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I am a female programmer and started a job in a software development company about 8 months ago. I also moved to a new country so I am a foreigner as well.

I am the only female developer in the office (of about 40) and the only other women are the office admin and a UX designer with whom I don't interact much. So my team is all male and they are nice guys (we're all geeks) but I still don't feel welcome or that I belong in any way. I try and participate in conversation but most of the time I'm just horrified of being alone with someone just because I suck at small talk or any kind of conversation in this environment.

I recently took part in an all-woman conference aimed at CS undergratuates and I felt so inspired and happy to be around other women and I was much more at ease.

The majority of my colleagues are either talking about sports/football all the time or are very nerdy and I feel like I have nothing to say in that area because I am not confident in sci-fi or an expert in comics even though I enjoy them.

Additionally, all of them seem so confident and like they never make mistakes and are always on top of everything which is extremely intimidating...

I like the company, they are all very smart but I kind of feel like I don't belong every single day. Not sure how to adapt to the situation.

EDIT

I think the first step will be to start asking questions about topics I enjoy without the fear of sounding stupid or lame and then gradually gather up enough confidence and information to talk about my own opinions on subjects. It does take a bit of time to get used to a new group so I'll take it slowly and build up relationships at a natural pace :)

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    I can't speak to the gender aspect but I have felt the same way you describe about new teammates as well (male or female). I'm also really not into sports or comics either (although I am male). In that situation usually just try to show interest in what people are on about and try to fit in but without "faking it". If you don't care about football, you don't have to pretend you do but don't disparage another's interests. I try to find out why do they like that activity, and what other activities do they also like. Maybe you find some common ground. – Brandin Apr 14 '15 at 12:01
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    Being male isn't a club. They will all have had to find common ground and build confidence in their own skills as much as you do. Don't worry, the sense of belonging will come as you share experiences with the team. The obvious thing is to make an effort to find out about things they are talking about even if you aren't really interested so you can at least join in a conversation, but If in doubt talk about things which you like, they may surprise you. – JamesRyan Apr 14 '15 at 16:08
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    A lot of the "never make mistakes and on top of everything" is just bravado. Men are socialized to try to one-up each other, women are socialized to prevent others from feeling inferior by never being too perfect. Thus men will very frequently radiate much more confidence than women of the same skill level. (I don't have citations right now, but studies have shown a tendency for men to overestimate their ability in an area, and for women to underestimate their own ability.) Learning how to appear confident even when you're not feeling it will help immensely (that's what they guys are doing). – LindaJeanne Apr 14 '15 at 18:58
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    "they never make mistakes"- edit that to "they never make mistakes that I know about" :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 15 '15 at 3:16
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    I think the title should be How to feel welcome in an unfamiliar software developer environment. The gender isn't that much important here and doesn't need to be specified in the title. But other than that, your question is well explained and detailed. Now, to the point. I'm a male developer and I have huge struggles in socializing, since most people have nothing in common with me. If you want to fit in the group where you have things in common, show your interest in those things. You may hate sports (I hate football/soccer) (continue...) – Ismael Miguel Apr 15 '15 at 9:47

10 Answers 10

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Additionally, all of them seem so confident and like they never make mistakes and are always on top of everything which is extremely intimidating...

Certainly you know this isn't the case though? This might be a difference in the culture of your old country and your new one. Often (especially for geeks), this sort of projected expertise is a coping mechanism to hide other deficiencies (often carried forward from school years). It's not meant to intimidate you so much. This will hopefully be something you come to deal with better as you experience your new culture.

If your company does code reviews, it would be helpful for you to sit in on them if you don't already. Here you can see better the sort of mistakes your peers make - and see how human we all are.

The majority of my colleagues are either talking about sports/football all the time or are very nerdy and I feel like I have nothing to say in that area because I am not confident in sci-fi or an expert in comics even though I enjoy them.

Then ask questions.

Based on your description of geeks who want to be seen as experts in things, asking about sci-fi and comics will do three things:

  1. It will make them feel knowledgeable. This is good since that makes for happy geeks, and they will associate you with being happy.
  2. It will communicate that you like such things. They also like such things, making you part of the clan. Based on your description, I worry that you might be ostracizing yourself a little bit. Your peers might not know how to help, since they (being geeks) might not know how to relate to a woman well, and (being people) might not know how to relate to a foreigner well. Common interests can help bridge that gap.
  3. Break the ice. For all their projected confidence, most geeks are just as bad at small talk as you are. Being the new person in the office, a woman, a foreigner... it's like the perfect storm of challenges for them to create small talk well. Going to somewhere comfortable will help them out.

But you can't ask questions forever. You will need to eventually assert your own knowledge to gain respect - to become a peer in the social circle.

Hopefully this helps, though every situation is different. Best of luck.

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    I've found it's generally a rather unhelpful generalisation to equate "male geeks" with "sci-fi and comics to the exclusion of all else". You will get respect from even the most obsessive by showing your own expertise in your outside interests. – Julia Hayward Apr 14 '15 at 14:23
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    I know it's a stereotype but it's coincidentally how they are as well, it wasn't my intention to generalize. – Nim Apr 14 '15 at 14:24
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    Sorry - I lost half of a longer comment there! I've almost never had female company in my dev departments, and I've generally found that although I'm not a sci-fi fan I know enough from popular culture to make a bit of small talk; I'm obviously completely at home on tech subjects, and I have my own personal obsessions (board games and ferrets). That's enough to garner plenty of respect once past the ice-breaking. I guess the one way to play things badly is to come across as deliberately not taking any interest in what they like - confirming pre-existing "it's not for girls" prejudice perhaps? – Julia Hayward Apr 14 '15 at 14:40
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    @Telastyn I guess it also depends on the group culture. If the group actively excludes those who don't share the prevailing interest to a sufficiently high degree, then it's going to be harder - but a responsible employer should be making efforts to prevent cliques like this forming. – Julia Hayward Apr 14 '15 at 15:08
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    @Telastyn They usually aren't intentionally portraying themselves that way, but that doesn't mean someone else (especially a new person coming in with less experience) isn't going to perceive them that way. – reirab Apr 15 '15 at 14:00
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My viewpoint: Not all men are comfortable with each other simply because they are men. There are men I am very comfortable interacting at work that I wouldn't want to be within 20 klicks outside the office, and vice versa.

At this point, you don't know anyone well enough to choose who you want to hang out with at work - That's probably good because this might make you a honest broker among the different factors and you treat everyone equally.

Nerds are a pretty closed bunch - Nobody would describe me as outgoing and gregarious. I look outgoing only in comparison to other nerds and my idea of being gregarious might very well be your idea of getting into someone's face to say hello. And while most nerds will give you some kind of response if you initiate contact, they will not initiate contact on their own - that's not how they are wired.

You are going to have to do the heavy lifting - initiate contact and possibly, do more than your share of keeping the conversation going without imposing on them. Never said it was going to be easy and some of the time, it'll feel like a chore to you.

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My case used to be the same, other than that I do not work abroad. It took more than 8 months for me to feel completely at ease in the male-only team. They seemed to need to get used to me and my additions to the team. At times it was really hard because I felt the odd one out. But then I let that idea go, gave it some more time, engaged in some after-work activitities, be open to letting them help me with things instead of being pigheaded (more a personal problem of mine maybe) and now I feel pretty good in this environment. In the end even better than I felt at women-dominated places. Hang in there.

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I went through a somewhat similar experience in 1975. I moved from London to California.

The thing that helped me most was to make a point of watching American football or baseball over the weekend, especially local teams. That way I could participate in the lunch time conversation on Monday.

In general, don't expect the office culture to change to suit your interests. Instead, learn enough about the typical small-talk subjects to be able to participate. That will help you get to know your colleagues as individuals, and then you may find some of them share some of your interests.

I also developed a non-work social life so that I did not spend all my time in a pure geek environment.

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    +1 for learning about the small-talk subjects. One thing that's helped me when the subject turns to pop-culture-thing-I-don't-follow is to ask my co-workers "where would you recommend I start, given that I like x and y, but don't know about z". I've gotten great (and not-so-great) recommendations for books, movies, TV, and recreation, and it's a great ice-breaker. – Kathy Apr 15 '15 at 20:01
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    Another possible ice-breaker, for things your co-workers like but you don't really see yourself taking an interest it, can be something like "So, what is it that you like best about X? I'm just curious, 'cause I've never really been able to get into it myself." It's a bit less openly inviting than @Kathy's suggestion, but it does establish that you're willing to learn something about X, even if it's not your thing, and (at least if asked with the right tone) that your disinterest is not a sign of disdain. (Just make sure not to interrupt someone's discussion about X with this question.) – Ilmari Karonen Apr 16 '15 at 15:24
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I think the number one thing you need to do is relax around these guys. You don't need to talk about sports or things you don't care about but relax. You say that you are horrified of being left alone with one of those guys. Do you think that they don't feel this uncomfortableness? At best they feel tension, at worst they think you are scared of them and that they are criminal-like.

You then go on to call them over-confident nerds. They probably don't view themselves this way. Again some of your views towards them are probably rubbing them the wrong way. I am sure your body language is sending signals (bad ones) to them. If they really are "nerdy" guys then they might be very in tune with women giving off this vibe. And through years of Pavlovian experiences they were taught simply to not talk (ignore) girls like that because they want to be left alone.

So relax. Start up conversation. Be OK with being one-on-one with a coworker. Often in a small group you only need to win one of the guys over and the rest tumble like dominoes.

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    I feel like you're exaggerating with the 'criminal-like', I'm pretty sure I'm not THAT scared ;) possibly 'horrified' was an exaggeration on my part – Nim Apr 14 '15 at 15:27
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    Even if you are subtle about it, it is a different vibe. A vibe they quite possibly understand very well. And maybe a vibe they don't appreciate from a coworker. They very well could be intimidated about being around a woman. It might even be worse if they found you attractive (yes people are human at work). Your stand-offish attitude is just another rejection for them. They might post a question on here asking, "We are an all male office and have to work with a new stuck-up woman who looks down on us, what should we do?" Just playing devil's advocate. – blankip Apr 14 '15 at 16:38
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    This answer isn't very helpful...the OP talks about being uncomfortable, and your recommendation is just "relax"? The whole point of the question is asking how to feel more comfortable, which is a prerequisite to relaxing. Telling someone to just do a thing they've admitted they're uncomfortable with and bad at isn't helping anything. Your point about her uncomfortableness coming across to her coworkers is worth thinking about, but you haven't actually given her anything she can do to make the situation better short of asking her to change her personality. – Laura Apr 15 '15 at 17:55
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    @Laura - I think I was pretty clear. Don't act like your coworkers are going to get you if you are alone with them, don't act like they are nerds who talk about things you never care about, don't put off body language that makes people see that you are uncomfortable around them. To me that is part of relaxing. – blankip Apr 15 '15 at 18:09
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    You haven't actually defined any concrete behaviors @blankip, or given any helpful ways to overcome the uncomfortableness she's already feeling. "Don't act like your coworkers are going to get you if you are alone with them" -> what does that look like? What specific body language should she avoid? How should she approach "start[ing] up a conversation" when she's already said she's bad at small talk? You answer right now basically just says to change everything about her feelings and behavior without recommending ways to do that, or what she should be aiming for. – Laura Apr 15 '15 at 19:09
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Office environments are usually uncomfortable social situations. Most people would rather be elsewhere, regardless of gender. The men you work with probably don't like each other as much as they project. Their confidence is also somewhat of a projection.

I don't think this is a gender issue as much as it is cultural, common in office environments and perhaps specific to your workplace. If it's really making you uncomfortable, take advantage of one of the typical characteristics of men: directness. Express your desire to participate in their camaraderie but that you don't know anything about their interests.

And most of all, be patient, this kind of thing takes time. You'll be fine.

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In my experience, 30+ years in male dominated fields, there are some guys who just do not want to be around smart women, have no interest in interacting or helping you get more smart. That said, not all are like that, some nerdy guys are the best. Be pleasant and professional with all, make a good attempt at solving your own work problems, show appreciation when someone helps, show patience when they try but cannot help. Ask multiple people and don't take one person's word for anything. Some people make up answers when they don't know. Do not, as others have said, go out for a beer with the guys, it pisses their wives off.

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    Comments removed. Remember to be nice. If there is any confusion about what that means, see this meta post. Thanks. – enderland Apr 15 '15 at 12:27
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    "Do not, as others have said, go out for a beer with the guys, it pisses their wives off." - is that a joke? – Joe Lee-Moyet Apr 15 '15 at 16:27
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    Absolutely go out for a beer with the guys. You are in their team. You shouldn't be ostracising yourself due to your gender. Your gender is irrelevant. If the wives have a problem then they need to (a) sort that out with their husbands, and (b) grow up. I can't tell from this answer whether you're sexist or not. It's weird! – Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 15 '15 at 16:40
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    @LightningRacisinObrit, it can be a lose lose proposition for her to go out for a beer with the guys if there are no other women on the team. Women have to balance these things very carefully. I wish it wan't true but it is. I have been removed from the team and placed on one less interesting because someone's wife was threatened by my presence in the office even though I had no intention or desire to have any relationship with that man at all. Saying the wife will have to suick it up just doesn't reflect the reality working women in a male domintated field have to live with. – HLGEM Apr 15 '15 at 17:59
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    @HLGEM "Don't go out for a beer with your male coworkers because they might date rape you"? Seriously? I'm sorry you worked at a terrible place and had a terrible experience you didn't deserve, but painting with a broad brush like that is outrageously unfair and unrealistic, to put it mildly. That is horrible advice to give to any woman, and especially to one who's already feeling apprehensive and isolated among a group of men. – Esoteric Screen Name Apr 16 '15 at 11:17
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Regardless of gender, going into a new engineering/software development department, especially if you're right out of school, can be somewhat intimidating. It will seem like everyone is an expert. This is usually because they are. None of them are perfect and never make mistakes, but, generally speaking, most or all of them will be experts. Fortunately, you probably are, too, just perhaps not yet in the specific problem domain. Were you not an expert, a team of experts would not likely have hired you. As far as the problem domain is concerned, don't worry about your initial lack of knowledge there. The rest of the team has all been new to the domain, too. They understand that you aren't going to walk in the door and immediately know everything about the specific problems you'll be solving. You will, however, usually gain the domain-specific knowledge rather quickly. In the mean time, don't be afraid to ask, since that's usually the primary way you'll learn.

As far as 'fitting in' is concerned, geeky engineers tend to be relatively laid back, but also much less outgoing than the average person. They're likely not trying to exclude you at all, but, as others have noted, share the same apprehensions about initiating contact with you that you have with them. A perceived cultural divide will also increase that apprehension. In that regard, they may feel even more apprehension than you do, since you're probably more familiar with their culture than they are with yours. My advice here would be to participate in conversations where you can, especially those in which you share some interest. For engineers, technology will often be where you share the most common interest. The other engineers will usually appreciate having someone else who shares their (relatively unusual) interests, actually understands what they're talking about, appreciates the jokes they're making, etc. Once you gain a better understanding of each of their interests, they gain a better understanding of yours, and you both understand more of where those overlap, the mutual apprehension of starting conversations will wear off.

Learning each other's skills and strengths will usually work similarly to learning each other's interests. That is, they will generally come to learn your strengths and skills (and you'll come to learn theirs) by seeing each other's work and hearing each other's contributions in conversations on various topics. This is actually a very important aspect of most engineering environments - learning each other's strengths and weaknesses so that you know who to assign to a particular task and who to ask if you have a question about a given topic. As you learn each other's strengths, you'll know who's the best person to ask a given question and they'll learn what questions they should bring to you as well as what assignments will be best given to you.

Another thing you can do to help the other engineers learn your expertise is, when you hear someone asking about a given topic that you happen to know about, answer them, even if they weren't directly asking you. Don't interrupt them or the person they're asking or otherwise act rude or presumptuous, but do answer their question or provide helpful insight if you can. They'll appreciate you helping to solve the problem and they'll learn that you're knowledgeable of whatever subject they were asking about. Additionally, as the other engineers learn of your depth and breadth of knowledge, their respect for you as an engineer will usually also increase, assuming that they can see you were genuinely trying to be helpful rather than condescending or boastful.

Finally, when you have questions, don't be afraid to ask, whether the questions are specific to the problem domain or about some technical topic that you've found another of the engineers to be knowledge of. They'll appreciate both your desire to learn and your respect for their knowledge.

5

You have multiple issues that are contributing to make you feel uncomfortable so it is hard to say which is the real problem. So let's address each separately.

As a woman, I can tell you that you are ahead of the game as you describe your co-workers as nice guys. So it is worth it to get more comfortable working with these guys before you face the not-nice guy variety at work.

Women walk a tightrope between being thought of a decorative but a little dim or bitchy. Actions which would make a man be treated as an equal can throw a woman to one side or the other of the tightrope. You need to be friendly but not too friendly, assertive but not too assertive, etc. It is not easy. It gets easier as you get more experience. In an all male team, they too may be feeling unsure about how to deal with you. Let that give you some confidence.

The main thing you have to do is first establish yourself as a knowledgeable professional. Start by contributing to technical discussions. Don't be surprised if people interrupt you or seem not to hear what you said. That is common and tha books I reference below will help you with that.

Women in general tend to contribute less when they feel they are not expert, but men are often socialized that is is OK to state your opinion even if you are not sure. So they appear more confident and they appear to have more expertise than you do because they speak up confidently.

You need to start speaking up. You also need to become aware of how you speak. You need to use the same type of language that they do. Women tend to use a question tone for their statements, men do not. That makes you appear less confident. So that is one thing to look at fixing.

There is a woman who specializes in studying language who has written several very good books. You need to read them to learn how to communicate so that men will better understand what you are saying and you will show more confidence and feel better about how you are being perceived.

All working women who use English should read these two books. Men should too. This is an important subject.

These books are likely to help you a lot in understanding how men communicate and how women do. Truly it is almost as if we speak different languages and as an immigrant, this is probably even more pronounced for you.

You say you enjoy comics, start chatting about that even if you don't feel you are an expert. If you read the latest comic in a series then just make a comment about the story line or how you didn't see such and such coming or how sad it was that this character died or whatever. It will make you fit in better even if you are not an expert. Most of the comic book talk should be relatively opinion based anyway. You liked or didn't like the new story line. This character impresses you more than that character, etc. Your opinion is just a valuable as theirs.

From the viewpoint of being an immigrant, you may also be having to deal with the different roles that women play in different cultures. In many countries the issues Deborah talks about in her books are even more pronounced because women are socialized even more to not speak up.

I don't know what culture you are from, but you need to find a woman from the country you are in to help mentor you on how people behave in your new country in the workplace.

You may even need to learn to project one persona at work and another in your private life if you mostly hang out with people from your home country and if you are married to someone else from your home country.

So you also need to make friends with those non-developer women in your office and get them to answer cultural questions for you. For instance, I know in some countries the workplace is far more hierarchical than it is in the US. So a person following the norms of his or her country might also appear unconfident to an American audience.

You need a guide to these matters and it actually helps if this person is not one of the team members you work with daily.

You might also go to some local user group meetings and see if you can connect with a women working at another company in your field. If you can connect to a local woman who has been here longer but comes from another culture (even if not your own), that is even better because they had to face the cultural adjustments and will know things that the people in the new country take from granted and would never think to explain. Having someone to share your questions with in a safe environment is crucial to learning to get comfortable operating in the culture you are living in. It may be your colleagues seem so much more confident to you because they too are communicating in a different style than you are used to from the men in similar positions in your home country.

3

I have some experience in software development environments in my own country and in other countries. I'd make three suggestions:

[1] Be comfortable with yourself. Many, many years ago I saw one of the first wave of famous snooker players (Ray Reardon, for those very long memories) being interviewed on TV. He was invited to demonstrate a snooker trick, which failed spectacularly. As a spotty, insecure teenager I was cringing with embarrassment for him, but he just laughed, a totally genuine joy-of-life laugh. I can still remember the sudden feeling of liberation that came over me as I realised that you don't have to die inside every time something goes wrong. The point I'm trying to make here is that projecting "I never make mistakes" is a kind of fake cool, whereas "we all make mistakes - how can we fix this?" is genuine cool. And if you're a bit shy about talking, you're off to a good start for a related non-competitive strategy, which is to practice being a good listener.

[2] As Patricia Shanahan suggests, take an interest in their interests. When we (a UK-based company) opened an office in the USA during the heady days of the .com boom, the two UK bosses used to spot-quiz each other on the team names for each US City. It helps to know what the current issues are in each sport. Don't fake an interest, make it real. Bet someone two chocolate biscuits on the outcome of a match, that will help make it real.

[3] Make yourself useful. Is there a technology that is always getting in the way, making problems for people? Advanced version control, for instance, or test automation or deployment? Master it. Becoming an expert in something small but useful will bring people over to your desk and help establish your place in the tribe.

All the best, and hang on in there. They need you as much as you need them.

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