Tuesday, March 8, 2011

don't tell me i can't go there

I'd like to note that this is an opinion piece. That said, it HAS to be an opinion piece because there are no "hard" statistics on the subject that prove a point in any way. There is ONLY anecdotal evidence and conjecture. Ergo, this is MY evidence and conjecture.

I read an article a few days ago that really upset me. The reason that it upset me is that it was written by a woman who, like me, has children and loves them but also has a love and a need to work, to have a career, to not be a stay at home mom. Let me be clear: I don't have anything against stay at home moms. I do have something against people who don't want to work and who use their children as an excuse for staying home, but that's neither here nor there. My point is that I am not the kind of person who can find fulfillment in staying home with her kids, and so I don't choose to do so.

I discovered my career around the time I hit 30. I was very ill prepared for any sort of career, frankly, but I was in the right place at the right time and got hired to do technical support. This wasn't technical support of the "click on My Computer" variety, where you follow a script -- you had to be smart, you had to learn, and you had to think. And I did all these things. I was good at it.

I will bet I'd have been even better at it had I realized how good I was at math in school and pursued it. That said, I'd found my niche and I stayed in tech. I went from that company to an infosec vendor, and I realized I had a passion for Information Security. I learned everything I could.

There's one thing that really got in the way of my career, and it was the fact that I am a girl. Not only am I a girl, but I am a really girly girl. I do not look or act particularly smart. I'm cute and I'm sexy, and neither of those attributes come across well in the world of Information Security. I'm a dancing bear.

At any rate, I recently read this article by a woman who seems a lot like me personality-wise, and what she said is that women are, in general, not good at certain things, such as competition or higher math, and so they shouldn't pursue careers where they would have to be highly competitive or use higher math. And you know, she may be right...but there are plenty of women out there who ARE good at competing and with higher math, but who already have to fight harder than men with similar skills to be hired and to be taken seriously, and this woman's article DOES NOT HELP.

I am one of those girls who, early on, bought into the idea that because I was a girl and because I had big boobs, I was not smart. Seriously, for years I thought I was not very smart, which is hilarious because the evidence that I was, in fact, smart was all around me and I just ignored it because it must have been a fluke. I was good at math, so good at math that I should have been shot into a special class, but they didn't have those when I was a kid, and I actually thought I was BAD at math and stopped taking it the moment I could get away with it. The only thing that I did pursue was languages, and the fact that I was good at languages -- not just speaking or reading, but the technical, formal aspects of languages -- should have alerted somebody, but it didn't. Later on, in college, I astounded some of my professors with how good I was at formal systems, but then I got sick and I had to drop out, and there went any possibility that I'd figure out how good I was.

Five years before I got into tech, I picked up a book on formal systems and idly leafed through it, and then burst into hysterical tears because I FINALLY GOT IT: I realized that I was really, really good at math. I was also pregnant with my second child and had no ability, no opportunity to DO anything about it. Since that time, I have wanted, desperately, to go back to school and do something about it, but for various reasons, and I am not going to recount them all here, I haven't been able to.

Still, I am very good at what I do, much better than I should be considering my lack of formal training. Because I came at tech "sideways", as I like to put it, I very much think outside the box. Most of the time I don't even know there was a box. I'm not saying that I am the best in my field or something like that. But what I am saying is that I am a really good bet to hire, because I love to learn, I love challenges, and I hate being unbusy.

I've never had anyone complain about my technical ability. But I have seen a lot of doors slam in my face nonetheless. I know my personality is way out there and sometimes hard to take, but I will submit that if my personality did not come with big tits and a high voice, it would be much easier to "take".

Because here's the thing: I like being a girl. I love dressing up in outfits that accentuate how cute I am, and wearing makeup. I love to party, particularly if karaoke is involved. I have a lot of interests outside tech, most of which could be considered girly. I am not going to hide or deny that stuff, even though apparently it means that people -- i.e. many men in tech -- can't take me seriously because they can't fit me into a well-defined pigeonhole.

But why should I make it easy for them? Why should I fit into one of their boxes? Why should I accept someone else's definition for what I, as a woman, should be? The answer is that I shouldn't and I won't. If you give me a job to do, I will do that job well, and THAT IS WHAT COUNTS in my field or in any other.

And the last thing I need is another woman telling me that I can't, or shouldn't, try to do what I want to do and am good at because I am a woman.


  1. Mimi --

    When I was getting my Master's degree in statistics, half the class were women. Amazon's top statistician is female (and I'm lucky to be working with her on a project next week.)

    Talent in math has NOTHING to do with gender.

    Yes, you can.

  2. Loved this post! As a girly, curvy, cheerful female InfoSec manager, I'm currently in a company where every single person above me in the chain of command is a white male over 45. I have been told that I'm "too strong a woman to work there." The one black manager in the entire $1B company is "too emotional." Black women don't get to manage at all. The white male managers literally scream and throw things, but that's ok. It's different because they are white men.

    Talent in general has nothing to do with gender. How people perceive and accept the talent may, but if you work hard enough and are good enough at what you do, they will accept you anyway. And if they don't, they just lost a competitive advantage. If they are stupid enough to do that, they don't deserve to succeed anyway.

    Keep working, Mimi. Go, you!

  3. Too strong a woman? THERE IS NO SUCH THING.

  4. My wife is a geek, and a very good one. We met while I was working for her, as a contractor.
    She spent years trying to be as "ungirly" as possible, as she did not want anyone to think she was using her femininity to advance her career.
    In the last 15 years, she has decided it's OK to be feminine, and damn anyone who thinks that's a problem. Yay!
    There *is* still the "old boys network", and it will take another generation to chase it back into the shadows, but looking at Google, or even IBM, the changes are upon us, and I'm happy for my daughters and granddaughters.

    Cheers,,,Steve Conway

  5. Thank you for writing this! That article was infuriating to read, but I do not have the energy or writing skill to address it, so I am so thankful that you did.

    I for one do not think that all professions should be 50/50 male/female. I think there are enough differences, whether those differences are nature or nurture, that that won't happen. But those differences are between the *average* male and female, and really don't tell the whole story.

    There is much more distance between the tallest woman and the shortest woman than between the average man and the average woman, and most if not all human characteristics follow this same pattern. So I still maintain that none of the studies and statistics out there explain professions that are less than 20% or so of one gender. I truly think that we have discrimination, stereotypes and the like to account for those. And I don't know about you, but for me once a group or environment is 20-25% female, I don't feel like an oddity anymore.

    Rock on and keep writing!