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The Typecast Tango: Avoiding the Frontend Label as a Woman In Tech

heyjtk profile image JTK ・10 min read

I recently tweeted something off the cuff that seemed to hit a note with some people

It was sad how many women answered saying that the exact same thing was happening to them. Its not a new problem, and its one that I'm pretty sick of fighting.

I also had a few people responding, surprised this was even a thing, so I decided to talk more about the very real problem that is getting typecast as a frontend developer as a woman in tech.

The First Time I Faced This Problem

I was over the moon when I got my first programming job as a starry eyed, enthusiastic but green junior dev. I was hired with two other entry level guys, one of who had a CS degree, but none of us had prior programming work experience.

My first six months I learned SO much. I was thrown into the deep end with C# and SQL. Everything was going great. Until I stumbled upon an old slack post a few weeks before me and the two male devs had started. It went like this:

Hi everyone! As you know we have three new developers starting shortly. I need some tasks to get them started on. Mark can do either database or web dev work. Paul is mostly interested in databases. JT, a woman, doesn't know databases well but has decent programming and design abilities

When I saw the message my heart sunk to the floor. Like are you f@$#ing kidding me I was introduced to this whole group of people by saying I was bad at databases? As a developer with 0 months real world experience I already felt like I knew nothing, this post showed me everyone else thought so too.

Whats more, after some internet sleuthing I found out neither of the entry level guys hired with me even had a professional portfolio, so I was the ONLY one with demonstrable experience building and deploying databases.

This introduction, introducing the guys by their interests and "aptitudes" (reminder none of us had exp so what aptitude they had is arguable) and I was introduced my my gender saying I was bad at databases WHAT IN THE ENTIRE F#^&!????

The ONLY database question in my interview I did poorly on was having to admit I hadn't set up database indexes before (in my database work the ORM had handled it.) From the skill level I found out about my male colleagues getting to know them better, I was absolutely not less knowledgeable about databases than them when I started.

It completely shook my confidence for I don't know, maybe the entire following year. It was so ironic because I have no design capabilities, only some coping mechanisms. When they complimented my design-ey resume I'd freely admitted it was Canva.

I had no idea this would become a pattern, that I would keep getting poked and prodded towards frontend work that I'm certainly not interested in and furthermore not very good at when I do try it. But the cycle repeats, repeats, and repeats.

The Worst Time I Faced This Problem

About two years into , like a lot of junior developers I'd gone from 0 to 60 and my junior salary was no longer in line with my skills. I got a new job offer to work using Vue and Python, both of which I was interested in, and jumped at it.

(BTW, the rest of my time at job 1, I don't think I designed anything. They saw I could write SQL and C# and that was that. When I handed in my resignation they implored me to stay, but I had a bad taste in my mouth and demurred.)

From friends in the field and hearing their experiences, I had come to learn that it was somewhat unique for a developer with two years experience to have done as much SQL as I had. It never occurred to me that I'd accept a new position and the job would choose to not utilize those skills.

But that's exactly what happened. Although my new job didn't have any FE/BE emphasis on paper, I learned quickly that my new coworker hated JavaScript with a passion and was completely unwilling to do any of that work.

I don't know what my options were other than to pick up the slack. So I did.

When I look back on that time its so clear to me how not cut out for frontend I am, my CSS alone is abysmal. I made many bonehead moves that it haunts me to think about some other developer maintaining.

I was a good sport for six months, at which point I pointedly told my boss that my backend skills were getting stale and I was going to have to reevaluate being there if there was no plan to use them. (Yes, I'm a straight shooter.)

My boss, amazing guy, wasn't involved enough in the project to know I'd been so stratified to frontend. He immediately agreed, and the dev hogging the backend work asked on his own to transition to another project. The plan was for me to own both the frontend and backend based on my track record and their trust in me.

It was so close to working out. I otherwise really, really loved that job. My boss also gave me a 12% raise, I assume to keep me happy until my workload could get back into the fullstack realm.

He was ousted in a corporate coup before it could happen. The new management chain didn't know me from Adam and had no investment in realigning my workload. Yet again, I had to cut my losses.

This time I was slightly smarter. I received a Senior Software Engineer offer from RedHat, and the offer for my current job which I accepted. I was completely blunt with everyone on the way in that I wouldn't accept if my tasks were clustered around frontend efforts. Both offers assured me that was fine.

Present Day

Finally, I Goldilocks-ed my way into the right balance at my current job. With my SQL and Vue background I was uniquely qualified to deal with our stack, which was like my dream stack: Node, Vue, Python, PostgreSQL. All my favs. I was so effective that I consolidated work that previously was done by a backend guy and frontend guy and took over EVERYTHING. It was challenging, exhilarating, but I was in the exact perfect match for my modus operandi. Broadly full stack and completely untethered to either frontend or backend specifically.

Which leads me to the last few months, and my tweet, lol.

All was going well but the workload was outrageous which led us to add another person. The teammate mentioned joined us under the proviso that they understood and were OK with fullstack work, after their mostly backend exp raised an eyebrow with me and another teammate.

Because I'd worked with inflexible people not long before, I grilled the person in their interview and then grilled them again. "No one is siloed here, everyone does everything. Are you willing to learn JS?" They agreed without reservations.

You know, from the tweet, that they were not quite as forthcoming as I'd have hoped.

If you are wondering how I determined that they were dragging their feet on JS tasks, we gave them generous runway to learn things, I made myself available for questions at any time, and we offered a lot of support.

It became pretty clear though that this person's follow through and momentum dropped off a cliff any time they got tasks touching either JS, the frontend, or both.

The ONLY reason this story has a happier ending than my previous jobs is that although this person started lateral to me, I was elevated to Dev Lead shortly after. When I noticed them dragging their feet on JS tasks, combined with things like introducing themselves as "a background process guy" when we interacted with other teams, and saying things like "It will proabably take me like a year to even be fluid with JS stuff", I raised the alert emphatically.

One of these encounters actually honestly really made me laugh. We had a conversation like:

Guy: Is it called a database transaction when you can reverse a db operation? Do we do that in our endpoints that touch on multiple tables? How does the middleware handle it?
Me: Yes, usually the database adapter libraries have standard behavior that put each command in a transaction and roll it back automatically on uncaught exception. Some have settings you can override, like psycopg for postgres and python has something you can use to make things run immediately outside of transactions. I'm using that option now for a database emulator I'm writing as a side project
Guy: See, thats the kind of thing I could help with so much more in python. In JavaScript it will probably take me months to be fluent

To which I'm sitting there like LOOOOOOOOOL BROOOO you don't even know what transactions are for sure, and you didn't contribute any information to this convo, HOW exactly are you the "backend guy" who could contribute so much MORE on this type of task?

TL:DR lots of conversations in that vein. I'm clearly the strongest on the team with SQL and databases. The guy constantly labels and brands himself as the backend guy. Any backend task, I'd rate him as completing normally in C to B+ fashion. Any frontend task, he drags his feet on so much it often gets reassigned to another guy or often woman on the team. Whenever asked, he doesn't identify any frontend blockers. Just doesn't do the work.

I was smarter this time to recognize it, but I'm tired of having to fight and kick and scream to do the tasks I'm better at to avoid being led by the nose back to frontend work I've never asked for or excelled at. A truly disappointing number of women have told me they face the same. Some have told me they've had to go through the exercise of showing that they are utter bullshit at CSS before their job will understand that it isn't their skillset and put them back on backend tasks.

Takeaways

If I had a perfect answer to this problem I wouldn't be writing. For me, third time was the charm that I had enough power to protect myself this time around.

The ONLY thing I have done right here is say no, over and over and over and over. Not be silent. Not assume that things are arcing towards equity because in my experience they haven't.

I have said before that it pains me a little when I hear women get into tech and be like "I haven't experienced any of the sexism you hear about yet!" and while I never wish it on anyone, it makes me roll my eyes a little because junior developers aren't really in anyone's way yet. The reason I'm still fighting this fight is because the better I get, the more of an impediment I am to my male colleagues and their own interests. I'm earning their share of the bonus pool. I'm getting promoted to Lead SW Eng over them. I'm getting the new streaming app we're building, the most technically sophisticated and interesting task in our work pipeline right now.

And it has become totally clear to me that this problem has gone from dismissive remarks (like in job one) to people actively trying to throw me or other female teammates under the frontend bus by saying they "just don't get design" or "just aren't fluid with JS". I know for me, the ability to just say you are bad at something to avoid it by itself is shocking. I have always assumed as a woman that if I said I was just "BAD" at half the stack I would be deemed not technical enough and be out on my ass. I guess that's how the other half lives.

I'm a person who gets things done. I crossed off my whole bucket list, was Lead Dev, and made a healthy six figures at age 30, and with no degree. I can only wonder where I would be on top of that right now if I wasn't constantly spending mental overhead being alert of guy colleagues trying to give me "yucky" tasks they find distasteful.

While I don't have answers, I do have asks especially for people in tech in the in-group.

Most guys I know say they are supportive of more diversity in tech. I always ask, "That's great! How do you support it?"

[ Crickets... ]

If you see the less represented members of your team getting all the less prestigious tasks, understand you are playing a role in that. Examine it. For f@^&s sake change it.

And maybe at some point in the future I won't have to be so constantly vigilant that some new person is going to try to come along and paint me frontend so they can get their preferred work. I've been doing this < 5 years I SHOULD NOT NEED TO BE THIS TIRED OF BEING PUSHED INTO FRONTEND.

I have no idea why frontend seems to be considered "less prestigious" by some, why it seems to pay less, or why people like to make fun of JavaScript along with PHP and some others the way they do. I'm not saying its right either. In my limited frontend experience that s@#$ is hard and I respect it, but it is not my skillset.

Things like this are why I have such a love hate relationship with tech. I have a love-love relationship with code, even when it's being difficult. I have a love-hate relationship with the realities and inequities of this field.

Main takeaway, if you are in the in-group, and especially if you are a manager or leader, be aware that this is happening and take steps to align tasks fairly on your team. There are plenty of people who ARE interested in frontend work. Pidgeonholing women on your team who AREN'T interested does not need to be happening.

**Author disclaimer: I am white able and straight(ish) and what I'm describing is the least of many things that happen to the non able white men in tech. This is one of the ones I'm qualified to speak on from personal experience though.

Assume that needless hurdles and stereotypes like this are hurting queer Black and POC people in tech exponentially more than what I just described. If anything I wrote made you think you'll keep an eye out for better fairness on your team, consider my message to go doubly for ensuring fairness for them.**

Discussion (13)

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gshel profile image
Gretchen Shelby-Dormer • Edited

Going into my second job in tech, as a self-taught programmer, I found myself in a really crappy situation. The lead I had insisted that I should switch from my software developer role to a technical writer role because I was able to string together two coherent sentences.

He asked me on numerous occasions if I even liked coding, or if I just didn't like challenges. On top of that, my lack of formal education was also brought up privately a handful of times in a really condescending fashion.

I am a self-taught programmer and I have numerous side projects that I work on outside of work; I stay up to date with tech news, and I recreationally complete tutorials to learn about things I haven't had the chance to use at work.

There was such a lack of collaboration on that team that I was actually told at one point that whenever I asked a question, they thought I was implying something and insulting them.

I'm extremely lucky that my requests to moved to another team before the end of my probation were heard. My new team doesn't have weird aggression issues and it's super collaborative.

I almost quit tech completely because of that lead, but I'm so glad I insisted on making a space for myself and I'm thankful that the company I'm at was willing to empower me.

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heyjtk profile image
JTK Author

Ugh, I'm so sorry to hear this happened to you! I'm glad you got out to a good environment

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gshel profile image
Gretchen Shelby-Dormer

Same, thanks! Another golden quote from him was "all female programmers suck"

Not sure if you've encountered that one yourself, or something similar, but would you have any suggestions on how to handle that kind of behavior?

I'm still pretty green in terms of experience, but I found that staring at him with my mouth agape didn't do much 😂

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heyjtk profile image
JTK Author

I wish I had more advice other than to ask him if Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace sucked.

The truth is when people have a determined bias in their heads I don’t know how much we can do to change it other than thrive, and make their reality living with women and Black programmers and queer programmers unavoidable. I don’t know that I ever think they come around on their own, but I do think they eventually have to respect the power structures they interact with.

In a way I realize that’s shitty advice because for underrepresented people to gain power they have to be damaged all the time by people around them on the way up 🙃

I don’t mean to be too doom and gloom. I would never turn my back on this field or what I’ve accomplished but I guess I think we have a sustained effort ahead to make sure no one is getting comments like those that you are getting ❤️

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Tsotne Nazarashvili

it does not matter what you can do! it's only matter of what you want to do. it does not matter what it is if you don't want to do it reject it right away say anything like "i don't do X", "i don't want to do X", "i don't know how to do X and i don't want to learn it..." if asked "why?" either explain what you don't like about X or say that you are more passionate about Y and your contribution would be more productive doing Y (this is called soft skills).

if woman (or man) that you know are "pushed" to do something they don't like tell them to improve soft skills and to reject stuff they don't like to do and to speak about stuff they want to do with colleagues and management.

someone who don't like to do X and says something like "It will probably take me like a year to even be fluid with X stuff" is example of bad soft skills never say you can't do something when you don't want to do it!

also everyone doing everything is wrong on so many levels i can't imagine why would someone want to do that... (of course if someone agreed to do it on the interview then he should do it. at this point it does not matter if it's good idea or not)
it's like one person building skyscraper because he can learn anything

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heyjtk profile image
JTK Author

Politely disagree, people can and do get pigeonholed into certain lines of work

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thecotne profile image
Tsotne Nazarashvili

yes and you need to have soft skills to get kind of job you want and not the kind someone else wants to give you

i am not saying problem does not exist i am saying it's not that hard to overcome the problem on your own

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Nathan

Sorry to hear that's been your experience. I've had just the opposite experience, where my female coworkers are only willing to take on backend tasks because they hate JS, so I've been pidgeon holed into front end. But it hasn't bothered me too much since I used the opportunity to become highly specialized and charge a higher rate as a result.

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JTK Author

Glad to hear it it sounds like it worked out in your favor!

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JTK Author

The behavior was from management, and I did leave

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Wow, really authentic post. Thank you!

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Nicolas Bailly

I'll offload front-end work to anyone, male of female, without any discrimination. I really don't care as long as I don't have to do it.