Things You Should Never Say To Women Working In Tech Or Science

Things You Should Never Say To Women Working In Tech Or Science

As you know, women are under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) fields — and many are leaving the profession in droves. Part of the problem: the alienating and clueless things said to female scientists, mathematicians and engineers by their colleagues.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Cate Burlington offers a list on the Toast of things said to her by her male coworkers. Some of them are plainly insulting and condescending, while others are backhanded compliments. Just a few examples (with Burlington’s annotations):

“How did you learn to do all this?!” The ancient Spider-Goddess Llorothaag came to me in a harrowing blood-soaked vision. In exchange for perpetual servitude as her handmaiden, she imparted knowledge of IP subnetting.

“No, when I complain about ‘geek girls,’ I don’t mean you. You’re a real geek.”All attend! The Arbiter is speaking. In his wisdom, he can tell who is a real geek and who is fake, and especially who is a bitch.

“Let me know when you want to do that so I can help you. No offence, but you just don’t know enough about it to try it on your own.” What could possibly be offensive about your assertion that I am incapable of implementing some of the basic skills of our profession without your supervision?

“You’re a girl, but you’re not, like, a girl-girl, y’know?” When Llorothaag returns, you will be the first sacrifice I lay upon her profane altar.

Speaking of being a “girl-girl,” Sailor Mercury writes on Medium of her experience being a programmer and presenting as feminine. Not only does she often get the “But you don’t look like a programmer!” absurd comment, people wrongly assume she’s a beginner, based on looks alone. Moreover, feedback she gets from peers is always gendered — comments rating her appearance, outfit or tone of voice rather than the content.

Gender diversity is an important topic. While these examples aren’t indicative of the way all men (and, to be fair, women tool) act in these male-dominated industries, it’s likely many people say insensitive things like these without realising it.

A good rule of thumb from Sailor Mercury:

Ask yourself, “Would I give this feedback to a masculine-presenting white cis man?”

Things My Male Tech Colleagues Have Actually Said to Me, Annotated [The Toast]

Coding Like a Girl [Medium]


  • While I definitely get that some comments may be offensive and inappropriate some of these aren’t just exclusive to women, the 3rd annotation could be just from an equal opportunity jerk who is condescending to all people (ie a snob), and the 1st annotation is basically just a standard statement from someone who hasn’t had the experience to do stuff as well (could be a compliment, take it as one).

    The other comments, yeah they probably are terrible things to say, but thats the way a lot of people respond, by pointing out the differences from their perspective, not as any personal attack, best way to respond is by reflecting their behaviors in kind and joking about it if the opposing conversant is appealing to your world view

    Also you have to say that STEM students as a whole aren’t as socially interactable as people who study the arts as the very profession they have chosen seems to reflect that so go in expecting lots of mis-steps in any conversation with them.

  • Questions related to a person’s sex (I know, I know, we like to use the word ‘gender’ these days, as tho everyone is a piece of grammar) should never come up at work…it is either too personal, or irrelevant, in short, rude. Question has to be, why are people so rude?

  • People really say these things? They sound like bad dialog from a fictional T.V. show, the kind that has an episode on ‘hackers’ or something and the whole thing makes me cringe.

    • As a male, I’ve had the first and third examples said to me plenty of times. I don’t think either of those are gendered, they’re just condescending. The motivation for a particular person’s condescension could be gender, but that doesn’t mean the statements themselves are inappropriate.

      The others are pretty cringeworthy though.

      • @rkh1981 I’m not really clear on what you disagree with, could you elaborate?

  • God I’m sick of this crap. Did it ever occur to these overly sensitive women that the people saying them are jerks to everyone? They are just condescending and patronising people who make no distinction between genders when acting like total jerks.

    All of us tolerate poor treatment at work. Stop playing the victim and HTFU.

  • I am a 25 year old male mechanical engineer with a baby face. I often get treated as a child because of it. An ongoing joke between my colleagues is that I am 12 years old. It’s funny for a little bit but it gets old when the condescension escalates to my ability as an engineer.

  • As I posted in reply to the HuffPo post of that article, I have heard “You’re a girl, but you’re not, like, a girl-girl, y’know?” throughout my career. It probably helps that I’m homely and therefore aren’t really thought of as “female” by guys who determine that by “am I attracted to this person?”.

    • interesting: the biggest complaining I’ve heard in the last 10 years about working with women in IT was by other women in IT.

  • “Would I give this feedback to a masculine-presenting white cis man?”

    I can imagine getting fired extremely quickly if this were the criteria I applied…

  • I received a scholarship for being female in a STEM related field, next thing, I was attacked why women would get special scholarships but men don’t…

    • sorry to hear that. My wife won an IT scolarship too – she (fortunately) didn’t face this issue.

  • my IT office doesn’t actually have any women, so one in which dumb things are said to women would frankly be a step up. In the complete absence of female colleagues (also true at uni), i try to use tech tutorials by women (difficult to find for a given topic) as a corrective, and frequent tech news web sites that seem to have some technically accomplished female journalists. (it’s an idea, unsure if it works).

  • Ultimately this is an article telling us not to be condescending to our female colleagues. I find I don’t have a problem with that at all. I’m actually more likely to be condescending to the older males in the office who think they know how an IT solution should work and assume it actually works that way. I love it when management look down on IT because we can’t fix a problem yet they were the ones that chose to purchase a broken piece of software.

    Meanwhile it’s the wide scope in staff skills, ability and perspective that drives innovative solutions. Variation in the sexes is just one way to increase said innovation.

    • I prefer ‘condescend equally’ =) Which is to say, don’t be condescending to anyone, ideally. There are better ways to communicate criticism and expertise.

  • I’m not taking any advice on any subject from someone who goes by Sailor Mercury #justsayin

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!