Lean In as a Female Software Engineer

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

As a female software engineer working in the game industry, you would think that I have a lot to say about sexism. It is no lie that women are outnumbered in the field of software engineering. At Zynga, I feel that a huge effort is made to recruit women, who now account for 38% of our total staff. However, amongst the software developers that number drops to a meager 5%. I think we are only 3 female developers on my entire floor at the moment.

Despite being part of a clear minority, I have never felt denigrated. My colleagues treat me as an equal. Zynga as a company prides itself in being a meritocracy, where everyone has the same opportunities to prove their value and be rewarded accordingly. I have no reason to doubt that, workwise, men and women are just as capable. Already, from kindergarten to post-doctoral studies, girls’ results match those of boys. Since the early 1980’s, more than half of college graduates are women. Although just as capable, there is no denying that we are different. And once we leave the controlled ecosystem of our schools and face the harsh realities of the work market, these differences can affect our professional progression in a myriad of ways.

Men obviously excel in the current work system. It is no wonder; historically, they created it while women stayed at home and took care of the family. The workforce has always been defined by men. They are in their element when negotiating advantageous conditions, asking for promotions and managing peers. Over 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. They are able to separate their professional lives from their personal lives. On the plus side, there tends to be less drama in male groups, because they are confident, proud and good players. Figuratively, they have a gamer attitude that allows them to lightheartedly recover from failures. Even literally, they are very game-centered (maybe that is just because I work at a gaming company). At lunchtime I can never keep up with the conversations; too many references to Solstice Arena, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Civilization, Starcraft, etc. All games that revolve around a central theme: domination! Men currently rule the world.

Now why are women underrepresented is one question, with many historic explanations, but at this time we must focus on the more actionable counterpart: how can this change? This is where Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, was a revelation. She brings forward a very simple concept: “More women in power”.  This doesn’t mean that all women should aim to govern, but rather that those inclined to move into leadership positions should be encouraged to do so and carry the voices of all into light. In this way our realities can be exposed and our concerns can be addressed. Gaining power does not mean climbing up the ladder linearly, but rather finding a position from where one is comfortable to stand tall and proud. Sandberg makes a wonderful allusion to a jungle gym to replace the traditional image of a work ladder. In a ladder, everyone is stuck looking at the next person’s derriere, while in a jungle gym all spots can be just as fun.

Of course, there are many barriers to be overcome, because sexism is still present in the workspace. It takes many subtle forms, from harassment to inequitable wages. A 2011 McKinsey report found that while men are promoted based on potential; women are promoted based on past achievements. They need to fight in order to gain trust. We hear about these external barriers erected by society all the time. And anyone will politically agree that these must be fought. However, we tend to oversee that women are also held back by internal barriers that can be just as harmful and hard to eradicate.

Personally, I was totally blind to most of these internal barriers deeply engrained in my life until I read Lean In. Sandberg essentially slapped me in the face: “We hold ourselves back in both big and small, by lack of self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” Ouch. The truth hurts. And as though that wasn’t enough, she shook me hard and raised her voice to say that women “feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake had been made. […] We constantly underestimate ourselves.” So true. Even without looking at her extensive literature review and citations to back this up, I knew it was real. Because I feel it, I live it, daily. Sandberg then proceeded to poor a bucket of ice cold water on my head: “Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills. Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because she worked really hard, or got lucky, or had help from others. Men and women also differ when it comes to explaining failure. When a man fails, he points to factors like didn’t study enough, or not interested in the subject matter. When a woman fails, she is more likely to believe it is due to an inherent lack of ability.” Just looking around my office I could easily find examples to back these words. What a wake-up call. I promised to make an effort to change. It has been a month now, and I am actively and consciously fighting this self-perception distortion. Although I put the same effort into my job as before, I try to speak up and take credit for my accomplishments. Reading this book even gave me the nudge to start this blog!

It would be naïve to believe that the compliant raise your hand to talk mentality that works so well in the classroom can be ported to the workplace. Career progression depends on selling oneself. Women are held back by fear of failure. We get hurt easily, so we step down. We must ask ourselves “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid”, and then go do it. Moving forward also requires ambition. Women generally have for goal to set themselves up professionally as well as possible before having kids. As a result of this notion of a timed plateau, they limit themselves to stable and secure career paths. It is all a matter of mindset. With a little more confidence they could achieve anything. Most men do not even think that having kids will impact their professional life. They dare to take on risky moves; moves that pay out in the long run. They have the confidence to boast and sell themselves. I know quite a few men who have bullshitted their way up to positions for which they clearly do not qualify, due to lacking skills. That in itself is a skill!

More seriously, I believe that both partners should be equally involved in raising children. Women should not feel like they have to hold back and sacrifice their careers. The couple should discuss such feelings, because they are bound to arise, and make decisions as a team. It is just as worthy and meaningful to be a stay at home parent than to be a work parent. I have equally great respect for both roles, but I refuse to cast women into one by default. As we work to remove the social-psychological threats, reduce the salary gap and even out work conditions, hopefully we will have less guilty moms, more involved dads, and happier children.

To reiterate a few points; conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voices to their needs and concerns. The more we become self-confident and straighten our backs, the easier it will be to tear down the external barriers set upon women, which in turn will relieve women from their internalized barriers. Let’s hope for a snowballing effect!