Career women in computer science

Stories We Don’t Tell

© Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
© Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Over the past year, I feel like I’ve been working through the stages of grief about being a women in tech, and I’ve not been blogging because I couldn’t find the words to share the story I wanted to tell. I’ve denied the extent of the problem. I’ve got angry. I’ve bargained. I’ve cried, and made my exit plan. And finally, I’ve come to some degree of acceptance.

I’ve said, “there are worse places to be a woman than in tech, like a coalmine”. I’ve wondered, what the tax is – a 6 day week rather than a 5 day week? 50% extra than the dude next to you? And finally I’m at the point where I say, “well, it’s better than being an accountant”.

This isn’t a good thing. We need to have hope that it will get better to continue, and I don’t always think it will. Yeah, there are wins, and every nerdy boy we educate is a huge achievement, but there are new ones at such a rate, with their entitlement, and their straight white male privilege, and it seems like a drop in the ocean; it just won’t stem the tide.

It is hard to be on the internet and think that things are getting better, when it seems like every week I read another horrifying story. Because, I know, these are not aberrations – it’s only the horrifying stories that are posted, by people who no longer fear the ramifications. I couldn’t write about GHC last year, because the main thing I walked away with was this knowledge, that we all have these stories, these tales of horrifying misogyny and unfairness, along with a thousand tiny cuts.

I have my story, but whilst my friends know, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write about it here, because I still fear the ramifications of sharing it. It’s a tale about how I was incredibly stupid, and did not realize what was going on until it was way out of my control, and the willingness of people to ignore the evidence, because they don’t want to believe that is the kind of world they live in.

Someone does/says something horrible, but with such confidence that whilst something rings false, it almost seems normal. And good, well intentioned people who would never do such things themselves, don’t realize how not normal that is.

I understand not wanting to believe that. I wish I still did. That – denial – is what got me into that situation. It was happening to me, and I didn’t realize how far it was from normal. And a long time later, I look at it, and marvel at how I could be so incredibly naive and optimistic about people’s intentions.

There are the thousand tiny cuts. The little comments, the gendered feedback, surprise that you’re an engineer rather than a PM or UX. The feeling of being other. Being the only woman in the room.

But what I realized, is that I wasn’t alone in having my big story, that I couldn’t share. Nor was I alone in having gone to someone nice, and well intentioned, and have them not want to believe this is the world we live in, have them dismiss it, tell me it wasn’t worse because I am a woman, that it is just how it is. And I was not alone in not knowing what to do after that.

But this is the world we live in. And so, when I meet that rare women who tells me she doesn’t have a story, I think, it’s coming for you. Or wonder if it happened, but she didn’t notice at the time and eventually, she will.

It’s hard to believe this, and stand up in front of girls and tell them – be an engineer. I finally did that again for the first time in 2012 a few months ago, with one of my favorite people in Sydney. We did a double act, and it felt like cheating, because he is the kind of nerdy boy, who is so kind, and special and supportive of everyone (but especially women) that if they were all like him, I’d still feel other, but it would be OK.

And then I did a panel at a retreat we hosted. I was so nervous, and I asked myself, “how do I tell them it’s OK?” – but they were university students, and so some of them already had their story, and they know, so I admitted that things happen, but told them “We have each other”.

My friend laughed when I told her I was giving up online dating because “I spend all day surrounded by dudes, the last thing I want to do in the evening is meet more dudes”. It’s true, some days I worry my life doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But I’m also surrounded by amazing women.

We give – to each other, and those behind us. But we also take, from those around us and ahead of us. I don’t think there is any other way to survive.

I’ve organized things, helped build communities, I’ve mentored, I’ve encouraged, I’ve stood up in front of groups of people so they know there is such a thing as a female engineer. I’ve taken calls from friends in tears, advocated for and tried to protect other women. Told the truth. I’ve held myself to such high standards, researched extensively before ever asking a question on a mailing list because you suck at math / girls suck at math.

New to a city, I’ve been grateful to find those communities ready made. I have mentors, people who encouraged me, who believed me, and in me, I’ve called friends in tears, been advocated for, and been protected. And every year at GHC, I watch these amazing women stand up on stage, and I know, that OK, there may be a tax on being a woman in this industry, but we can work harder, smarter, and better, and we can find the extra that we need to be successful.

I have my story I can’t share. It’s likely you do too. We can tell them in person, if we need to, because they are so depressingly similar and we know. And on bad days, when we want to run away, we can remind ourselves, that we have each other. Which doesn’t always sound like much, but it’s actually pretty incredible.

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