Why Women Don’t Pursue Careers in Software Engineering

And how I got my first role as a software engineer


Anna Carey

3 years ago | 10 min read

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

For years, the gender gap in software engineering has been a hot-button issue.

Companies ramped up diversity and inclusion efforts, all-women and women-identifying boot camps became more prominent, and the conversation about parity made it into mainstream dialogue. Yet the problem persists.

Computer science programs at universities have been growing in popularity, making introductory CS courses extremely competitive. The likelihood of success is higher for those entering college with previous programming experience, which disproportionately affects women.

Without a computer science degree, a common option is a software engineering boot camp. However, companies often require or strongly favor computer science degrees and some developers harbor a negative stigma against boot camp grads.

What can these institutions — companies and universities — do to create more supportive environments for women? What can our male counterparts, whether co-workers or students, do to help?

My winding path to becoming a software engineer (which I share below) helped me better understand where there are barriers to entry and opportunities for improvement.

My top two insights for allies who want to empower women pursuing software engineering roles:

  1. Openly acknowledge your struggles and operate from a baseline that you were sometimes, if not often, confused or lost.
  2. Reaffirm that changing your mind or choosing a path that’s less comfortable sets you up for greater success down the road.

Here’s my story:

Computer Science 61A

UC  Berkeley’s introductory computer science class, Computer Science 61A,  is one of the largest in-person courses in the country. (The Daily Californian)
UC Berkeley’s introductory computer science class, Computer Science 61A, is one of the largest in-person courses in the country. (The Daily Californian)

Above is a picture of the 2,000 students enrolled in Computer Science 61A, the introductory course for the Computer Science major at UC Berkeley, at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester. (I took CS61A in Spring 2012, which looked similar.)

There are a few important things to note about this sea of students I found myself in:

  1. 39% of these students were women based on demographics from Fall 2018.
  2. Many of them will not go on to graduate with CS degrees. (In 2017, just 22% of CS degrees were awarded to women at Berkeley.)
  3. Because of its popularity, the CS major at Berkeley is capped, which means they need to get an average B+ or above in this and two other intro CS courses to declare the major. (Between 2013 to 2017, undergraduate CS majors more than doubled to over 106,000 nationally, according to a New York Times story about the trend.)
  4. Over half of the students in CS61A have prior experience and rated their familiarity with computer science at a three out of five or higher in a 2018 study.
  5. A disproportionate number of male students have previous coding experience compared to female students. According to the College Board, in 2019, just under one-third of students who took the Computer Science AP exam were women.
The majority of students who take CS61A are already familiar with computer science, according to a study conducted in Fall 2018.
The majority of students who take CS61A are already familiar with computer science, according to a study conducted in Fall 2018.

Without implicit bias or any of the other challenges that women face entering a career in engineering, it’s important to go back to this picture and remember that at the age of 18 women are already behind.

I was already behind, and a 2,000 person class size makes it really easy for those who are behind to slip through the cracks.

Getting Lost

Over the course of the semester, I struggled through problem sets and labs alone in the computer lab. I would then fill with pride as I got one of my test cases to pass or scored above C+ on an exam.

Repeatedly switching between feeling like an idiot and a genius is an experience I now realize that most software engineers can relate to.

But at the time, I felt alone. Even in my 30-student lab section, I felt alone. I was one of only a couple of women, and my partner for the projects often ended up completing them by himself or moving so quickly that I couldn’t follow.

I ultimately successfully completed CS61A and started CS61B, which was supposedly even more difficult. Unfortunately, my formal CS career was about to come to a close.

I spent most of my CS61B semester in a basement computer lab, metaphorically (and one time physically) banging my head against the computer monitor. I really wasn’t cut out for this.

Choosing Something Different

The main reason I gave up was that I felt like my CS classes conflicted with the rest of my life.

I had a demanding job as the college newspaper’s Arts & Entertainment Editor and an active social life as a member of a Berkeley Student Co-op and Panhellenic sorority.

From what it seemed like, successful students were spending all of their time in Soda Hall quietly toiling away. I didn’t see myself in them.

Over the course of the next couple of years, I leaned more heavily into my humanities background and passion for art. I declared an Interdisciplinary Studies major (UC Berkeley’s DIY major program) in Art and Technology.

I took courses at the Information School and through Berkeley’s Center for New Media that allowed me to explore programming through Arduino and Processing.

I interned at SFMOMA on the digital team and on the Whitney Museum’s communications team.

My dream was to work at Artsy, which at the time was one of the only tech companies in the art world. (My first article for the newspaper, in my freshman year, was about Artsy before the company launched.)Artsy’s offices in Soho, New York.

I graduated and joined Artsy in January 2016 as the communications intern, leaving my technical background behind. As a natural extrovert with solid writing skills, communications was a perfect fit.

The company more than delivered on the dream I had envisioned for all of those years. I cannot imagine a better place to start my career.

A Yearning to Build

But something always lingered in the back of my mind, and occasionally, an engineer would be able to reawaken the feeling, even just for a moment.

One of my first projects for Artsy was migrating the communications team contacts from hundreds of Google spreadsheets into Salesforce.

Artsy’s offices in Soho, New York.
Artsy’s offices in Soho, New York.

I worked with a senior software engineer on the project, and my study of data structures finally proved relevant. Artsy’s data team offered a Looker course, and I subsequently spent hours building dashboards and trying to better understand what pivoting meant.

Sitting down with an engineer to learn about the app’s new AR feature so I could write a press release made one of my best days at work.

So was working with an engineer on writing this: What It Feels Like to Work in a Supportive Environment for Female Engineers.

North-facing view from Artsy’s office.
North-facing view from Artsy’s office.

A pattern was emerging. While it took me some time to realize, I was still interested in technical work. Media relations, press release writing, and crafting messaging were not where I wanted to continue my career long-term.

Road to Bootcamp

In September of last year, four years and three promotions later, I got laid off as part of a change in CEO and major restructuring.

This was an unexpected — and honestly at the time, very sad — twist in the road. But all of a sudden, I was presented with a completely blank canvas in front of me, on which I was free to design whatever career path I could dream up.

I thought back to college computer science and started to experience some PTSD. Was it true that I wasn’t smart enough? Or that I didn’t have the right temperament? Should I stick with communications because I was good at it and it came easily to me?

Insecurities swirled in my head, and I considered pursuing fields like customer support and product management — closer to the tech, but still comfortably incorporating skills I was born with and had built over the last few years.

I started talking to some of the engineers at Artsy and realized that a couple of the developers I most admired came from non-traditional paths (they did not major in computer science or engineering) and had completed a boot camp after working in another field for a few years.

Interestingly, most of the women engineers at Artsy are boot camp grads — an extremely important point to think about when pursuing gender parity at your company.

A boot camp could be a great choice for me when the future was wide open to focus on something entirely new and take a risk. Armed with advice from some Artsy alumni, I enrolled in the Flatiron School, one of the top boot camps with a campus in New York City.

The Great Unlock

On my first day, I, of course, counted the women in my cohort. Out of 13 students, there were four women.

That’s a bit under one third. (According to Flatiron, 35% of students in 2019 were women, and this has remained fairly flat with women making up 31% and 35% of the graduating group in 2017 and 2018 respectively.)

Even though the breakdown is fairly consistent with other parts of the pipeline, I felt excited and embraced by a supportive environment.

Imposter syndrome was in a slide deck they shared on the first day and they spent 10 or so minutes openly speaking to us about it — this really stood out to me.

In the first few weeks, which were mostly review for me of basic coding concepts — conditionals, loops, classes — taught in Ruby instead of Python, I felt like this was going to click for me.

As the weeks went on, I breezed through most of the material in the class.

I fully recognize that boot camps offer a different kind of programming education than university coursework and emphasize the importance of learning how to learn to code.

But this was coming easily to me and I was in awe of how I could come up with an idea and then bring it to life with code. It felt like magic.

Screenshot from my final project at Flatiron, DreamScore.
Screenshot from my final project at Flatiron, DreamScore.

Something unlocked for me. All of a sudden I had a superpower. I felt a twinge of regret, like I had been missing out the last few years, and like someone was covertly hiding something away from me. I guess mostly it was me holding myself back.

Job Hunt, But Make It COVID

I graduated from Flatiron on March 27, 2020. There were 68,334 total COVID-19 cases in the U.S. that day and unemployment was about to peak at 14.7% in April (rising from 3.5% in February). Not the best time to be entering the job market.

Unemployment peaked in April at 14.7% after near lows earlier in 2020. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Unemployment peaked in April at 14.7% after near lows earlier in 2020. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Still, armed with my newfound confidence I hit the pavement (aka Zoom) for virtual coffees, informational calls, and phone screenings.

I really thought that because I was a woman with a four-year career at a top tech company, a robust network, and above-average interpersonal skills I would have no problem. I was very wrong.

I repeatedly heard, “We are only looking for senior engineers,” “You don’t have professional experience as a developer,” and, “We only take people with Computer Science degrees.”

I quickly learned that COVID or not, the road for boot camp grads was a bumpy one, and it was especially challenging now that there was an influx of experienced, newly laid-off engineering talent flooding the market.

I managed to get a few interviews, first at large companies like Facebook and Amazon, and later at smaller startups.

They were challenging, from coding in front of people, spending hours on complex take-home projects, and working through algorithm problems, which they do not cover at Flatiron. I honestly loved the process and my learning continued to skyrocket. But it was stressful and at many moments seemed hopeless.

My biggest disappointment was that with the exception of the company that hired me, my interviewers were only men. If you don’t see why that is a problem, we have a problem.

If you look at the numbers, this isn’t all that surprising — 25% of computer-related jobs in STEM were held by women between 2014 and 2016 (Pew Research Center), and the numbers have been declining over the years.

Pew Research Center study of gender demographics in STEM, 2014–2016.

Onward and Upward

My ultimate goal with my job search was to find a place where I would have ample mentorship, opportunities to learn, and managers with experience training junior talent.

While I love being thrown into the deep end — I lived in the deep end at Artsy and loved every minute — my priority was growing my technical ability as quickly as possible and learning best practices from the best engineers.

When I first started interviewing at VTS, I was struck by the supportive nature of the technical interviews, which were more collaborative in nature and seemed designed to set me up for success instead of shining a harsh light on my weaknesses.

A few days later, I was offered an internship on the team and this week was my first as a professional software engineer.

If I could shake my 18-year-old self, full of self-doubt and about to give up on computer science for what she thought would be forever, I would tell her:

  • You have everything you need to make it as an engineer if you’re ready to persist when you feel lost and become really good at Google.
  • Your communication skills and leaning toward the humanities don’t discount you as a developer but actually make you a stronger engineer.
  • Every software engineer struggles a lot even if they don’t show it.

I hope other aspiring software engineers, especially women, find a little forward push in this article. The world needs more women building software. If you think I can help you along the way, please reach out.


Created by

Anna Carey







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