Many, many years ago I walked in to the North American Network Operators Group’s favorite vendor event, Beer N’ Gear, with two other female Network Engineers. I expected to check out some of the latest hardware offerings since my team was responsible for build and operation of a multi-million-dollar network. The first vendor greeted us with disbelief and asked if we were at the conference looking for husbands.
Nearly 20 years later I was sitting in a conference room of all male Software and Service Engineers, a typical day for me, when a new Engineer walked in the room, looked directly at me, and asked, “do we have a new project manager?”
Just last month I was talking with a chatty shop keeper and I was asked what I do for a living. When I said what company I worked for they asked what I did there. When I replied that I was a Service Engineer, the shop keeper exclaimed that I must be “super smart” and my parents must be very proud. While I’m flattered to be regarded as “super smart” and my parents are indeed proud of my achievements it’s obvious that the response to a man would have simply been “oh that’s nice”.
And before you nit-pick the term “Engineer”, I didn’t give myself that title, it came with the job. I make no claims to being an Engineer in the traditional sense, but I am a woman in technology, in the sciences, regardless of what title you give me.
Yet when talking about my own experiences as a woman in technology I’ve been told that I’m overreacting and that I’m simply misunderstanding or reading too much in to what people say when I detect bias in their actions or words. Really? Just because the way our biases surface aren’t always as blatant as my first experience doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Nothing erodes a person’s confidence like being told that their experiences and feelings aren’t real.
What illustrates to me how real, ingrained, and truly unconscious the bias against women in the sciences is, is that I share it. Consistently when taking unconscious bias or implicit association tests *I* come back with a strong association of men with the sciences and women with liberal arts. In high school I wanted to be a chemist. I’ve spent 20 years in the computer science field, and even now I am going back to school for a degree in the physical sciences. Yet I have had the same messages ingrained in me. No matter how hard I try not to make that association, the bottom line is that I share a bias against women in science WHILE ACTUALLY BEING ONE. The bias is real.
While we as a society need to figure out how to break down the hurdles we are placing in front of our girls, it’s also clear that I, as an individual, need to learn how to not let my own bias undermine me as well.