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Career GrowthTech Leading Ladies

“Not Technical Enough”

By May 21, 2024No Comments

Women often receive the feedback they’re not technical enough during interviews, performance evaluations and promotion processes. 

Let’s dig in to why we receive this feedback, whether it’s even true, and what we can do about it.

I personally have been passed over for an interview for being not hands-on enough at a time I was coding daily. Assumptions were made, despite the detail in my resume.  This feedback is subjective, dismissive and lazy. My experience is not unique: we hear this time and time again from our Tech Leading Ladies members, as they apply for new roles.

Wanting to understand more, I asked a CTO Group that I’m a member of if any of them had ever heard that they were not technical enough. I was the only one who had ever received this feedback – and I was the only woman. Some of those men have not coded in over 20 years and yet they had never been considered “not technical enough”. It is assumed they are technical enough simply by already being in a similar position, and they never have to prove it. Yet, when women are applying for CTO and VP of Eng roles, suddenly daily hands on coding is a requirement. 

Why do we get this feedback? 

This all stems from – you guessed it – unconscious bias. Men usually believe that women are less technical and then they find evidence to back up their theory. We now know this is called Confirmation Bias. 

One thing that really doesn’t help us is the fact we spend so much time and energy working on non-technical contributions. Even though women are contributing technically, they often find themselves disproportionately responsible for non-technical tasks as well, like:

  • Taking meeting notes
  • Writing documentation
  • Onboarding new hires
  • Organising team lunches
  • Doing most of the interviewing
  • Managing the backlog
  • Facilitating retrospectives
  • Engaging in diversity initiatives

This unbalanced responsibility is an issue. First, because it means your male peers are – on average – paid more while doing less, and second, because it confirms their bias as you are being very visible doing all the non-technical stuff. 

When we are working on technical contributions, it makes men feel uncomfortable because we are violating an innate belief they have about our place in the team and the workforce. We are violating their value system. So they find fault with what we do. They hold us to higher standards and don’t let things slide like they would with our male peers. They push us into less-technical roles because that makes them feel more comfortable. 

When we do the glue work, that makes them feel comfortable. We are not violating their value system so they praise these efforts, tell us we are so good at the people stuff. 

We get criticized for our technical contributions and praised for our glue work, so what does that teach us?  We are “not technical enough”. When you hear it enough, you start to believe it, and it soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Breaking the Cycle 

Advice that I wish I’d heard early in my career and we often give to people of the TLL community is not to do glue work in at least the first three to four years of your career. Focus on building your technical skills and do the glue work and the diversity work when you move into leadership positions. Remember, you getting promoted is diversity work. At most, do the least amount of this stuff in your team, because you are already spending energy overcoming people’s biases. 

Step 1: Stop doing the glue work

Action number one for overcoming this bias was to stop doing the glue work. Let’s strike that off and get known for our technical contributions.

Step 2: Define “technical”

The next action is to demonstrate how technical we really are. At Tech Leading Ladies, we run a career growth program where participants get to baseline their skills against an industry benchmark to see where their strengths are and where their gaps are, against technical work and glue work. 

During the course of this program, one of our participants was given the “not technical enough” feedback by her boss. She asked him to explain what “not technical enough” meant and he couldn’t articulate it. It’s just a vibe, you “just know”. Our participants took the Skills Report that we had compiled to her boss and, using the underlying career growth framework as a frame of reference, was able to have a better career conversation. Digging into what “not technical enough” meant for him, it turns out she was in this not-technical-enough bucket as she did not know what all the letters meant in the acronym SOLID. (Seriously, besides ‘Single responsibility’, nobody cares, dude!)

Our male peers hold onto the idea that these concepts are important because it validates how technical they feel they are. It’s less about you being not technical enough and more about their fear of not being relevant. 

So next time you hear the feedback that you’re “not technical enough”, dig in and find out why. What assumptions lie behind the assertion. What sense of “technical” are you violating for them?

Step 3: Fill the perceived gap – very visibly

Once you uncover their true concerns you simply have to work to fill the gap. Do so visibly, checking in with them often, letting them know your progress and asking them for opportunities to fill that gap.

If the goalposts keep moving, and you do all this and next review time you have done all this but he still doesn’t see you as technical, it’s a him problem, not a you problem. You could stay in that job and bang your head against a wall for the next few years, or you can find an employer who will appreciate the value you bring. 

You already are technical enough 💜

I’d like your one take away from this to be that you already are technical enough. The notion of being “technical enough” should be seen for what it often is: a gatekeeping mechanism akin to the outdated concept of “merit” which was historically used to exclude women from certain roles and opportunities.

There will always be an excuse for why you don’t quite meet the grade – even when your performance is actually exceeding it. It’s up to you to manage your own career. Find your Women in Tech tribe and start putting objective measurements behind your performance. Hopefully, it can help you overcome the systemic bias holding back women in our industry.