You Are Not Your Stereotype

AUG 4, 2016 • Written by Andrea Goulet

Are you technical or non-technical?

In many professional environments, that’s one of the first questions you’re asked. As software developers, we feel comfortable with binary. Yes or no? On or off? Black or white? This or that?

While that type of thinking works great for the machines we program, it can leave people feeling isolated because it stunts their professional growth. This is known as stereotype threat: conforming to a stereotype about a group at the expense of your own personal achievement.

Stereotype threat is especially pervasive in technology. For women, this manifests as the “girls are bad at math” stereotype. For men, it’s more often “you have no social skills.” These stereotypes are reinforced in pop culture. We consume them subconsciously. Movies and television shows like Hackers, Revenge of the Nerds, War Games, Big Bang Theory, and countless others feed us with the notion that in order to be good at science or math you must have difficulty socializing.

This trickles down into our vernacular when we ask someone if they are technical or non-technical. We are reinforcing that stereotype. Are you good at “hard skills” or “soft skills”?

For me and my business partner, we confronted this mental block early in our relationship. Scott had a degree in Computer Science but had been told by many people that he lacked social skills. My degree was in Marketing and Business Law, and I was struggling to learn how to code. Technical. Non-technical. For the first few years of our partnership, we stayed in our boxes, and our business suffered as a result.

Then one day, Scott was asked to speak on a prominent industry podcast. The host asked about our origin story and Scott explained how he led the technical team and I was “non-technical,” dealing mostly with business administration and sales. When I heard myself described as “non-technical,” knowing this was being broadcast to a wide audience, I was furious. By this point, Scott and I had been working together for many years. I had taken several programming classes, contributed to open source projects, and managed our website. What, I asked, did I ever need to do to earn that coveted title of “technical”?

Scott paused, took a deep breath, and gave me the best advice I’ve heard in my career.

“Andrea”, he said, “I called you ’non-technical’ because that’s how you introduced yourself at the client meeting yesterday. There is no fairy godmother that will come down and bless you with this title. When you start calling yourself ‘technical,’ I will too.”

Overcoming the mental block of being “non-technical” has been one of the most challenging aspects of my career. I know what it feels like to stand up to stereotype threat, look it straight in the eyes and say, “You don’t scare me.”

Since that conversation with Scott, I have decided that I’m not technical or non-technical: I’m both. And so are you.

Just like I didn’t leave my communications background when I ventured into the technical realm, you don’t have to give up who you are to become a better communicator. Scott and I have worked together, helping each other cross the chasm into the other’s world. Our careers, our business, and our clients are the better for it.

Becoming a good communicator starts with the belief that you can become one. It is recognizing stereotypes and realizing you don’t have to conform. It’s taking the initiative to actively build skills that scare you. For me, it was learning to code. For Scott, and many of you reading this, it’s becoming a better communicator. I get it. This is hard. It’s not for the faint of heart. It somehow feels easier to sulk into the stereotype and tell ourselves we can’t do it. But deep down you know that’s not true.

Which stereotype have you battled? Share your story in the comments.