Darling, You Can Be Both

For years, I struggled with my identity as a female software developer. I struggled with the notion of femininity in an industry that often feels anything but feminine.

At 19, I donated every floral, flowy piece of clothing I owned and replaced them with video game t-shirts, jeans and American Apparel hoodies. For some reason, I believed that my identity as a “super serious Computer Science major” and the more (stereotypically) feminine pieces in my wardrobe were incompatible. I needed to choose an identity, and ultra “feminine” didn’t seem to fit. After 18 years of dance training, I stopped cold-turkey, convinced that “super serious Computer Science students” didn’t waste time on contemporary dance when they could be building PCs instead. I stopped wearing make-up (something I had once loved, trained at part-time, and secretly ran a successful Youtube tutorial channel on) because I felt I would be perceived as superficial and flighty. In a classroom of 40 students, of which 37 were men, wearing eyeliner and a floral blouse made me acutely aware of my gender.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love the video game t-shirts I wore; I did. They were all games I was passionate about, that I had played (and beaten), and that I had stumbled across at either a Hot Topic or ThinkGeek. In retrospect, what concerns me was that I saw “femininity” and “tech” as mutually exclusive. It was as though every negative experience I had as a woman in this industry compounded into the fundamental belief that in order to be taken seriously, I needed to broadcast my knowledge of the subject matter across my chest. If I wasn’t wearing hoodies and nerdy t-shirts, would anyone actually know that I belonged?

Instead of feeling secure in my knowledge of my identity, I cared (far too much) that others also understood that identity. For months I wouldn’t enter a video game or computer store in anything other than a ThinkGeek t-shirt. I did this to avoid the dreaded, “Are you shopping for your boyfriend/brother/dad?”.

It worked. The t-shirt may as well have been a giant neon sign exclaiming, “Look! I belong here! I’m part of your world! I like the same things; I make the same jokes!”

I struggled with this throughout the 4 years of my Computer Science degree, and even into my mid-twenties while working full-time as a software developer. Unfortunately, I’ve realized that this isn’t uncommon for many women and men who don’t fit the programmer archetype.

It wasn’t until I reached my late twenties — jaded and somewhat more indifferent to the opinions of strangers — that I stopped avoiding the lifestyle choices I perceived to be incongruent with my chosen career. I recognized that others’ misconceptions and false stereotypes of women in our industry shouldn’t be the primary motivator for my decisions. In fact, by bowing to that pressure and attempting to avoid their misjudgements I was contributing to the stereotype.

Recently, an incredibly well-respected and talented woman in the cybersecurity community (@malwareunicorn) started a website called “VanitySec”. This website, described as “the intersection of security and fashion” features a number of articles on beauty and fashion by women in the infosec industry.

I can’t help but recognize how a site like this (and role models like the authors of VanitySec) would have inspired and encouraged me to embrace my stereotypically feminine interests.

I likely would have realized much sooner that there is no “Software Engineer” persona; there are stereotypes and public misconceptions, but these aren’t fact and they shouldn’t limit your decisions. The more individuals we have with varied interests in this industry, the more likely we are to develop technical solutions to a larger variety of problems.

tldr;

“Recognize and embrace your uniqueness. I don’t think the ratios are going to change anytime soon. But, I don’t think it has to be a disadvantage. Being a Black woman, being a woman in general, on a team of all men, means that you are going to have a unique voice. It’s important to embrace that.” - Erin Teague, Director of Product at Yahoo; quote from SkillCrush

*This story was originally posted on January 19th, 2018 at *http://blog.chmodxx.net/darling-you-can-be-both/