It’s all about circles

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

When I was creating symbols to use for my categories, I thought about what would best represent the concept of “Connecting’, one of my categories. To me, connecting is when two or more people have a discussion or reach out to one another in some way. This doesn’t mean that the people agree, or disagree. It just means that a connection was made.

Eventually I settled on intersecting circles: circles because we are, first and foremost, individuals, complete and whole on our own; and intersecting because when we interact with each other, we become a part of something bigger – not necessarily better, and not necessarily something positive – but something beyond what we are, alone.

My use of this symbol was pointed out today on a post that has since been removed. The focus of the post was about Liz’s new group weblog focusing on women and technology, My reaction was one of personal hurt and dismay, and I don’t retract either of these honest emotions. However, as they were expressed originally it became more of a “me too, me too!” statement, and that wasn’t the point I had hoped to make. After a series of emails today and time to think about it, I decided to try the post again, but this time with more a story to go with the reaction. The reaction’s still there, but I hope it’s now more nuanced.

Women and technology. This is a subject that has personal interest for me with a degree in Computer Science, and having worked in the field for 20 years. And being a woman, too, of course. When I first started taking computer science way too many years ago, the program had about 8 men for every woman but oddly enough I didn’t really notice this disparity. Or if I did, it was more a matter of the program was very new at the University and women were quite new to the sciences. In time there would be more women in the field. I just knew it.

My professors and fellow classmates at Central Washington University were terrific. Though men outnumbered women, three of the top five students in the program were women.

When I left school I wanted nothing more than to work in research, but only having a BS degree didn’t provide the entre into research positions, so I ended up in a job at Boeing, working as a system support person. My job was to provide application and system support for an HP box as well as yet more primitive PC computers. It was there that I was blooded into the profession by doing a mistype while formatting a specific directory and formatting my boss’ entire machine. Luckily, he had a sense of humor.

The IT group at Boeing Military had a surprising number of women. I was to find that, as the years progressed, the ratio of women to men was much less significant in those days than it is today. However, while I was at Boeing, and in all my Boeing positions, I never once met anything remotely approaching discrimination. Nor did I ever feel odd being a ‘woman in technology’.

I went from the system support position to work on Peace Shield, the defense system that the US military helped fund for the Saudi Arabian air defense. My job there was to write FORTRAN programs to extract critical information about data points in several million lines of code created by three separate companies, and put this information into a data dictionary in order to meet compliance with military guidelines. While not research, the work was challenging. I’d take FORTRAN coding sheets home at night to work through code. Eventually my boss finagled one of the first ‘portable’ computers from Compaq for me to use, though the thing was more hassle than it’s worth. One can only handle so much amber and crashing disks.

From Peace Shield I went to Boeing Commercial into the database group, working into a position, eventually, of lead Data Analyst, and finally Commercial’s Information Repository manager, trained by IBM in this brand new meta technology. Most of the people I worked with in data were women – an odd fact that still tends to exist today.

It was a great job and I met movers and shakers and really learned Data. But I was seduced away by my old research bug. During my work I became acquainted with a group called ALIA – Acoustical and Linguistics Applications. This group was using some of the most cutting edge technology to create applications such as robotic warehouse systems, smart search systems (one of the many Google precoursers, and actually using rudimentary markup languages), and even computer systems used by quadriplegics. I loved the work, I loved my boss – a woman as fate would have it.

Unfortunately, though, we ended up being cut during one of Boeing’s down sizing and I ended up working for Sierra Geophysics – a software company for the petroleum industry owned by none other than Halliburton.

It was at Sierra that I began to realize that being a woman in this field isn’t quite a simple thing. My boss, a man named Jim Bonner, was a wonder and he’s still one of the best people I’ve worked with. The bosses all the way up the line were also terrific. However, within the groups there was a flavor of behavior that was gender based – and this behavior manifested itself with both men and women.

I worked for a female lead who did not get along with the male lead of another small group. However, she did get along with the male lead of the third group – in fact, he could do no wrong. Not even when he was wrong. As for the man antagonistic to my lead, we got along fine. We both collected minerals and he was a geology major turned computer scientist, so we had that in common. Still, when I was assigned to hypertest some of the code, he tried to get me pulled and put his own guy in, saying that his person was ‘calmer’ in difficult situations. Believe me folks, if I was any calmer in those days, I’d have been asleep. My boss saw through the root cause of this ‘request’ and rejected it and basically told him to butt out and go away with his bad self.

Still, I didn’t take it personally. Didn’t impact my job, boss stood up for me. No harm done.

I worked on creating the shell scripts for all of the applications, as well as coding database portions of the application for five different Unix boxes. We used C++, my first exposure to the language, and I liked it. I didn’t like working make files for five different flavors of Unix, though.

Eventually Hallibuton decided we Seattle folks were too uppity for good hard working Oklahoma people and we were all canned. We knew it was coming and we were all extremely uptight. I used to bring in some hard candy and I noticed that people would come by more and more to grab a piece – not for the sake of the candy so much but to get away from their desks. I started adding more candy and eventually filled a drawer with the silliest candies – lollipops and candy necklaces, and buttons, and cinnamon bears. And chocolate of course.

My little candy drawer became the place people would come to when they were uptight, frustrated, and scared about losing their jobs. This was before the dot-com era. Before easy pickings, and losing a job was a pretty scary thing.

When I left, my boss thanked me for the work and for the drawer. He said it was the only thing that kept the lid on at times. My female lead said I was a great worker, but I really needed to become more aggressive and not let the men push me around.

I hope you’re not bored, because we’ve just started this saga, long that it is. But then, the topic is about women and technology. And I am a woman, and this was technology.

Next it was an insurance company and becoming a senior developer, and my first lead position. I led two efforts – one to rewrite the quarterly financial system that failed every run. The second to code the room size automated mailing system the company just bought. The group was half and half – women and men, and there wasn’t a bit of problem being a woman developer there. Not when more than half the actuarials at the company were women, and everyone knows actuarials are the scariest, smartest people in the world. They set the pace for our group.

Standard Insurance company was my last fulltime gig. I was ready to branch out into contracting and did so as an employee for a contracting company. My first gig was at Intel.

What a nightmare. I, from my previously protected position as woman as equal contributor walked into a situation where I had one member of the group talking about sex with me, every single friggen day; and other member of the group calling me names, telling me, to my face, that “women shouldn’t be in this profession – they get hysterical too easily’, and don’t have the brains for it.” I complained to my company, but Intel was too lucrative. I was told to just go along. I finally filed a complaint with Intel’s personnel, and left the position.

The funny thing is, the guy that talked sex all the time was the one that ‘testified’ for me in regards to the complaint I had about the abuse from the other member. He talked for two solid hours of incidents of the abuse I suffered. I was vindicated, but my vindication came at the hands of another person who was guilty of yet another type of abuse.

By the time I left the gig, I was not the same person. It wasn’t that I was treated in the most extreme sexist manner, and with such abuse – it was that my company didn’t believe me, but did believe another abuser.

I went to another gig at Intel and this one was okay. I was only one of two women, but the guys were straight up. Did my job and left.

I went to Nike after that, and the Nike folks were very cool. I know that Nike offshores, and I don’t approve – but they treated me well, and after Intel, I needed this. I also worked some part time gigs during this time – consultant for Multnomah county on a smalltalk feasibility study, converting a desk top application to web based using Netscape’ brand new Livewire technology, coding here, database design there. I even created an Oracle prototype touch screen application for a door factory in Wisconsin.

(Small town in the middle of nowhere – bugs the size of volkswagens and the mainstreet alternated churches with bars. Odd place.)

I had a good reputation in Portland so I was treated with respect wherever I went. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that in all but a few of the places, the ratio of women tended to be anywhere from 4 men to 2 women, to about 20 or so men to one woman. Things were changing. The good old days were dead.

I moved to Vermont and spent a year writing tech books and then to Boston where I went to work at another insurance company. Every group had a good mix of women and men except one – the technology architecture group. There was exactly one woman in this group among all the men. And most of the guys there reminded me of, well, they reminded me a lot of the male tech webloggers I’ve interacted with – both the good and the bad.

What do I mean by this? Well, when I deferred to the group in all things, I was an okay person. But when I disagreed, I became a bitch. I know. I was called a bitch. You see, unlike at Intel, I wasn’t going to be quiet, be good, or be conciliatory. No more candy drawers. I was going to fight back, and I’ve been fighting back ever since.

Good girls might get pats on the head from daddy, but they don’t get respect from hard core techs. It takes skill, but more than that, you can’t give an inch – not an inch because when you do, you’ll never get that inch back. If I had a choice between being liked, or being respected for my technical ability and being allowed to exercise it, I would choose the latter.

It was also in this position that I began to find out that the more technical the position, the closer to the metal, the fewer the women, and the more difficult for women to ‘break’ in.

Other jobs followed: Harvard and Stanford, Skyfish, and odds and ends for companies big and small, but enough about the past.

Now we come to weblogging and I see bits and pieces of my old Boeing group here, and my old jobs at Nike and I think, this is a good thing. But I also see much, way too much, of Intel here.

Lots of great technical guys around here. Could care less if I’m a woman, as long as my code’s sexy. That’s cool – I know where they’re coming from. But I’ve also been called ‘hysterical’ by Mark Pilgrim so many times, I should just tatoo it on my butt. Don’t have to believe me, read it yourself. Want to see what Dave Winer has said? Go to my blogroll, click on the link for his past comments.

I can dig this and I can handle it, but I wanted something more this time – I wanted support from the women. I didn’t want to be the only woman in the group, the only woman close to the metal – the only woman talking tech. But, how many women have been involved in Pie/Echo/Atom? RSS and coding? How many women at the conferences?

Yet when I’ve asked woman for support, it isn’t coming because let’s face it – the guys I take on, the Dave Winers, the Mark Pilgrims, and yes, even the nice guys like Sam Ruby – and Sam is a nice guy, and hasn’t a sexist bone in his body – they mean something here. They have a lot of juice. They are hits, conferences, speaking gigs. The coin of the realm is measured in hypertext links, and the men, well, they have most of the bucks.

No, I’m told that for women to get ahead, we have to be calm, dignified. We have to go along, to get along. We should never call a man on his behavior to his face, but do it in a round about manner, a non-confrontational manner. Above all, we should never be a bitch. Never lose our tempers. Never wipe the mud off our faces and throw it back.

Provide a drawer of candy. Learn to be good little girls, and maybe the boys will let us play.

This leads me back to Liz’s new group, and the smaller inner select group of members. Make no mistake – I was upset about this, and for two reasons.

The first is the group aspect of it, the member’s only aspect. Here’s a group of women who are talking about women in technology and supposedly women being excluded in technology, and the first thing that happens is they create an invite only group that exclude all women’s voices, including the cranky bitches like me.

Oh yes, women like me can still talk on our weblogs but our voices are less likely to be heard because let’s face it: the tech guys are going to find this group of women to be a lot more ‘comfortable’ to work with than someone like me. I’m that bitch – remember?

That leads me to my own personal reaction to not being invited. Yes, I was upset. And yes, I was angry. And hurt. And I did feel rejected because Liz and Dorothea and I have talked about these issues via email when I’ve asked their support in the past. When I tried to share my pain and rejection from the male technical circles. When I tried to explain why I find the word ‘hysterical’ to be so offensive.

Be quiet. Don’t react. Don’t get angry. Don’t fight back. Be good. Be dignified. Go along to get along. Look at the rewards – Tim might let you speak at ETConn, or Clay might ask you to one of his inner meetings. That’s the way for women to break into the technology fields – with dignity and restraint. Not calling the guys on their behavior. Not pointing out the discrepany at conference after conference. Not rocking the boat.

Not fighting back. Not fighting. Not.

Being quiet. That’s how women get ahead in technology, especially here in weblogging – we stay quiet. Even when we write, we’re still quiet. Even when we scream in the privacy of our minds, in frustration and anger, we still stay quiet.

Today I learned how to get ahead with the men in technology and tech weblogging circles. I’ve also learned how to get ahead with today’s new ‘woman in technology’, too.

I wish you luck ladies. I have no doubts you’ll be successful.

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