“Can I just see your code though?” he asked, peering over my laptop screen.
I turned around to face him as I replied, “Why do you need to see it?” He stared off into the distance, as if he didn’t want to confront me. He reluctantly said “Just to …” as he took a deep breath, “make sure it works.”
I was stunned –– this was the first time someone had explicitly doubted my coding abilities. I couldn’t understand his skepticism when we all were accepted into the same rigorous summer entrepreneurship program.
The program placed four individuals into groups to create a startup based on our mutual passions. We applied for and were designated to be either the hacker, designer, or entrepreneur for our team –– I was chosen as a lead hacker. And yet, there I was, having my knowledge undermined by someone who probably thought C++ was the grade I got in my Intro to Computer Science course.
Even though we were all working on the same team, I constantly felt like I needed to defend myself and my level of expertise. This was supposed to be a collaborative team effort to create a startup we were all proud of.
But as the program continued, I felt trapped in the toxic startup environment that was obsessively focused on pushing out results rather than doing what was best for the product. The male hackers around me were constantly bragging about what they had impressively coded for their projects. They’d count the number of features they had implemented like candies instead of focusing on the quality of their work.
I wanted to build something I truly believed in, not just meaninglessly push out code. As a result, I felt like people doubted my abilities because I didn’t fit the aggressively masculine and arrogant trope of a coder. Despite the fact that my male teammates had no technical experience and I was the designated programmer of the group, they began to doubt my ability to code an app for a startup.
Throughout the four weeks of the program, they repeatedly asked me to program various tasks and present it to them later that night. It was clear that these tasks were meaningless, unrelated to our project and simply ways to test if I could even program basic code. I was frustrated –– I felt like I wasn’t able to do what I had come to the program to do because I had to waste my time proving my worthiness to them. Each time I lifted my computer screen to show my teammates my code in our dimly lit hallway, I felt every part of myself undermined.
That summer was the first time I had ever truly felt that I didn’t belong as a woman in STEM. I grew up attending a small, all-girls private school in the heart of Silicon Valley. My peers at school were my greatest source of inspiration, leading with confidence and poise, constantly epitomizing our motto of “Women Learning, Women Leading.” They built robots from scratch, led award-winning dance productions and took advanced-level calculus. Encompassed by the network of female, support and leadership, I was made to feel that I, a woman of color, deserved a place in STEM. With my classmates by my side, I believed there was no limit to who I could be –– I could crack the code ceiling if I wanted to.
And yet, all of my self-confidence built over years melted away as my teammate continued to undermine my coding capabilities. Each time he implicitly distrusted me, I felt like he was asking, “Why are you here, again?” It seemed like I had to narrowly fit into a patriarchal binary of what a woman in STEM should be. I could either be an aggressively machaostic brogrammer or a docile woman fluttering her eyelashes as she asked men to check her code.
I refused to conform to either. I wasn’t going to become a submissive feminine caricature of myself to please the egos of men around me. And even if I tried to be a masculine brogrammer, I would always be seen as a woman, and therefore, as less than in the technical realm. Instead, I wanted to simply be myself: to wear makeup and dress effeminately while also writing complex algorithms. I wanted to do both, without it being a paradox.
Over the years, I’ve learned to fully embrace myself as a coder regardless of the sexist stereotypes forcing me into a box I can never fill. I’ve also grown immensely as a computer scientist. I’ve built difficult projects, conquered notorious weeder classes and learned incredible new things about programming.
As a result, I refuse to be silenced by those who distrust my coding abilities as a woman in STEM. I’ve stopped doubting myself. I no longer assume that my code is wrong because a man gave me a suspicious look as he looked at my screen. I am every bit as capable, smart and worthy as my male hacker counterparts.
So to anyone who tries to check a woman’s code or a woman’s scientific capabilities: check yourself first.
Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].