By Alexandra Ash
I wrote this piece while pregnant. On August 9th my wonderful
baby Liana was born. She was a week early, so I didn’t have time
to finish this essay properly. Perhaps that is fitting as the project to
diversify tech is very much a work in progress. This essay addresses
only one small part of that challenge.
To my male coworkers at my new job as a software engineer I’m
just another guy on the team—a guy who earned their respect as
a coder and teammate—and who now happens to be pregnant.
The other day I was in a Zoom (teleconferencing) meeting with
teammates from the California office discussing the timelines
for several upcoming projects. One of the projects was delayed
because folks were on vacation. Someone asked when I would
start maternity leave and I responded that my due date was
August 15, but I planned to work up until the baby came.
The group laughed. “Why is that funny?” I asked earnestly. It
wasn’t funny to me—I was hoping to save all my weeks of leave
until the baby was born.
“Well, because we were just talking about how everyone is
going on vacation and here you are with child and you are so
dedicated to your craft that you are working up till you are in
labor,” was (approximately) the response.
We joked for a bit that I would probably take my laptop into the
hospital with me. And they weren’t completely wrong—I am a
workaholic, and the idea of sitting at home not working while
waiting for the baby was not appealing. In fact, my partner and
I had been joking similarly at home.
But the lack of awareness from my male coworkers of the pressure
I was feeling took me aback. Their manner wasn’t unkind and,
if anything, it was a compliment to my work ethic. But what
seemed obvious to me—that I had better conserve my leave,
and that the more time I took the more my career might take a
hit, hadn’t even occurred to them.
My pregnancy had shepherded me into a very female (if not
feminine) space, full of prenatal yoga, maternity clothes, and
mommy blogs. I found myself immersed in the blogs for pregnant
career women that discussed how to avoid being “mommy
tracked,” the need to save up vacation time toward maternity
leave, and why not to talk too much at work about being pregnant,
pumping milk, or babies.
It isn’t only online that I am steeped in the message that women
face extra challenges in tech. I sometimes attend Tuesday evening
meetups hosted by Women Who Code, a group that strives to
address the “leaky bucket problem” of women dropping out of
careers in tech at higher rates than men.
In the lounges of generous tech companies, women at these meetups
sit on folding chairs and eat pizza, while sharing advice about breaking into the field or trading war stories of “mansplaining”
coworkers and struggles with imposter syndrome. Following this,
members present short talks on a variety of topics. This space,
and others like it, gave me confidence to break into the field of
software engineering as a career changer.
But all the best coding meetings in town happen on Tuesdays,
and to attend a women’s only gathering I often miss an opportunity
to delve deeper into a specific coding topic at a meetup
hosted (usually) by men and open to everyone.
That’s the thing about “women’s spaces”: to enjoy one you have
to withdraw from the larger community, at least temporarily.
Which means that men end up dominating the all-gendered
spaces even more heavily.
Last year I attended an all-women’s coding program that was
part of a larger for-profit Bootcamp (a fast-track educational
program that prepares career-changers for software engineering
positions). My fellow students were younger and straighter than
I (and younger and straighter than I expected) but, despite the
occasional chatter about engagement rings, I enjoyed the collaborative
culture and dedication to learning.
But I have to say I found the all-female nature of the program just
plain weird. By offering an all-women’s program with deferred
tuition within a larger school, the institution ended up funneling
women out of their program that is open to all genders. The
result was a separate environment where stereotypes thrived; we
continued to think the guys were smelly immature mansplainers
and they continued to think we were—well, I don’t know what
they thought about us because they were nine stories down.
I recently attended a conference that had a very nice Women’s
and Trans Coders Lounge complete with better food, comfy
and stylish couches, and good speakers. But I didn’t end up
hanging out there much because I would have missed lectures
or networking opportunities.
So, you might say, who cares? What’s the problem with women
being in their own comfy space, away from the threatening
mansplainers stomping around and taking up all the air?
Well, that’s exactly the problem—immersed in this space, it’s easy
to get lost in a nightmare fantasy, and forget that for the most
part, male coders are welcoming and respectful colleagues and
co-workers. Also, when women withdraw, it prevents the men
from interacting with women coders, so prejudices they may
have fester. This does not help foster diversity in the long run.
There are groups doing the work to reverse these trends. They
have their work cut out for them, but I am hopeful for the future.
Alexandra is a web developer who lives in Boston with her husband
and daughter. She enjoys reading, going to the farmers market, and
walking along the Emerald Necklace.