During the first 17 years of my career in software, I rarely worked with other women who were writing code, and never on the same team. Nadya was in a different building, Jane was on a different floor. Sarah was on my floor, but on the other side. Same thing with Chris. I’m forgetting one or two people, but definitely not five or six. Due to that rarity, it became common to refer to female engineers as “unicorns.”

Here’s the thing that embarrasses me now: I liked it. I liked the implication that I was special, that I had what it takes where others didn’t. “I’m basically a unicorn,” I would humble-brag.

I’m really not that special

To all women out there, I’d like to say “I’m sorry.” That was a huge mistake on my part. I see now that in order for me to have been so special, I had to take something away from you. I had to take away the idea that you can do the same thing.

A more recent mistake I made was to click on a link to a hateful article pushing the premise that women aren’t cut out for STEM careers. According to the article, we’re all a bunch of whiners and we should quit tech so we can go do something we’re good at. Of course, the post offered no proof and made no attempt at being factual. It was just a missile pointed straight at the imposter syndrome of female engineers. “Yes,” the author seemed to say, “I see your fears, your insecurities, and you’re right. Quit and get out of this man’s world.”

It’s all about learning

But here’s the thing. If you pick his arguments apart, it all came down to the ability to pick up new skills. After all, it’s not like men were born writing algorithms. They learn, just as women do. So it all boils down to a new version of the same argument we’ve been hearing since the dawn of time: women can’t learn. Just off the top of my head, here are some incorrect beliefs we’ve worked through over the ages:

Women can’t …

  • read
  • think for themselves
  • write books
  • manage finances
  • own property
  • be trusted to vote
  • be lawyers
  • be doctors

History is on the side of women proving these things wrong. Clearly, there’s nothing particularly gendered about learning. It’s not even limited to humans—my dog has learned to do some great tricks! Crows have figured out how to throw walnuts into traffic and wait for cars to run them over, surely a behavior not baked into their DNA. Even cats can be trained.

No unicorns, just legions of capable women

But back to the unicorn thing. Though women are outnumbered in STEM careers, that situation may finally be starting to change. As the contributions of women engineers begin to get the recognition they deserve, more and more companies, including New Relic, are making efforts to hire, retain, and promote them.

When I look around these days, I don’t see any unicorns. I see many capable women who love solving puzzles and pushing the boundaries of technology just as successfully as our male counterparts do—sometimes even better. And that is infinitely better than being a unicorn.

Rebecca Campbell is a VP of Software Engineering, focused on building out the internal engineering platform at New Relic. View posts by .

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