What is it like to be the only woman on your team? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Shuba Swaminathan, lives in Silicon Valley, on Quora:

What is it like to be the only woman on your team?

As a hardware engineer, that was pretty much the norm for the first decade of my working life until I moved up the stack into software.

The interesting part is being the only woman felt very normal to me. I have been the only woman in class since grad school so more of that was well, normal. The culture shock for me was working with other women. The pluses of working with a team of men from my experience (note that I am not generalizing, merely reflecting on my experience with the people I worked with):

  • It worked really well with my style of communication that tends to be direct. For instance, no harm no foul if one of us said to the other "that idea is stupid and here is why..." (Note that we were discussing the idea, not people, huge difference). No offense was intended or taken, and we were still friends the next day. It didn't hurt their self-esteem or make a dent in our relationship. This direct style doesn't work very well with women and often, it would be perceived as a personal attack. I learned how to communicate differently, so as to not offend unintentionally, and sometimes need to beat around the brush, provide qualifiers, analogies and reassurances about my esteem for them before I make my point. Else I risk wreaking havoc with their self-confidence, making the problem even worse.
  • Amazing network. One of the guys would always somehow know the person I wanted to meet, whether they were beer buddies, their kid's classmate's Dad, or knew a former coworker who knows the person. Men seemed to have a more extensive albeit looser network that they are comfortable reaching out to casually on behalf of a friend, with few issues. The women appeared to have smaller, tighter networks that they are protective about, and make sure both parties are comfortable before making an introduction. I can see the pros and cons of both approaches.
  • Few of the men were lacking in confidence. I was much more likely to hear "that's easy" and "of course it can be done" even when the person didn't have a clue how to solve the problem and was actually winging it. Women tend to swing to the other end of the spectrum. Unless they knew the definitive answer, the response would be a tentative "I think I may have an idea..." or "I will try". Both extremes are dangerous. I eventually learned to respond to the men with "Oh yeah? How will you solve it?" and to the women with "How are you thinking about approaching this?" leading up to a series of Q&A's which eventually made it clear she knew how to solve the problem all along, just that she wasn't 100% confident sharing it.
  • The men negotiated hard. Pushing back was almost instinctual. In a team with men, this results in improved outcomes for the team overall. The pushing challenged one to improve on the first idea they thought of, and the negotiating is what can I say, a life skill I am grateful to have learned. Almost everything is negotiable, I learned, by the people who know how to do it well. Women tended to be much more agreeable and valued preserving a warm team dynamic over a marginally improved outcome.

The minuses:

  • Being treated like one of the guys was nice till it wasn't. When dumb blonde jokes and comments about technology "even my mother can use" were made and I was expected to join in on the laughter, it wasn't funny. I used to routinely call them out on their misogynistic jokes and comments and it was clear they had not thought of it in that light till I pointed it out. It was unclear whether it had any effect.
  • The guys were thoughtless compared to the women. Exactly one male engineer in my team of 8 men and 4 women thought of asking if he should bring anything when I invited the team to enjoy a home cooked dinner. Every female colleague brought something, unasked, and every one of them stayed behind after all the men left to help me clean up, again unasked.

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Published on: May 30, 2018