My name is Julie, and I am an actual woman in tech. Sometimes it’s hard being me in tech, because I am a woman… of color… with children… who hasn’t watched a single Iron Man or Wolverine movie. Call me Unicorn.
Have you read about the latest study that shows how shitty it still is to be coding while female (or, I assume, presenting as female)? The way they controlled for geekiness is especially awesome. There aren’t many surprises in this study’s findings; women in Computer Science and tech in general have always been excluded, implicitly and explicitly, and it seems the majority still likes to protect its vanguard.
The article’s flaw, in my opinion, is labeling Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek, and other geek institutions as “masculine.” That’s too easy to dispute, and therefore, dismiss. We all can see why “masculine” is not the most accurate adjective to use: there are plenty of counter-examples of masculinity that have nothing to do with that stuff, and of course there are plenty of femmes who like that stuff. It is rather more a slice of the pop culture universe that is indeed white male dominated, but takes its identity from fandoms, the objects of those fandoms, and the general quest for purity within those fandoms. So for the rest of this article, I’m going to call this cultural archetype “ubergeek.”
Quick protip on computer scientists: we love to define things. We love taxonomies, patterns, formulae… any kind of abstraction or shortcut that can potentially connect a new, unsolved problem with a well-known one. Example: DNA sequencing and pattern-matching, at one recent point in time, was an unsolved problem. Oh no, so scary! But some ubergeeks thought about it, and realized that, hey, DNA nucleotides can be represented by single characters (A, T, C, G), and pieces of genes can then be represented as strings of characters (e.g., “AATTCCGGATTACCGG”)… and we have tons of pre-existing algorithms for strings. Even better, the “alphabet” is very limited compared to human languages, so we can exploit that to make searching, splicing, and slicing even faster. Voila! Add it to the taxonomy of solved problems, the ubergeeks save the day!
I say all this to illustrate just how strong pattern-matching is to coders. And the other side to pattern-matching is, by gut reaction, preferring things that conform to pattern. So imagine that you are a CS major, subscribe to this philosophy, and are super-excited about learning a craft that rewards finding patterns and solving problems… but you yourself don’t fit into the mold of the ubergeek. Maybe Star Trek seemed dated and dull, MST3K reminded you of the bullying you endured as a kid, or you were explicitly excluded from someone’s D&D guild. Surrounded by self-congratulatory ubergeeks, you would probably feel like you don’t fit in, would be less likely to form a strong peer group within the department, or worse yet, you might think that is why you find certain concepts or classes initially difficult. All this adds to a much higher chance that you would drop out when things get hard or tedious.
So maybe you double down on matching the pattern. There are many successful ubergeek women in tech, for example. If the flag you fly is unequivocally ubergeek, you will most likely still experience raw sexism, but chances are, you will find a way to win the acceptance and respect of your peers. So one could argue gender doesn’t seem to matter as much as matching the ubergeek pattern.
Try as I might, I’m not a true geek about geeky things… thank goodness this blog wasn’t named the Geeks of Color! I’m more a nerd/dork hybrid. So for the rest of us non-ubergeek women and other non-conforming identities who code for work or play… at one point, we all came to the crossroads of “Do I choose to wear the archetype as a disguise, or do I ‘only’ appease the archetype?” And neither choice is particularly savory.
This has always pissed me off, and still pisses me off, because primarily, software development is a set of principles, an ever-changing toolkit, and a lot of typing (and swear words). That’s it. Being an excellent engineer, architect, professor, researcher, or what-have-you has fuck-all to do with what’s on your Netflix queue! But nonetheless, the D20-roller/hacker association is strong and proving hard to squash.
Now, the defining characteristics of the ubergeek may have changed from when I was a student in the ’90s/’00s, since the kids in the CS departments or hacker boot camps aren’t necessarily raised in the ’80s and into the classic ubergeek stuff… but their professors are. And even if the kids are into other things, those things are still likely to white male dominated. Like libertarianism, craft beers, and rock-climbing. Great! If you’re into any of these things! Or look like you do! Or can laugh at those people’s jokes and stories!
But what if you don’t? Will you be treated as a peer? Will you refuse to blame yourself or label yourself as Bad At Algorithms if you make a mistake? Will your peers take a mistake you made and refrain from associating your one mistake with EVERYTHING you, or the underrepresented minority you are a member of, do in the future?!?! In my experience, sadly, no.
The only way around this problem is to engage our cerebellums and acknowledge that we have a pattern-matching problem, and consciously act against our pattern-matching instincts. And for heaven’s sake, remember that human beings shouldn’t be abstracted. Otherwise, we’d all be completely replaceable with neural nets in about 20 years… and according to the Terminator series… that doesn’t end well.
Cognitive Dissonance is an ongoing feature that explores all the nerdy media that we both hate to love, and love to hate.
What are your thoughts and reactions to this? Are you interested in further articles on the tech world here on The Nerds of Color? Let us know!