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‘I Didn’t Notice:’ Why I Trained Myself Not To Be a ‘Woman in Tech’

For a long time, almost as long as I’ve been a member of the exclusive “Women in Tech” club, I’ve avoided talking about diversity.

I modeled myself after Marissa Mayer, who when asked what it was like being the only female engineer at Google (back in the day) said, “I didn’t notice.”

I completely believe this. It’s often very useful not to notice.

Perhaps her blindness came naturally. For me, I trained myself not to notice being the only woman in the Slack channel because noticing hurt me. It literally made me worse at my job.

only woman

How stereotype threat hurts

There’s a famous study of black and white participants asked to take a test. Black and white students performed equally well when the test wasn’t framed as measuring intellectual ability. But when black students were aware their intellect was being judged, they did significantly worse—just because they were asked about race.

Stereotype threat, an established psychological phenomenon, caused black students to do worse on the test. Identifying themselves with a group that has stereotypical, though mistaken, associations of lower intellectual ability primed them subconsciously to adopt that trait.

When people are aware of a negative stereotype about their group, they often worry that they might confirm the stereotype, and this can have the effect of undermining their performance.

This image, from the presentation Understanding Stereotypes for Cognitive Design,” explains how stereotype threat works:


As a woman developer, this same thing happens to me when I mentally check the female box and then proceed to be “in tech.”

Identifying myself with a group stereotyped to be worse on average at technical tasks primes me to do worse when faced with a technical task. This can quickly lead to imposter syndrome and worse.

Comic by xkcd

The way around this for me was to downplay being a woman, and this meant not talking about diversity.

Why talking about diversity is hard

I feel that diversity is morally the right thing to do. And for those who prefer a profit motive, it also makes business sense.

But talking about diversity is often hard for the “diverse ones.” In this example alone, we’ve seen that it can prime members of underrepresented groups us to identify with harmful stereotypes—and potentially even inadvertently confirm them.

It’s probably also hard for the “non-diverse ones”–—I imagine  it could feel threatening to have a “not diverse” mark next to your name. Developers who are white and men are no less valuable because of their race and gender.

Even that last paragraph makes me uncomfortable, with its binary “diverse” and “not-diverse,” as if we’re facing each other down across a battlefield, brandishing pitchforks.

Don’t let’s stop this conversation. It needs to happen, and it probably will, regardless of who likes it.

What if we re-labelled it, and instead talked about belonging? In my mind, that’s the real issue: some folks feel that they don’t belong in tech. I don’t want to “Be Diverse,” I just want to be.

What if we talked about ‘belonging’ instead?

I want to feel I really belong among my developer peers. Equally, I want my peers to feel that they belong, too (whoever they are).

By talking about belonging, maybe we can refocus the conversation away from quotas and [insert noun here]-blindness, and discuss why it is that many groups don’t feel that they can belong in our industry (and perhaps many people don’t feel they can truly be their whole selves) and what we can do to change that and make everyone feel really welcome.


This quote, from Maxine Williams, global director of diversity at Facebook, sums up my feeling of fostering belonging beautifully:

Every Monday, when we get a new class of hires, I say to them, “I don’t want you to come in here and think that you need to use ‘blind’ as a suffix. That you need to describe people as ‘just my colleagues’ or say things like, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see gender. I’m colorblind. Sexual-orientation blind.’ In doing so, you’re neutralizing a part of a person that is an asset. I want you to see those characteristics and see them as adding value.”

What’s your experience?

Have you ever faced or worried about stereotype threat? How did you handle it? What kind of environment most makes you feel that you belong?

Inclusion is on our minds quite a lot at Buffer. If you’ve got an experience to share, we’d be honored to hear it.

Top photo by #WOCinTech/#WOCinTech Chat

  • I think that focusing on “diversity” detracts from actual diversity… it makes people too focused on it for good and/or bad and that it’s important to simply take people as they are… Of course having metrics on said practices can definitely help in a larger organizations to correct when hiring doesn’t match the ratios in application pools within a margin of error.

    I find a bigger risk in tech in the long term is ageism, as most organizations in tech are excessively aware of trying to bring in certain types of “diversity” while being a middle-aged person is something much harder on many levels in tech workplaces.

    • Interesting thoughts here; thank you so much for sharing them! Definitely agree that age is an area that the tech industry could work a lot on! I’m curious if you would consider age an element of overall diversity, or something separate? (I tend to put age under the umbrella of overall diversity but I’m sure there are many ways of looking at this!)

      • Sandra McCann

        My feeling is ageism is another aspect of diversity, with very similar issues. Much like a resume with a distinct cultural name may never get a call back, a resume with programming skills going back to the 1980s will also not get that call back. We each have in a way to hide who we are to get past screening biases.

  • Glenda Turner

    Somehow lost my Buffer subscription for awhile. So nice to have access again because of blogs like these! The quote was great, especially the last sentence: I want you to see those characteristics and see them as adding value.

    My own quote is: Diversity can help us grow our own and our organizational intelligence.

    Without it, we hang out with people who think like us, look like us, talk like us, walk like us… We do this because of cognitive biases such as Familiarity Bias, Confirmation Bias and many others that keep us in a comfort zone. Most of the time, we are totally unconscious of them.

    It is for that reason I believe at this stage of human development, without significant awareness of our default biases, we still need deliberate processes that help us achieve Diversity in our lives.

    • Hey Glenda, so happy to see you here! Really excellent points about all the biases that come into play here; I think you’re absolutely right! I’m nodding my head vigorously to everything you’ve mentioned here!

      • Glenda Turner

        Thanks, Courtney. Glad I got my subscription back. The people who helped, by the way, were most amazing!

  • I think this is the best article I’ve ever read on diversity – so many great observations. Full of empathy, clarity, and honesty. Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree, Katie did a fantastic job; I feel super lucky to have her on our team!

  • Michael Jenkins

    I love the view on this article. I really like the term “belonging”. This topic can be so scary for some people to discuss. The spin that was taken is something I have been looking for to connect with. This is something I will definitely be sharing with others. Thank you for your thoughtful views. It was a pleasure to read.

    • Hey Michael, hopping in for Katie to say that’s so awesome to hear! We’d love to hear from others you might share this with, also!

  • SF Native

    I worked in a male dominated industry for a decade. I was many times the only woman in the room. I now work in a different industry – but still male dominated. Yesterday I was the only woman on an internal team skype meeting. Pre meeting chatter was about a bachelor party. I notice when I’m the only woman every single time. I find it incredibly hard to believe other women when they say they don’t. Come off it, sisters!

  • Sandra McCann

    Interesting post and comments throughout. Belonging as a different view of diversity comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. It does bring with it a sense of community and togetherness, which is great. It also brings a hidden suggestion of needing to conform. To use a scenario another comment mentioned, if I’m the only woman on the call and it strays into less than comfortable territory (which a bachelor party certainly could) – am I straying from that sense of belonging if I mention I’m uncomfortable or feel excluded from the conversation?
    It’s one of the reasons I prefer diversity – the word itself keeps the connotation of different. I’m different than my peers, and that difference is an asset, to us as a group, and the organization as a whole. To me, diversity stretches us beyond our tribal norms, while belonging can potentially pull us back into that set of tribal norms.

    • Ah, that’s a really interesting point, Sandra, on how belonging relates to diversity! I think my read on this might be that in that scenario, the company in question might not have achieved belonging as we hope to define it at Buffer.

      Being the only one of anything (woman, person of color, etc.) might make it tough to feel a sense of belonging, since you might feel pressure to represent “the point of view” of your identity (e.g., ability, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation), which probably feels a bit off. Whereas with a more equal mix of men and women in the conversation, it might be more possible for all to feel like they belong. And maybe a different conversation topic might have emerged. ;)

      This is not to say that we’ve achieved this at Buffer; I still feel we have quite a bit of work to do. This is just our current way of looking at things. Would love to hear your thoughts!

  • Angela Sylcott

    Diversity and belonging both require at least two parties to work. It’s great if you, as an individual, feel a sense of belonging, but it’s useless if the industry, organization, department, team, group, etc., you’re trying to catch that feeling with doesn’t feel that you belong or isn’t even aware of you wanting to belong in the first place. I think there’s a tendency to look from the perspective of the “outsider,” as you did when you mentioned “many groups don’t feel that they can belong in our industry.” I don’t think the industry’s lack of diversity is necessarily a matter of people lacking self-confidence or not feeling capable of belonging. Sure, there may be some of that, but they have to have also received evidence or a message in some form, at some point that they may not be welcome or belong.

    Maybe it’s in the nature of how so many companies in the industry began/begin as collaborations between friends/colleagues and grow through networking? A company might start off looking heavily young white male because the guys who started it are, and so are their friends and colleagues they brought into the company as it grew. I’m not saying that companies are actively or intentionally saying they don’t want diversity, I think it’s just more of a lack of awareness of the lack of it or any particular need for it—the company is accomplishing what it needs to accomplish just fine with the people it has, after all.

    And to the outsider’s eye, when they look at the company’s “Our Team” page and see a relatively homogeneous group, I’d say it wouldn’t be unusual for a sense of “I wouldn’t belong there” to cross that person’s mind. To me, if a company can make it to having 100, 50, or maybe even 30 employees and still only have the easily identifiable “one _____, one _____,” it just says that they work with who they’re comfortable with and I’m not likely to fit that description.

    Diversity rarely seems to be an issue for people who don’t have it—again, it’s human nature to surround yourself with people you’re comfortable with. And, in my opinion, being made aware of a “need” for diversity creates an artificial interest in and perceived benefit of it. Usually, it leads to targeted hiring and not looking at people for their qualities, but rather as a resources to meet a quota. Is it possible to get good employees and diversity this way? Absolutely, but I find it’s diversity for diversity’s sake—it’s to make that team picture look a certain way, not to broaden and deepen the talent pool. That said, if you want true diversity, make the hiring process blind—no applicant’s name or picture involved. Then you’ll draw in the best qualified people for the position, and will likely find that getting a mix of backgrounds, ethnicities, sexes, ages, etc., is more accomplishable if you *let* it happen than if you try to *make* it happen.

    • Oh my goodness, Angela, so very many great points and gems in this comment! Probably the thing that struck me most was this sentence: “Diversity rarely seems to be an issue for people who don’t have it.” To me, this sums up so much of the conversation and reminds me again to re-up on our goals at Buffer to be deliberate about how we grow. Love your thoughts on blind hiring; it’s been really awesome to see so many new startups focused on making that process easier and more accessible to all!

  • We are all a “sub-set” of something somehow, somewhere. I view it as a venn diagram: I BELONG in a number of places and I find it hard to keep WORKING HARD at managing the fluctuations that occur depending on who I am dealing with. I loved the concept of belonging mentioned in the article. It means your place where you find yourself is valued and validated by individuals who’s collaboration with you makes you feel necessary. That has a lot of value for me.

    • Wow, love the Venn diagram you mention here; that is such a powerful visual!

  • Gabriela Radu

    Nice article. I think the “spread common culture” and axioms about life in general are a big influence in every aspect of living and relationships including at work. So far, the pattern i saw is that men grow up with the already idea of what a woman can do, and cannot do and in the same time girls play a part in this as well.

    Because it’s not casually inserted in the popular believes that women are just like them, and it’s pointing towards us that we should be accepted more, some people react in a very negative way. Habits are made using repetition, so if you shout every single time you do something, especially what a lot of people won’t agree with, you will always just attract the contradictory discussion about the problem and the problem itself is out of focus. People don’t like to be told what to do, or taken away some ideas they have. Adding the ideas there with no constant talk about the “why?” will give the feeling in the end that “it was always there“.

    I had different experiences at work and Uni, where some suggested I go back to cook something or bring them lunch, or others had the pity look on them. At work i usually started with them having no faith and had to always prove myself, while for men, it was implied that they can do the job and it’s very difficult to decade from that. Not being part of the “guys” does not help to strengthen the team connection. Some didn’t believe the “women seen as outsiders in tech“ is a real problem, thinking it’s just made up. I use some “male type” of usernames sometime just to get a better response to what i am asking online. I do understand that things always change, hope it will towards a balance. :)

  • Marcus

    i really like the quote by Maxine Williams. It draws similarity with Kenji Yoshino term ‘covering’. People ‘cover’ their differences to fit into society, and do not recognize what their unique differences can contribute to the workplace/life.

    It seems like diversity and inclusion are on the polar opposites, having more diversity can perhaps result in a less inclusive workplace. Promoting women to senior management to achieve certain quota can be self-defeating if the company culture is inadequately prepared to accept the changes. Women that were promoted could face alienation.

    In my opinion, the struggle for Diversity and Inclusion leaders is to reconcile Diversity with Inclusion. The way to do it is to change the perception on differences, through conversations/dialogues/sensitization/sharing sessions by successful women leaders etc, to one where differences are valued. When differences are valued, the sense of belonging will naturally come along.

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