“But You’re Too Cute to Code!” – Experiences of a Female Freelancer in the Tech Industry

My appearance does not have anything to do with my work.

Freelance life can be tough: you’re often working from one contract to the next, constantly switching modes from sales, to technical work, to strategy, to business administration and the rest – all the while not knowing what you’ll be doing in three months’ time. It’s easy to lose perspective in this tangle, especially considering you are also constantly being judged by different streams of people (which works wonders for feeding the voice of doubt in your head).

As freelancers, we all face different challenges. I never anticipated that my challenge would be a battle between my gender, my appearance, and my intellectual worth.

I started freelancing around five years ago, developing websites for small business owners on the recommendations of family and friends. Although I was technically equipped for the work, had very little idea of how to run a business or how the industry operated. But, I bluffed my way through. I was using the ‘act as if’ principle; I was acting as if I was a professional web developer. It helped to quiet the voices of doubt in my head. To my surprise, it worked.

One of the first website jobs I landed was for a wedding services provider. The guy who hired me was keen to have me on board because he thought I would be able to bring a ‘feminine touch’ to the project. At the time, my main concern was getting the contract, so I nodded my head and said, “oh yes. I will bring a female perspective. Yes, sure”. In my mind I was thinking, what does he want me to do, make it pink and put flowers on it? This guy is going to be very disappointed. I don’t think I have a feminine touch. And actually, I think the wedding industry is a racket. Am I exploiting my gender to get work? I am an imposter!

This sort of experience is very confusing; I’m locked into this loop of not being able to complain for risk of sounding ungrateful, as I literally got the job because I was a female. I am grateful. But did it matter if he thought I would actually be good for the job? Or did he just hire me because I was the first female web developer he had met? When I sat down and started pulling apart his website code in front of him, he thought I was a magician. I was both pleased and irritated by his surprise at my skills. There are things I don’t like about it, but this contract did help to kickstart my career as a website developer and truly, I am thankful for it. It’s a strange loop.

I’d like to think that in the majority of the work I do, gender doesn’t play a part at all. At best, people don’t notice or care about femininity when it comes to my ability to do my job. At worst, people actively believe my time and skills aren’t worth what I say they are; they don’t value my expertise and won’t pay for it. They openly question how I can possibly charge what I do (I charge industry standard rates). At times, those people have gotten into my head. I’ve had to learn to ignore them. Those people are not my customers.

The confusing middle ground is where I and a lot of freelancers (especially those starting out) will get a lot of work. The example of that first contract falls into this category. People are well meaning, but give weird, backhanded compliments. They will hire me for my differences and delight in my novelty. Sometimes, they will fail to understand what I do entirely.

Here’s an interaction I’m too familiar with:

“Hi, nice to meet you. What do you do?”
“I’m a web developer”
“Oh cool, so you’re like a graphic designer?”
“Not really, I’m not very artistic. I develop websites”
“…oh, so that’s…websites, oh right. What…?”

“Mostly I write code…”

“…..(cue surprise and weird compliments)

Once, when explaining that I was a web developer to a male colleague, he looked at me with genuine surprise and confusion.

“But you’re too cute to code!” were the words he said to me.

Now, this is tricky because I’m sure he intended it as a compliment in the best possible way. When you break it down though, it is rather odd. Firstly, apparently I’m ‘cute’ – gee, thanks – but secondly, my ‘cuteness’ is in direct opposition with my ability to or need to code. (Freelancing provides great opportunities in today’s trouble job markets – it is how I pay my rent!) Because I’m ‘cute’, should I perhaps be doing a job where I am on show, instead of hiding behind my computer wearing headphones, where no one can see me? What. a. waste.

This is a problem of systemic sexism: a well meaning person has been lead to believe, through no direct fault of their own, that ‘cute girls’ don’t do technical work.

Here’s another common example that feels less well-intentioned and borders on creepy: I’m meeting someone in a professional context for the first time, and the first thing they have to say to me after the ‘nice to meet you’s is a comment about my appearance. If that is a person who potentially has power or influence over my livelihood (i.e., to make a decision to hire me) and their first view of me is as an object to be looked at, then I am going to have to work really hard to prove my intellectual worth – both to the people I’m working with, and to myself.

In the past, I’ve actually resorted to bringing male colleagues into meetings because I wasn’t confident enough in a group of unfamiliar males. A couple of years ago, I took a male colleague into a pitch meeting for support, and after some standard banter between the men and multiple compliments to me, one of the men said to my colleague that the best thing that he (my colleague) was doing for his business was bringing me along into meetings as eye candy.

I feel incredibly grateful for the friends who have supported me in these instances. It is also reassuring to see their shock when they see sexism in action.

Safe to say, we did not pursue that opportunity.

Myself and fellow freelancers at Hub Adelaide Coworking space on International Women’s Day 2016. Credit: Pierre Andre Goosen

My appearance does not have anything to do with my work – most of my job involves a lot of sitting in silence, doing in-depth design and strategy work, writing complex code, and making important decisions that can affect the future of someone’s business. When you judge me first on my appearance, you make assumptions that I have to fight hard to disprove. It makes me feel defiant and dejected. How can I do good work when I feel my passion and technical skills aren’t as important as how I look?

I liken these small but constant compliments/discriminations to water torture: one drip of water on your forehead will not bother you, but a constant series of drips will become unbearable and cause a person to break. Over and over, I have had to laugh off objectifying comments, to fight to prove my intelligence, to question whether I am exploiting my gender, and turn down work. The drips have started to wear on my nerves.

As I’ve continued my career, I’ve been very aware of this ever growing chip on my shoulder: my quick assumption that if I’m in a room full of men, I will need to fight to prove myself. Left unchecked, this can express itself in defiance and combativeness on my part, which is very rarely productive behaviour.

I spent some time early in my career working with a few select older males who couldn’t handle it when I took on a leadership role; their responses to my assertiveness were ego driven and served to bring me down. I’ve now learned to recognise these people early on and not work with them in the first place – these are the people who, in the first few meetings, comment on my appearance and call me sweetheart.

These are the micro managers who are secretly worried that a female might be smarter than them, so they use emotional manipulation to bring them down. But, while this has accounted for some of my experience, the majority of the time people aren’t judging my skill based on my gender – but rather on my dedication and my technical knowledge. The thing I now need to learn to recognise is when I’m projecting my past bad experiences onto people and organisations who aren’t acting on the same motivations.

I participated in the #STEMselfie challenge with the Office for Women SA to challenge stereotypes of what people in STEM industries look like.

I’m also doing my best to take up a practice of constantly checking my privilege. I am a white, english-speaking, cisgendered female who outwardly ‘conforms’ to typical western standards of appearance. There are a lot of opportunities and safeguards I get that others don’t. When I fight for feminism and equality I know that, while my rights are important, there are others whose voices aren’t as loud as mine. I want to do my best to listen to those voices and to help provide platforms where I may have the opportunity to do so.

So freelancers, if you fall outside of the majority in your industry – I urge you to please go forward and do your work. Let your passion drive you. Build resilience to move beyond those who bring you down. Surround yourself with networks of people who empower you, and who will recommend you based on your skills. Believe the best of your fellows; be a cheerleader, not a tall poppy. Learn the value of your time and skill. Take the jobs you need in order to pay your rent, but follow processes, get contracts signed and stand up for yourself. Use your fire to constantly upskill. Raise your prices. Practice saying ‘no’. Practice quoting higher. Systemic sexism works in covert ways and to beat it we have to take an active stance. We have to say ‘yes’ to ourselves, and ‘no’ to those who want to bring us down. Perhaps harder though is that confusing middle ground, where we have to remember our values and gently push the unaware towards understanding.

Ultimately, more diversity in the freelance and in tech spaces is a good thing. It goes beyond a need for political posturing: diversity brings more perspectives, which leads to more creativity, more understanding and more innovation. I am very grateful for all of the work and opportunities I’ve received due to my being somewhat of a square peg in a round hole. I have a point of difference that sets me apart from many other of web developers and IT professionals, and it’s not just my novelty factor; the sum of all of my experiences have led me to this point and makes me who I am.

It’s my skill level that I’ve constantly grown to prove that I am more than my appearance. It’s my desire to always find a different way of looking at a problem. These are things I’ve come to own. You don’t have to take on other people’s views of you. You can decide for yourself. Whatever it is that sets you apart – choose it and own it. And remember why you became a freelancer in the first place.


Related articles: 

Sarah Brown

About the Author Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown is a freelance web designer and developer working with Digital World Foundry and her personal brand, Esbie. You can find her at a coworking space in whatever city she happens to be in.