Sexism in the Software Industry - My Personal Experiences

(I originally published this article semi-anonymously on the Cranky Product Manager blog in October, 2010. The post received a lot of traffic from reddit and other sources. At the time, I received some criticism for hiding behind an anonymous persona and for not naming names, so I'm updating and republishing this under my "real" name and have also included the names of some of the companies).

Following up on my earlier posts about the deepening dearth of women in the software industry, here are some incidents of outright sexism that I have personally encountered in this industry,

Admittedly, many of these incidents are pretty mild. After all, I don't believe I was ever denied a promotion or made less salary because I was female (but maybe I was just ignorant of the data). I also was never pressured to "do" anyone. And I also honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of men I have worked with really WANT to see more women in technical and product roles, and to see them advance.

But still.

I just wish things were better these days, but alas, this type of behavior still continues. Especially against young, 20-something year old women in our industry.

Sexist Behavior I've Encountered: The List

  1. Being one of the 4 engineers in an R&D group of 20 (at National Semiconductor) that were not invited to the big industry tradeshow in Vegas. Three of the four "left behinds" were women, and all 16 that attended were guys. When I asked why, the group director said we women would not have had fun, and he didn't think we'd want to attend anyway since most of what they did was go to strip clubs. (BTW, the group came back from Vegas with lots of awesome research project ideas, triggered by their conference experiences. Experiences that we women missed out on.)

  2. Booth babes at trade shows. Every year, at pretty much every company I worked for. And having everyone assume that the I was also a know-nothing booth babe despite my deep technical knowledge. EVERYONE assumed this -- even people from my own company who had not personally met me before.

  3. Sales reps asking me to please flirt with a prospect's tech guys on sales calls and referring to me as "Nerd Bait." Because "those guys get off on geeky chicks." (This happened to me multiple times at two different companies).

  4. Attending a Sales Kick-Off party where the CEO hired an "actress/comedienne" to perform / strip for the company. You see, she only got down to her bra and panties, so it was "okay."

    Oh yeah, there was also the racist/sexist "theme" for the same party: "Pimps and Hos". Ahead of time, the CEO sent out an email full of images of black celebrities, encouraging all attendees to dress "hip-hop style". At the party, he ran a costume contest, giving out prizes for the best Pimp costume and best "Ho" costume. And top-performing sales people were given "pimp sticks" (walking sticks with a big fake jewel on the top) as trophies.

    I even walked up to the VP of HR at this party and said, "What the hell, Linda? Are you cool with this?" She explained that this is what the CEO wanted and he does what he wants, despite her objections.

    (This was at Actuate, a company that held over-the-top parties with sexist and racist overtones, but yet had quite a few women, non-white, and LGBT people in upper-level positions.)

  5. At the Annual User's Conference for customers and partners, every year, the "big party" often featured scantily clad female go-go dancers (no men!) dancing in cages (and sometimes in bathtubs), groping each other, and making out with each other -- all for the amusement of the crowd. What a professional atmosphere! (Again, this was at Actuate).

  6. Having the skeevy, drunk Division GM, dressed as Santa Claus, basically force me to sit on his lap during the Christmas party. For an excruciatingly long three minutes. (This was at National Semiconductor).

  7. At one of my first jobs, being referred to as the "Build Mistress." This isn't bad in itself, because I was indeed the Build Master/Mistress. But the dominatrix jokes (and white board doodles) stopped being funny after the 25th repetition.

  8. As an engineer at an early-stage startup, being sent home to change my clothing and scrub the makeup off my face prior to a meeting with prospective venture capitalists. Because the VCs would never believe I was a serious engineer if I wore a skirt.

  9. Having every visitor to my startup's office assume I was the secretary / office manager, just because I was the nearest female to the door. Even though I was in a private office and you had to walk past 4 or 5 men in cubicles to get to me. Even though I was a co-founder.

  10. When interviewing at a startup with no female employees, I attended a "company meeting" to get a feel for the culture. The VP of Engineering dropped the F-bomb and a few other swears (big deal!). But THEN he turned to me and said, "Excuse me! I didn't realize we were in MIXED company." Later he made a blow job joke and said "Oops! I keep forgetting we're in MIXED company!"

    Way to make a girl feel at home! Keep pointing out she's different than everyone else, under the guise of "politeness." And PLEASE, at that point my life (pre-kids), I probably dropped more F-bombs before breakfast than that guy did in a week. (This is not a good thing, but it is what it is.) Needless to say, I did not join this company.

Why am I writing about some sexist behavior that happened years ago?

True, some of these incidents are old (from the 90s), but many were far more recent.

And while some readers may be tempted to dismiss these incidents as remnants of a bygone era of rampant sexism (like in Mad Men), believing that the software industry has become much more enlightened since then, I beg to differ.

I firmly believe that, in the software industry, sexist behavior and attitudes are far more common NOW than 10, 15, or 20 years ago.

For one thing, there were MORE female programmers (percentage-wise) in the 90s and 00s than today. For another, we now have a lot more "bro-grammers" now, who have created engineering cultures in the image of college fraternities -- not the most female friendly places.

Did I report these incidents to HR?

Except for #4 (the company party with the stripper) I never complained about any of these incidents to HR.

Maybe I should have (especially for the Santa Claus lap-sitting incident), but - let's face it - it probably wouldn't have changed things anyway. Having been around this industry for close to 20 years, I've concluded that at most software companies, HR is there to protect upper management and the company from lawsuits, and NOT to help the rank-and-file employees.

For #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #7, and #8, I instead directly pointed out the sexism to the offending persons or their management, usually face to face. In all cases, nothing was done. Nothing changed.

For most of the remaining incidents, if I complained about the sexist behavior, I'd risk putting a potential employer, investor, or customer on the spot. I judged it impractical to complain.

Share your experiences

I know I'm not alone. If you feel so inspired, add your own experiences in the comments.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com