At the beginning of this year, I saw a meme on Facebook where a young man mentioned that over the past year, he had learned to stop “aspiring to sit at tables where he had to bring his own chair, squeeze in between folks and repeatedly convince people that he deserved to be there.”
That was the most accurate description I had ever read about being an undesirable demographic in information technology.
You’d think I would have figured out that by virtue of being a black woman over the age of 40, it would have occurred to me during the nearly two years and 40-plus interviews I endured before being promoted to my current position that I am really not the demographic employers are currently searching for. In all honesty, I did start to get the picture around the one year mark when I noticed that I and one other older black female were still interviewing long after most of the other people on the “promotional” list had been hired by other departments.
In civil service, you are interviewed in groups based on your score, so you tend to see the same people repeatedly until you, or they, are hired. I could tell when we were now interviewing with candidates from the “open” list, people not currently employed by the city, who tended to skew younger, male and mostly anything other than black, most of whom got hired before I did. It also did not escape my notice that I was hired by someone that knew me by reputation, knew several of my past supervisors and thus knew what she was getting in terms of my skillset, experience and work ethic. Sixteen years after I first started on my path to systems analyst, I had finally arrived.
You would think I would have caught on that in IT, what I do (end-user, deskside support, or Break/Fix) is thought to be a young man’s game. Ideally, the young man will be Asian, Indian, white, Hispanic, rarely black, or if so, generally African or Afro-Caribbean. There is also a current belief among hiring managers that the millennials they so crave are willing to work harder and for less money than more experienced job seekers.
Female personal computer techs are rare; I saw my first in 2001. Craig, who brought her on at the bank where I was working as a temp clerk, also saw in me a capacity for working with computers. By the time I had been working there for a few months, Craig caught on that I was eager to learn and began to teach me to do simple support for my group. He was the first person to encourage me towards a STEM career, which I was going to find out was very rare, and for that I will always be grateful.
You would think that I had started to figure it out when I enrolled in a trade school in November 2001, shortly before my 30th birthday. During the seven months I spent there, learning PC repair and networking and earning two beginning certifications for PC repair, I started to notice that women were already unusual in this career field. In my class of just over 20, I only recall there being three women. Being a socially awkward introvert, I could easily pick up on some slight discomfort with my presence in a space not traditionally thought to be one for me. My nerdy side did most of the talking while I was there. I had no issue with either the work or displaying my mastery of whatever new concepts we learned, which does NOT help you win friends or influence people, especially in an industry where networking is crucial. And no one likes to be shown up by someone they think shouldn’t be there, even if the intent was not to show anyone up. The experience of being spoken over, or conversely, ignored, would come up again in four years, as I finally started working in Systems.
In IT, perception is everything. I am still taken aback when people are surprised that I am essentially a PC tech. I started by learning basic code on an Apple II series in 1985, but I didn’t stop there. When my older sister brought her first PC home from college, I entered the world of software installation and minor repair. Every assignment I accepted as a temp during the ’90s, I made it a point to learn everything I could, until that fateful day I was told that there might actually be a career in this for me.
Of course, no one knows your history when they first meet you. They can only work off of their perception and expectations. No one expects to see a middle-aged black woman when they call for computer help. Your co-workers and bosses don’t always know how to respond either. I’ve had my assistance refused while an employee waited for the real techs (i.e. younger males) to arrive. I’ve had work I had done consistently and well for years taken away from me and given to a male co-worker, with no explanation. I’ve had work I was doing overlooked because of a younger male colleague’s relentless self-promotion. I’ve been shut out of job-critical information because while my co-workers had no issues sharing resolutions to common issues with each other, whenever I asked a question, I was considered incompetent.
These are just the incidents that would fit in this word count.
It is exhausting to be in a space where you constantly feel that you have to prove yourself. Such is life for those in career fields where your presence is not only unexpected, but mildly unwelcome. But I am blessed because I love what I do, and God granted me the perseverance to endure to get the job I wanted and a thick enough skin to deal with the frustrations that come with it.