Introducing Ask a Female Engineer

by Cadran Cowansage9/8/2016

We’ve recruited a group of female engineers with years of industry experience to try an experiment with us called “Ask A Female Engineer.”

There has been an active discourse around women in tech over the last few years. It can sometimes be frustrating, though, because not everyone who has something to say feels comfortable participating in the (often excessively polarized) conversation. We’d like to try creating a place where readers feel comfortable engaging in the women-in-tech discourse, and female programmers can openly discuss their experiences.

To kick off the project, we asked YC employees to send in questions. We received many great ones, and chose three for this post. The identities of all participants were kept anonymous (we’ve given them different names) to help promote frank conversations.

We’re excited about the opportunity to introduce new perspectives on this topic, but we also recognize that the opinions of a few people by no means represent the opinions or experiences of all women who code. We’d love to hear feedback and more perspectives on these questions, so we’re continuing the discussion on Hacker News.

I’m the moderator for our Ask A Female Engineer series, and a female engineer on the software team at YC. If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email

On a typical day, how conscious are you of being a female engineer and can you tell us about the ways in which you feel (or are made to feel) this way?

Ada : It depends. When I work on a team or at a company where there are other women, it’s easier to feel like just an engineer. But, the fewer women there are, the more conscious I am of being the odd one out. My appearance, body language, and voice brand every piece of in-person communication. It becomes difficult to separate whether coworkers are reacting to the content of my statements or the packaging, so to speak.

At my current job, where I’m the only woman, it’s something that’s almost constantly on my mind. I listen to video bloggers and podcasts while working just so I can hear non-male voices. Otherwise I get home at night and realize I haven’t heard another woman’s voice all day.

Grace : I am conscious that I am a woman every single day. The main thing that reminds me is probably my voice. For example, I once had one of my male managers tell me that I would be treated with more respect in meetings if I lowered and deepened my voice. Once one of my managers told me to take a HUP pill (harden up princess) because I had to go to the hospital with an arm injury. Over the years I’ve learned to avoid managers that don’t respect me or women in general. That can take a little time to figure out, but as soon as I realize it’s the case, I’ll promptly organize a transfer to a different department. It’s a waste of time trying to work as an engineer while someone is pushing you down. It just doesn’t work.

In America I’m recognized as a foreigner first and I’m more frequently asked about that. But in both places I have had managers and other engineers ask if I would quit working soon to have a kid. I started getting asked by colleagues I hardly knew if I was planning to have kids soon. That was 8 years ago and I still don’t have kids by choice. It’s just wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

Klara : I feel conscious of my gender when I walk into meetings and I’m the only female. I immediately figure out who is likely to hear me out based on our previous interactions. Then I’ll purposefully sit somewhere near those allies. If I’m feeling less confident when I’m speaking, I’ll look at them first. I’m less likely to even speak up in meetings where I don’t feel like I have supportive people. I don’t often feel like I’m not heard at meetings, but I think that’s because I’m careful about when I choose to speak.

Frances : I’m constantly aware of being female. When a coworker looks to a junior male engineer on the team for help instead of me, a senior engineer. Or when someone corrects my code in a way that shows their default assumption is that I don’t know something rather than that I made a mistake. I feel like guys are more inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume a mistake is just a mistake rather than a demonstration of a knowledge gap.

Once I was representing my company at a career fair with a male engineer. He and I were standing next to each other ready to take resumes and answer questions, but all the candidates lined up in front of him. I tried writing “SOFTWARE ENGINEER” in big letters on my name tag, but even then had to continuously tell people in line “I’m an engineer and can answer your questions too!”

I’d like to know if you wanted to take coding classes in middle school / high school but decided not to because the classes felt unfriendly / unwelcoming (or were dissuaded for other reasons). If this happened, were there alternatives?

Jean : I’ll talk from both my own and my kids’ experiences. I did take a couple programming electives in high school. This was back in the early 1980s. We wrote in APL (yikes!) and BASIC. I chose to take them because my brother had taken some several years earlier and brought home stuff that my 10-year-old self thought was cool. I realized I was good at it. Both my husband and I are software engineers, so for our 3 kids, we had a family high school graduation requirement of at least one programming class (a half-year class). We told them they didn’t have to like it or major in it, but genetically, they were likely to be good at it! So far 2 out of 3 are in CS-related fields. The 3rd is a college freshman and is “undeclared engineering.”

Our daughter took a half-year of C++, then AP CS and was on the programming team in HS (she was the only female). None of her equally high-achieving female friends took any programming class of any kind. They all took AP Physics, AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, etc. They all planned to major in a STEM field, but just not in the T. One friend finally took an Intro to Python class this past spring (in her junior year of college) at my daughter’s urging. This woman discovered that not only did she really enjoy it, but it came easily and she was good at it. She’s now scrambling to try to get a CS minor at her liberal arts college. If only she’d tried it sooner…

Grace : I’d actually recommend women interested in computer science go and study at university in Australia. The education is affordable and high quality. You can study in Australia and get a great job as an engineer both during your study and when you graduate. An important thing to remember is every country is different and has different cultural norms. Working in different countries really opens your eyes to this.

Frances : I wish someone in my family had suggested programming to me growing up. It never occurred to me to try it or that I might like it. It certainly wasn’t something my friends did or ever talked about as a possible area of interest so it just wasn’t on my radar until I went to college.

What are the non-obvious things men can do to make things better for female engineers?

Frances : Don’t be afraid to talk to a woman about the fact that she is female. She knows she is, it’s not a secret. I’ve found my managers and coworkers often avoid talking about it because it’s one of those uncomfortable topics. It’s a giant elephant in the room. But whenever someone talks openly about it to me I’m so overjoyed! If I heard more things like “Hey, I noticed X thing, does that make you uncomfortable?” or “I know it’s weird being the only woman on this team, how can I make the experience more comfortable for you?”, that would make a huge difference. Just knowing the people around you are sympathetic and on your side is huge.

Grace : Offer to mentor us. Encourage us to take on new opportunities, projects, and initiatives. Invite women you work with for coffee and ask what they like or dislike about their day-to-day. If they mention concerns or problems they’re having, ask if there’s any way you could help make it better.

Klara : Invite them to team activities, even if you think they won’t be interested. Also try to find activities they might have in common with other team members. As the only woman on the team, my male teammates tend to have more interests in common with each other. Since they make up the majority of the team, we tend to have team activities that fit more comfortably into their ways of socializing, like playing Call of Duty or StarCraft (though some women definitely enjoy those games!). The pressure is on me to fit in with what the all-male group likes. I end up feeling conflicted because on the one hand, the older I get, the more I realize building relationships at work is valuable, but on the other hand, I’m now less likely to conform. These days I tend to take a DGAF attitude and instead of conforming to try and force a bond, I just don’t participate.

Thanks to the participants for answering questions, YC folks for submitting questions, Dan Gackle, Scott Bell, Aaron Stein, Colleen Taylor, Kevin Hale, Kat Manalac, and Craig Cannon for helping out in various ways.


  • Cadran Cowansage

    Cadran Cowansage is a software engineer at YC.