This title has deliberately been left blank

I am starting this blog post as one of those exercises in writing what you’re thinking/feeling so that it doesn’t eat you alive, and then maybe publishing the post if it doesn’t suck. So if you’re reading this, it’s because I thought it didn’t suck. Don’t attack, and don’t think that I think you should feel the same way I do. Unfortunately, since this is on the internet, people are going to be reading this who don’t know me at all. I recognize that, and so should you. You don’t have any context for what I’m about to write and I am probably not going to give you much. Such is the way.

This isn’t about being female. This isn’t about being brown. This isn’t about you. This is about challenging perception and not accepting anything without thought. [1. This is an exercise in cubism in writing.]

I hate getting comments about being female/Asian/whatever. I try to joke about the obvious bits of who I am so I don’t settle into some self-made feedback loop of sensitivity, but I really hate hearing about it, especially from strangers. It’s obvious that I am physically a(n Asian) female. It’s obvious that I like to be pretty.[1. I refused to wear a unisex t-shirt in public, even at the behest of my boss. I am a dresses/nice pants and heels kind of person.] It’s maybe-obvious that I like being a girl. What’s not obvious is that I am not particularly feminine. What’s not obvious is that I have a slightly Southern accent and a serious case of pottymouth. What’s not obvious is that I grew up with a single dad. What’s not obvious is that I am a developer, and you know what, a damn good one. And you know what else? It’s okay that it’s not obvious. But it’s not okay for you to be surprised when you find out.

This is something that comes up almost every time I end up in a discussion about race or gender with somebody who is different from me (also known as everybody). People are not always going to be like you. If you let that be surprising or sad or some other feeling besides maybe “interesting” every single time, you are wasting your energy. Let people be who they are: always learn from it, maybe accept it (quietly), and move on.

I don’t mind stereotypes, and in fact, I actually find them rather useful as background, in-your-head information. I might not offer a Jewish friend a bacon chocolate bar, and instead try to find out some other way whether or not they keep Kosher (or just straight up ask, because I am more often like that). I’d think twice before inviting a Hindu friend to a steak fest. What I am definitely not going to do is make some ridiculous microaggressive comment like “it’s so sad that you don’t do Christmas!” or “ugh, you just don’t know what you’re missing out on!” [1. Check out this American Psychologist article on microaggression.] And if you think that never happens, you need to meet some more people.

I also hate affirmative action. I’ll start with a disclaimer that yes, I know that as an Asian, I am also sometimes the recipient of reverse affirmative action (contradictory action?) and thus am more prone to being skeptical, but I can also say that I speak on behalf of my Costa Rican husband.[1. I’ll also say that I am wandering dangerously close to political ground and we should be clear: I do not do politics. It is an informed decision I have made to observe but not participate for now. This includes voting. Absolutely do not comment on this. I will hate you.] Here’s the thing about being brown and/or a woman and being in a system that involves affirmative action: it ends up belittling your true accomplishments. Are you ever really going to be able to shake the curiosity about whether or not you are in your current position because of something that you aren’t in control of nor worked to achieve? Are other people going to be wondering the same thing? And how many people really are curious about these things versus how many are content to just have more, no matter the circumstance? Complacency is suicide, but it’s unfortunately common.

This past weekend, I gave my first ever solo talk on WordPress development, with just a hint of UI love. I’ve taught classes on web/digital media and talk to/perform in front of lots of people all the time, but this was my first ever “stand up in front of a room of geeks and go”. It was awesome. I think I kicked ass. My code got the once-over and blessings of some developers that I and many others respect very, very much. And you know one of the comments I got over and over? “It’s amazing/surprising/something-allegedly-positive-but-expressing-a-contradiction-to-perception to see a female developer.” [1. Want to see my slides?]

Guess what.

That’s not a helpful comment. I am going to be an adult and realize that you meant it as a compliment, but it really isn’t, and I want you to be aware of that. I heard this line from plenty of ladies, not just men, and in terms of percentages, maybe even more women than men. This is not the way, people. This shouldn’t be surprising to you. It can be inspiring, it can be nice to see someone like you, but it absolutely should not be a surprise. Female developers are definitely a minority. I think this is fine – men and women are often wired differently; whether that’s nature or nurture or both is your own opinion. I’m okay with being a minority, because facts are facts. But you know what I’m not okay with being? An anomaly. To me, anomaly is a word with negative connotations, whereas the word minority often implies fact. Here’s how I see it:

Fact: There are fewer women in development roles.
Not fact: Women developers are a strange sight to behold.

See the difference? I hope so. This is where things toe a fine line. Where it becomes difficult or impossible to maintain a delicate balance.

I know that I am often reluctant to do certain things because of the reactions it will generate and I will have to endure due to my race, gender, age, or some other non-controllable factor. I fully believe that if I feel this way, then so do others.[1. “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”] This reaction and anticipation of it is where I think the problem lies.

In the case of women in technology, we are often made to feel as though we are strange; an alien up for display and gawking. People want us to put on some sideshow talk about how we feel as women in technology rather than just technology itself. So how do we dispel this feeling of not really being totally accepted and welcome? Why, we make attempts to include women in public events, of course! How else to show everybody that women do exist but to have solid, tangible evidence? [1. If you can guess what else I feel this same way about, +1.] But that’s just the problem. In pursuing equal representation (and by equal, I mean proportionate), we end up making an issue out of something that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s just impossible to ignore it, even if in an ideal world, we wouldn’t think twice.

Encourage women to step up and go for it, but recognize that it’s not about forcing the issue. Let’s stop being afraid or wary. Let’s find a polite way to let people know that pointing out our gender or color or whatever as a defining/surprising factor is a discouragement, not encouragement. I’d tell fellow females to “man up”, but this is exactly the wrong context for that phrase. It’s also exactly what my non-PC ass wants to say to get your attention.

If you can recognize the fact that women exist in whatever industry it may be, as we always do, then you should recognize the importance of having some kind of representation at public events. It can be just one, seriously kick ass, member of that population. It doesn’t have to be half men, half women; half brown, half white. It probably shouldn’t be. But whining that things should “only” be based on qualifications actually makes you sound like you don’t believe that a member of “the other” could possibly rise above the qualifications of your own, even if you didn’t mean it that way. Of course, this is now all a contradiction, right? Here I am, making assumptions about what you subconsciously meant while telling you not to make assumptions about me. (Nothing is easy.)

This is all okay. That’s what I want you to know. Everything is okay, because everything is as it is. The lack of black and white, the misery of humans, the accomplishments of the mind. Your only task is to achieve what you want to achieve. Just don’t ever be surprised by what you might discover on your way.



28 responses to “This title has deliberately been left blank”

  1. I like people who are intelligent and witty. Being pretty and female is just a bonus. 🙂

    Admittedly, it’s a bonus that occasionally brings out my inner male chauvinist, but then perhaps we’re all products of our environment, sometimes.

    I don’t have a point, here, just thinking out loud. Maybe we want more women in these roles, but are just bad at expressing it or figuring out the right way to make it happen. Nerds are terrible at self expression. Stereotypical, but true.

    No advice to give. Take it with a grain of salt, do your best, and be who you are. Which can’t be anything but awesome. 😉

  2. kudos for actually having a full range of points for this argument. often I see bits and pieces, but rarely covering the scope as you did.

    being that I’m a middle class white male, I get the benefit of the doubt more often than not. while I get a few stereotypes thrown at me (minister’s kid, being tattooed, etc) they are minor in the grand scheme of things.

    all in all, just keep kicking some code ass and let the rest squabble over petty bullshit.

  3. eerp! i can’t speak to the racial side of the issue, but as one of the girls (ladies/women!?) who made a so-nice-to-see-a-woman-representing comment, i guess i ought to … !

    as a female web developer that’s exactly what i meant: it was nice to see a woman representing, specifically talking about code.

    i don’t think women should be included to fill a quota or so things look fair. nor do i think it should be a distinguishing factor, i.e. “you’re a great woman speaker.” it doesn’t matter to me if a presenter is male or female … i form my opinion based on the content of their talk. i didn’t enjoy your presentation because you are a woman. i enjoyed it because you knew what you were talking about and provided good information.

    you did bring a different perspective to your talk … but i think that has more to do with you and your personality than it does with being a woman (of course, you and your personality are affected by your being a woman, so, really, who’s to say where that starts).

    my point is thus: i get your point. but sometimes it’s just cool to be inspired by another girl who does what she does well, and wears rad heels to boot.**

    ** for the record, the style thing doesn’t have anything to do with being a woman. that has to do with the fact that computer people of both genders tend to be, ahem, less capable in the personal style department.

    p.s. it wasn’t even slightly noticeable that it was your first solo talk! you rocked, i am certain won’t be your last. 🙂

  4. Great post, Helen! The one thing I’d add to the list of “things it’s terrible to be judged on in a professional capacity” would be age. It drives me wonky to hear a client say “Wow, you’re so young!” because I often feel the undertone to that is “You’re obviously too young to have any idea what you’re talking about.” I’ve gone to great lengths to hide my age, particularly when applying for jobs, because it often stands in the way of being considered for more senior positions, even though I have the experience to qualify for those types of jobs. Ah, rant done!

  5. You did a fantastic job speaking! You were also great leading the unconference class on contributing to core.

    I’m not sure how anyone was surprised that you were both a woman and a competent developer before they showed up. They signed up for a 401 class (the geekiest one) and you were listed a speaker. You were introduced as a core contributor, too.

    I (briefly) looked up all of the speakers before the class, and read the description and schedule a few times. I am being a bit facetious here, but to me, hearing comments like “I’m surprised/amazed that you’re a good female developer [whose lecture I came to attend]” is equivalent to “Look, I’ve managed to dress myself!”

    • HA! That is a very apt comparison. There wasn’t too much surprise from actual developers, which was nice, but I did get a lot of questions from other attendees on other days that began with “So are you a designer or blogger?” and then became “Wow! A female developer!” Blerg.

      And then this happened – early on in my talk, so I hadn’t gotten into code yet, but what-the-what:

      • I’ve gotten “designer or blogger” before; it also never fails that when the husband (who’s on the sales/accounts side of things) and I go to a tech event together, people assume that he’s a dev and I just came along to hang out for the day.

  6. It’s a part of heteronormative behavior. As Otto mentioned upthread, he’s a product of his upbringing. Sadly, the world is pretty much aimed at Otto, and not you or me, so he’s ‘normal.’ And we’re not.

    I get the young thing (which is why I don’t dye my premature grey), the woman thing, the gay thing (both the ‘it’s so obvious’ and ‘ZOMG! you are!?’), the geek thing, the tech thing…

    For effs sake people.

    I’m a person. A human. A diverse, complex, multi-layered onion. I have nuances, pathos and comedy intermingle in a morbid sense of humor. I am talented and thoughtful and snarky.

    Just like you.

    People spend way too much time caring about the outer wrappings. Proof? The Jersey Shore is popular, and not as an anthropological experiment.

  7. Yay you for saying all of this. I’m another female developer, and the attitude towards women in the geek world can be very strange: a weird mix of admiration and chauvinism.

    However…. As much as I agree with everything you just said, I want to share a contrary experience I had once. I went to a weekend-long touchy-feely workshop-training thingy once, and it was definitely a “Stuff White People Like” kind of event. There was a black woman there. When I arrived, I walked into the room and was pleasantly surprised to see a black person there, and I thought to myself, “this is great that this event has a non-white person in it, but I don’t want to make a big deal out of race so I’m going to ignore her race and treat her just like all the other people in the room.” Everyone else had the same thought – we were glad to see a black person, but didn’t want to make an issue of it. Then, about halfway through the weekend, the black woman totally broke down and started crying. We asked her what was wrong, and she said, “I’m the only black person in the room and this is hard for me and no one has acknowledged that my different racial background makes this a different experience for me than for the rest of you.” Her race was the white elephant (black elephant?) in the room.

    So we all thought we were being so cool and accepting by not acknowledging her race, yet what she really needed to hear from us was, “Yay you for spending your weekend in a room full of white people!”

    This is such a fine line, and something I have struggled with ever since that weekend: on the one hand, you don’t want to make a big deal out of difference and you want to act as if we’re all just people and differences don’t matter. On the other hand, there’s no ignoring that differences DO matter, and sometimes we go out of our way to pretend that they don’t when really we should be acknowledging those differences. The tricky part is acknowledging difference without making people feel Other.

    • You are correct – this is exactly where the finest line is. I think the trick is to become comfortable talking about things like gender and race as information, because they are, and even joking about it (I know I make jokes all the time, and not just to break the ice), but not express shock or surprise that only serves to reveal your own pre- and misconceptions. Everybody has preconceived ideas and assumptions, and hopefully nobody thinks that I’m saying that they’re wrong when they’re only natural, but being self-aware is just so very important.

      I also think that having a break down about not having something like that recognized is kind of silly, though. Maybe I’m just over-logical and a classic INTJ, but I don’t think either side is something to get upset over, rather just more perspectives to consider in your thoughts. Plenty of people don’t ever talk about me being a girl or Asian or young (or not as young in the tech world anymore), but it doesn’t occur to me to think about it unless I notice conscious avoidance of something somebody perceives to be a (negative) issue. Perhaps that’s the line to be aware of there.

  8. Great post, sadly the reason behind it is far too common. Thankfully, once you point things like this out there’s a good community of people (especially WordPress people it seems) who are willing to reconsider what they learned during their upbringing.

    There are bound to be comments on the other side; people who won’t reconsider or who have decided stepping out of the “buckets” in their heads isn’t acceptable. Those comments are in-discriminatory to who you are too, I’m a male but have been the target too,

    The worst criticisms will even make effort to corner you at a bad time. If that happens please remember your supporters and all the people you helped to think for a bit.

    • That’s you? Awesome!!! Buckets, indeed. My husband sometimes talks about some of the ones he notices (which isn’t often, because he’s not the type to pay any attention at all): the male bucket, the Latino bucket, the dude-with-earrings bucket… My perspective is of course limited to my own experiences, but I figure that if you extrapolate, it does indeed apply to any situation where one has to field attention that comes from somebody else’s shattered notions.

  9. Great post, Helen! Also, great slides, I wish I’d seen your talk.

    I really appreciate you publishing the post. I’m rarely on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour, but I often witness it at WordCamps or similar events.

    I always find it strange when people are surprised by things like this, similar to Kurt’s comment above, it’s like hearing someone exclaim that the sky is blue. It’s not news and it’s not noteworthy.

  10. Helen, I was in the 401 workshop and you essentially blew my mind…I was the guy drooling toward the back on your right side.

    Blown away and drooling because of the superb code and knowledge you were sharing:)

    I appreciate that you decided to write this up so openly and honestly. You’ve just made the world that much better by sharing these thoughts and making people THINK.

  11. Aside from the fact that men are inherently socially inept when speaking to a cute woman (and I’m guessing the comments you took exception to came from men), the world of coding seems to be filled with extremely capable women, at least on the forums I frequent. So it’s difficult to relate. But you write very well, for a young, Asian, female so thanks for the sensitivity alert. 🙂

  12. If affirmative action belittles your accomplishments, does that mean my white privilege belittles mine? Because affirmative action barely creates a level playing field and basically amounts to scraps in the face of institutionalized racism.

    All of the legacy fraternity bro’s I went to school with aren’t stressing themselves out or feeling self conscious about whether they got hired over the equally smart black guy. That’s a given. So why exactly are you expressing ‘hate’ at something that really only gives you a lesser version of the opportunity myself and others were born with?

    Here’s the thing about being a *white* woman and being in a system that involves affirmative action: I still see people of color having to fight harder than I’ve ever had to for the exact same accomplishments. And that says a lot, because I fight HARD – glass ceiling be damned.

    So, mulling over the same things you did…

    Are you ever really going to be able to shake the curiosity about whether or not you are in your current position because of something you aren’t in control of nor worked to achieve? (Probably, because I live in a culture that’s conditions everyone to see my privilege as the norm and anything similar given to a minority as a handout.)

    Are other people going to be wondering the same thing? (Nope, because I’m white. See above.)

    And how many people really are curious about these things versus how many are content to just have more, no matter the circumstance? ( ……….*crickets*)

    Complacency is… every WASPs birthright?

    The fact that you seem to think affirmative action is belittling your accomplishments shows that you’ve been lucky enough to not have racism directly hinder your ability to pursue those accomplishments in the first place. Your experience is the exception, not the rule. All of the hard work in the world will still never get many to a place where affirmative action even comes into play. Kind of seems like you have survivors bias.

    Honestly, if you could hear the things people say when there are zero brown people in the room as opposed to one, your opinions about the need for affirmative action would probably change. Mine did.

    • I am probably going to regret replying to your comment, and you may not ever see it, but here goes:

      I think perhaps you have missed the point (or perhaps non-point, because they’re kind of circular) of these 1500+ words completely and rather just zeroed in on a single paragraph about how I (personally) “hate” affirmative action. I’m really truly not trying to convince anybody to see things the way I do. I’m aware that what I think is my own opinion and that I wrote this entirely out of self-contemplation. I’m honestly glad to know and respect that you are convicted in your view and feel passionately about it.

      However… you seem shocked that I don’t agree with you, and that’s what I’m getting at – why be shocked enough to comment on a stranger’s blog? I can’t possibly ever know what it’s like to be white or have white guilt or white privilege, just as you can’t possibly ever know what it’s like to specifically be brown. That is totally okay and not something that needs to be fixed, because frankly, I don’t think it’s broken. We are different and thus bound to have different experiences and opinions. It is what keeps people and life interesting.

  13. However… you seem shocked that I don’t agree with you, and that’s what I’m getting at – why be shocked enough to comment on a stranger’s blog?

    I seemed shocked that you didn’t agree with me? How so?

    Maybe I’ve been around the block a few too many times, but I honestly don’t see anything especially shocking or ‘special snowflake’ about your opinions.

    WPCandy linked over and gave you a platform.

    I found the affirmative action bit to be really problematic *in the context of that platform*.

    I chimed in because it felt important to attach a perspective that acknowledged the bigotry that’s too often glossed over in the tech world.

    Tech community aside, the way you wrote about affirmative action… you would think racism was just something someone made up to inconvenience you personally.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but yours seem to be based on an inability/refusal to look beyond your personal experiences and see the struggle of others.

    Where I’m from we call that ignorance. I’m too old to be shocked by it, but I’ll always challenge it.

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