What’s the use?

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Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a woman; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more notoriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruiters or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but, “What’s the use”.

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruiters will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there are new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.

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