The first time I used a computer was at 6 years old. It was 1986 and I was introduced to my dad’s Apple IIe. It had some games on it, the most addictive for me being Lode Runner, which I played for hours. It also had Print Shop Pro on it, and my dad had a dot matrix printer, so there was much cheesy fold-up greeting card and banner printing going on.

Then, after about 2 years of playing with the old Apple IIe, in 1988 my mom bought a computer for our house. It was an AMSTRAD, it was from JC Penney, and it died almost immediately upon start up. So then we got a Packard Bell 386, unremarkable except it came with a 2400 baud internal modem — and a subscription to the Prodigy online service. Of course, equipped with a modem I didn’t have to limit myself to paid online services; I made friends on Prodigy and those friends ran BBSes. I spent hours on both, and this was back when online services charged by the minute. The only operating system I used was DOS, graphical user interfaces hadn’t even appeared on my radar. In fact, when I was first introduced to Windows 3.1, I refused to use it. I was a hardcore command line diva, and in some ways I still am, which explains my affinity for Linux.

Eventually I gave in to Windows, got CompuServe and America Online, and upgraded to a 14.4 modem. I started using the Web as soon as it became available, in 1991 or so. I remember the days when web pages were plain text, when flashing rainbow line separators were cool, and animated Under Construction logos were pervasive. I learned basic HTML at an early age and established my homestead on this wild wild web, which I’ve been defending — in some form — ever since.

Now I know CSS, JavaScript, Java, XML and bits of various other computer languages, enough so that I used to work for several dot coms as a web developer. I know about networking, I know how to build a computer, I know how to maintain computers, enough so that I used to make money doing it. I’m not an amateur. But men always think I am. I’m sure they think they’re being helpful when I’m standing in the networking section of Fry’s Electronics deciding what router I should buy and they proceed to give me unsolicited, patronizing advice. Such as explaining what a router is and how networking works. Do I really look like I’m confused? Or is it because I’m a woman in a tech store and you assume I have no idea what I’m doing? I’m going to go with the latter, because I know damn well I didn’t look like I needed help.

When I worked for my first dot-com, I had to work twice as hard, be twice as good (actually, just for kicks, I was three times as good), and be twice as accurate to get taken seriously. And my skills were not appreciated. There was one other woman in my department, and sadly she was nowhere near as skilled, devoted, accurate, or talented as I was. But when the time came to lay people off, I got axed instead of her, because she was going out with one of the founders of the company. Because for women in the tech fields, apparently banging skills are more desirable than coding skills. I’m not trying to hate on her, I’m just pointing out that women’s job skills are not valued. Despite being the most accurate, fastest, and most skilled coder in the department, I got axed instead of the newest hire — a man. Last hired, first fired? Not if there’s a woman to take the fall.

Then at the second dot-com I worked at, I had the pleasure of being sexually harassed by my boss. Human resources told me I had to speak with my boss directly about it. In case you were wondering, uh, confronting the boss who’s sexually harassing you? REALLY awkward. A little while after that, I got laid off. In order to get my severance, I had to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t sue. Since I didn’t have the resources to get a lawyer anyway, and I needed to pay rent, I signed it.

I then decided that if I was going to do tech work, I was doing it on my own. But I still had to deal with patronizing vendors who assumed I didn’t know what components would be best in the computer I was building, or the tech support dudes that assumed I didn’t know about this Windows feature or that Java function. But I dealt with it, kept my head up and soldiered on. For the next 5 years, I did freelance computer work. Of course, I had to charge significantly less than the men in my field to get business. And when I had to collaborate with men, I always got talked down to. It’s like they just can’t help themselves. Don’t even mention the fact I was a black woman doing techie stuff. Their heads were spinning.

The tech world has a lot more women involved now, however it’s still a boys’ club. But, one of my favorite geek toy sites, Think Geek, sells womens’ babydoll shirts now. We’re making strides.

18 thoughts on “The perils of being a femme tech geek

  1. I too work in IT. And I'm an… IT librarian… those two words seem to cancel each other out in a lot of minds.

    I get talked down to every single day. I get looks of surprise when I understand something, or when I explain something. When I call the corporate tech services to log jobs to get things changed on a back end level, the techs talk down to me, and try to walk me through troubleshooting instead of just logging the job like I'm asking for.

    But it's not just professionally. I understand how washing machines work and the differences between plasma and LCD screens. I know how to fully service my bicycle. I can do basic repairs on a VCR. I know how a steam engine works, and all about tattoo technique and machinery. I know the battle history and weaponry of the American Civil War (I'm Australian) and understand the physics in ballistics. And a whole host of other things that men assume that I couldn't possibly know because I am a woman.

    The world is a boys' club. We just keep making those strides as best as we can.

  2. 1. I am really proud of you.

    2. I think you have learned from the harder way.

    3. You are "now" good blend of beauty and the brain after all which has happened to you.

    4. If the world is made of annoying people we come up much stronger out of them.

    5. Thank you for writing your experience.

    PS: Bravo………….

  3. Great post! There should be a techie version of my Ctl-Alt-Del t-shirt, on which Lilah says "Girls play video games, too. You'd know this if you left your house once in a while".

  4. I'm not quite as tech savy as you are, but I sure as hell have the skills to set up and troubleshoot my own and my husband's computers, my own home network, and my own web site, and I did the same for a previous employer. I'm ten years older than you and got my first computer/ started programming in 1981. However, as an adult, I've been lazy. I don't program anymore and haven't for many years, and my love of multimedia design keeps me on Macs.

    I get the same thing at computer stores. I find that swamping the offending men with technical language that they don't understand usually makes them go away. Or, they change their tone.

    • Ha, that just reminded me of this one time I went to the computer store to look for a router (again, I get new routers often apparently) and I wound up on an aisle with a lot of Belkin products and a dude who was apparently a Belkin rep. He kept trying to sell me on their equipment by telling me it was "Belkin-based". Like that meant anything. I still crack up when I think of how many times he said "Belkin-based".

    • Been there, done that, got a pile of t-shirts.

      I bet you did if you worked on the Windows team. Don't they give you like a t-shirt at every conference and expo you go to?

  5. In fact, when I was first introduced to Windows 3.1, I refused to use it.

    Not too surprising, every version of Windows until WFW 3.11 was a dog that wouldn't hunt… and the only thing that set 3.11 apart was its built in peer networking support.

    I grew up in an era where a woman's role in tech was as generally as an operator, i.e. a glorified typist. In fact, upon seeing a male engineer at a keyboard using a smart terminal as a microcomputer to get around the timeshare costs, my boss' boss quipped "you keep that up Bill, we'll have to buy you a bra!"

    Realities have changed but unfortunately it seems that attitudes are lagging behind.

    • When I imagined that story in my head I imagined the control room at NASA and dudes with heavy black rimmed glasses and short sleeve button down shirts and ties. Is that accurate?

  6. I worked as a chemical engineer in the pulp and paper industry and advanced to foreman (only female foreman in the 82 years of this company). Talk about a boys' club, and of course there was the tech aspect to that coupled with blue collar personas and bullying-as-corporate-policy personas (however, personal preference: give me a curmudgeony 6o year old male P&P operator over another twentysomething male college-educated engineer any day).

    I learned some good coping strategies which one day maybe I'll write about. Then I left that field of work and now work at home raising my family and homeschooling the kids and being part of the neighborhood network that raises ALL the kids around here (most of their parents have two or more jobs). My current work makes me realize the extent that "masculine" jobs (and especially masculine "careers") still get so much more status and pay and acclaim. Even if you've got the same talented person putting her life/heart/brain/guts/mind and kicking ass, the "worth" I got lauded on me then vs. today sure has been interesting to observe.

    • Ooh, you're a chemical engineer? Do you know the periodic table by heart?

      Not to gloss over the rest of your post. It's always interesting to see things from both sides at different periods of your life.

  7. Jane Montgomery says:

    What an amazing post. You made their heads spin, you say? More like explode. Did you ever condescend them right back, do anything to prove that your head can indeed contain knowledge? I like the little double-take they do when they realize you've understood what they said.

    I admit I'd never even thought about sexism in my daily life until I got into my current field. There are often less than 10 women at these conferences of 500 people or more, and while some of these women are leaders (women can get PhDs in science and technology! Did you know that???), they are never in skirts and dresses. They've learned that they have to dress, talk, and act like men in order to be taken seriously.

    I am still pretty early in my career, but I don't want to do this. I love skirts and dresses; I don't wear pants more than maybe once every four months. And yet my friends say "oh, nobody's going to take you seriously in a pink suit/nice dress/etc", even though these clothes were DESIGNED for work. And why do I have to adjust and compromise myself in order to meet the prejudices of men? I can wear a dress and bitch about subpar specifications for SIP signaling at the same time, and I'm damn well going to.

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