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posted: 6/29/2014 6:11 AM

Work Advice: How women can hack into the programmer culture

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Q: I am a software developer who participates in various industry events and online chats. As a woman, I'm assumed not to know much, and thus many men give me know-it-all lectures a la Cliff Clavin from "Cheers," plus suggestions to go elsewhere. I'd like to say, "I have a Ph.D. in engineering, thank you very much" but usually end up saying only the last part, which sounds as though I find their comments useful. I occasionally mention that I teach programming at a local university, but it doesn't seem to register.

I'd write these people off, except that many are leaders in the development community. I keep showing up to demonstrate that I won't be intimidated and to build my reputation among the more tolerant developers. Online, I usually use a male screen name because using a female name generates rants against women.

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How can I better deal with know-it-alls and harassers who believe women don't belong in these forums?

A: I assume an eye-roll and chirpy "Gee, thanks, professor!" probably won't fly. Historically, minority pioneers in every profession have had to do everything twice as well, backward, in high heels, to prove they could do the job despite their reproductive organs, melanin levels or accent. Even the tech industry, romanticized as a haven for geeky outsiders with world-changing ideas, has come under fire for its insular "brogrammer" culture -- and female techies who speak out often find themselves (further) targeted, professionally and personally.

So, yes, it's unfair that you have to keep presenting your bona fides just to join the conversation, if your male colleagues are not asked to do the same.

Some of what needs to change is beyond your control. For example:

• Cliff Clavins becoming aware of their biases ("Do I ever talk to guys like this?") and privilege ("When's the last time I had to deflect unwanted come-ons or hostility while trying to talk shop?").

• Communities actively welcoming -- not "tolerating" -- diverse voices while setting and enforcing guidelines for a respectful environment.

Some of this is happening, albeit sporadically. In the meantime, you can:

• Stop giving thanks (or apologies) for nothing. Find your version of, "Oh, I actually know [complex topic]. What do you know about [other topic]?"

• Seek supportive communities, such as Systers (www.anitaborg.org/get-involved/systers) or IEEE Women in Engineering (www.ieee.org/women), that allow you to be yourself while you ...

• Keep showing up. The longer you do, the more people will see programming as something both men and women do -- like attending college, voting or owning property. Crazy, huh?

Thanks to DC Web Women (www.dcwebwomen.org), Ari Rapkin Blenkhorn, Meg McReynolds, Theresa Brunasso and J. Flora Black for tips and inspiration. For more general resources on this topic, see http://geekfeminism.wikia.com and http://geekfeminism.org/.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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