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How to stop gaslighting women in tech

According to that source of all knowledge on the interwebz, Wikipedia,  “Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

Have you ever had a brilliant, super-competent friend who doubted her own competence?

I’ve often seen this happen to women in technical jobs, and it’s happened to me. Here’s what happens. You work with a man or a couple of men. (In theory it could be women, or men could do this to other men but I personally have only seen men do this, and usually to women). No one knows everything (duh!). You are an expert in Python, Ruby, JavaScript, PHP and Objective C. You’ve developed some pretty cool iOS apps, been part of some successful teams.  Bob suggests that the team really needs an Android app, but, 

You don’t know Java, do you, Joan?

You suddenly realize,

“Oh, my God, I don’t! How did I miss learning Java?”

Part of gaslighting is “using what’s important to you as ammunition”. If you’re a woman who has been in software development, mathematics, statistics or science for a long time,  it’s no doubt important to you and you’ve overcome a lot to stick it out and get where you are.  It’s important to you to be competent and knowledgeable and having someone question that is disconcerting. 

Gaslighters wear you down. It’s the death of a thousand cuts. Bob will insist that the prototype of the next app has to be built for Android because it’s the largest market share, “Of course, that leaves you out of the prototype build  because we need experienced Java developers.” “I’ll bet you’ve never used Android Studio.”

Gaslighters are also experts at reframing things, so much so that you don’t think of the fact that the last five prototypes were done for iOS and there was no problem porting to Android.

Gaslighters can also be good at getting other people to go along with them. If Bob repeatedly tells Sam that Joan isn’t a good fit for this project because we really need an Android developer for this prototype and Joan has no expertise in that area, “she mostly just does testing on iPhones”, Sam may believe him, after all, she’s admitted she has no expertise with Java. So, Sam is not going to consult with Joan on any technical issues, which wears Joan down even further. 

I agree with Stephanie Sarkis that some gaslighters may do this unintentionally and subconsciously. They are, in my experience, trying to make up for feelings of inferiority by making themselves look better by comparison and getting other people to depend on them. 

It doesn’t matter whether it is deliberate or not. The effects are insidious.

I used to think, “Suck it up, buttercup. If some clowns don’t think you have the technical chops, prove them wrong.”

I still think that to some extent, but I can see that it can be really difficult if you are constantly pricked with an endless series of whispering questions of your competence, both behind your back and to your face. It’s exhausting to always be trying to prove your abilities in the areas where you are knowledgable at the same time explaining that no, you have never used (insert any language here because no one has used all of them). I’ve seen women who really enjoyed coding move into marketing or project management giving the reason, 

It just wasn’t fun any more.

You may already be the solution.

Three of us, mutual friends, were at lunch one day and one woman mentioned she had been offered a terrific job but it was for “an expert in the field’ and she didn’t consider herself an expert. Her other friend and I immediately interrupted her,

What? Are you nuts? You are the very definition of an expert!

Then, we proceeded to list all of her amazing accomplishments because she really is incredible. 

Stick with people who see you in the best possible light

I have a great advantage in protection against gaslighters in that I married the right person. Recently, we were drinking beer with a friend who referred to me as “testing the games” and The Invisible Developer corrected, 

She doesn’t just test the games. She makes them, too.

It’s not often someone questions my technical ability around my husband, but when it does happen, he speaks up for me 100% of the time. That’s a big deal because he is not at all one to draw attention to himself. He’s not called the Invisible Developer for nothing. 

It’s not just him. I’m super fortunate to have a group of friends and colleagues who are really supportive and collaborative people who always have my back. 

If you are the problem, you have a problem

Maybe you are scoffing dismissively at this point that if Joan was any good none of this would have bothered her. You are making a snide comment over your cubicle that real developers don’t need anyone to tell them they’re good. People often feel uncomfortable around gaslighters, even if they can’t give a reason. They are right, too, because once Joan leaves, you’ll need someone else to disparage to make yourself feel superior, maybe Sam.

If Sam has a choice of his next project, it’s probably not going to be one with you. If he does get stuck working with you, after all of your comments about Joan, Sam is going to expect that you are God’s gift to Android development, that, in fact, your middle name is Java and the language was named after you. Imagine his response when you turn out to be nothing special.

What I’ve seen happen to the gaslighters eventually is that no one wants to work with them. Even though Bob thinks he’s a 10X software developer, for some reason no one wants him on their team. He tells himself it’s because they’re jealous. 

In the meantime, though, Joan is now managing the marketing department.

Don’t end up like Joan

Years ago, on the More than Ordinary podcast, I had my lovely daughter , Julia, as a guest to talk about what it’s like in boarding school. After saying, that “First of all, it’s nothing like Hogwarts … ” she went on to add

No matter where you are, you can find people to study with, to help support you to reach your goals. And, if not, well, just be that person for yourself.

So, if you find yourself being questioned so much that you start questioning yourself, try finding friends and colleagues who support you and remind you of your awesomeness. If for some reason that’s not an option, I suggest this. Remind yourself. Sit down and write down all of your accomplishments. Then, next time Bob questions you tell him, 

“Shut up you little prick. I’ve done amazing things, and I’m going to be here long after you’re gone.”

Okay, well, maybe you shouldn’t say that out loud at work, but if you do, I won’t blame you. 

In my day job, I make educational games, like this one where a Mayan god thing drags you into the past. Yes, it teaches math.

Mayan guy
Aztech Games: Not made with Java – yet – but that’s just a coincidence

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  1. My sister was brilliant with a super-competent friend who doubted her own competence. This article will surely help others women to recover themselves from gaslighting.

  2. Just discovered your blog while Googling “scree plots” — great stuff, thank you!

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see how “you don’t know Java” translates into gaslighting in this case. Presumably this was a statement of fact, and presumably Java would be required to build the Android app? (I don’t build apps and I don’t do Java, but that’s the impression I got from your blog.)

    As a past manager, though, while I wouldn’t want a newbie Java coder to *build* the Android app, I would certainly consider: (a) having Joan participate on the team to take advantage of her overall experience in app. design, coding, QC, testing, etc.; (b) use this as an opportunity to expand the capabilities of a valuable team member by asking if she’d be interested in being a junior developer on this project as a way to learn Java and expand her skill set; and (c) task Joan with providing an eye towards uniformity of user experience, iPhone to Android, BECAUSE of her iPhone background. Nothing worse than having two radically different apps on different platforms, right?

    Maybe it’s partly mindset? The difference between “you lack this skill, therefore you’re out” vs. “you lack this skill, but you have other valuable skills and a demonstrated ability to learn new ones.”

    I learned a long, long time ago: the most successful managers are those who figure out how to make their staff as successful as possible.

  3. My point was that you can always find SOMETHING a person doesn’t know and then try to cast that as “the essential skill”. In my hypothetical example, it didn’t HAVE to be an Android app so knowing how to build an Android app was not crucial to being able to develop a prototype.It could just as easily have been built for the web or iOS. Let’s assume you are building apps for education, which we do. Some of those apps may be built for the education market and are going to run on Chromebooks on the web. This is actually the biggest share of the market. Usually, it’s the first version we do because it’s quicker to deploy and debug.

    The second biggest share is probably a tie between Windows and iPads. Android tablets or Android apps installed on Chromebooks are a far smaller share of the market. Why would you start with those? Rhetorical question. You wouldn’t. So the example was “You have the skills that we use on 90% of our products but you’re missing this thing that is not essential, so you’re out.”

    So in this case, the skills our hypothetical Joan didn’t have were actually the least important to our product and market so she probably should not be a junior developer, but rather leading the team and after we have a tested version for web, Windows and iOS we can focus on the smaller (in our market) group of Android users.

    Just for the record, though, our actual Java developers in our company are awesome.

  4. I think women gaslight themselves as well,which is something we should never do. This was absolutely relatable!

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