From comments: being lady-tracked

Terri’s post on grooming has a few stories of women whose bosses or mentors have genuinely believed that they were aiming for management or secretarial roles rather than where they were really headed.


Eventually it became clear that he thought that the career path I wanted was that of the three women who were in technological management at my company: middle managers. (The three women shared an office; each of the male managers got an office to himself.) He honestly could not understand me when I explained to him that my career goal was to be software architect or systems architect, not management. The three female managers wore sportcoats and high heels and makeup and never got to touch technology, and he thought that’s what I wanted


That reminds me of my boss trying to steer me into a secretary/PR role by offering me more and more secretarial/PR tasks, and he was acting like he was doing me a favour and helping me reach my career goals. When I realized what was happening, I purposely ignored those tasks and kept myself busy with development.

I suspect this is common enough to deserve a post of its own: have you ever been ‘assisted’ by someone who genuinely believed that you wanted out of a geeky career? Or have you had push-back even when you made it clear that the geeky career was what you wanted?

I also think for some women who do want to become managers and so on, this also plays into the “girl stuff” dilemma, that by doing what a female-coded thing, even if it’s what you really want, you worry that you are playing into the oppression of women.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , on by .

About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

12 thoughts on “From comments: being lady-tracked

  1. AnneC

    I am an electrical engineer (currently between jobs and looking, following a plant closure layoff, but anyway) and my impression in the workplace, whether accurate or not, was that upper-management was presuming EVERYONE (male or female) held ambitions toward management. And I was often frustrated by this as someone who is very very technical and totally uninterested in management. Never considered there might be a gender element to my impression, though. I will definitely pay more attention to that in whatever job I end up with next!

    1. Katherine

      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ so much this. Why do they assume that everyone wants to be in management? There can’t be more management roles than non-management roles, surely.

  2. Skud

    I worked as a backend (Perl/MySQL/etc) web developer for about a decade. I spent quite a lot of effort, during that time, defending my backend-ness and making it clear that I really didn’t want to do frontend (Javascript/DHTML/etc). I have a pretty strong suspicion that people were “encouraging” me towards the front end because “women are better at UI” and stuff, though of course I can’t say for sure.

  3. Heidi Cautrell

    I’ve been a computer programmer for elven years. The three jobs that I’ve had in that time have all had their little quirks when it came to how I could move upward from where I was. The only place that seemed to show some gender bias toward me was the jewelry manufacturing plant. The majority of the workers in the plant were women. The majority of the programmers in the plant were men. I had to fight more than a few battles to keep myself where I was and not be moved into the positions that the other women seemed to “prefer”. It seems the more “homegrown” operation was the more sexist of the three.

  4. Wired

    I once quit a job when I got a new boss and my job duties suddenly changed from “be a tech writer” to “also take notes in meetings and make coffee”. It’s the only time I’ve quit with no notice and no other job. As I was leaving, the evil boss said “We don’t really need a tech writer anyway. The secretary can type.”

    For years after that I was really reluctant to work for any male supervisor. It was very early in my career and I kept wondering if I had somehow brought it on myself by looking less scruffy than the guys, or what. Mostly I was dressing up a notch because I was 20 and wanted to be read as older. After a lot more workplace experience, I am confident in saying he was just a terrible boss.

    I am really glad that I can be an individual contributor and not get tracked into management. I may go there someday, but I don’t feel ready yet. Happily, I find that once I started making “individual contributor” amounts of money, the pressure for me to do things out of my paygrade dropped off. I wrote about this effect a little in my post On Scrum Masters and Secretaries.

  5. Terri

    I’m going to put it out here that this isn’t just a geek problem: even my 70’s feminism manuals talk about being pushed into secretarial pools as a big and constant concern.

    1. Mary Post author

      No it’s not… I’m not sure why that matters though?

      One thing I think can be true of geeks though is that because our workplaces or at least teams are often extremely male-dominated numerically, we have problems that look like 70s problems. Still not solely a geek problem though. But if I stick to “this problem is unique to geek women” I don’t know that I’ll have a lot to post about.

      1. Terri

        Sorry, I guess it wasn’t clear why I was mentioning it. I was trying to remind people that this isn’t a new problem, but rather one that another generation of women also dealt with to be in the workplace at all. Sometimes I get the impression that women of my generation believe these problems are over and done with, as opposed to still chugging along in niche markets. :P

        It also means that some old feminist thought can sometimes be particularly insightful even though the industries have changed. If you’re dealing with problems like this, you might find solace in stories of women in the workplace from a generation ago. I know a lot of folk find it very helpful to know that at least they’re not alone in having to deal with this sort of crud.

  6. Roralee


    We have the exact opposite problem in our tech dept. Coders are pushed into the back-end for advancement b/c front-end (from a traditionally tech point of view) is considered “elementary”, “entry-level”, “easy”. So promotions are based on mastery of more and more back-end skill sets. In reality, the there are 3 different skill sets: front-end, middle-layer, back-end. Grrrrrrrr…

  7. Dorothea Salo

    I asked a few months ago to be reassigned to the developer pool, with the hearty consent of the leader of said pool (who is, it should be said, cis male and one of my best on-the-job friends). I got stonewalled.

    Now, the stonewalling appears to have happened in part because there were other plans being made to move me, and when I was told of them, after some hesitation I agreed to them. Still, the whole thing was icky enough that I’m still not entirely sure there wasn’t some “gurlz? gurlz aren’t devs” stuff going on.

  8. AnneC

    Oh, and I just remembered something else that seems like a REALLY egregious example of “ladytracking”, albeit not one that had anything to do with managerial roles. This was back when I first started work as a new engineer, fresh out of college. And one day several people from my department came up to me in the lab and asked if I would be willing to *go to the house of a (male) co-worker and WATCH HIS KIDS* so he could do ImportantEngineeringWork. Needless to say I refused, but gah, what a Twilight Zone moment that was. Ridiculous.

  9. Helga

    During my time as a research assistant at the university I made similiar experiences. I was working at a chair for computer science in architecture.

    We had a visiting professor from Latin America and I was given the task of taking care for him, showing him around and introducing him into our work especially during the first time. Although I am very happy to get the chance to know him a little bit better than all the others and it might be a valuable contact in the future, it was clear to me, that I was given the task because I am a woman and those considered to be more communicative and more emphatic, all of which is not true in my own opinion about myself. Moreover I wasn’t hired for having these skills but for my analytical thinking and programming skills (at least I thought so) and the visiting professors research topic had little to do with mine.

    Another, even worse experience was about obtaining gifts, but this time I refused to take over the task. There was a colleagues marriage and I wasn’t even invited. That didn’t bother me, but there were other colleagues, who knew that marrying colleague for a long time and were kind of best friends of him. One of those came to me and asked if I could think of and take care of a present for that bridegroom. I was confused, because how should I be able to obtain a present better than they could do it? That beared any logic in my eyes.

    It’s really strange how these assumptions about the skills I must have because I am a woman outperform everything which I think I am representing. I don’t believe there is such a big gap between my self-perception and what I am communicating to the outside. There must rather be a fundamental misconception in the others perception of me as a technical woman.

Comments are closed.