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Addressing Bias Against Women in the Tech Industry

It’s no secret that women are still a minority in the tech industry. While there is some variance in the numbers, the percentage of women in software development and software engineering positions is consistently reported across publications at between 10 and 20%.

That figure is staggering, to say the least. The sources of this disproportion are multifactorial and complex, but one of the most cited causes of the lack of women in technical roles is the unpleasant – and in extreme cases, downright hostile – environment women experience due to implicit and explicit bias in the tech industry.

The good news is that tech companies are getting serious about battling this bias from within. In March of this year, as an example, my company hosted an internal panel titled #BreakTheBias: How Pluralsight's Women Leaders Overcome Bias in the Tech Industry. Pluralsight is a true paragon in the tech industry, in my opinion, in terms of raising the voices of marginalized groups and making organizational moves to support them, and this panel is just one example of how Pluralsight supports its female workforce.

I was honored to be a participant on this panel, and I was downright star-struck by my fellow panelists, Ai-ling Chang and Anesha McCormic. These women are brilliant technologists and professionals, and I learned so much about how to #BreakTheBias myself by sitting on this panel alongside them.

Following the panel, I received numerous messages from colleagues thanking me for sharing my experiences, and commiserating that they, too, have experienced bias of the same sorts. These messages confirmed for me the power of sharing our experiences, and so I decided to write this post, which is an adaptation of the panel questions and my responses.

How has being a woman in a male-dominated field affected your career experience?

To be honest, I’ve found it burdensome at times to be a female programmer in this male-dominated space, as I sometimes convince myself that I am personally representing all women software developers and engineers.

How does this feeling manifest at work? Well, when I submit code for review by my teammates and there are major revisions that need to be made, or glaring details that I’ve overlooked, I can fall into this trap of wondering, “Will others take these mistakes as evidence that women aren’t good at coding?” When I can’t solve a problem without asking for help, I find myself asking, “Will others take this as evidence that women aren’t good at coding?”

And this isn’t an exhaustive list of situations that can spur this insidious line of thinking. As knowledge workers, we software developers and engineers publicly expose on a daily basis our ability to apply logic and solve complex problems, and so while I know that I shouldn’t doubt my own abilities when I make a mistake or when I ask for help – and I especially shouldn’t think I’m representing all women technologists then or ever – when I’m the only woman on my team, it can be hard to keep my thoughts from careening down that road.

These thoughts have tangible effects, too. The worst is that sometimes I hold onto my code for longer than I need to, subjecting it to superfluous analysis and refactoring when really, it’s time to share it and get feedback from colleagues. Or, I don’t ask for help for a bit longer than I really should, because I want to prove to myself and others that with enough Googling and documentation-perusing, I can solve any problem.

Paradoxically, these hesitations to show my work make it look like it takes me longer to solve problems than it really does which – again – others might take as evidence that women aren’t as good at coding!

There’s a recursiveness here that is maddening at times. Continuously circling through this revolving-door of self-doubt is mentally exhausting, and it diverts attention away from solving actual programming problems.

Can you share a time when you experienced bias in the workplace? How did you feel and react in this situation?

I once worked with an engineering leader who habitually referred to the group of software developers and engineers working at the company as the guys.

As in, the application had been built by the guys.

Or, the guys did a fantastic job on that project.

But this phrasing was inaccurate. There were women engineers on that team, and there were women engineers working on those projects. I myself had worked on some of those projects.

This was incredibly demoralizing. For me, it spurred questions like, Are we women software engineers invisible? Was our work on this not valued? Is our work at the company in general not recognized or valued by people holding positions of power? Do my colleagues – including leadership – assume that the guys are doing the important work here and that we women are, I don’t know, sitting around, satisfying quotas?

I wish that I’d had the courage to take this leader aside and explain to him the bias in his language use, but I didn’t, partly because of the power dynamic, and partly because that leader never made me feel particularly welcome to talk to him about anything, let alone something this sensitive. But I really hope that somebody seated horizontally from him identified his persistent bias here and brought it to his attention.

We all have bias, whether conscious or unconscious. What’s one thing you do to check your bias and make sure you’re paving the way for a more equitable workplace?

I’m going to get very vulnerable here and reveal a bias that I’ve had to be very intentional about shaking: I used to be biased against coding bootcamp graduates.

Folks, you heard that right. I used to be biased against coding bootcamp graduates, and yet I myself am a bootcamp graduate.

I think part of the reason I held this belief was that I heard others express it. There was and continues to be a coterie of computer-science-degree-holding professionals who believe that the self-taught or bootcamp-educated can’t possibly catch up to or keep pace with them. Some job postings even include directives that bootcamp graduates need not apply.

Luckily, I’ve toppled this bias, and I’ve been able to do so through meeting and working alongside incredibly talented software developers and engineers who have come from non-traditional educational backgrounds. Some are self-taught. Some are bootcamp graduates. Almost every engineer on my current team at Pluralsight, in fact, comes from a non-technical background – a couple skipped a four-year-degree of any sort, altogether – and this team is hands-down the strongest I’ve ever been a part of.

My experience in holding and then abandoning this bias highlights two important concepts. First, when others with perceived power denigrate a group, that group can easily be convinced that they are indeed deficient. Second, when we encounter folks who don’t adhere to our stereotypes, we can begin to break down those stereotypes, both individually through self-growth and reflection and collectively through advocacy and allyship.

Talking about bias can be uncomfortable. What advice would you give on handling a situation in which you see someone leaning into a bias, stereotype, or microaggression?

I personally think feedback is a gift, and especially constructive feedback. And so, when we see or hear someone engaging in biased behavior, I think we need to refrain from framing the act of speaking up to them as a confrontation. That word, confrontation, has such a negative connotation, and it unnecessarily infuses a feedback session with anxiety before that session even occurs.

Instead, frame the act of providing constructive feedback as giving a gift. Any emotionally mature, open-minded and growth-oriented person will want to know when they’ve said or done something that ostracizes or demeans some group of people, and they will be grateful that you gave them that gift of feedback. If they aren’t, then they’re truly not worth your anxiety, and you will have given yourself the gift of understanding their true character.

Shortly after participating in the #BreakTheBias panel, I overheard a male colleague refer to a T.V. show as a “chick show”. He said that for this reason, he decided to stop watching it. My teammates’ discomfort was palpable, though the conversation continues as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Many of the folks on that call had attended the #BreakTheBias panel the day before, though, and so my first reaction was Oh shit, Kristen. You have to say something. You’re a hypocrite if you don’t.

I had a lot of anxiety as I went through the process of setting up a one-on-one with this colleague to deliver my gift of feedback, but once we were on the call together, he was positively lovely in his reception. We ended up having an insightful discussion around specific biases we’re both constantly struggling to dismantle, and we even agreed to help each other by watching for displays of bias and raising each other’s attention to them.

So, the lesson here is be brave, and be open with folks when you see ways in which they can be doing better.


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