It's Tough Being a Woman in Tech. CoderGirl's Mentors Hope to Change Just That

"Thinking of those male-dominated cultures, the only way to take them down is infiltrate," says Katie Mathews.
"Thinking of those male-dominated cultures, the only way to take them down is infiltrate," says Katie Mathews. PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK

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click to enlarge Katie Mathews works one-on-one with CoderGirl participants, sharing the insight she's gained as a developer in St. Louis. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
Katie Mathews works one-on-one with CoderGirl participants, sharing the insight she's gained as a developer in St. Louis.

Being a woman in a man's world can be like walking through a minefield. Even something as seemingly simple as choosing clothing for work can become an ordeal. Mathews, who identifies as a queer woman, realized that she began dressing in a more traditionally masculine way partly to deter other people's thoughts about her body. "I know I definitely felt more equipped to handle anything when I dressed masculine," Mathews says.

Because Mathews was then a front-end developer at a large aerospace corporation, the attention was frequent and overt, and she grew weary of her male colleagues' attention.

"I think at that time, I still had a concept of 'If you dress in a certain way, you're asking for male attention,' which is not an ok way to think. But it's a reality that women deal with. You're on this balance of 'I want to be taken seriously but I want to feel confident,'" Mathews says. "And the boys' club culture definitely existed there. No one realized it was a gender bias thing."

The anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she also has experienced perplexing and sexist comments about her looks.

"I had a male coworker tell me one time, 'Hey, you can see your grey hair, you should really color it.' I do feel like they pay attention to those things, especially when it's women," she says. "The funny thing was, they had grey hair! Why are you telling me?"

And it's not just seemingly petty matters like clothes and hair. Women in tech simply don't make as much money as men do or have the same opportunities to advance, something shown in numerous studies.

A study from online compensation information company PayScale shows that men not only dominate all levels of computer-driven companies, but they also make more money by a hefty margin. According to Payscale, there's a 22 percent difference between what male and female executives in the industry make, with men taking home a median of $174,600 and women collecting $135,500. At the individual contributor level, the pay gap is at about 19 percent, with men making $70,900 and women making just $57,600.

Things are just as bad outside of the tech sector, however, with glass ceilings everywhere. In its study, PayScale says that salary levels off for women at $49,000 when they're 35 to 40 years old; meanwhile, men level off at $75,000 at age 50 to 55.

In Missouri, things look even worse. According to "The Status of Women in Missouri," a report prepared in 2016 by the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri, women here earned $35,759 on average for full-time work in 2015, compared with an average of $49,897 for men. The report also found that black and Hispanic women made only 66.7 percent of what their white male counterparts made in 2015.

The anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she has missed out on salary increases thanks to company reorganizations and bad processes. Despite being placed into a management role during one shakeup, she says that she wasn't part of leadership conversations and had a hard time explaining certain high-level decisions to her team. With prodding from upper levels, she offered feedback about the new processes and was told "You should earn your money."

That's when things became interesting.

"I had a one-on-one conversation with my manager and asked, 'What money are they talking about, because I didn't get a pay raise when I got this promotion.' My manager was completely shocked and was like, 'Oh my god, did we not give you a raise?'" the mentor remembers. "I don't talk about that with other people, so I don't know if it happened to me because I'm a woman and everybody else was a man, but that was pretty shocking."

Sexual harassment is a huge reason why women don't feel welcome in tech, as well as in many other industries. According to a survey titled "The Elephant in the Valley," women in tech say harassment is one of the biggest things they deal with, with 90 percent of female responders saying that they've witnessed sexist behavior at industry events and 65 percent reporting that they've received unwanted sexual advances from a superior. Sixty percent of women who reported sexual harassment to their company were dissatisfied with the resolution.

CoderGirl mentor Mathews didn't report the "John's nuts" incident to human resources and says that she now regrets it, not knowing if her harasser bothered other women. She kept seeing him around the office, though.

"I was creeped out seeing that guy in the hallways anytime after that, to the point I thought he was following me to my car. I sprinted out of the building or hid in a bathroom where you can see around the corner," she remembers. "I kept thinking about it after it happened because that stuff doesn't leave you exactly; you have a body response to it. And part of it was me being in this culture with guys, not wanting to appear weak or like I couldn't handle that. But at the time being 23 and out of college, something this direct at me in a professional setting had never happened before."

He wasn't the only man who made her apprehensive, Mathews says.

"As I would walk through hallways, older men would wink at me, which is just uncomfortable," she says. "And we had these trailers out back, so it was always in the manufacturing, isolated part. I would go into these trailers highly scared and hoping no one followed me because they were isolated within themselves. That freaked me out anytime that happened."

But sometimes it's not even the big stuff that gets to you, the mentors say. Brown says that her former male colleagues often named servers after male-centered films like Top Gun, so she reminded them about how alienating that was to women who needed to work on those servers.

And Mathews remembers when coworkers gendered the office salsa bar, joking that they should label hot ones for men and mild ones for women. "I was like, why? Why would you say that? Do you think that something spicy improves your strength?" Mathews wonders.

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