Working as a female programmer turned me into a feminist

This interview gives us an in-depth look at the struggles of a female programmer and the gender inequities of working in tech in China.
Chinese Feminism
Shanghai. By Katherine Gu on Unsplash.
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Translator’s note: From the anti-996 movement, where tech workers protested the long working schedule of 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, to the creation of trendy new terms like “involution” (neijuan) that is used to describe office work, discussion about Chinese tech work has become a hot topic over the past few years. But not many have broached the topic of gender inequality within China’s tech industry. This interview gives us an in-depth look at the struggles of a female programmer and the gender inequities of working in tech in China. This interview has been condensed for clarity. It is translated from ChineseFeminism.org, a site dedicated to feminist struggles in China.

Chinese Feminism (CF): Please introduce yourself.

Xiao Wu (XW): My name is Xiao Wu. I’ve been living in Shanghai for three years and I work as a female programmer.

CF: Can you share a bit about how you became a female programmer?

XW: When I decided that I wanted to become a programmer, I knew very clearly that I was not any less capable than my male counterparts. During school, my know-how, skills, and grades were all better than most other students. But once I started to look for work, I realized that it isn’t easy to find a job as a female programmer. I interviewed with a bunch of companies but had no success. Employers often felt that because programmers have to work overtime, this line of work wasn’t suitable for women, who (apparently) wouldn’t be able to take the pressure.

CF: Did these employers bring up working overtime with you? And did they ask if you can accept it?

XW: They’ve never been so straight forward. They won’t tell me directly that they aren’t hiring me because I’m a woman. Instead use roundtable methods to reject me. For example, my friend (who is a man) and I applied for the same role at the same company. When I asked for feedback on my resume and whether I’ll be getting an interview, I was told that the spot was already filled up. But during this time, I knew my friend had been invited in for an interview and that the company hadn’t actually filled the spot yet. If I didn’t know that my friend was also applying through the same process, I would’ve never found out that I was being rejected on the basis of gender. Furthermore, this rejection was made without any consideration of my technical abilities. 

CF: So the problem is that these employers don’t even give you a chance to demonstrate your technical skills. They write you off simply because of your gender.

XW: Correct. This kind of thing happens all the time.

CF: So how did you manage to find your first job?

XW: Not all companies have these sexist practices when it comes to hiring. But there may be some reasons for this: first, some companies aren’t hiring as competitively; second, some hires are made on the basis of employee recommendation; third, and critically, female applicants must not be planning on getting pregnant in the near-future. They want to make sure that we can withstand the pressure (like our male counterparts) before giving us an opportunity. For some big companies, there is often a lot of maintenance work, which tends to be a little easier, technically speaking. For these roles, companies like stability, so they’ll hire women because they tend to be more stable.

My first job was at a joint-venture. The work then was mainly maintenance work. Because it was my first job, I wanted to focus on learning and accumulating experience. My relationship with my boss was good and so he told me why he hired me: I had a good attitude and, as a woman, I was more reliable.

CF: What was the male-to-female ratio in this department?

XW: This company’s male-to-female ratio, for technical employees, is already a lot better than the two companies I worked for later on. My team’s ratio was about 2:1.

CF: Why did you leave this company?

XW: On one hand, it was to continue developing my technical abilities and to find a company that could challenge me in new ways. On the other hand, it was about compensation. Along with the manager that hired me, I left to join a startup. I want to add that this manager worked hard to achieve a 2:1 male-to-female ratio. He went out of his way to search for female programmers. He said that too many male employees would be harder to control, so bringing women onto the team would balance things out. When he decided to leave the company, he thought that I had a good work ethic and that I could withstand tough situations, so he invited me to join his new team at the startup. Later on, the startup collapsed, so now I’m at my current company. I’ve only been here for 1 year.

CF: Was the male-to-female ratio at your second company also 2:1?

XW: Among programmers, it was about 2:1. I think it was because the manager for the backend system team was a woman.

CF: Did her subordinates give her any trouble? And what about other managers at her level?

XW: I think that as a woman working in tech, being doubted by your coworkers is extremely common. For example, when an issue occurs during the development process, coworkers will arrogantly ask me if I’ve made a mistake just because I’m a woman. They won’t stop and ask whether they were the ones who caused the error. 

The manager of the backend system mainly encountered skepticism of her leadership. This bias was so bad that even I shared that skepticism at times. I find that people typically have higher expectations for women. When a mistake happens, people won’t think anything of it if the mistake was made by a man. We’d just fix the problem and move on. But the same mistake made by a woman would be met with ridicule. Instead of encouraging women workers, many people would say things like “you’re a woman, you’re not suitable for this kind of work.” As a result, female leaders are put under a lot of pressure.

CF: Who manages that team now?

XW: The manager is now a man and the male-to-female ratio is now completely unbalanced. As far as gender bias, the company I’m currently working for is also the worst. I think the main reason is because there are too many men and not enough women. My team has roughly 50 people. Only 5 are women. The women are also split up among different projects, which I suspect was done intentionally to—as my boss would say—“create a good atmosphere” within each group. I once saw an article that said that when a group of men go out for dinner, they would always ask a woman to join them, because having a female colleague is like having another “dish” at the table. I think they use the same principle at work. When a project team is being formed, they’ll try to have a “little sister” join the group. In these groups, having technical prowess is a must, but this is often not their only source of stress—these “little sisters” have to put up with all sorts of ridicule from male colleagues. When these “little sisters” make technical mistakes, they are also scrutinized much more than their male counterparts. 

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CF: Can you tell us about your experience dealing with sexism at work?

XW: When I first got to my company, we were all new to the job, so I got along pretty well with my coworkers. Problems started to occur when the leader of our small six person team sent an inappropriate picture of a semi-nude woman to our QQ group.

CF: It was the project lead that started to send these inappropriate pictures?

XW: Yes. At first, I didn’t respond. When he sent the picture to the group, I was quite shocked. I wanted to speak up, but found that I didn’t have it in me to say anything because he was our group leader. I didn’t want to say something that would affect my career.

CF: How long after you joined the company did this incident occur?

XW: Four to five months.

CF: How inappropriate was the picture?

XW: The woman in it was pretty much nude, only three spots were covered up with a small bit of fabric. That’s why, when I later brought up the picture, they responded by saying “What’s the big deal? It’s not like she was nude.” Later on, they continued to send other inappropriate images modeled after Japanese porn postures.

CF: Does your manager or other coworkers find this to be a problem?

XW: Well the manager started it, so of course he wouldn’t think it’s a problem! There was one time when my male coworkers wanted to talk about these inappropriate topics, my manager asked me to “go out for a moment” (so that they could chat about it without the presence of a woman). At that moment I was furious. This was at a work environment and during working hours. And I was still working. Why should my work be interrupted so that they can discuss these derogatory things?! I responded: “Why should I have to leave? I might as well quit!” The manager was shocked, he asked: “Why are you getting so upset, like someone did something to hurt you?” They know that it’s not appropriate to be sending these types of images and having these kinds of conversations around women, but they still insist on doing it. They just don’t care, after all it’s not them who get hurt. 

CF: What happened next?

XW: From then, I refused to engage with any discussions that involve these inappropriate pictures of videos. In the group chat, I just stopped responding to those messages. But later on, I felt that this response was inadequate, because once they felt that I could cope with these images, then they’ll turn up the heat and send even more harmful and embarrassing images. In the past, there was a famous live video of a female streamer who inserted an eel into herself. My coworkers told me that if I made those kinds of videos, I would make a ton of money. To me, this crossed the line. 

CF: I don’t think you did anything wrong here. The only people at fault are your male colleagues.

XW: Right! It was only later on that I realized that when a woman encounters these things, the most important thing is to remember that you aren’t doing anything wrong. I just wanted to stop harm from happening.

CF: What do you mean by that?

XW: To use whatever means I have to stop them from causing me any more harm. Later on, when they continued to send these inappropriate photographs, I would directly respond in the group chat to tell them to stop sending these pictures. I would also tell them individually not to send such pictures, explaining that these images are harmful. After that, four of my coworkers stopped, but two kept on sending these pictures. I ended up just blocking these two coworkers. 

CF: Are these two coworkers people you have to interact with at work?

XW: Yes. So it makes work a bit troublesome. But even still, blocking private communication with them has been a good thing because they aren’t able to cause me anymore trouble or harm.

CF: Has this reaction negatively impacted your work?

XW: Practically speaking, I think that after confronting them, my mental strain was reduced significantly. Emotionally I was also feeling much better. This ended up also making me more productive. I think the negative impact falls mostly on them. They are after all still human and must feel some bit of remorse. People may have even shunned them or looked down on them after the incident.

CF: Will they try to retaliate?

XW: With my technical skills, it’s hard for them to do anything to me. (For programmers, work tends to be split up, so individual programmers need only to focus on their portions of the code base.) I think this is human nature: once you demonstrate that you are strong, others won’t have any ability to harm you.

But of course in the workplace, I’ll still feel like I’m being excluded. They feel like women should learn to tolerate this kind of ridicule, even if it is offensive. So men stick together. But regardless, I’ll stay true to my values.

CF: Have you talked to other female coworkers about these incidents?

XW: I talked to a female coworker in a sister team. It turns out, she’s had similar problems. When she was speaking to a male coworker about work stuff, another male coworker rudely interrupted to say: “why are you always talking to him, are you trying to seduce him?” He clearly thinks that women who proactively talk to men are just trying to seduce them, even in a workplace.

CF: How did she deal with this problem?

XW: She didn’t. She’s just toughing it out. She’s torn about it, but doesn’t know what to do.

CF: Do you and the other 5 female programmers in your broader team frequently discuss these issues?

XW: No. Our workloads are quite heavy, so speaking with coworkers in other teams is rare. Our interactions are limited to a few exchanges during lunch or in the corridors. We haven’t intentionally organized a meetup. Some female coworkers feel that if they put themselves on the opposite side of their men, it will cause trouble for them at work.

CF: What you did isn’t putting yourself on the opposite side of your male coworkers, right? What you did is actually helpful for them because you’re teaching them how to appropriately interact with women.

XW: I was only trying to protect myself. I have no energy to be teaching grown up men these things. The only thing I can do when I encounter harm is to do my best to stop it from happening. I’m still in a defensive position, there’s no way for me to go on the offense. Many values embedded in our society push women into this defensive spot.

In the past, during a meal with the two coworkers that I blocked, they intentionally sent some unsavory and inappropriate messages. Before I dealt with them (by blocking them), there was also another male coworker who said to me: “In the future, when your husband cheats on you, you must stick it out and must not divorce him.” I felt really uncomfortable by this and also told them that I was uncomfortable, but none of them felt that their behavior was inappropriate. They continued to share posts about how men cheat and should have multiple partners. I think they really believe in these values, that men should have multiple wives and such.

CF: I know you were only acting in defense, but I think that your actions still taught them a lesson about how to act properly. You never quit, or use harsher tactics to take revenge. Instead, you patiently told them that they acted inappropriately, and told them to stop. I think your attitude was very accommodating; something that I think very highly of.

XW: My methods might also just be a factor of my helplessness. If I was given the opportunity to give them a beating, I’d probably take it. 

CF: If there was a structural way to fix this problem, what would you suggest?

XW: As an individual, I think it’s very hard to solve this problem at the structural level. Many men feel that picking on weaker people is fun. Like bullying others at school.

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CF: In college, did professors treat boys differently than girls?

XW: No. Most of my professors were women. In their own careers, they’ve probably had to deal with all sorts of gender disrimination, so they treated us pretty equally. The discrimination comes mainly from our own parents. Parents often think that boys should go out and make a living while girls should stay at home. My class had thirty-something boys and only ten-or-so girls. But to my knowledge, I was the only girl who ended up working in industry. After graduating, many parents will tell their daughters things like “The tech industry is so grueling and you’re just a girl. How will you get by?” or “You’re a girl, so you should come back to live with me” or “As a girl, you should just get married to a good family.” So my female classmates all just gave up. The attitude that most parents have is that girls should seek stability, find a well off husband who can protect you, get married and have children. 

CF: This conservative attitude from the older generation probably comes from their own experiences. When I graduated from college, my parents also wanted me to find a stable job.

XW: Also, there are two paths to become a programmer. One is through college. The other is through a boot camp. For these boot camps, it’s possible to get trained up and start looking for work in roughly six months. These boot camps aren’t really for people who are passionate about programming. Because our society expects boys to make money and to provide for a family, these boot camp programs are a fast way for them to do that. 

CF: In order to achieve equal rights, what do you think is missing?

XW: Most of the women around me feel that finding a wealthy husband, instead of making it on their own, is the best choice. I think this value is a big problem.

CF: So what can I do to change this value system?

XW: I think it’s hard to change an entire value system. Some women will feel that even though they can get a particular task done, they still have to give face to men and let them help. Like when the cap of a water bottle is screwed on too tight, we men twist it open for us; this way they will help you with things in the future. Even during disagreements with male coworkers over technical problems, a female coworker advised me to act cute to solve the conflict. “If you can solve the problem by acting cute, why do you insist on clashing and arguing?” If we can just act cute, what’s the point of all the hard work we’ve put into our careers?

CF: What problems will acting cute create for us?

XW: Acting cute is indeed an easy and effective way to get what you want, but it has its disadvantages. You may be able to get what you want in the short run, but your male coworkers will think less of your technical abilities. They may end up doing what you want, but still believe that they’re way of doing things would’ve been better. In the future, if a critical technical decision needs to be made, they simply won’t take you seriously anymore. Take the female coworker who suggested that I act cute…because she uses this method to get her way, she isn’t working to improve her technical abilities. She is basically digging her own grave. From a technical perspective, she won’t be taken seriously anymore, which may eventually lead to her termination.

During our interview, when Xiao Wu was discussing those workplace incidents, I could tell she was getting agitated. I would like to say to Xiao Wu: You are an amazing model for female programmers in the industry! You are persistent and brave, and in moments of unfair treatment, you have been able to stand up for yourself. Bravo!

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