Women’s (Head)space

Jun 16, 2021 | 2020 Winter - Women's Space

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.

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