From the #metoo movement to Oprah’s Time’s Up speech to the women’s marches on cities throughout the world—it’s been a banner year for women’s rights. And on this International Women’s Day, we wanted to do more than pay lip service to the changes in feminist dialogue. After all, tech is an industry with a well-deserved reputation for being a boy’s club. But that’s something that needs to change.
Thanks to millions of voices bringing awareness to gender disparity, discrimination, and sexual harassment in the workplace, what was once whispered in hush tones are now delivered loudly, publicly, and on some of the widest-reaching platforms by some of the world’s most powerful people. It’s what makes sly comments like those from Natalie Portman and Emma Stone about the imbalance of power at the top of the movie-making business so well-received instead of PR nightmares.
It’s a lesson that women in tech can take to heart about how to face discrimination in everyday situations so that stories about frustration and shame can become stories about a teachable moment. (And trust me, we all have stories.)
And it’s a lesson that the women in tech that I spoke with have already internalized. Below, you’ll read about six women in cybersecurity, gaming, and other tech industries who’ve faced gender bias or discrimination. They told me what happened, how they handled it in the moment, and what advice they would give to other women in the industry on how to persevere.
These everyday Wonder Women have faced the odds head on and overcome, whether it was a subtle slight or a systematic diss. Some have gone on the record, while others chose to be anonymous. Here are their stories.
Female security researcher, Malwarebytes
I learned Chinese while in the military and occasionally use it in infosec. In my first civilian job, I would be asked for a translation in staff meetings from time to time. After giving one, a guy would routinely cut me off and provide his idea of “what the Chinese probably said.” (He did not speak Chinese.) I probably could have handled it better, but I was so aggrieved at my competence and judgment being questioned that the next time he did it, I interrupted him and asked, “Oh, so you speak Chinese too?” Long pause. “No? So it’s just me?”
After that meeting, he never did it again, and in fact was very supportive for the remainder of our time together.
Advice for women in tech
This study examined sexism in online gaming, who was pushing it, and why. It found that the worst sexism was largely a hierarchy survival strategy by men who weren’t very good at the game. This stuck with me, as most of the sexism I’ve seen in the workplace hasn’t really been from the best and brightest or most experienced.
Seeking out and working with men who are experienced, secure, and good at their jobs has improved my work environment by quite a bit.
Senior Business Developer, Mobile Games, Unity
As a quality assurance tester at a video games company in 2006, we were paid an hourly rate consistent with California minimum wage, plus overtime. One day, HR mixed up our paychecks and I ended up with one belonging to a white guy. His base was a fat $2 more than my pitiful California state minimum wage. We worked there the same length of time, had the same role, pulled the same overtime—we were even the same age. I asked HR about it, and about a month later, my contract was terminated (ostensibly for unrelated reasons). Not that I’m bitter; that guy still works in QA 10 years later, and he makes considerably less than me.
Later, when I worked at a large tech company, I was frequently told that my communication style was aggressive, bossy, and confrontational. This was usually told to me by male superiors or peers. These same people often interrupted me when I was speaking, stood up to walk around me where I was seated (as if I were in a police interrogation), and one of them actually would sneak up behind me on my way into the bathroom and slam a basketball on the floor directly behind me to “scare” me as a “joke.”
Didn’t even bother with HR this time; I just left that company for another one.
Advice for women in tech
Go to the networking events, even if you don’t think of yourself as a “woman in tech.” You’re not going to break in being picky about labels. Look for relevant conferences that hire volunteer staffers and apply to be one. It’s a great way to network and get free access to the content.
Do not be the poor sucker who always takes notes in meetings or gets coffee for people. Unless your actual job is “secretary” or “caterer,” in which case, carry on.
Ban the phrase “I’m sorry,” from your vocabulary at work. If you actually need to apologize for something, use the words “I apologize,” instead.
Seriously. Make friends. Whether you’re just starting out or have been in it a long time, you’ll never get through the hard days without friends.
Malware Intelligence Analyst, Malwarebytes
To the best of my knowledge, I think I’m one of the rare ones in infosec where I have not encountered any biases because of my gender. That isn’t to say that there are no biases—it’s just that they’re fueled by other reasons that don’t include me being a woman. In my first eight years in the infosec industry, I was based in the Philippines, and we have a lot of female reverse engineers, spam and fraud experts, and technical writers. I’ve also served under a number of female managers and executives.
Did I come across sexism as a public figure? I don’t think so—unless we count the times I’m referred to as “he” by press people in my quotes, which happened (and continues to happen) most of the time. I guess that goes to show that not many women in infosec are covered in the media. I’d like to see a change in this.
Advice for women in tech
It may seem like I’m sheltered from the gender issues many women in tech in the US experience, and you’re probably right…although I do sympathize deeply. But one thing I can share is that if women ever wonder if it’s even possible to work in infosec and not feel unwelcome or unheard because of their gender—I can say that it is. And being part of a company that lets you do what you do best, helps you grow in your career, and doesn’t discriminate because of your gender is a very, very fulfilling experience. My takeaways from those years continue to serve me until today.
Allison [last name redacted]
works at one of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley
In tech, the clearest example of a gender bias is simply the other people in the room with me. I’m very frequently the only woman in a room and I can maybe recall 2-3 meetings where women made up more than 50 percent. Women are simply not represented in the tech teams in the same numbers. When you move to decision makers, directors, VPs, and above, it is even more stark.
In these situations, sometimes I mention it to someone I trust in the room to draw attention to the lack of diversity. I am a believer that awareness is the first step to change, and I honestly don’t believe that most men even notice that there aren’t women because that is normal for them. When I point it out, they are usually a bit taken aback, as they aren’t sure why I’m mentioning it, or why they didn’t notice it.
Another example I have of [gender bias] is in the terms and phrases that people use in the office. We were dealing with a pretty difficult issue with some vendors and the team needed to come to an agreement on the path forward. I was the only woman in the room and one of the technical leaders said, “Someone will need to put their balls on the table and commit to a decision!” I quietly sat at the end of the table and commented, “Well, some of us don’t have balls, so maybe our badges would be more appropriate.” At the end of the meeting, I had to step out. As I left, I simply said, “You can now return to referencing your male organs if that helps the conversation progress.”
It was a bit of a mic drop moment.
Advice for women in tech
Get some thick skin. Sexism comes in many forms, and some of it requires you to not let it impact you personally. Someone treating you differently because of your gender isn’t a reflection on you, so don’t let it get to your confidence. Call it out and let it go because there isn’t enough time in the day.
Own your accomplishments. When you do something amazing (and you will), own it! Tell people and be sure you talk it up on your performance reviews and at networking opportunities. Finding the right way to self-promote while being humble is a balance that requires practice—learn to get good at it. Find other women, as we really are our best allies, and this means finding women who will help mentor and grow you, but it also means returning the favor. And finally, pick your battles, because you cannot confront every form of sexism every day. There isn’t enough emotional energy for one person to take it on.
My other piece of advice would be for women to simply call sexist behavior out when they see it. Sure it is awkward, 100 percent, but that awkwardness is temporary. And compared to the damage that unchecked sexism has already had on organizations and women’s culture, I think a little awkwardness is worth it.
I would also try to find the male allies around you. They exist and many of them understand the problem but simply don’t know what to do about it. Talk with them, ask them to back up your ideas, and if they are in a position to make decisions or influence leaders, ask them to represent women in conversations that are relevant.
Finally, I try to approach any issue about sexism and diversity as a coach vs. a critic. If you constantly berate people for doing or saying sexist things, you miss out on the teaching moment. I truly believe some men don’t see the sexist undertones in comments or they have unfortunately created habits that they no longer even question whether they are appropriate. I received a work email…that started out with “Hello Gentlemen.” Instead of getting all uppity, I chose to assume this was just a habit that this person got into because I was a new team member and up until that point, the factory leaders were all men. So I simply pointed it out and let it go vs. believing that the author of the email was a total sexist jerk. A little understanding and coaching go a long way.
A (different) female researcher at Malwarebytes
Yes, I’ve [experienced discrimination], especially in the beginning when I was a volunteer giving support in online forums. A few men didn’t want my help, as they believed that women didn’t fit for this job/work, and were not technical enough. They asked me if I could ask a male volunteer to help them instead. I didn’t want to waste my voluntary time on these people anyway. I ignored them and didn’t respond back.
One case had a twisting outcome, however. While another male volunteer was helping this person, after a few days, he sent me a message and asked if I could jump in and help him anyway. I originally refused and told him I am not technical enough to help him (his words). He then apologized, said he was wrong and misjudged me, and understood if I didn’t want to help him anymore. So I gave in and helped him. This happened more than 10 years ago, and as of today, we still occasionally have contact and share insight/knowledge.
Advice for women in tech
This applies to both those who are interested in working in tech and those who are already in it. From past experiences and the evolution of more women in tech, I’ve noticed that overall, women are well accepted in this previously all-male industry. Just stay yourself and especially don’t let someone run over you (male or female). Respect your peers and stay open and honest with them. Let them know when their behavior isn’t appropriate instead of hiding in a corner in silence. And ask for help if you don’t know how to handle a situation.
Special offer for those who’ve read this far
Thanks for being awesome and reading up on these incredible ladies and their worthwhile advice. As a treat, we’re going to tip you off to a special International Women’s Day offer on Jane Frankland’s book InSecurity: Why a Failure to Attract and Retain Women in Cybersecurity is Making Us All Less Safe. Good through today and tomorrow.