Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Making while Female

I am a female who makes things. This isn’t really that unusual, but the world sees it as such, and because of that, occasionally it rubs the world the wrong way.

My latest conversation in a random hardware store would ordinarily have gone the way that hundreds of such conversations have gone in my life. I would have recognized that the guy questioning me about what it was that I was buying was frantically trying to buttress his world view that men are superior mechanics/engineers/tool wielders, I would have decided that I didn’t need to be mean, and I would have disengaged in the most non-threatening way possible. He’d get to continue feeling that he was superior, and I’d get to avoid yet another long drawn-out emotionally wearing conversation.

But I didn’t do that this time.

Low threat disengagement is the nice thing to do. It is the safe thing to do (more on that later).

But that day I was done being nice.

I was feeling a bit generally irritated — rubbed pretty damned raw — by the piling on of self-appointed “experts” opining to one another in their echo chamber about the underlying gender differences resulting in the underrepresentation of women in tech in Silicon Valley (of which I am one). These snarky self-satisfied diatribes have recently been brought to the forefront of the public dialogue recently by the now infamous “Google manifesto” in which yet one more young, scientifically lazy “broflake” had let his confirmation bias get the better of him.

So I was in no mood for the conversation in question that will be instantly recognizable to any woman who dares to “make while female” or “code while female” or “game while female”. It is the price we pay for engaging in any number of activities that, for whatever reason, some men seem to think ought to exclude women. It is an old, tired, and highly repetitive conversation.

The opening is often a random male stranger interrupting something I am doing with a comment like: “Wow that is a really nice [tool of some sort you appear to be buying].” This may seem innocuous, but from much experience, I know I must steel myself to respond. Any kind of even vaguely friendly response from me beyond a terse “Yes”, a grunt, or stony silence usually ends up going one of two ways, and I need to be prepared for both.

The first and best way for it to go happens when the guy is a serious tool geek and has recognized a kindred spirit and actually wants to talk with me about features of the tool. This is great. We chat, we talk about techniques, we share a geek bond over the mutual love of making things, and we each go our way feeling great that there are other geeks like us in the world, and I am reassured that yes, indeed, #NotAllMen. Unfortunately, this is a minority of the time. It happens often enough that I do still continue to talk to men I encounter while making things, but it does not happen often enough.

The much more common way this conversation goes results in a series of tests that I am subjected to because the person opening the conversation does not actually want to talk about making things. The conversation is instead about my competence, and its threat to him, and he is responding aggressively to this perceived threat. He has seen a woman doing something that disquiets him, and he needs to do something about it. He may not know why this disquiets him, but he sees a woman exhibiting behaviors, such as buying a specialized tool for making something that would indicate this woman is a member of a “club” that he sees himself as a part of, but in his version, there are no girls in that club.

The opening salvo of this less desirable turn of the conversation is usually in the format of my aggressor taking the tack of, “Let me save you from your ignorance here,” (aka “mansplaining”). Often, I am informed that a tool like that is only “really needed” if you have [insert expertise level here], so I would be better off getting something else. Then there is the Mr. Hyde version of talking about the tool which is equally sexist, and more plainly aggressive. It comes as a, “What are you making with that?” delivered in a tone and manner distinctly pitched to express not-so-polite disbelief and more than a little disdain. (It is important to note how radically different it is from “Wow! What are you making with that?” which is an invitation to talk about making things. The difference in tone is impossible to miss.)

This is the stage where I usually disengage (if I haven’t avoided it entirely by not responding earlier). I mumble something vague, indicating I don’t want to continue the conversation, and we part ways — me irritated, he secure. Secure in his knowledge that yes, indeed, I was another dumb female who had no idea what she was buying, and it was probably for my boyfriend/husband anyway.

But not this time.

This time I decided not to do the nice thing. I decided to keep going. When I, or any woman, dares to do that, the aggressor usually starts the, “But you are not really,” phase of the conversation. This takes the form of a series of declarative statements (sometimes thinly veiled as questions) meant to systematically dismantle the legitimacy of my capability or interest by explaining to me that I’m not a real engineer, or maker, or programmer or gamer. These sentences often start with the, “But you don’t do/know [x],” and is full of, “Well, actually…”s. And this can go on forever. It often ends with me simply giving up at some point, and the aggressor reconfirming what he knew all along: “She isn’t a real geek.”

But I wasn’t going to back out this time.

When on the receiving end of this kind of a “conversation”, one’s options are limited. If you are branded in his mind as the “fake geek girl”, it doesn’t matter whether you bring out the relatively gentle response (“I wore my old one out building our house, so I need an upgrade.”), the slightly heavier weaponry (“I was a teaching assistant at MIT, where I taught hundreds of other mechanical engineers how to use these tools.”) or the completely gratuitous nuclear option (“I was senior engineer in, and director of, a research laboratory in which we used high tech versions of these tools to build cutting edge regenerative fuel cells that we sent to the edge of the stratosphere in record breaking flights.”). It doesn’t matter. The random guy in the hardware store will continue to question your right to be in his club because his world view depends on it. Even if it is just an eff-ing bandsaw.

A woman buying a bandsaw. How could that possibly be threatening? And yet it is.

I had three separate interactions of this kind on three successive days about three unrelated tech subjects in the heart of Silicon Valley last week. Each time — this time — I decided to fight back. I decided to take the time to keep going until I had established that I had more right to be in “his” space than he did. I smiled. I was pleasant. But I did not disengage, I did not back down, and I didn’t pull my punches to make him feel better. I did not let him walk away with his ego wrapped in the comfort of “idiot female” or “what a bitch!” — I stuck it out pleasantly, and factually, and made him deal with my occupation of “his” space.

Yeah, I felt like kind of a jerk. The guys I were talking to might well have thought I was being a jerk: The kind of jerk women are socialized not to be. We are expected to be nice, but nice is a handicap. We are in a world where you are forced into the position of being a jerk simply to make it clear you are a competent female.

When I was reflecting on these interactions, I was thinking about why I usually disengage early in these conversations (apart from the not liking to feel like a jerk). Sure, the conversations are boring and repetitive, but these are not the reason why I have disengaged early from similar conversations in my lifetime. The main reason is threat. I realize that I have fully assimilated that threat and ceased to think about it even as it guides so many of my interactions like these. Disengaging is the safe thing to do.

Margaret Atwood put it so well: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.”

I am acutely aware that men have killed women for far lesser crimes than politely asserting they knew how to use a bandsaw. On December 6th, 1989, when I was a junior studying mechanical engineering at MIT, a mere 5 hour drive away in Montreal, a man entered a classroom at the Ecole Polytechnique engineering program, separated out the men and women and then systematically shot and killed 14 female engineering students “for being feminists” and “taking the place of men” (14 other people including 4 men were shot and survived). These women were killed for just being like me.

This rocked me to my core, and shattered quite a few illusions I had. This was the first time I realized that there were people who didn’t know me, but hated me for who I was and what I represented[1]. I believe it colors my interactions to this day.

Today, I am still astonished when I hear that most people, including most engineers, don’t know about this shooting, or why these women were shot for being engineers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a shooting like this for the vague threat of violence or abuse to shape a tech woman’s actions. The lived experience of women is enough for threat avoidance to creep into the way you manage all of your interactions. If you dare to contradict or correct an aggressor, things can rapidly get contentious. At any moment this stranger you’ve never met before could explode into yelling profanity at you and calling you a bitch because you are daring to buy a nice bandsaw that you have the gall to know how to use.

At any moment, an online comment about women having a right to exist in the maker or gamer space can explode into personal attacks, death threats, rape threats and doxxing. Even just posting something like this runs that risk.

For this to be the lived experience of women, it doesn’t have to be all men, it just has to be enough men. And unfortunately, there are way more than enough of them for me to have encountered many in my lifetime. To put this in perspective, the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by men they knew — current or ex male partners during that same time period was 11,766.

The advice we are given as women: Don’t feed the trolls. Be nice. Don’t contradict. Don’t provoke.

The problem is, this is a formula for ensuring that the dialog will never change. Every single one of those interactions in my lifetime where I didn’t engage, my aggressor left that interaction secure in the knowledge that I “wasn’t really”, and the echo chamber for his internal narrative stayed intact.

This leads to too many in this next generation of young men who believe that their female counterparts “aren’t as technical” and “aren’t serious about their technical careers” because they, too, have learned to play the game of “but you aren’t really”, and in response, too often, we are nice. We de-escalalate. We disengage. We do this because it is too damn exhausting and terrifying to risk “being a jerk” every time it happens.

So I want to retreat. I want to leave this conversation and go make things in my workshop. Because I enjoy it.

I will use my new, really nice, bandsaw, because I bought it for myself, and I know how to use it.

But I will make a silent promise to my daughter and the rest of her generation that I will engage more often when these things happen. I will try to do my part to put cracks into the walls of these echo chambers.

I am a female who makes things.

Join me.

[1] Upon much later reflection, I realized that I had learned something at 20 years old that parents with darker skinned children need to teach their kids much earlier. Clearly I still have more to learn. For a riveting exploration of the threat that black bodies are under constantly, pick up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.