Networking with the local coding community when you're female
February 25, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm really interested in learning to code (Python in particular), but my forays into the local community have been frustrating. Is this a typical experience for a woman? What can I do differently? Having this coding experience is crucial to getting where I want to go in my career.

I started talking to an experienced (male) programmer through Twitter, and I asked if we could get together and chit chat about things. We had dinner and it turned out his experience wasn't really aligned with where I wanted to go, but we became friends (note: nothing untowards happening here, we're both married and we often go out as a foursome).

The same guy is a big proponent of getting more women into tech, so he's invited me to several local meetings. I finally took him up on that. I got there and it was all men except for me. The meeting was about deciding on a project using opensource data and collaboratively putting it together. The subject matter could not possibly have been more appropriate or interesting for me. Two of the men have essentially my dream jobs.

And yet ... I felt like a total weirdo. I'm not sure if this is a function of just being new to a group, or if my gender actually did come in to play. During the discussion, someone verbally gave out a URL. I didn't hear him and asked him twice to repeat it but I was ignored. I made a suggestion about the project that was ignored. After the discussion, the apparent leader of the group was polite and gave me his business card. I told him a little about my educational background and his first comment was that all the people he'd met with my degree were women. The rest of the group (about 10) did not approach me in any way. I knew one of them from school, and while he said hello, he was still standoffish.

The friend who'd invited me introduced me to the Dream Job guys, who kind of grunted in my direction. I asked them some questions about the project and got more grunts from one. My friend suggested I watch over the other Dream Job guy's shoulder while he wrote a Python script. After I told him I was a beginner, Dream Job Guy told me that he would dumb down his explanation but that I shouldn't be offended. To my shame, the explanation still wasn't dumb enough for me and I was too embarrassed to ask questions. I excused myself for a minute and when I came back he was in a conversation with my friend. Said friend had to leave shortly thereafter, and though the event lasted for several more hours, I opted to leave too.

I didn't see or hear any sexist or inappropriate behavior. These guys weren't brogrammers or neckbeards and didn't seem particularly socially inept with each other. I didn't fear harassment or sexual remarks as I'm not conventionally attractive, I'm androgynous-leaning and I'm 5-10 years older than most of them. I just felt invisible. I really don't want to have any more interaction with this group even though it would be very beneficial to me professionally.

I have not been able to find a group for women in my area, though I'm not really sure where to look. There might be one in a much bigger city in my region, but it's a 3-4 hour round trip and I doubt I could do that very often. I know there are Python books and courses online, and I plan to pursue those, but I really would like someone who can mentor me a bit and/or collaborate with me.

If this was actually just a typical experience for any newcomer to a programming group, please let me know. I do have a history of social anxiety and feeling like an outsider, and I've read so many blog posts about hostility towards women in the tech world that perhaps I am projecting a bit.

Holy wall of text. My actual questions: Was my experience likely due to my gender or my newcomer status? Should I give this group another try? If so, how can I approach it differently? If not, how can I find more friendly groups?
posted by fantoche to Human Relations (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
If it wasn't overtly sexist or inappropriate, I'd give them a break and consider it how they treat a newbie. I'm not a member of any of these groups, but in my social circles in real life, and online, there is definitely a bit of trial by fire. I think it's true of most introvert centric circles.

There's a huge amount of energy expended to pull someone new into the fold, and you don't do that until you're sure they're going to stay part of the community.

Go back, be a wall flower.

By the 3rd or 4th trip, people will start soliciting your input, feedback, and you'll quickly be part of the crew.
posted by DigDoug at 12:06 PM on February 25, 2013

OK in the words of my husband who is a developer and who I just sent a link to this to, "There is not group more socially inept than a group of developers and a new person they didn't know anything about before meeting, would be completely outside the realms of their comfort zone."

He also suggests that a gathering of programmers is a terrible place to get your foot in the door, and as you discovered with the friend you made through twitter, they tend to deal with smaller groups better. He doesn't think it's actual sexism per se from what you've said but most likely your newcomer status and them not being sure what you were bringing to the table, being an unknown quantity as it were.

Also from what I can gather from your question, it appears you were trying to learn and the focus of the meeting was more to develop something and not so much for training so they may have been unsure why you were there.

From my point of view, as a woman that hangs out with a lot of developers and programmers thanks to her husband, most of them are not overtly sexist, well at least when women are in the room, and are usually pretty much the opposite and very pro smart women and womens rights etc. Having said that, these are the developers that are in their late 20's and 30's have partners, gf's wives and kids so take that sampling for what it's worth.

My husband suggests going again. If it's just a meet up then repeated exposure can help break down any walls built up by social skill hiccups. If it makes you feel better, most of these guys know they suck at social things, and would feel bad if they knew they had made you feel bad. There is a reason they deal with logic and computers all day and not people. Give the guys a chance to "rank" you in their minds as to where you sit compared to them knowledge wise too, once they know it's simply a case of you don't know much and want to learn rather than you being someone who thinks they know more than they do, that might help too and you may find people more willing to teach, though don't expect many of them to be good natural teachers.

Also he's looking over my shoulder and insisting that I say this is a bit of a generalization from his point of view, based on how he, his co workers and his friends get when meeting new people at meetups or in work situations and hey they could all have just been assholes.
posted by wwax at 12:27 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a female engineer living in an area rich with tech events, and I've found the same thing. Not in every group, mind you, but certainly many of them. While I'm looking forward to hearing better advice on this thread, here's what I've found so far:
  • I do not experience any of these things in the women-only tech groups I've participated in. If there isn't one in your area, why not start one? You don't need to be a tech guru to get a group of like-minded people together to learn from each other, and having a support group who can validate, "yes, that's happened to me too," has quelled the sense of paranoia one can get when you work in a male-dominated industry.
  • I try to think about tech meetups the same way I do about meetup groups: you have to go to a lot of different ones to find one you click with.
After I told him I was a beginner, Dream Job Guy told me that he would dumb down his explanation but that I shouldn't be offended.

Did he say it that way? 'Cause it sounds pretty douchey. Just because he has your dream job doesn't mean he's your dream collaborator.

On the other hand, I think it really helps to accept where you are technically, and trust yourself to ask intelligent questions until you understand. Nobody starts out knowing everything, even if the tendency in this industry is to posture as if you do. If the person you're asking brushes you off, find someone else, rinse, repeat. That's how I approach finding a mentor, anyway.
posted by homodachi at 12:37 PM on February 25, 2013

I don't mean to seem harsh, but this strikes me as a weird way to approach learning to code. Learning to code is sort of a monastic experience: It takes long hours spent reading and experimenting. You can't learn it socially by hanging out with a group that's talking about it. An enthusiast group can help you when you're stuck, and they'll be happy to answer specific questions, but there's a certain level of groundwork that you need to do first, by yourself or with others who are specifically trying to learn.

Professional networking, OTOH, is a useful benefit of a group like this. I'd focus on that if you go back to the group.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2013 [16 favorites]

agreeing that it's likely that a lot of this is social awkwardness. Other groups may be slightly better at it, repeated exposure may help. It does suck to be the only woman at these things. When there are few others, we tend to stand in the corner and commiserate about this! Does your city have a Pyladies group? They sound like exactly what you're looking for.

Feel free to memail me to chat about this kind of stuff.

(homodachi, I'm not sure if it's funnier if we have or haven't met at these things yet. Women Who Hack was awesome yesterday!)
posted by ansate at 12:40 PM on February 25, 2013

This is tough. On one hand, I'm inclined to say that it's more likely to be social awkwardness than actual hostility. On the other, the group you hung out with seems particularly obtuse (grunting, really?) and borderline rude. I suspect it may be a case where they've been an in-group for so long and know each other so well (especially if you're in a small town) that they don't really know how to handle newcomers, so they just ignore the problem they don't know how to solve.

My experience is primarily with Wordpress, which is different in that attendees of industry events and meet-ups often have wildly varying levels of expertise with the system and you can't depend on everyone to understand your technical jargon. But even so, it's been rare that people having a conversation will reach out and explicitly try to involve someone who wasn't already part of that group. They are okay with you listening in and are more than happy to answer your questions, but few go the extra mile to make a newcomer feel welcome. It's a tough skill and not something everyone instinctively thinks about, whether it's a developer community or otherwise.

I find that I do better with structured events (like workshops) than free-for-all discussions, because then there are defined points where you can contribute, and even if you don't contribute anything at least you learned from the workshop. Plus, afterwards there's kind of a default jumping-off point for discussions, since people are eager to talk about their impressions.

It may also be worth talking to your friend about this, and asking him to have your back. E.g. If you can't hear what's being said and people ignore your request for clarification, can he back up your request? Can you find out in advance what the topics of these meetups are?

I know it's difficult finding a good tech community if you're in a smaller town. Have you checked out PyLadies to see if there are maybe online forumes to find a virtual mentor who can at least answer questions? Ladies Learning Code in Toronto runs a series of fantastic intro workshops aimed at getting women into tech, and their mentor list for Python workshops might also be a good resource for finding people online who are interested in helping newcomers. Honestly, I personally just make the 3 hour round-trip drive every few months for events I'm particularly interested in. A hassle, but worth it IMO.

I also agree with wwax that you're not going to get a lot of 101 info out of these sorts of geek meetups. I don't know what your comfort level with Python is, but unless it's an event specifically aimed at teaching beginners, you're probably not going to be able to drill down into the basics at these events. Would you be comfortable working on your own as much as you can and bringing your questions to the group or to other mentors, so that there are defined issues to be solved?
posted by Phire at 12:41 PM on February 25, 2013

The problem is that your expertise level is very mismatched with theirs, not due to gender or social awkwardness. The goal is to work together on this project with opensource data, and it sounds like there is a big discrepancy between their expertise level and yours.

It is like the times I went to play sports with far more experienced players. They were nice, but I kept dropping the ball and letting the other team intercept, or being too slow in the pool and blocking swimmers behind me. It was uncomfortable. Gender didn't matter -- I felt just as out of place with all-female triathlon swimmers. When I play with people who are at my own (very low) expertise level, it is comfortable and I don't feel out of place.

You can use to learn on your own. If you do attend meetups, go to ones with other beginners.
posted by cheesecake at 1:01 PM on February 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

The majority of tech meetups I've attended had attendees of varying experience levels. Very rarely will you ever attend a meetup about open source technology full of "experts." The very notion about open-source is to be collaborative. It is rude to be flat out ignored in a space that is supposed to be about collaboration. And the fact that you were ignored not once, but twice even without anyone even bothering to help you out speaks to the initial vibe this group gives off.

Definitely keep going to the meetup though, sometimes it takes a few tries to understand the flow of the group. If you are really committed to becoming a web developer, don't give up.
posted by xtine at 1:13 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a female software engineer and I go to Python tech meetups regularly. I manage to talk to people, make friends, and work on my projects with other people. The difference is probably that I am in a different place in my coding career and have a lot of self-confidence about my skills, and also that I am almost never the only woman at any of my meetups.

For that second point, I have to thank Girl Develop IT Pittsburgh for creating a great space for female coder meetups so that new coders can meet more established ones. Also, there is usually a contingent from GDITP at almost any tech meetup and therefore always at least a few familiar faces.

I know that my current level of self-confidence as a programmer came from having years of experience, and also having great mentorship as an undergraduate and all along my career, much of it female. Those mentorships have given me the tools to know the difference between someone who is treating me like a "girl" and someone who just has rusty communication skills. In fact, I do all of the initial recruiting for my company as well as initial screens, so I put those skills to the test as a professional "jerk-filter".

I will totally mentor you (or anyone in this thread, for that matter) if you want someone to talk to about this stuff on a one-on-one level.
posted by Alison at 1:21 PM on February 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't know if this helps, but your experience is something that the Python community has actively recognized and is trying to work on -- the phenomenon of a woman joining a room full of men and feeling like a total weirdo, I mean, whether because of sexism or standard geek lack of social skills or just because it's a weird situation.
  • Some thoughts by one of the few women who attended EuroPython 2011, after the diversity keynote.
  • A random Python workshop in Boston specifically for women who are getting started with programming.
  • A post by Guido on how to make Python events more welcoming to "diverse" newcomers (e.g. women).
Some of this stuff ends up feeling over-earnest or even condescending in its own way, but at the very least it's cool that they're working on it, and maybe it'll connect you to something useful.
posted by jhc at 1:28 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

There could be multiple other things at play:

A friend was a civil engineer, lost his job after the housing bubble, and decided he wanted to become a nurse. He got a crappy nurse-aide job to show commitment because lots of people apply for nursing programs after losing their jobs and wanting "something new" in a "growing field", took pre-req classes, etc, so the nursing programs are wary to accept people with non-traditional backgrounds because they usually drop out as soon as they get a job offer in the thing they're already good at. How unfair, right? Well, my friend got a job offer in civil and dropped the nursing. So maybe they see people like you ("all the people he'd met with my degree were women") who never come back (which could be mostly their fault) and don't want to invest time in you. You aren't paying them, so they don't owe you anything.

I feel a single-sex group is easier to navigate for people with social difficulties and your presence could have made them nervous until they understand how to work with you. Nervous behavior comes off in varying bad ways.

Programmers are autodidacts. I don't even know how a person could be any good without being one. When I wanted to learn Python, I went to and started reading. (Click documentation on the left, then beginner's guide). Use the group's projects to know what technologies to study, but almost everybody does this studying alone (even if in the presence of others).

This event was for doing a project of sorts and watch how other people with similar skills get things done (oh, you use XYZ website to generate JSON for your config files? that's handy). So you were probably just in the wrong group, as it was for people at a higher level. (on preview: echo cheesecake)

After I told him I was a beginner, Dream Job Guy told me that he would dumb down his explanation but that I shouldn't be offended.
While not the best way to put it, it is encouraging someone was happy to explain. Do you remember at all what he was talking about? You could look it up before the next meeting and you'll be the much farther along to understanding. Ask a question that shows you were paying attention, did some "homework", then came back with a another question, and their respect level for you should go way up if they're decent people. (though it'd help to run the question by your friend to make sure it won't seem naive). Also, many programmers love to argue their side in some flamewar topic, so you could ask an "innocent" question like "oh, you are using [Python package A], is that anything like [similar package for Ruby]?"

Also, I'm a guy and I feel this same way in most geek groups the first few or many times.
posted by flimflam at 1:30 PM on February 25, 2013

This has been very helpful, thanks. In retrospect I can see how Dream Job Guy would have been frustrated - he was eager to delve into the project, and now he's got to explain it to a beginner.

I've got a couple of Python books and I know where to find online classes, so I'm going to work on learning on my own, and try the group again in another month or so.
posted by fantoche at 1:34 PM on February 25, 2013

Oh, have you asked your friend if he knows any female programmers he could introduce you to, whether as mentors or as newbies to go along to meetups? Not feeling like The Only Woman In The Room could be good, and having someone you can bring along could be good, especially if the friend who invited you is likely to be running around at these meetups -- I hate rooms where I don't know anyone.
posted by jhc at 1:41 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Not that OP needs to do so, but it would be helpful to know where OP resides, so we can recommend known awesome groups / people / mentors.)

If my own beloved PyMNtos was the problem, I will be very sad, and I hope OP will MeMail!

OP, welcome to the world of programming, and to the (extended!) Python community!

* some groups really are sexist
* some groups really are awkward
* some particular people in otherwise awesome groups can be sexist or unfriendly.
* a group can just suck plenty well without also being sexist. Sucky groups suck and don't deserve your energy / patronage.
* group learning is a totally valid way of learning programming. Autodidactism isn't the only path! (tsk to others in this thread!)
* PLEASE come to meetups even if you are new! You might get less / different things out of it than an advanced user, but good groups welcome growing new members

Python groups might not be the only game in town, either! There is a lot of overlap between the Ruby, Python, JavaScript, Web Programming, Server Operations, Data Viz, Maker and other communities. Choose others on EventBrite or Meetup, and see if you have the same experience.
posted by gregglind at 2:01 PM on February 25, 2013

I think part of the question is, what were you looking for? Were the other group members aware of your goal? What about that goal was relevant to them?

I guess I agree with qxntpqbbbqxl that if what you're looking for is support while learning to code, this isn't the way to go about it. I don't know that it's the way to work on professional networking either: it sounds like you don't have much to bring to the table just yet. (Apologies if I misread.) If you're looking to get a big-picture view of what software development or open-source development is like, this sort of meetup is a good way to do that, although the utility of that seems limited to me without more programming background to back it up.

I guess what I'm saying is that regardless of whether these guys have any gender interaction issues, it seems like you might be coming to them and saying "teach me" and they're saying "that's not what we're here for." There's a big programming culture of RTFM, where there's an expectation that before you ask for help you'll take all the steps you possibly can to solve your own problem, and bring all that prior work to the table you do ask for help. Whether this is a helpful attitude is an open question, but I'd be surprised if it played a smaller part than any sexism in the reception you experienced.

Something that might be more helpful when you're just starting off is to take some kind of programming class, either at a physical location where you can collaborate with students, TAs, and teachers, or an online course where you can hopefully get good feedback from class forums and staff. You might try to find a Women in Computer Science group at a local university and see if they could support you, or try to find some other people who want to learn and set up a mutual support group. Or, luck out and find someone who is happy to hear "teach me" from someone who doesn't (yet) have much to offer in return.

On preview: Sounds like you've got a good approach. A month sounds like not much time, however, unless you feel you are fairly close to the level that group is working at. If you're not, that doesn't mean you shouldn't go, but do go with clear goals and expectations.
posted by trig at 2:04 PM on February 25, 2013

As others have mentioned, programming is a VERY "learn it on your own" culture. So I think most of what was going on here was that you just weren't at their level yet. Until you learn to code, you won't be able to get a foot in the door with that group. You need to seek out other beginners, either through a formal class, or through some sort of beginner tech meetup group if one exists in your area. Then you need to practice practice practice way beyond whatever the formal "homework" assignments from the class are. Do the homework, then try to come up with a couple of different ways to do it, or a couple of other similar problems and try to solve them. Basically, right now you're trying to converse with the equivalent of native speakers without having had even a vocabulary lesson. You need to get familiar enough with Python that even if you can't write at their level of coding yet you can at least "read" what they have written. Once you can do that, then you should have a much easier time having conversations with them. Right now you're (as far as they know) a dilettante who may never learn to code and none of them are willing to take on the task of teaching.
posted by MsMolly at 2:06 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I partly agree with everyone else. It's not clear to me what you want to get out of being in this group - you say you are looking for someone to mentor you and collaborate with you, but if I understand correctly, you have not yet begun to learn to program? Personally, as a programmer (and a female one even) I would not be interested in mentoring an absolute beginner in most circumstances. I'm not going to say that it's a bad way for you to learn, just that it's not what I want to do with my time.

However, while I agree that to join an open source project, you need to be able to offer something yourself - that doesn't have to be programming skill! When you say The subject matter could not possibly have been more appropriate or interesting for me. Two of the men have essentially my dream jobs. you mean "it was about analysing real time traffic data and I'm actually a traffic engineer who writes these reports in my sleep"? In other words if you can't program, can you do other relevant work for this project?
posted by jacalata at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

While its hard to say if there was any specific sexism, I can say that there are a lot of respected, good programmers who are super rude and generally unpleasant people. Sadly, that kind of behavior is tolerated more than in other industries due to a combination of talent shortage and a sort of mythologizing of the socially awkward programmer as some sort of ideal / "real programmer" (kind of like the idea that a genius scientist must be a mad scientist / crazy type --- yeah it happens, but its not like its a job requirement).

The idea that a guy would treat a newbie guy in that way is totally believable to me ("Oh fine, I'll dumb this down for you... ugh... "). There is a moderately sized group of programmers who are just completely dismissive / irritated by people who are not at their level of understanding.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:03 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is easy for me to imagine that you'd have had the same experience if you were a guy. That isn't to discount the shitty experiences of women in tech, but I really don't think that has happened to you yet.

You can certainly try some other groups, nothing wrong with further broadening your perspective more, but i'd stick with this group until you find something that is clearly better for you.

Reasons for sticking with this one for a while: 1) You already know one of the members 2) you've already met them for the first time, and vice versa 3) Sounds like they are going to be working on a project where you have some enthusiasm and subject matter expertise, good, those will come in handy. The next step is simple: Start showing up and helping where you can. You might start by focusing on opportunities for 1-on-1 collaboration. The work is the excuse you all need to push past your awkwardness. In small steps you will adjust to them, and them to you.

Also, if you don't understand some code, and feel you can't ask for help, try spending time with google and an interactive python interpreter.

Other things: The thing you may lack compared to the rest of the group might not be a particular piece of anatomy, or fluency in Python. It may be that most of them had the experiences of feeling awkward/insignificant/strange/inept/etc and finding that if they just show up and are who they are, some people, enough people, accept them (one of the most awkward dudes I went to high school with ended up doing his dream job as a Disney artist, which later resulted in being the voice of Rhino, the hamster in Bolt, which led to me seeing him on TV doing press appearances. He was funny, and charismatic, and still a bit quirky and odd. It was wonderful how comfortable he'd become).

"Dumb it down" might have been less a slight and more a dry (and awkward) attempt at humor. Whatever it was, the guy took the time to try and explain something to you, and you didn't get much/anything out of it. I understand that you felt awkward, and i'm not criticizing you for it (and you should't criticise yourself for it either), but consider that you'd have shown more respect for his time if you'd asked a few questions and actually gotten something out of it. It might make it easier to ask those questions in similar circumstances in the future.

Good luck with everything. It sounds like you are off to a fine start. Keep at it.
posted by Good Brain at 3:58 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a male who was a Drupal/php newbie and a Linux newbie years ago, the first LUG meeting I attended was pretty much like you mentioned. The first Drupal meeting I went to wasn't as bad, but they made specific efforts to make it more welcoming and mentioned those efforts at the beginning to set the tone.
posted by Brian Puccio at 4:51 PM on February 25, 2013

If you would like to find a group with more women, one thing you could do is join the Systers mailing list and ask if anyone has suggestions for groups near you. They have around 3,000 (female) members and field questions like that all the time.
posted by asphericalcow at 5:14 PM on February 25, 2013

I'm also a female programmer, and I'm here to suggest that you join the Devchix mailing list. It's a great community, and people there should be able to recommend comfortable groups near you and encourage you as you keep learning more about programming.

I've found that women-only groups are more likely to be friendly and comfortable than general programmer groups, but I've also definitely come across a few co-ed groups that I absolutely love. (I actually just got home from my favorite (Hack 'n Tell) tonight!) If you're in NYC, memail me and I can send you a bunch of recommendations.
posted by 168 at 7:50 PM on February 25, 2013

I think they code in Ruby, but you may want to explore getting hooked into, which is one of the few notable open-source projects that has (at least the last time I checked) a predominantly female membership, and has a reputation for being open and welcoming to newcomers and happy to mentor those who want to learn to code.

This post is a few years old but may point you in the direction of some online resources that you may find helpful.
posted by oblique red at 8:47 AM on February 26, 2013

Another suggestion: while you are studying on your own, you can keep going to the meetings and see if there is something that you CAN offer the group. My first day on the job as a programmer, I was very frustrated that I couldn't even log on to the server or do ANYTHING, but by god, I could TYPE, so I volunteered to take minutes at the meeting and prepare the Design Documents. Not only did I give a break to the senior programmers (who all hate documentation tasks), but it forced me to pay enough attention to be able to repeat what was going on, and I became comfortable asking questions about specific sections and eventually I got up to speed enough to contribute to the actual programming.

So figure out if there is some part of the meeting that you can contribute to*, and volunteer to do that, as you keep learning and growing and see what happens over time.

*Do be careful that if you decide "I can provide snacks every week!" you might get pigeon-holed into the supportive female role and never really get integrated into the group. Even "secretarial" tasks might lead here, but if you can eventually contribute, you can get past that.
posted by CathyG at 1:45 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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