Being a woman in tech: “Psycho bitch” helpful but not sufficient

For me, being a woman in technology is like the ending of the Lilo and Stitch movie where he says

Es mi familia. Es chica y rota pero es buena, es muy buena.

(This is my family. It’s small and broken but it’s good. It’s very good. – The person who quoted this saw it in Spanish. I don’t know if the English version ends the same.)

The broken part

I’m a bit bemused by those articles on how online harassment drives women from technology, articles that say things like you can’t just delete the comments and emails that threaten to rape you and your children. I don’t have that problem at all. When I read a comment like that, I think,

“Some idiot said something stupid on the Internet. “

This bothers me no more than the fact that Olav Kirschenko in Russia didn’t get the promotion he wanted to assistant manager at the McDonalds in Red Square. It affects me not at all.

A couple of posts have talked about being afraid because the person found out where they lived, came to their office, they were in serious fear of being raped or killed. I have never felt that fear. It is not simply having been the world judo champion, although that helps. It’s that combined with not having grown up in yuppie Santa Monica. I’ve been in more fist fights than I can count, had knives pulled on me and three times been faced with a man with a gun. I have some scars but I’m still here. Our Chief Marketing Officer asked me what I would do if someone actually did show up at the house and threaten my lovely young daughter, I told her matter-of-factly,

“I’d probably stab him or hit him with a brick.”

I’m little. I have no intention of fighting fair and I believe down deep in my soul in the immortal words of  Zapata,

“It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

Darling Daughter Number 3 said in an interview that she would die in the octagon before she would give up. She meant that most literally. It’s a choice people make to live their lives unbowed and unafraid.

Yes, I really am a psycho bitch. I’m not afraid of being killed and if someone showed up at my door and threatened me or my children, I could shoot him dead and it would not bother me in the slightest.

So — worries about crazy, misogynistic Internet trolls – not  a problem. I don’t know about you, but I totally DO recognize that it is NOT okay that to sleep peacefully at night as a woman in technology it is helpful to be a crazy psycho bitch willing to cheerfully off attackers .

The small part

More than once, I’ve read a post by a woman in technology saying something along the lines of ,

“I’m not sure if there was discrimination against me or not. I just worked twice as hard as everyone else to prove myself.”

And I wonder, “Didn’t it occur to you that’s pretty fucked up that you had to work twice as hard as everyone else?”.  I loved @shanley ‘s comments on twitter about conference organizers who wanted a woman to speak but they couldn’t get Sheryl Sandberg. Was their male keynote speaker Mark Zuckerberg? I didn’t fucking think so. For those of you who are now put off by my language, let me get this straight – I’m supposed to be so tough that I am not put off by commenters threatening to rape me and my children, but ladylike enough not to swear?

Let’s talk about the twice as hard/ qualified part. I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis when I was 19 years old, back in the 1970s, when I started programming with Fortran and Basic.  I finished my MBA when I was 21, along with winning the national judo championships and U.S. Open. I worked as an industrial engineer at General Dynamics for a few years, where I learned SAS and some languages no one uses any more. By 31 I had won a world championships in judo, earned another masters degree and Ph.D. and been programming for a dozen years on VAX and IBM mainframe systems. Over the next 24 years, I’ve published articles in scientific journals, presented at so many conferences around the U.S. and a couple in Canada that I have honestly lost track of the number. I’ve used high performance computing clusters, everything from DOS to Windows 8 and every version of the Mac OS since the first one. (When I married my late husband, he got me a Mac instead of an engagement ring, because it is what I wanted.) Most recently, I’ve been part of a two-person development team that created Spirit Lake: The Game – (you can buy it here) , and we’re beta testing our second game, Fish Lake, in 8 schools starting this month.

When people talk about supporting women in tech, they look at Girls Who Code  and Black Girls Code, both of which I’m sure are very worthwhile programs. What troubles me, though, is the assumption that we need to focus only on young girls – in short, we, the oh-helpful ones, are the mentors and the solution to increase the representation of women in technology is 5 or 10 years out when these girls finish college or graduate school. WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN WHO ARE HERE NOW?

If you are overlooking the women who are here now, what does that tell the girls you are supposedly bringing up to be the next generation of women in tech that you can overlook 15 years from now? Why do we hear about 16-year-old interns far more than women like me? If it is true, as the New York Times says, that in 2001-2 28% of computer science degrees went to women compared to the 10% or so now – where are those women from 12 years ago?

It seems to me that when people are looking at minorities or women to develop in their fields, they are much more interested in the hypothetical idea of that cute 11-year-old girl being a computer scientist some day than of that thirty-something competing with them for market share or jobs. If there are venture capitalists or conference organizers or others out there that are sincerely trying to promote WOMEN who code, not girls, I’ve never met any. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but it means that whoever they are seeking out, it isn’t people like me, which is why I started out talking about my qualifications. I’ve pitched at start-up events a few times, I’ve gone to some meet-ups, I’ve written this blog for going on six years, presented at conferences, published papers. I’m not running around promoting myself but I’m not that hard to find, either.

What it comes down to is this, in the 37 years since I graduated from college, I have seen a lot of affirmative talk and seen goddamned little affirmative action. Instead, what I have seen is a continuing assumption that women are not interested in technology, are not particularly good at it, and not so much interest in really changing that. Read the wonderful post by Phillip Guo, Silent Technical Privilege – where he talks about how people just assumed he knew what he was doing because he was an Asian-American male – yeah, my whole life has been the opposite of that. Yet, I’m still here.

Tess Rinearson’s post on technical entitlement is also terrific and worth reading, but it’s also the opposite of much of my life. That under-confidence problem? Yeah, I don’t have that. Maybe it’s part of being a psycho bitch. The reason I don’t go to more tech meet-ups is that they really are filled with people who assume that I am not as good or experienced as everyone else. It’s not me, it’s you. When you confuse me with the hospitality staff at the event (didn’t the designer suit tip you off?), it kind of is clear that you don’t think I’m the company for your investment dollars or the co-founder/ presenter of your dreams.

The good, the very good

All of this may make it sound like I’m bitter, but I’m not. I absolutely love my work. The Julia Group side provides me the opportunity to work on a variety of data analysis and programming problems that fascinate me. Many of my clients I have worked with ten years or more. They have followed me from one company to another. Great people, interesting work, good money.

7 Generation Games LogoBut wait, there’s more. Our newest venture, the start-up, 7 Generation Games, has the potential to change the way math is taught and learned. We’ve received over $570,000 in external funding so far which has allowed us to give people jobs, provide the game free to low-income schools and it is having an impact on children’s academic achievement. Every day I learn something new.

I telecommute most of the time. I travel a lot, which I don’t really mind. Because we have a wide range of clients, I work with all different operating systems. My work is fun, challenging, profitable, does good in the world – and I don’t get up before 10 a.m.

Do I think I would have gotten the same opportunities if I hadn’t gone out and started my own company? Certainly not.

So, yes, being a woman in tech is good, very, very good. Just don’t believe the bullshit of 90% of those people who say they are trying to promote women in tech, recognize that you’ll have to work twice as hard, and yeah, it probably helps if you’re a psycho bitch.

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  1. I just want to say that I appreciate that you and “darling daughter number three” continually inspire women of all ages. At 44 I have decided to leave my profession of 17 years and start on a new path in a male dominated field, one that will help me reach my goal. I really never thought I could do it or that there would be an opportunity for a woman my age. I have taken to heart some of the things you ladies have said and carved them into my soul. Thank you and Ronda so much for helping me believe in myself.

  2. Good luck, Chris. Unless you’re trying to break into the NBA as a starting center or something, I think there are very, very few things a person can’t do if he or she just sticks with it.

  3. I have been a software engineer for over 25 years. I’ve worked for large companies, startups and in higher ed. I love my work and have had the privilege of working with some very smart talented people doing some very exciting work. The only thing I disagree with you on is the 90%, I think it’s higher than that!

  4. Kudos on a well written essay and I got one thing to say to all young women out there, don’t think small and take an example from both Dr. De Mars and Limor Fried on what you can achieve it technology.

    Now enough said about women v.s. men – the old fuddy duddy guard is dying off, so in this brave new world can’t we all get along?

  5. This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on women in tech. The focus on young kids have been bothering me lately, but I didn’t realise why before I read this. Thanks!

  6. Ive been in the same field for over 10 yrs now, oil and gas fields. Ive noticed over that time that work ethic has really gone down. Most people who say they work twice as hard as everyone else is still working half as hard as what they are capable of. I have seen more and more women in my field in the last 2-3 yrs, some of them can and will out work the men, others think that being a woman should give them a pass. If every woman had your attitude and work ethic I think things would be alot different. Thx again for the great blog.

  7. I can not thank you enough for the words of encouragement. My mother is an engineer who started out learning from the oldest to the newest stuff, too, and she has always said that “Women must work twice as hard to prove themselves” quote, and though she is a hard worker, she has also kind of drove herself a little nuts.

    But she gave me my stubborn attitude.

    Now I am the animator and co-owner of a start up indie gaming company myself and we lost our programmer because he couldn’t “work with women”. And now that he is gone the guy left over is saying he does not want to teach me a little more so I can help out with the extra load of work, yet I’ve grown up with tech all my life.

    But like I said, I am stubborn and will not give up on a dream of building something for the first time just because some damn nerdy cubicle virgin said girls have cooties.

  8. Hi, Ariel –
    If you are the co-owner and someone does not want to teach you, if he is your co-founder, I’d look for another one. If he is your employee, I’d still look for another one. There is no reason to put up with that.

  9. What I found disturbing that in Australia the tech world is full of white women with no tech skills/qualification/experiences.

    I think in Australia, gender diversity in tech is being manipulated by tech companies. They use gender diversity as publicity stunt. They don’t have any intention in improving women in tech.

    There is no tech companies that have program to retrain/re-hire women who had a break from career in tech to raise family. They would hire girls as long as these girls fit their company image. These girls don’t have to have tech background.

  10. I have not seen that happen in the U.S. It’s possible it may happen but I think it is very rare and if it does it’s probably more because that person is related to an executive in the company rather than their gender.

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