Stop Acting So Surprised: How Microaggressions Enforce Stereotypes in Tech

If you’re someone who identifies strongly with the techie stereotype, then all of these myths about the tech industry and its predictable culture make it sound like a promised land that was built just for you.

by Livio De La Cruz on June 30th, 2015

When you work in tech outreach efforts or in computer science education, you inevitably have to fight the perception that the industry is only for stereotypical computer nerds. Unfortunately, many of our efforts to dispel that myth are constantly undone by people already in this industry who believe and enforce that very perception.

Here’s how it works. Say two programmers meet at an industry event. The first assumes the other isn’t a programmer, and the second politely corrects them. Being genuinely surprised and slightly embarrassed, the first blurts out an excuse for their mistake, “Oh… but you don’t look like a programmer!” Unfortunately, this just makes the other person feel weird and out of place, like they’ve stumbled into a space they’re not expected to be. We do this kind of thing quite a lot in this industry: making developers feel weird for not fitting our stereotypes.

Even when we get past introductions, we make all sorts of arbitrary assumptions about someone’s personality, interests, and hobbies. How can someone be a developer and not like video games, or Star Wars, or staying up all night programming while eating junk food? We tease each other for not living up to those assumptions by saying, “but every developer likes this!” Yes, there’s usually an intended humor in these comments, but they still make people uncomfortable: they vocally point out one’s differences with the subtext that there’s something wrong with them. As someone who has had to put with these kinds of microaggressions for years, sometimes the aggregate message feels a lot more like: “What… how come you don’t fit the stereotype? Are you sure you belong here?”

Row of metal paperclips, with one yellow plastic paperclip standing conspicuously in the line.

Photo CC-BY SamahR, filtered.

We also have a tendency to forget that everyone has had their own unique introduction to the tech world, and that they have different opinions and tastes when it comes to certain technical topics. We make accusations such as, “Why do you use PHP? It’s a terrible language!” For experienced developers, this kind of childish behavior is worth rolling your eyes at. But when you’re a newcomer still figuring things out, you tend to believe this person who seems to know more than you, and you feel ashamed for yet again being different.

Things are especially bad in universities where students who already have a lot of technical experience forget that not everyone is on the same level as them. In any other field, a student with a strong head start would typically feel like an anomaly in the classroom, but in computer science these students instead feel like the norm. Because they expect their classmates to be just like them, these privileged students are quick to be surprised by the large skill gap between them and their classmates. “Huh… why didn’t you just turn this into a function?” Comments that could have been phrased as helpful tips are instead often delivered in ways that imply the other person is somehow strange for not having arrived at the same conclusion.

All of the above examples show that we’re pretty good at making people feel unwelcome in this industry. Whether it’s intentional or not, we consistently make it clear to people from certain backgrounds that we don’t expect them to be here, and we make it clear that we don’t expect our colleagues to be significantly different from us.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Few things are hurting the tech industry more than that surprised look on your face when you meet someone who doesn’t conform to your idea of who works here. For all of the things that we say about how you don’t have to be a stereotypical computer nerd to be in this industry, it’s precisely through our surprised reactions we suggest otherwise.

Imagine what it’s like to be constantly receiving these subtle messages from your colleagues, that something is wrong with the idea that you work here, that you are attending this event, that you are in this classroom. You wonder if maybe you made a mistake when you thought this profession was a good match for you, because as everyone keeps pointing out, you don’t have the expected background, or the expected personality traits, or the expected opinions about things, or the expected head start. On their own, each subtle message might simply be a harmless doubt, but at the scale with which we’re sending these messages, we might as well be brainwashing people into thinking that they don’t belong here.

We’ve been pushing people away from the tech industry for decades, and this immense loss of talent is both absurd and embarrassing. When you study the historical data and see just how sharply the percentage of women studying computer science has been plummeting since the 1980s, you realize that this is the kind of thing that makes other industries look at us and think, “Wow, what did you guys do to them?”

Graph charting the % of women majors in medical school, law school, physical sciences and computer science from 1965 to 2015. The number of majors in medical school, law school, and physical sciences steadily rises, while majors in computer science drops conspiculously in the mid-80s and continues declining to less than 20% from a previous high of over 35% in the early 80s.

Chart from NPR’s Planet Money, “When Women Stopped Coding

We’ve been excluding all sorts of people from our field, not just women. For instance, according to the stereotype, if you learned to program at a young age, then that’s indicative of a “natural” affinity towards the field. But it’s actually just indicative of having grown up in a household with expensive devices, reliable internet access, parents/guardians who didn’t actively discourage high usage of technology, enough luck to have even been exposed to the concept of programming, and a ton of free time to tinker with it all. If that’s what it takes to be a natural fit for the field, then a successful career in tech sounds pretty unlikely for anyone who didn’t have access to such luxuries. This is why so many young people actively avoid programming without even trying it out first: we’ve taught them this weird catch-22 about how the only way to become a programmer is to already be a programmer.

Our expectations for who “looks like a programmer” are also just as restrictive. We’re so fixated on appearances that we even have slightly altered versions of these expectations tailored for different corners of the tech world: in the games industry, it’s the condescending “you probably aren’t a gamer,” and in the startup world, it’s that moment when an investor says, “You don’t look like the entrepreneur-type.” Each of these spaces have their own version of the stereotype, and it’s particularly difficult for people of certain genders, cultures, and racial backgrounds to fit into those stereotypes. When someone doesn’t look technical enough, we tend to underestimate their abilities. Likewise, when someone doesn’t look like the kind of person who we’d expect to be a “natural fit” for this field, we underestimate their potential. We have low expectations for their careers and we pretty much never envision them as becoming legendary developers someday. This in turn makes us much less likely to consider them for critical roles where they might be able to prove themselves.

There have been many candidates who failed to get that one high-ranking job, promotion, or investment on the basis of an uninformed gut feeling that usually sounds like, “I just can’t imagine this person becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.” Oftentimes, what’s truly difficult to imagine is the possibility that the next Mark Zuckerberg might be a person of color, or a woman, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the stereotype. When we carelessly base our decisions on gut feelings rather than on critical thinking, we tend to miss out on incredible opportunities due to our faulty, pattern-matching tendencies. These mistakes also inadvertently create a glass ceiling that pushes highly experienced talent away from our companies and sometimes the entire industry.

The World is Bigger Than We Think

While the industry’s self-enforced monoculture is a big part of what keeps most people out, it also attracts a certain number of people as well. If you’re someone who identifies strongly with the techie stereotype and if you’ve historically felt like an outcast for it, then all of these myths about the tech industry and its predictable culture make it sound like a promised land that was built just for you and other like-minded people. This fantasy isn’t necessarily born out of ego; it’s just plain comforting to think that you belong in a particular community and that you might share an automatic kinship with those who also belong there.

Photo of a peapod, cracked open to show numerous brightly-colored peas: pink, orange, blue among the green peas.

Photo CC-BY Koshy Koshy, filtered.

Not only is this narrative built around the idea that everyone in tech is part of the same stereotype, but for many of us, it’s also such a fundamental part of our understanding of the tech industry that we’re completely surprised and thrown off balance when we meet a developer who breaks that narrative. Unfortunately, rather than sorting out this dissonance in a healthy way, it seems that many of us subconsciously enter into a state of denial. For example, we might decide that it makes sense to think of such devs as rare exceptions or as strange anomalies. The side effect is that people can tell when we think their career choice was unnatural, especially when we say things like, “Wow, how did someone like you get so good at C++?” Another common coping mechanism is to somehow never fully register that the other person is an actual developer. This of course means that we never treat them like a developer, we underestimate their potential, and we make a habit of telling them, “Oh, this is probably too technical for you.”

Rather than reevaluating our internalized definitions and expanding our set of expectations for who works in this industry, we instead choose to continue believing in those same old myths and stereotypes.

Until we truly take it to heart that a developer can be anyone—regardless of their age, gender, race, economic background, sexual orientation, etc.—, then we’re just going to keep having these same surprised reactions that make people feel like they’re doing something wrong just by being here.

It’s about time we stopped draining our own talent pool.