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Kelsey is a nerd.

Why I'm Glad for Lambda Ladies

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Earlier this week, an awesome group of women that I’m a part of started Lambda Ladies, a group for women interested in functional programming. I’m really excited about it, especially the email list which already has far more FP women than I would’ve even thought existed! The response so far has been pretty overwhelmingly positive, but I also saw some skepticism on Twitter about the need for such a group and I wanted to give a little background about why I think it’s a good idea.

What does gender have to do with functional programming?

I actually think there are some tendencies specific to the functional programming community that make me excited about Lambda Ladies, but I’m pretty sure I reached my quota of arguments over the semantics of the word “neckbeard” a few months ago. Instead, I’d like to talk about a benefit of women-specific groups: providing mentorship to young women developers. As someone who’s just emerging from the holy-crap-I-have-a-real-job-how-do-I-keep-them-from-finding-out-I’m-an-idiot stage of post-college terror, mentorship is on my mind a lot. I’m realizing that unlike almost everything else in programming, you can’t look up how to get where you want in your career on Stack Overflow. Personal advice and connections from someone with specific knowledge of the field you’re working in are critical, and I’ve come to see women’s lists and meetups as excellent sources for finding mentorship.

Why does a mentor have to be a woman? You’re never going to find a mentor exactly like you, why not an empathetic person of any gender?

Well, sometimes experience trumps empathy, and it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out who is empathetic ahead of time. But mostly, I agree with this idea. Yay for supportive men! Personally, I’m definitely open to support from any source and am extremely grateful to everyone who’s helped me so far in my career. It would be downright silly to limit my pool of potential mentors to only women, especially considering how low the percentage of women in tech is and how that percentage drops even lower the higher up the career chain you go.

Here’s the thing, though. Mentorship rarely takes the form of a formal program with delineated boundaries. Mentorship is formed through personal connection and ideally sustained over an extended period. It happens in private interaction and social networks. Coffee after work, jokey Twitter conversations, drinks at conferences.

And the part that’s hard to write: those things happening between a less experienced, often younger woman and a more experienced man are not read as neutral. One obvious way is when women’s professional overtures (or communication at all!) to men are mistaken for romantic ones. I have only anecdotal evidence, but it seems to happen far more commonly among programmers than in other fields. Lest you think I’m a particularly flirty networker/coworker/meeting participant, this is common enough to be something of a trope.

That’s creepy misbehavior and it needs to stop. But maybe more insidious is the way that even the most aboveboard professional interactions have the potential–maybe the probability–to be misinterpreted by other people. I know at least two women who’ve been accused of “sleeping their way to the top” due to their closeness to successful male mentors. I’ve been turned down for one-on-one lunch in the office before because it wouldn’t look right. It’s an obstacle to finding mentorship that my male peers simply don’t have to worry about, and one that I feel the need to balance with more active efforts towards building positive and almost aggressively strictly professional relationships with experienced people in my field.

Is this unique to women programmers? Certainly it’s a potential issue in any mixed-gender field, but I think the scarcity of women in tech make it much more acute for us. Because there are so few women in the field, there just isn’t yet widely-accepted protocol covering cross-gender professional interactions between programmers.

If you’re curious, by the way, this is why some of us are so insistent that the sexualizing of professional technical environments has to stop. It’s not that we’re prudes or humorless–if you knew me personally, you could attest that I like a good dick joke or elaborate porn metaphor as much as the next person (probably more, because I have the sense of humor of a 12 year old. Go ahead and try to have a serious conversation about database sharding around me.) But I cringe every time I see this kind of thing publicly exhibited and defended by respected people in tech, because it’s actively contributing to the perception that all interactions between men and women are sexual, and that perception combined with the dearth of experienced women mean fewer opportunities for professional growth for me.

But that’s unfair/limiting/heterosexist/paranoid!

Yes, absolutely! Oh, imaginary interlocutor, I’m so glad we agree on this point. It’s totally not right. And I hope I never stop doing what I can to change it, both in the general–by challenging heteronormativity, structural sexism, and objectification–and in the particular, by working to increase the number and visibility of technical women and modelling awesome, productive professional relationships with the men around me.

But you know that old saw about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you? I don’t have the luxury of working right now in the welcoming, diverse computing field I’d like to see and hope to help build. Instead, I work in a field where many (but not all, thankfully!) participants consider a close relationship between a man and a women to be sexual or romantic by default, and I work in a field where women are highly visible by default because of how few of us there are. And, unfortunately, I work in a field where women’s perceived missteps are punished harshly and quickly.

Sometimes that takes the form of public attacks and threats. Sometimes, and probably more often, it takes the form of being let go for not being a culture fit or being transferred off challenging projects because your supervisor feels you have rejected his advances, or any one of a million other ways to derail your plans. How do I know this? I know this because other women have written about their experiences of these things, and because they’ve shared them with me (often on the lists that this post is about!)

There’s been talk lately of whether sharing bad experiences as technical women is a good idea or not, since it could potentially scare women away from computing. I’m so glad that they’re being shared, because if I’m going to avoid being one of the 56% of women who leave tech at or before reaching mid-level in their careers, I need realistic information about what actually happens in our field. If I’m going to “lean in”/stay on my grind/be part of turning that statistic around, I have to be practical.

So, am I going to stop pursuing professional connections and learning opportunities with men in my field? No way. But am I going to do so carefully with an awareness of the way these relationships and others’ perception of them could hurt my career? Absolutely. And if an opportunity comes along to build mentoring relationships without having to worry about these minefields, am I going to jump on that faster than quicksort with a good choice of pivot? Oh HELL yeah.

If the question is “what does gender have to do with writing functional code?” then the answer, obviously, is nothing. But if the question is “what does gender have to do with learning, finding jobs, and making a career writing functional code?” then the answer is many, many things. Counter-intuitively, rather than highlighting gender, groups like Lambda Ladies provide an opportunity for me to seek out mentorship without having to think about gender.