Dec 07 2016

Setbacks into Setups: What It’s Like Being a Woman in Technology

Published by at 8:00 am under alumnus

[This is a post by Tennessee Tech Computer Science Alumna Mary Prince.]

I didn’t know what being a woman in technology really meant until I entered college. I knew Computer Science was considered nontraditional for a girl to pursue and it’s part of the reason why I received a scholarship, but to be honest I didn’t think much about it. I grew up with many computers in my house and all I knew was that I liked how I could be creative with technology and I wanted to have a career that involved technology in some way.

Fast forward to my first week of college and I have to admit, I was a little shocked. Sitting in 60-person class with all guys and 5 or less girls is intimidating. I went to a small high school in a rural town and just merely sitting in a class with this many people was strange to me. As that Intro to Programming class got into gear, I started to wonder if I was cut out for this major. I felt so behind compared to everyone else in class and I struggled. Not only was I struggling with the material but I was struggling with my confidence too. I felt like I needed to prove myself and show I was capable of the same skills to this class full of guys. Somehow, I passed that Intro to Programming class but I was in for an even harder course: Dr. Boshart’s Data Structures class (this is where the setbacks truly begin).


It’s the second semester of my freshman year and I had heard from other students all of the stories about Dr. Boshart’s class and how tough it was. My confidence in myself was growing weaker and weaker. While others were struggling in that class along with me, after I failed the first test I knew I wasn’t going to pass the class. Failure was my strongest fear at the time and I was at a crossroad. Do I continue on in a class that I was pretty sure I was going to fail, or do I withdraw from the class and better prepare myself for the material? I felt like my whole career in technology depended on me passing this one class. I also felt that no matter what decision I made, that I was a failure. I talked about it with my parents and my Dad really didn’t want me to drop the class, he thought I was giving up even though I planned to take it again. Despite my Dad’s opinions, I dropped the class and decided I would take it again in the fall. While this first setback had seemed to come to an end, another setback was coming my way that would end up affecting every part of my life.

Anxiety was something I hid from everyone during that summer before Dr. Boshart’s class and while I was taking his class in the fall because I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t understand why I was having anxiety and I didn’t know what to do about it. Anxiety is different for everyone but for me, my anxiety formed itself in hot flashes, getting sick, and no sleep. My anxiety would happen before every test, whether it was Dr. Boshart’s class or art appreciation. The subject didn’t matter, because I felt like every test, quiz, and project grade was leaning on whether I was going to be successful in life or not. This is nowhere near true nor a healthy way to look at life but that’s what I was thinking. I was putting a crazy amount of pressure on myself because all I wanted to do was pass Dr. Boshart’s class and to make my parents proud, along with Dr. Siraj and Dr. Kosa because I wanted to be successful for them too.

That semester in Data Structures I felt like I spent any extra time I had either in tutoring or in Dr. Boshart’s office. There were times I was in the library for so long in tutoring that my roommate had to bring me chargers and food because I didn’t even feel like I had time to take a break to grab those things from my dorm. While I was proud of myself for putting everything I had into doing well in his class, I realized I needed to take care of my mental and emotional health as well. I finally got the courage to go to counseling and see if there was something I could do about my anxiety. Not only was the counseling free at Tech, but going and talking to someone else about what I was going through was so eye-opening. I learned what was causing my anxiety and I learned what I needed to do to cope with it. My counselor literally had to assign me homework to take time to do something I enjoy because all I was focused on was classes and not failing at anything. That’s when I knew my way of thinking was unhealthy and I needed to make a change.

While I was dealing with those setbacks, there were times while I was in college that I was reminded that I was a bit of an outcast just because of the major I chose. As I was nearing the end of my senior year in college, one of my good friends said to me that I only got a job after college because I’m a girl in technology. My gender was overshadowing all of the hard work I put in for 4 years. Then someone anonymously posted [the message found in the image] on my Tumblr and it’s one of my favorites because not only is it assuming computer science stereotypes, but it’s also assuming that my contribution to society is my appearance, not my skills. Fortunately, I had Dr. Siraj and Dr. Kosa as sources for advice and they were always pushing me to overcome anything that was thrown at me.

I ended up passing Dr. Boshart’s class, and a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I was learning to handle my anxiety and I was also learning that it’s okay to fail. I was realizing that my world wouldn’t come to an end just over a test grade. In the last couple of years of college my grades were better than ever, I was gaining my self-confidence back, and my anxiety was manageable. Cue the setup phase…

All of those setbacks set me up for where I am today. I’m now working at Caterpillar Financial (yes, the yellow & black construction equipment company) in the Information Services Foundation Program where I’m part of the Unix & Virtualization team. While I’m the only woman on my team, I hope that in years to come the number of women in the field will keep growing. I’m hoping mindsets will be opened and other girls won’t have to endure the comments I have just for choosing a major in technology. I hope girls who do endure ignorant comments will use it as motivation to reach for even more in their career and whatever they choose to pursue in technology. Most of all I hope that everyone will see that failing isn’t world-ending; it may be a setback at the time but it’s only providing an opportunity to set you up for something even greater as long as you’re willing to pursue it!

One response so far

One Response to “Setbacks into Setups: What It’s Like Being a Woman in Technology”

  1.   Jordan Gregoryon 08 Dec 2016 at 12:07 am

    This article is great! Thank you, Mary, for sharing.