Monday, 10 February 2014

Should you notice I'm a woman? Should I care?

So, following on from my observations of being an outsider at FOSDEM because I'm not an open source developer, I do have another story to tell where my female-ness is actually relevant.

I'm going to give specifics, but it's not to name and shame or anything like that, it's just that anonymising it will probably erase some of the subtleties.  But I'm not telling this to make anyone feel bad, because this is not an oh-poor-me story, this is just the way it goes sometimes and I want to share what it feels like.

At JFokus (a conference I really enjoyed, where I got a chance to spend time with some awesome people) I was on a panel (well, game-show really) about static vs dynamic languages.  Not unusually, I was the only woman on the panel.  Also not unusually, one of the reasons I agreed to take part is to do my bit in demonstrating that women have technical knowledge too (in my opinion, it's important where possible to avoid a stage full of white men of a particular age, and I'm in a position to be able to do something about that).  And, as per usual, I was a bit nervous about this in case the only woman on the panel also turned out to look stupid, but hey, looking stupid is one of the risks of this job.

During the session, my gender was mentioned twice - once with "ladies first", and once to specifically point out that our static-languages team was somehow superior because we had both genders represented (well of course we're better, I'm on the team). Note that neither of these was derogatory at all - both were, in fact, positive towards me, and I wasn't troubled or offended by them. I'm used to people noticing and commenting on my gender.  I got used to it in the same way you get used to your commute to work, or dealing with merge conflicts - it's something you do, it's not always comfortable, but it's no one's fault and they're not out to get you.

I didn't really process how the gender-mentions made me feel until after, at which point I was drained from giving yet another new talk that day, as well as the surprisingly physical panel discussion. But afterwards, when I was back in my hotel room packing for yet another plane journey, I was thinking "is it normal?".  Was it inevitable that someone was going to notice/point out that I'm female?

Was it down to my choice of clothing?  I debated long and hard with myself about wearing what was definitely a ridiculously short skirt for a session like that, but in the end I decided I didn't want to wear jeans like everyone else, and wearing tiny skirts is something I find fun. But I did think I'd be behind a table and it wouldn't be too obvious.  Should I worry that much about what I wear?  I used to plan what to wear for work, I used to love dressing up for going out with friends, so over-thinking my clothes for a conference is part of who I am.

And one of the reasons to wear the skirt is because I've found myself wearing jeans and t-shirts more than ever.  I think the combination of travelling a lot (I hate packing, so packing a couple of pairs of jeans and a bunch of t-shirts makes life easy) and being part of a tech company where that's basically our uniform has lead to extreme laziness in my clothing choices, and I want to change that.  Who wants to look like everyone else?  Not me.

So back in that hotel room, at the end of a long day, knowing I have to get up at 5am the next morning to get on a plane to New York, I felt drained.  I felt... vulnerable? But if I dig down to find out what's really making me feel not-cool, it's not because a couple of people noticed I was a girl.  It's because I was tired, because I was on display, because I had been worried about my choice of clothes, because drawing attention to yourself is not terribly British, because I didn't know if my new talk was any good.

It's easy to blame impostor syndrome, or something similar. And maybe this is what impostor syndrome feels like. But I'm pretty sure every conference speaker, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, has felt this way.  I don't think it's because I have two X chromosomes and I'm in a male-dominated environment.

I'm not really sure what conclusions to draw from this experience.  I did want to share it so that other people know what it feels like.

Possible conclusions:

  • When you're tired, it's easy to blame the first thing that springs to mind for your lack of shiny-happy feelings
  • When you've got a lot on your plate, seemingly-innocuous (even those driven by positive intentions) comments or actions can increase your stress levels
  • Don't think too much.  It can drive you mad.

7 comments:

  1. +1 to "don't think too much". So many bad decisions come out of overthinking.

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  2. Interesting coincidence that Martin Fowler has posted "AlienatingAtmosphere" today: http://martinfowler.com/bliki/AlienatingAtmosphere.html.

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    1. Well, it's not a total coincidence - I knew he was going to publish something on this. I've read a number of things lately on this subject, so when I had this experience, I thought I'd post about how it feels - I wanted to highlight that it's not always about the big, negative events, and it's not even necessarily about being female, but that pretty much anyone can feel uncomfortable in certain circumstances.

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  3. What's to worry about? A women in public wearing trousers is exercising a fashion choice, a man in public wearing a skirt is a pervert.

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  4. Hi Trisha, I've been mulling this over on and off since you posted it. I think there's something to this. My hunch is that it has to do with being singled out, even if in a positive way, for something about who or what you are (as opposed to something you've done, say, an accomplishment). Being singled out raises this notion that there is a GROUP and that you are OTHER. Consider the difference between being introduced (hypothetically) in these different ways: 1) "This is Trisha, that rare commodity, one of our top female developers" or 2) "This is Trisha, who gave that great talk at the JUG last week." I would guess that #1 would make you feel uncomfortable, as if receiving an odd, backhanded comment. I also suspect that this has nothing to do with what you might be wearing. If so, then maybe it means that people should learn that singling somebody out, no matter how well intentioned, carries the risk of backfiring.

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    1. I think that's exactly it. I'd feel a bit weird (but flattered) if you introduced me as having done something awesome, but I feel a bit exposed or unusual if you introduce me using option 1. Something to be careful of, certainly.

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