Archive for July, 2010

Programming While Female: 13 Thoughts

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

This topic seems to get into the air about once a year, and I normally avoid it like the plague. Most of the time it seems to result in pointless hand-wringing and, if anything, harms us tech women by calling us out. But stubornella’s excellent blog post stirred up my thoughts, and the relative civility of her commenters gave me hope. Also this latest brouhaha started around jsconf, which I attended myself, and which helped shape my own thoughts on the topic.

So these are a bunch of scattered thoughts, that together are my attempt to honestly describe my own experience.

1. A little story

I didn’t start programming until I was in high school. I was never even aware of programming until I took my first class, I think it was my sophomore year. (We wrote Hangman in Pascal.) Honestly, it just never crossed my mind.

At that point, I was already behind. Because real programmers start when they’re 8, don’t they? Real programmers get started seemingly at birth, and know what they’re meant to do right away – there aren’t really other options. (I’m speaking in stereotypes, of course, but they are stereotypes that the field itself promotes.)

When I started college I realized how far behind I was. I did well in my first couple of classes, but I wasn’t the best. And other things seemed so much easier – writing was easier, and art was, and all of these other things. So I didn’t stop programming, but I switched out of CS into InfoScience, and made up a Digital Art major, and did all of this other stuff. (Not sticking with CS is my biggest college regret.)

When I graduated I decided to become a designer. After all I wanted to work in the tech field, but I “wasn’t smart enough to be a programmer”, and with my love of art, design seemed like a good compromise. Besides, that’s what nerdy chicks do – they become designers. Right?

I was fortunate enough to explore the design and UX field at a company where I could easily switch back to programming. And I did, once I realized that design wasn’t for me.

I learned some valuable things from this experience. But how much better would I be at programming now if I hadn’t taken that 2-year detour? How much further ahead would I be if I had had the self-confidence to stick with CS, and the understanding that I could actually catch up, if I just worked really hard?

This has to do with gender because it has to do with stereotypes, and with how I measured myself against those stereotypes and found myself lacking. And you’d think I would have learned from it, but I still do the exact same thing.

2. Ambient sexism

I have never had anyone personally treat me rudely because of my gender. I’ve never been the target of serious disrespect, or been denied an opportunity as far as I know. (I’ve had dudes be really awkward or try to hit on me, but whatever. I can deal with that.)

This is a totally awesome thing! It’s a big change from when my mother was an engineer in the 70s. (She has some stories that you might not believe, about behavior that was just accepted back then.) Progress has happened, and we nerdy chicks owe that generation a lot.

It also makes this kind of difficult or confusing to talk about. Most of the programmer guys that I know are totally awesome people, and would never think of themselves as sexist. And yet there’s all of this general objectification and disrespect that floats around in programming culture and makes it really hard to be female in certain venues. Call it ambient sexism if you will.

A lot of that stuff comes from people who would probably be perfectly nice to me as an individual. How do these two things reconcile?

3. Yes, you are.

“Oh, we’re not talking about you” is never a valid excuse.

4. Get to know me, I dare you.

I find that as soon as I get the chance to actually work with someone, gender instantly becomes not an issue. As soon as I get the chance to show what I can do, to get into technical topics, to talk geek with someone, then all of the awkwardness and misbelonging disappears. They stop seeing me as a woman and start seeing me as a programmer, and then things are fine.

(The tricky thing is that I’m actually both.)

5. female X awkward = even more awkward!

I’m a great big introvert, as many programmers tend to be. I’m also shy – not cripplingly so, but it still takes a lot of energy and mental preparation to face a big group of people that I don’t know.

Gender is not the root of this problem, but it serves as a magnifying factor. When I’m the only woman in the room it makes it even harder to connect, harder to overcome my natural shyness, harder to find a point of entry to the conversation. It serves as an isolating factor, and makes the barriers that already exist that much higher.

6. I <3 nerds

Talking to smart programmers is one of my favorite things in the world. Talking to smart female programmers is even better, because they tend to be “my type of folks”. But I’ll geek out with anyone – as long as I don’t feel too intimidated by them.

7. Learning French

You learn how to get by, in this man’s world. You learn to make yourself bigger, to consciously take up more space, to pitch your voice lower and louder to be heard. You learn how to dress to minimize staring, and when to choose a t-shirt over a blouse. You learn what topics to steer away from in conversation, and which threads on websites to never ever click. You learn to fit in, to minimize the differences that would keep you separate, to adapt to the common culture. It’s like learning to speak French. You learn, or you leave.

People learn and live in other languages every day; but native speakers will always have the advantage.

(Sometimes two cultures collide and create a new language, a creole, that contains concepts from both of its parents. I want to know, how do we go there?)

8. Community

There aren’t too many place where I really fit in, so when I find one I tend to become attached. Because of this, I’m completely sympathetic to guys who have found a community and a home within programming culture, and who want to preserve and defend that culture.

I can understand how it might seem unfair and threatening when people talk about wanting to change that culture, like in that famous study about geeky environments and tech appeal. Because they value that culture the way it is right now; it’s brought good things to their lives and they don’t want that to be lost. That makes perfect sense to me.

But dammit, I’m here too, and I also want community!

There has to be a way to do both – to extend the culture, without replacing core functionality.

9. It’s not about the dick jokes.

I actually have a pretty coarse sense of humor. So I’m fine with the dick jokes, seriously. I’ll #twss with the best of them – just check my Twitter feed. I think my sense of humor is pretty standard for the field.

Except. Except it all changes when I’m already feeling unsafe and isolated. When I’m feeling in a hostile environment where I have to be on my guard. Then the joke that I might find hilarious under better circumstances suddenly starts to feel like a threat – just another reminder of how much I don’t fit in.

It’s not about the dick jokes, it’s about the overall atmosphere.

10. The relevant parameters

I love programming. It’s not just what I do, it’s What I Do. Nothing else gets me into a state of flow so easily and so quickly. I love it for itself: for the joy of unraveling a complex system and seeing it all take shape in your head; for the love of creating something that’s minimal and effective and Right, with nothing extra added and nothing left to take away; for the satisfaction of making something with my own hands that other people will use, that improve their lives in some minor little way. (The fact that it makes me money is a nice side effect.)

None of this has anything to do with gender. What does have to do with gender is all of the auxiliary stuff, all of those human and social things that turn out to be so important in careers.

So far the first thing has outweighed the second, and so I stay. But I can see how that calculation might be different for someone else.

I can see how easy it might seem to go and find someplace friendlier, where it’s less of a struggle just to be.

11. Hills

There are two runners. One is running on perfectly level ground, and the other is struggling up a big hill. They both might get to the same place eventually, but which one is going to have the easier and more pleasant time?

Being female in the tech industry is that hill.

(And yet. Runners run hills to get faster, don’t they?)

12. Hard words for a hard problem

So maybe you have to work twice as hard to be accepted. Guess what? Go out and work three times as hard.

Do you have to be twice as good to be heard? Be four times as good, and be impossible to ignore.

Feel like you have to know twice as much? Learn five times as much, and then teach others.

Be constantly learning. Work your ass off. Put in your 10000 hours, and then put in some more. Make your skin thicker, and just go on.

Yeah, it can seem unfair. Guess what? Life’s unfair. The only way forward is to suck it up and go make some awesome stuff.

You can let this make you miserable, or you can let it make you better.

(I’m talking to myself here.)

13. That’s what she said.

Yes. Yes, it is.