Lily Chen

@lilychendances

The toughest part about being a female software engineer

A retrospective three years into my career in tech

I was having coffee with a long-time friend the other day. Inevitably, we got on the subject of tech.

“I’m sure tech has its own cons, compared to your old life in biology.”

I thought for a second and humorously replied:

“Nope, everything is better.”

Three years ago, I decided to abandon my old life as a pre-med to pursue a career in tech as a software engineer.

Though I knew from the start that it was the right decision, I nevertheless had my reservations and doubts. Even though my current life in tech is indeed miles better than my former life in biology, a part of me always felt uneasy throughout the last few years.

I doubted whether this is an industry where I could last. I doubted whether I’d be here still ten, twenty years down the road.

For awhile, I had a difficult time figuring out why I felt this way. At first, I thought it was because of my lack of experience and skills. I thought maybe I wasn’t smart enough to survive in this industry. However, as my experience grew and as I became more confident in my ability to code and, most of all, learn, the uncertainty didn’t fade.

It was by accident that I finally realized what was causing me to always feel this unease, to constantly feel like there’s something missing.

Few months ago, I was interviewing for a new job. I met a female software engineer in her mid 30s during one of my interviews. She’s been in this industry for over a decade now and has both extensive engineering and product experience. I thought she was extremely sharp, someone I would want to become.

That’s when it hit me, she was the only female software engineer I’ve met with over a decade of experience. Due to timing, I wasn’t able to finish the interview process. However, if it had worked out with that company, she would have been a wonderful mentor and role model.

That’s when I realized the root cause for this subtle yet constant feeling of self-doubt and void over the years:

The lack of female mentors or role models that I can relate to.

I have had five managers ever since I started my first job in tech, and NONE of them female.

I don’t know a single female software engineer with a non-traditional background (i.e. did not formally study computer science in college) who’s been in this industry for a decade.

Or, as one of my friend who also came from a non-traditional background had said: “When I think about the image of the really high level software engineer, it’s not us.”

At least for the near future, my goal is to grow as an individual contributor. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is contributing to the open source community. Yet, for the longest time, I’ve been afraid to.

What if people don’t take me or my PRs seriously?

In a 2017 survey, Github collected responses from 5,500 users in the open source community to gather insights into the open source development practices and communities.

The results revealed a dismal gender imbalance in the community, much more so than in the tech industry itself.

“95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women and 1% are non-binary.”

The article further stated that “women are more likely than men to encounter language or content that makes them feel unwelcome (25% vs 15%) as well as stereotyping (12% vs 2%) and unsolicited sexual advances (6% vs 3%).”

Even though I’ve had my fair share of criticism ever since I started writing, the fear of jumping into something new, of jumping into a world where people like me are under-represented, is nonetheless scary.

Even if I were to grow as an IC in the near future, what will happen down the road?

The attrition rate of women in tech is more than double that of men.

“Among women who join the tech industry, 56 percent leave by mid-career, which is double the attrition rate for men.”

Many reasons have been cited for this circumstance, from wage gaps to concerns for lack of advancement.

The reason I have always questioned my position in tech is because there simply aren’t many women I can look up to. The idea I have in my head of the person I want to be 10 years from now doesn’t exist in my immediate network.

As Dinah Davis has written in her article, “girls need role models.”

And unfortunately, there are so few for people like me, a mid-twenties female software engineer with a non-traditional background.

Now that I know why I have always felt this uncertainty in the back of my head, I do feel a sense of relief. I feel more motivated to work hard.

If I were to quit because of a lack of female mentorship, if other female engineers did so too, there wouldn’t be any mentors for the future generation either.

Maybe instead of feeling a void due to my own lack of female mentorship, I can work really hard to become that person for a younger engineer years into the future.

As a first step, I could start documenting my journey, the lessons I have learned and the trials and errors I have been through, in this eccentric place called “Silicon Valley.”

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