of the organization.
Watch out for phish and follow good cybersecurity practices.