This morning, I got an e-mail from my coding bootcamp asking if I would like to be part of a promotional video. Since I didn’t have any grandiose plans for the afternoon, I said yes, and headed out to catch the 2:30 train to downtown.
It turned out to be one of those deals where you sit in a chair and answer questions interview-style, which I didn’t mind. There was a brief moment of concern when the lighting setup resulted in a shiny spot on my forehead, which the videographer insisted be dealt with. Initially I had thought he was talking about my cheeks, which were dusted with glitter thanks to my severe underestimation of both the amount of shimmer in my eyeshadow and the amount of powder fallout it would have–not having had enough time to re-do my whole face, I went with it and declared glitter cheeks to be very “in” and “now”. But no, it was my forehead, in a tiny spot I’d missed with my setting powder. Oops. Blotting papers were found and we were good to go, anyway.
Remember this aside about my makeup. I’ll get back to it later, I promise.
The bootcamp I went to, We Can Code IT, has a focus on improving diversity in the tech community. I don’t remember all of the questions for the interview, but they were along the lines of things like, “what made you decide to try bootcamp” and “how did you feel about your career before bootcamp and how do you feel about it now”. Pretty standard stuff, but I was invited to share how I felt about these things “as a woman”.
I’m sure some of you reading this are already scoffing at that. Truthfully, my immediate reaction was also “how about I just answer the questions, I don’t really need to point out how female I am.” After the first few questions, though, I thought about it again, and realized that being a woman has impacted how I feel about some things. My first year at Cleveland State, in German class, my friend Lizz and I were chatting when our instructor, Carol, came over. We all got to talking, when all of a sudden, Carol looked at us, and dropped this bomb:
“You know, you two are very pretty. I’m glad you’re smart.”
There was a pause, and Carol tried to clarify what she’d just said. “What I mean is–both of you are very striking. You’re good-looking. But you’re also not afraid to be smart. When you don’t know something, or when you get something wrong, you admit it, and when you do know something, you speak up. You’re both smart enough to know that you’re pretty, too, but you know your looks are a bonus, not a crutch. I’ve been teaching for a long time, and there are so many girls who won’t raise their hand in class, and there are so many girls who act cute and ditzy to try and play down when they don’t know an answer, or say ‘oh well, at least I’m pretty’ when they get something wrong–it makes me sad. Because they’re all smart girls, too, but they think they can’t be smart in public.”
That moment has stuck with me. It’s stuck with me because as a kid, I was bullied for being an awkward, shy, poorly-dressed smart girl with terrible skin, bitten-down nails and a bad haircut. (Honestly, being smart was probably the least of my worries, but the meanies toned it down a bit if I didn’t draw attention to myself in class.) In ninth grade, I transferred to a private high school with uniforms, got a haircut, saw a dermatologist and grew into my own brand of “pretty” as I re-learned how to raise my hand in class. That experience has stuck with me, too–as an adult, I am very conscious of how I present myself to the world, and I’ve developed a pretty feminine look. I wear a lot of black, yes, but I usually wear makeup, I (try to) take care of my hair, and I make sure my clothing is in good repair. What’s more–I am okay with this. Being concerned with my appearance in no way effects my intelligence or ability. I am 100% sure that I can be pretty and smart.
Back to the video and the interview questions. Thinking about what it mean to answer “as a woman”, I thought about my makeup and the amount of serum in my hair, which I had pulled back because it still wasn’t really cooperating. I also thought about the other side of my wearing lipstick and slicking down my hair, which is that sometimes, it feels like a liability. I have a few “masculine” hobbies: firearms, cars–and, yes, computers. Sometimes, being female makes it seem like those hobbies aren’t really for me. I don’t like walking into the auto parts store alone because the teenage boy behind the counter is so quick to assume I need help, and I usually have to ask for the ammunition case at Wal-Mart to be unlocked, even when the associate is standing two feet away from me and it is obvious I want to make a purchase. The kicker? Even using an alias that starts with the words “Queen Of”, people constantly assume I’m a guy on the internet. I’m aware that my femininity can get me disregarded in some circles, and technology seems to be one of them. It sometimes seem as though the message is this: as a woman, I must be too emotional and too easily distracted to solve complex problems. My drive to nurture friendships and soothe over conflict must mean I lack the logic necessary for computer science. Caring about my appearance means that I am incapable of looking past the surface of things. My femininity is a barrier to the mindset needed for programming, and it must be overcome. Maybe it would be easier to accept me if I could frump down my look a little? Just to prove I’m serious about the whole thing.
Look. I am not, nor do I want to be, Developer Barbie. I just want to write good code and rock winged eyeliner. At the same time. Because one does not negate the other.
“So,” asks my interviewer. “What advice would you give to women who are thinking about bootcamp?”
It takes me a couple of takes to get the answer out, and I’m still not satisfied with it. I was supposed to give short answers, and I think everyone can agree this blog is anything but short. I wish I could have said it better, but what I finally got out was something like this:
“There’s this idea out there that you can only do this if you’re really, really smart, or if you’re really good at math. That it’s all logic, and there’s not room for emotion–but there totally is. If you’re thinking about learning to code, jump in. Try it out. You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of.”
It’s not the best answer. It’s not the most in-depth answer. The thought was there, but I needed time to fully develop it. If I could do it over again, this is how I’d say it:
“There’s this idea out there that you can only do this if you’re really, really smart, or if you’re really good at math. There’s this idea that it’s all logic, and that there’s no room for emotion–but there totally is. It doesn’t matter how feminine you are or what background you come from; trust yourself and trust that you’re capable of making space for yourself at the table. If you’re thinking about learning to code, jump in. Try it out. You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of.”
It’s too bad that ideas like the smart/pretty dichotomy seem to be persistant. Traditionally feminine appearance and/or behavior has no bearing on competency–and, for that matter, traditionally unfeminine appearance and behavior has no bearing on it, either. I would never suggest that all women wear makeup and heels. What I am hoping to suggest, though, is that it’s worth encouraging women to take a shot at anything they may have an interest in, even if (especially if?) they’ve somehow been made to feel as though it “isn’t for them”. There’s a sense of power in carving out a space for yourself, and it’d be a real shame if we didn’t encourage women to try.