What It’s Really Like to Be a Female Programmer

With men still dominating careers in technology, it can be difficult for their outnumbered women colleagues to make their voices heard. And here at PayScale, we know how important it is that businesses hire more women into high-tech roles. Due to this knowledge, we reached out to three brilliant female programmers from varying industries so that they could share their personal stories of what it’s really like to be a female working in a field that is overrun by men.

no this is not my boyfriend's computer

About the Women

Laura Robeson: Laura is a Drupal web specialist for a health care supply company. She handles all things web-related; from front-end site building, to email campaigns to back-end code updates.

Angel Thomas: Angel is currently working as a volunteer website developer for TPS Parent Congress. She’s also looking for a paid programming job.

Catherine OBrien Sandrick: Catherine is the owner of Mad Science Department, an LLC that specializes in WordPress customization, Drupal customization and PHP application development. She’s been self-employed for five years, but worked with agencies before branching off on her own.

In Their Own Words

PayScale: What inspired you to become a programmer?

Laura: Growing up, I loved taking things apart (phones, cassettes, VCRs, etc) and seeing how they worked. Once I learned about the “view source” option in web browsers, I was hooked. It was so easy to look at the code and see what was going on. HTML coding lead to JavaScript and PHP. Web programming is (for the most part) transparent and logical, which is a perfect fit for how my brain works. I never said “when I grow up I want to be a web developer,” I just started doing it because I knew how — and it paid the bills. Now it’s my livelihood, and I’m definitely okay with that.

Angel: I always had a curiosity for computers. I signed up for two computer-related majors in college, one of which was computer programming. I had one instructor who really encouraged me and helped me to develop my skills.

Catherine: My dad, really. And Montgomery Scott, if I’m honest about it. It was something we did for fun when I was young. We got our first computer, a TI99-4a and I started making BASIC programs to amuse my family. I loved the creativity and sheer magic of making something out of mere lines of code. I walked away from it for a while, but it all came right back to me when I came back.

PayScale: Did you study programming in college or are you self-taught?

Laura: Self-taught. I made my first “website” 16 years ago when I was 15 – it was a No Doubt fan page on Angelfire. Since then I’ve expanded my knowledge by reading books, reading blogs, asking questions, attending conferences, using online training sites like CodeAcademy and of course, lots of trial and error. You can never know everything about programming, whether it’s web or not, it’s always changing and there’s always more to learn.

Angel: I began my education in college and obtained a two-year degree in computer programming. However, many of my skills are either self-taught, learned from conferences or from working with colleagues.

Catherine: Self-taught. In the 80s, I was doing Basic, some very early HTML and a little Fortran. I went to college for design, but graduated just a couple years before “graphic designers” became “web designers.” In college, I became familiar with UNIX systems and wrote lots of scripts (Perl, Bash, AppleScript) to manage my web use. Keep in mind, we are talking Gopher and Lynx surfing here, so the scripts made it far less type-and-wait. Perl dovetailed beautifully into PHP when I started working on back-end systems of web development. Now I work mostly in PHP and JavaScript over Drupal, WordPress and CodeIgniter frameworks.

PayScale: As a female working in a field that’s predominantly male, what are some of the challenges you’ve come across? Any advantages?

Laura: Fortunately, I can’t think of any challenges I’ve faced. However, the male-female income disparity is always a potential challenge. But unless you know how much everyone else at your company is making, it’s impossible to know if you’re being shortchanged because you’re a woman. As for the advantages – no bathroom lines at tech conferences.

Angel: In most places I have worked, I did not feel that being female had any affect one way or another. In a couple places, I have been treated as if being female meant I was not as capable as my male colleagues. I am not sure whether to consider this an advantage or a disadvantage. I did often feel like an outsider in those places, but it also drove me to prove myself, which in the end has only helped me to be better.

Catherine: Before I started working independently, I had a boss who double checked every assertion I made with my (less qualified) male coworkers. This may have been because he didn’t trust me for some other reason, but I always felt like there was a bit of misogyny wrapped up in it.

Sometimes I think I’m not taken quite as seriously at conferences and user groups, but I don’t take myself very seriously, so that’s alright. Many male programmers LOVE to have “religious arguments” at user groups (ie. spaces or tabs, single return or bail on fail), so it’s hard to get taken seriously if you are a shrinking violet, but I notice the same of quiet men in person. Many of the men who say little in groups have plenty to say in online fora, so I guess it’s the same for women. Me, I’m hard to shut up. But I do prefer to keep the peace.

I do sometimes feel like I have to be 20% better than the next guy to be thought of as “as good”, but I have chosen to be really good at two or three things, rather than trying to be a Jane-of-all-code.

PayScale: How can women be better allies to other female programmers?

Laura: I attended a session about diversity at a conference (DrupalCon) last week, and the presenter (Ashe Dryden) pointed out the glaring lack of diversity in the most popular lists of “tech leaders.” We should be very uncomfortable with that, challenge it, and aspire to change it. Programs like Girl Develop It and groups like Women in Drupal are a great start. They both bring women together, encourage mentoring and provide non-intimidating learning environments.

Angel: I find it helpful to just spend time with other women developers. When there is a large group together, it can be helpful to just be included in a group of people who share the passion for code.

Catherine: Mentoring. Participating in each other’s Open Source projects.

PayScale: What one piece of advice would you give to women who want to pursue a career in programming?

Laura: Remember that a woman (Ada Lovelace) wrote the first programming language, a woman (Grace Hopper) created the first compiler, a woman (Angie Byron) is one of the top leaders in the Drupal world — the list goes on. We have to be proactive and discourage the tendency to steer young girls (and boys) toward strict gender roles and careers. There is NO reason women can’t be programmers!

Angel: Beyond the technology, learn good communication skills. I think people sometimes underestimate the importance of interpersonal communication in technology.

Catherine: BE FEARLESS. The only difference between “proglamming” and “brogramming” is the culture. Embrace who you are and strive to be great at what you do. Don’t forget to stay creative.

Tell Us What You Think

We want to hear from you! Are you a female programmer? If so, share your own story with us in the comments or talk to us on Twitter!

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