From comments: FoolishOwl on those pesky distractions

FoolishOwl commented:

I looked at Gail Carmichael’s blog post, “Quick Thoughts on Pregnancy and Grad School,” and was immediately struck by how the women commenting on it were in general agreement, based on careful thought about the optimal moment to have children. It struck me by contrast with some “how to be a good programmer” essays I’d read lately, written by men, which emphasized the importance of discipline and concentration on programming, and eliminating all distractions from one’s life.

It’s striking me that the emphasis on monomaniacal concentration only works on an implicit assumption of privilege — that important matters other than programming will be handled by someone else.

I find it all too easy to lapse into such an attitude.

At the risk of asking a Feminism 101 question, what’s a better way to balance these things?

Just a note to start: I don’t think this is a feminism 101 question. Feminism 101 questions are more along the lines of “why is feminism important?” or “why does feminism care about this aspect of society?” This kind of question seems to me to be more of a “how do I live in the kyriarchy?” question, which is a different beast altogether.

I don’t have a completely thought out response to FoolishOwl’s question. It’s something that’s come up a lot in discussions of being a woman in academia and many other professions which have some of the following characteristics:

  • substantial time expenditure needed to master the field;
  • emphasis on it being highly preferable to do a substantial amount of legwork in the field at a certain (young) age;
  • work in the field being at least believed to be benefited by sustained, uninterrupted, quiet, focussed workdays; and
  • expectation of at least occasional, and often frequent, long workdays which are sustained, uninterrupted, quiet and focussed.

Some examples that spring to mind other than programming or academia include medicine, which also has the structured training requirement of very long hours, and especially mathematics where the lore about needing to do your best work before age 25 seems to have achieved particular acceptance. (I’m not inside mathematics though, perhaps this is an outsider’s belief.) Academia and, I gather, medicine, both have an additional structural problem for women who want children, which is that they have a period of what is supposed to be very intense work (postdocs, fellowships, specialist training) that tend to fall right across most intending mothers’ preferred (or only possible) reproductive years.

The immediate question that FoolishOwl’s comment made me think of about programming was, how true is this? I know a lot of programmers, and being able and willing to work more than a 35—40 hour week (which I will note is already quite a privileged thing for someone to be able to do) is a decidedly mixed bag. For some it’s brought them further mastery. For many others, it’s brought chronic injury, ongoing mental health problems, or loss of enjoyment. Most of the better programmers I know aim to eliminate distractions from their work hours, not from their life.

Various questions for you all:

  • did you have a “larval phase” in your geekdom of choice, a period of immersion at the expense of other interests? do you think having one was essential, useful, just fun, or a bit of a negative in the end?
  • do you think this sort of mythos is at least partly gatekeeping, ie, not actually necessary to obtain the skills, but put in place to preserve the mystique and the status of those with the skills?
  • what role has privilege played in your ability to be part of geek communities and professions?

And of course, FoolishOwl’s question: “what’s a better way to balance these things?”

Because it’s me, a note: in general I think the conversation will be most interesting if people discuss the intersection between privilege and geek careers here, or give advice from a non-traditional geek point of view. I have a feeling this kind of question will be very appealing to men commenters, because it’s not specifically about women’s lived experience. But please consider if an extensive account of your geek career will add to thoughts about the intersections before leaving one.

49 thoughts on “From comments: FoolishOwl on those pesky distractions

  1. Alexis

    As someone who is on the tail end of CFS having had it for over a decade, who has an array of home and family commitments to attend to, and who doesn’t drive, one of the major issues i’ve been frustrated by is that IT, although providing many of the tools that allows telecommuting and working non-standard hours to happen, seems to too often require physical presence in many situations to a greater extent than i feel is strictly necessary. Particularly in the field of programming (which is where i feel i have the most to offer). The culture in which a 40 hour week is essentially regarded as ‘part-time’ doesn’t help either. :-P

  2. Mel

    Academia is different from programming in that it’s almost impossible to work a 40-hour week. Almost all of the career scientists I know in academia have work (with research usually taking up much less time than teaching, advising, sitting on committees, and going to meetings, much to their chagrin), family, and *maybe* a hobby (often one related to science in some way, like hiking or photography) that takes a distant third place. The “ideal” scientist either doesn’t have a family or leaves the majority of the childrearing to the nonscientist spouse, and has no hobbies…so the “ideal” scientist is usually a man, with an at-home wife.

    Now, I think it’s possible and even desirable to be a scientist with a well-rounded life (although I’m not sure 40-hour weeks are really doable, especially pre-tenure). But that’s not the common perception, and there are a lot of challenges that face scientists who try to have one–especially women, who are many times more likely to be partnered with another scientist with similar concerns, and who almost never have an at-home spouse and hence share a greater percentage of childcare duties on average.

    So: I think this monofocused academic idea is partially gatekeeping, but also partially true–particularly in the early stages of being an academic, putting in more time is really important. And I think that regardless of whether it’s gatekeeping or reality, academic expectations hit women harder, because we are supposed to be simultaneously super-focused AND take on the majority of childrearing if we have kids AND are far less likely to have a nonacademic or even at-home spouse with the time to raise our kids, host our parties, and proofread our papers (once upon a time, TYPING the papers was a common task for professors’ wives).

    And it’s true that most male grad students usually don’t have to worry about this–most of them are not partnered with other grad students or academics, so it’s easier for them to assume their wives will figure out how to make it work. I suspect that male academics who are partnered with other academics do have to think about when to have kids and how to take care of them more–the dual-academic couples with children I know have pretty elaborate systems to take care of their kids and their jobs.

  3. Restructure!

    I think that unfortunately, what puts women at a huge disadvantage compared to men is their (on average) lack of free time. The male culture illustrated here is an example of the common assumption that a man’s time is more important than a woman’s time, and even that a man’s leisure and luxury are more important than a woman’s time. Even when the wife is taking care of the husband’s children, her child-caring activities are again seen as getting in the man’s way and wasting his time.

    I remember my mother, a career woman, coming home from work daily while my father was watching TV, and then she was responsible for cooking us dinner, and then cleaning up everything afterward. When she was younger, she used to love reading books, but she hasn’t read anything in decades, doesn’t watch any TV series, doesn’t have any interests or hobbies. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t have any time. My father also used to mock my mother for being a boring person and not having any hobbies.

    Oh, maybe that’s why I don’t want to get married or have any kids. On average, just getting married adds 7 hours/week of housework to the wife, and saves 1 hour/week for the husband.

    Yes, I’ve had several larval stages, and I think they were essential to what interests I had later in life. Definitely, middle class privilege gave me huge advantages over my less class-privileged peers. During high school, I had time to work through my daily math homework until late at night, while the student next to me had to work the night shift to support her family. She failed the math class, or barely passed.

  4. Sara

    I wish I knew — I gave up my academic career when I was told, at age 21, that I could have kids before I was thirty or not at all, given medical problems. I finished my M.A. and got a job and had the first kid at 25.

    No, there is no easy resolution. I have two kids now, and much, much less of a career than I could have, and there are days when that’s a good trade and days when it’s not.

    On the other hand, the total lack of lengthy workdays in my life now — it’s a big treat if I get eight hours of uninterrupted worktime once or twice a month, and often requires coordinating multiple adult members of the immediate and extended household — has, I think, improved my ability to work through chaos and capitalize on the limited time do I have. I can do more in a half-day now than I used to do in a full day, pre-kids. And the women I know understand that, but a lot of the men I run into? They seem to have a lot of trouble taking my abilities seriously.

  5. Brenda

    it’s very difficult to “succeed” (at least in my definition of succeed) in tech without doing things outside work. User groups – open source contributions – hackfests – attending talks by visiting experts – reading blogs, forums and/or mailing lists… it’s all a form of networking as well as training.

    When choosing people for work projects, or in job interviews, i have tended to pick people who i know actually enjoy tech outside day job, over someone turns up at 8am and then leaves at 5pm and never touches a keyboard again until the next work day. Likewise I pick people who i have seen/meet before on industry events over someone who only has a description on their CV to go by.

    Good programmers are well paid – this is one reason why.

    It is unfair too – because the reason someone is an 8 to 5er (or less) is sometimes outside their control (afaik) – and also worth remembering/noting that some people don’t fit in these models. There are really good programmers who work less than 40 hours, but by and large I see their skillsets stagnate quickly. But what’s the solution? scheduling time for “tech blog reading” on company time?

    1. Mary Post author

      Something I’ve often wondered about is how on earth people who are expected to spend 60+ hours a week at their programming job (and it’s not an unheard of requirement) manage the mental and physical workload of also satisfying the “has lots of tech-related hobbies” expectation before adding care responsibilities, health requirements or fun into their lives.

      1. Brenda

        The answer (for me) is — i love doing it. My job is fun. i get to write code and build things. it’s not a 60hour chore.

        1. Brenda

          (and worth noting, i’m lucky enough to have the energy and time to do such – there’s one of my privileges)

        2. Melissa

          Not to mention having a partner who is willing to take on non-traditional tasks to enable you to do that. I recall mum needing to wait until I was old enough to cook before she could take on courses and stuff. Dad knows how to cook — just refuses to, or refuses to do it right.

    2. Skud

      I will admit that I do my tech blog/mailing list reading on work time. If there’s an expectation that I keep up with what’s going on in my field, then that’s part of my job, and counts as work.

      1. Elaine

        I tend to take that point of view as well: other professionals attend classes or subscribe to magazines in their fields, this (blogging, email lists, etc.) is my professional development. It just happens not to cost my employer not much other than a bit of my time!

        1. Shiny

          The key difference is motivation. I doubt scheduling “you will
          read tech blogs 3 hours a week” will fulfill this. People need to be self motivated to do this. A certain level of enthusiasm in technology is needed.

          Is there some way to judge this from an interview when the applicant is also tied up so much in the evening with “family” tasks that they’ll never attend a tech talk after hours, and hasn’t had time for blogs or mailing lists for years.

  6. Brenda

    @Melissa – it think that cuts to the issue quite well — i have a partner willing to do some of the cooking — the question is, Why is that still so damn rare in 2009? It’s like feminism never happened.

  7. Skud

    I’ve been through several larval phases (living and breathing tech for weeks at a time) and on the whole I’ve found them incredibly useful for developing my knowledge/skills. I don’t think I’d be where I am now without having done that.

    One thing I regret about my current job, which requires a lot of social interaction, is that I can feel my tech skills atrophying because I can’t get a good long stretch (say, an 80 hour week) to immerse myself in a single technology. Last time I had that kind of time available (2007) I had quit my job and was taking a few months off before starting a new one. It’s not often I get chances like that.

    Yes, my reasonably privileged background definitely gave me the space for my early larval phases (age 11, learning BASIC on our C64; age 16, in the computer labs at my private school) and no doubt had an impact on my opportunities later. I’m also lucky(?) in that I’m not interested in marrying or having kids (I don’t even have pets or houseplants) so I’m free to travel, spend lots of social time with other geeks, work when I want and where I want, leave the dishes to pile up, etc.

    On the other hand, when I’ve had a geeky SO who works in a related field (as I have had from time to time) I’ve found it pretty inspiring/motivating to have someone around to hack with, ask (or be asked) for technical opinions, pull all-nighters together on a project, etc.

    The worst, for me, was when I had a non-geeky (or rather, differently geeky) SO who didn’t like me spending time on the laptop when we were together. For me, laptop time can definitely be social time, but for her, not so much. To be honest I found it kind of like having one hand tied behind my back, and it was one of the contributing factors to us breaking up.

  8. Mary Post author

    Re having a better balance, I think one thing that goes on is that it’s much like parenting advice. Most people haven’t tried parenting fifteen different ways and discovered that many of them had their pluses and minuses. They’ve tried it one way, usually, perhaps two. And they often conclude that either their way had all the answers, or that there were no answers.

    So it is with programming and programming careers. People are writing about what they know. A lot of people got into them young and in a position of privilege that resulted in a lot of free time. They thus conclude that the way to get into it is to be young and have a lot of free time. So my suggestion would be to actively seek mentors or at least examples from people who have a life more like the one you have, or want to have. What kind of jobs do they have or skills do they have that fit into say, spending weekends with their family, or fulfilling their caring responsibilities, or not exhausting with their limited spoon supply, or even giving them enough spare time to get stuck into some FOSS coding?

    IT careers are good in way in that they don’t have the rigid structural progression requirements of, say, academia or medicine as mentioned in the post.

  9. Jacinta Reid

    I am in the process of becoming an IT professional, so cannot speak about my formative experiences in past tense, but only regale you with my anecdotal experience and tentative opinion:

    After over a decade of being a good wife to my chronically ill husband while he studied, we agreed it would be wise for me to commence a course of study so that I would be able to support our children relatively comfortably if he died. A few days later, he announced that he had enrolled in yet another a full time course. He was astounded that I was upset.

    It was, he said, outrageously unfair and inhumane to ask *him* to cook and clean and shop and manage the house while I studied, but he was as capable as anyone so, for the sake of my sanity, I insisted. I did complete an IT diploma and had commenced the ensuing degree when my husband died as a complication of surgery.

    I have to believe that it is possible to become a competent information technology professional without monastic-style isolation and focus, because I just don’t have that option. I am completing my degree whilst raising three children under 12. I may well continue into further study if full time work is scarce. I love to learn and I crave to be good at what I do. But there is no support crew there to step in and see that that important matters other than programming are done while I “go larval”.

    I have to organise time in which I can focus on learning, coding and problem solving, and I have to be calm if that time is unexpectedly reallocated to higher or more urgent priorities. (A side effect is that my three daughters are learning to code in python. It turns out that I can comfort an upset child and watch a video lecture at the same time.)

    I have the privilege of living in a society where I can get adequate social security benefits while studying to make it possible for me to do so. I am also able bodied and healthy, so far. Also, I’m white. But as well as being bright, I do have a minor learning difficulty which was only identified while I was doing diploma, so I’m not sure what that does to my privilege on that front. (I’m still trying to figure out the ramifications.)

    I expect that this is much the same experience I would be having if I were male and my wife had passed away, except that a man *might* get more leeway on lax grooming, forgotten social niceties and housekeeping. He would almost certainly be seen as more heroic for raising three children alone, and not be judged to be as selfish for studying, and not seen as eccentric for studying IT.

    1. Rachel

      Excellent topic for discussion, and one that I have struggled with myself. I have found that what works well for me is to work part-time in IT, and part-time “at-home” raising my family.
      I have 2 small children (6 and 10) , and though my husband is good about sharing some of the household chores, it is definitely not a 50-50 split. The vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, childcare, driving my kids to their activities, etc. still falls to me. It would be hard to imagine working a straight 8-5 40 hour week, and still managing to fulfill all my responsibilities. One thing I do have to say though, is that it is hard to find a part-time job in IT. The whole male culture of the high-tech industry, plus the fact that the jobs are so demanding, does not seem to encourage part-time work. When I did try to get back into IT, after being at home for a few years, the recruiters I talked to were extremely discouraging. Most of them told me I’d never find a part-time job in the fields I was looking in. ( Unix system administration/QA). I was motivated to prove them wrong, and I did finally find a part-time job at a small company (25 hours/week) by networking on my own.
      Though I was proud of myself for finding a job on my own, that experience made me realize once again how isolating and difficult it is to work as a female in the IT industry. I think that one way to interest more women to work in IT, and to keep them interested in it after they have children, is to make companies aware that part-time and telecommuting options are a very viable option.

  10. katie

    As a 31-year-old 3rd year theoretical physics undergrad, I just wanted to say that IMO the (widely held among mathematicians, I believe) idea that mathematical skills atrophy after age 25 is a load of tosh.

    1. Jacinta Reid

      Hear hear!

      I’m learning and using maths concepts far more effectively aged 40 than I ever did in high school.

  11. Beth

    1) I do think that having a slightly-obsessive approach to data acquisition is helpful for a lot of geeky pursuits. There’s a ton of information in various written formats, and a lot of facts that it is helpful to be exposed to. In my case, I typically go on two-week information binges when I discover something new and interesting, consuming at much of it as possible. Other people I know simply queue up subjects that look interesting, or get together and talk with someone who already knows the topic. I think it may be because so much of the education available around geeky topics doesn’t necessarily cover the information needed for geeky jobs, it helps a lot if you have an independent method to learn about those topics. That same curiosity can also be part of the drive when writing code at least; you are seeking out an answer and solving a puzzle. Without curiosity, or even just wanting to see how it turns out, I suspect this job would get boring quickly.

    2) I think a lot of the mythos is gatekeeping, and it’s gatekeeping that specifically hits women harder than men. I work from 9 to 5, and then I go home and do other things. That I ever look at code outside of 9-5 makes me nerdier than 85% of people I work with. When I was becoming a programmer I was told not to do it unless I “lost” myself and forgot meals because I was coding, not to do it unless the passion I had was all-consuming, unless I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I got the same advice about acting, but in acting there are hundreds of people for each potential job. You have to deal with possibly hundreds of rejections a year. You don’t get to do pretty much anything else, except work a second job to support you while dealing with those 100s of rejections. Programming isn’t like that, in any way shape or form. There is this mythos, but I tend to believe it to be anxiety-driven, a guard against people not-like-the-people-already-here, a fear that the job really isn’t that hard, and that a lot more people could do it than do. The sentiment of “they pay me to do this!?!!” is relatively common, and I think there is a fear that people who aren’t in love with it would take that opportunity away, or at least cut how much they are willing to pay us to do something we’d probably do for fun anyway. The people I know who are the best programmers, and especially the best team programmers, all do things besides programming. They think about economics, community-building, culture, art, aesthetics, game theory or any of a number of other fields that make them better programmers.

    3) I know that the only reason I even tried CS was because of a privileged childhood. I probably would not have become a programmer except that one of my parent was. I figured out html on my own, but there was no point in my life where I can say, “without a programming parent I would have discovered that “programmer’ was a potential career.” I grew up with computers in the house, and listening to conversations about garbage collection and design patterns. In college I needed to boost my GPA and discovered computer classes didn’t involve writing essays. If I hadn’t grown up in a computer-rich environment I might never have had that moment when I realized that I am really good at this. Even growing up in that environment, I hadn’t seriously considered becoming a programmer and certainly hadn’t discovered that I loved programming (even though looking back I programmed in a bunch of the kids games I grew up playing). Once I was out of school, I got my first job by networking through people who had gone to my small, elitist liberal arts school, despite not having the background they would normally have been looking for, which I’m sure my race/class/cis/able/gender-presentation privilege helped with.

    In addition, I went to an all-woman’s college. I think the most important thing all-women’s colleges teach women is a sense of entitlement. I succeeded in breaking into the field without a related degree by putting myself out there, and believing I deserved the job. I have won respect from some people at the job by expecting to get it, despite my age/gender/inexperience. I work in an environment where I am usually the only woman in the room, and that I have thrived here is a product of privilege both innate and consciously cultivated.

  12. Carla Schroder

    Great stories everyone. I think that not being into men has saved me an awful lot of stupid battles and distractions.

    When you’re single you can live in messy chaos and dine on junk food and immerse yourself as much as you like in your chosen endeavor. When you have a family that incurs a set of obligations that you neglect at your peril.

    I’ve been a workaholic pretty much all my life. I love my work and tend to over-commit myself. But that is unfair to family, and it also shortchanges me. Currently I have a full-time job and I am writing another book, so I have two full-time jobs. If I could not work from home I would not do this. Working at home is not the same as not working, but I have more time with my gf, and don’t waste hours of my life on commutes. I follow a strict schedule; when the clock strikes I stop working no matter how much I want to keep going. Because over the long run that is more efficient and productive; I don’t get over-tired or burned out. And this is the last book for awhile. We need some serious recreational time together. I don’t want my epitaph to read “Why did I spend so much time working.”

    Having multiple interests makes me better at my profession– it’s easy to get tunnel vision and lose sight of “real people”. That is, people who don’t share my enthusiasms but who are affected by my work. I think this applies to everyone.

    I don’t believe that the obsessive no-distraction model is all that effective, except maybe at certain periods of our lives when our brains seem to want this. These can be fantastically productive times, but as a lifestyle I don’t believe it is sustainable or healthy. Sometimes it is more of an avoidance, a way to dodge facing family or other problems.

  13. jemimah ruhala

    Larval mode… it’s like crack to me. I feel like my brain is rotting if I go too long without it. I chose IT as a career because I can go into deep hack mode and not get fired for it. Happiness is solving puzzles and creating technology. I’d instantly reject any person who’d attempt to dump loads of tedious responsibility on me. Yes this means I have to tolerate a messy house, but so what. Yes this means I say no to most social obligations, but the world still manages to function without me.

  14. Gail Carmichael

    Really nice to see some good conversation started over my post. I know this topic was something that everyone in our school’s WISE group was interested in talking about, and it’s clearly something that we are concerned about in general. I’ve really enjoyed reading the different perspectives here; thanks!

  15. Restructure!

    More on this: Men’s dirty secret: We’re lazy:

    Even when they help, men are content to let women manage the housework. It keeps their brains free for other things


    It turns out that part of what made me [a husband] shirk housework hits the lazy-husband stereotype right on the head: I thought every spare hour I could get a hold of should be devoted to my career. This isn’t unusual for working women, either, but Dr. Coleman points out that the housework still has to be done by someone; and as a man, there were no “identity costs” for me if it didn’t get done.


    My ex once told me she felt it wasn’t fair that she had to take up precious space in her brain keeping track of what was in the fridge. Since I never used my brain for this, it was allowed to be a sponge for more interesting things and thus develop more of its creative abilities, she said.

    In the age of neuroplasticity – the idea that our brains physically change to reflect our experiences – I thought this was a pretty brainy conclusion on her part. My avoidant tendencies may have been single-handedly stunting her capacity to become a careerist woman – alas, it turns out the personal is political.

    Yes, I have an anti-marriage bias, and this article supports my prejudice.

    However, if you are already married or have children, I don’t want to discourage you or suggest that you are making yourself stupider. Obviously, this applies to only different-sex married couples, and different-sex married couples with traditional gender roles. The point is to not try to be a super-woman or super-mom who does everything, but to offload the work on to your partner.

    I find that it helps to refer to my relationship to my significant other using gender-neutral terminology, so that my relationship with him is not tied to a gender identity.

    1. FoolishOwl

      Speaking for my self, this is so clearly a mistake I’ve been making that it’s almost eerie to read this.

      That is, I believe that by long-established habit, when there are household tasks to be divvied up, I cherry-pick the tasks that take the least “brainspace.” So, I’ll do the laundry, wash the dishes, go to the grocery store, etc., but not plan the meals or take charge of organizing my stepson’s high school applications. So while on one hand, it may seem that I’m spending just as much time attending to the family’s needs, I’m washing the dishes while thinking about a homework assignment, while my partner is going through high school open house dates with my stepson, and not thinking about her grad school application plans.

      In detail, it was obvious that there was a problem, but I hadn’t recognized the pattern. So, thank you.

      In childhood, I realized at some point that doing homework was the ideal get-out-of-chores-free card. Things get blurrier with extracurricular activities, extra credit, and so on — I could easily make them sound more critical than they actually were. It may have been justifiable self-defense at the time, but it was also a trick that I could get away with, that my sister couldn’t seem to get away with, and it was a bad precedent.

      The immediate cause for my original question was that I had spent one evening home alone with my younger stepson. I made dinner for him rather perfunctorily, then went back to studying, and he was upset that I didn’t watch TV with him. My partner always makes the time for him.

  16. Heath

    Part of what attracted me to technology is that logic structures & algorithmic decision-making is something that I do by default. I have two learning disabilities that make life very different for me. My instincts don’t work properly, so I had to develop actual theories & decision-trees about human behavior & the physical world by logic and observation. After I tried it I realized that writing a program was something I did every day because I needed that kind of thinking to function. I love tech and I would never leave it, but at this point I am planning on making a career of small application sales – the iPhone apps are an area I’m looking into – instead of a traditional workweek. Because there isn’t really anyway to balance a traditional career with traditional roles, some things just have to give and I’m not willing to do that to any children I might have.

    I started learning tech later than many other people my age, and so I do feel a little behind. However, that is mostly internal perception. I know that many other students learn less than I do, and in tech there is a big focus on learning when you need it.

    I do have larval phases, but that is a side effect of how I have larval stages for everything in life, not anything innate about tech. The idea of programming-is-hard is definitely gatekeeping, and I was kept out until I fell in love with a particular major at my university and was forced to take programming. It really is much easier than people think, and the Asian markets show us that programming is something many more people can do than American programmers might want to admit. The larval-phase is sometimes more of an issue, because I am not always interested in things that are useful, and also because it makes a person short-sighted to be so focused on one thing. I try to take a longer time learning things so that I can get at all the implications and so that my understanding is not just shallow like many of the male geeks I see who know how to write some code but do not know what languages are suited to certain tasks or anything about interfaces or clean code or good commenting.

    I do not take part in the geek communities much, because they are usually repellent. As a woman I am not taken seriously. The male geeks (90%) are often not expecting someone who doesn’t share their groupthink, and are more interested in large guns than artistic or well-designed systems. I do read science fiction, role-play and do other geeky things if they interest me, but I do not go out of my way to socialize with geeks. The geek communities I have wandered into are not very welcoming at all towards people who are even slightly different, so I usually wander out. I do miss talking with people who share my hobbies, but I have other groups of friends and I spend a lot of time with businesspeople, so I do not think my networking is suffering for this.

  17. jemimah ruhala

    It seems odd to me to make this an issue of privilege rather than an issue of opportunity cost.

    My question is, if “men are content to let women manage the housework” why are women content to do it? [I admit that I missed feminism 101, and that I’m a libertarian]. This philosophy does result in a “race to the bottom” between me and my husband occasionally, but I’d rather have my friends and family think I’m a lazy slob, than to harbor resentment for my husband. If you have a lower tolerance for disorder than your partner, why make the assumption that your partner is the one with the flawed perspective?

    Surely if this were an insurmountable obstacle for women in general we’d have no female doctors, lawyers, consultants, professional athletes, or anything time consuming. I think most people who make enough money, outsource their domestic logistical work. It’s a mistake to try to do everything and be everything to everybody. Find the thing that makes you the happiest and concentrate your efforts there.

    1. Brenda

      @Jemimah i’ve not been in that situation, but i can imagine that, there’s a “point of no return” in some relationship (real or imagined) – usually involving finances and children – after which this can start occuring.

      Cultures vary across the world, but here in New Zealand there isn’t much pressure on men to make sure the house is clean. In fact there’s insulting words for men who do more than their share of the housework.

      There’s a lot in english speaking media that portrays men as slobs, and women as tidy, and people just fall into those roles. There isn’t that cultural pressure for men to get those dirty socks off the floor and into a wash cycle.

    2. Mary Post author

      The kind of privileges I was thinking of when writing the post were along the lines of “I learned to program during all my free time at university”, which is pretty much my situation and that of a lot of my acquaintances. We were free from, among other things, care-taking responsibilities, long work hours, health issues requiring regular attention or causing chronic low energy states. We largely had a room of our own and a personal computer and Internet connections were within even our student ‘poverty’ budgets. It’s possible to learn computing skills without all those things and many people do, but removing each one would make it harder and less possible to pursue multiple skills/desires simultaneously.

  18. Meg Thornton

    I think I came into tech support via the side door, as it were. Most of the women in my extended family are or were nurses (both grandmothers, my mother, her sister, her brother’s wife, one of my female cousins), and so there was a strong familial association between being female and being involved in a care-giving profession. I was unusual in that I’d decided early on not to become a nurse, even though I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to be.

    I didn’t realise I was a geek until my current partner pointed it out to me fairly early on in our relationship. Before then, I’d been the one to get the most actual use out of the first computer my family purchased (ostensibly for my younger brother). I was the one who used it to type up my university essays, and I was the one who decided to teach myself the rudiments of programming in BASIC (by attempting to turn a “choose your own adventure” book into a computer program). I was also the one who got so inspired that she saved up to purchase her own computer as soon as she got a chance. I didn’t think it was strange that I never really had computer problems – or that if I did, I could figure out what to do about them and fix them.

    I got my first real explanation of programming when I was doing a diploma in IT (I was one of two women in a class of approximately thirty) and I found I was reasonably good at it – I appear to have the right kind of mind for it. But it was never something I felt passionate about (although I found I was much keener on database design than on straight programming). As such, while programming could have been a career option for me, it wasn’t one I considered seriously at the time – better to leave it for people who were passionate about it. It wasn’t until I got my first actual IT support role that I discovered where my skills actually lay: I can troubleshoot, analyse problems, extrapolate, and explain technology to people who don’t know the first thing about it in terms they can understand. I’m also skilled with customer contact (the after-effects of ten years working retail). Oddly enough, these don’t seem to be highly valued skills in the IT industry. Plus, I enjoy the warm and fuzzy feeling I get from having helped someone. For me, tech support is a rewarding profession – it’s nursing for technology.

    In addition, I suppose I should point out I’m fundamentally lazy. This is why I’ll tend to be the person on a helpdesk who’ll write up templates for the most common jobs (so I don’t have to type the same things a bazillion times a day); or write up the FAQ about a problem (so I don’t get constantly asked “how do you fix X?”). This laziness is probably why I’m not in programming – I dislike reinventing the wheel, particularly when it appears the one I’m working on isn’t actually needed. I can think of better things to do with my time – like writing, or reading, or futzing about on the ‘net. The aspect of IT I’m really interested in is Information Management – how do we take all this data we’ve accumulated, and make it into information which is readily accessible? What’s the best tool for doing this? Do we need to spend a gallumph of money on something proprietary, or is there something already out there which will do the job? How do we get the information to the people who need it in a format they can understand in the timeframe they require? Things like this are interesting.

    1. crystalsinger

      Wow Meg, I think you and I might actually be the same person. Spooky.

      Gonna go & read your/my/our blog now… ;-)

  19. lsblakk

    I love this topic and I think about it all the time. As a relative late-comer to an industry crammed full of 20-something men, as a 34 year old woman I feel like I’m trying to catch-up to my male counterparts who have been doing this for at least the 10 years required for mastery of an area, if not longer. Here I am, still learning, still breaking things on a daily basis, and people either think I am younger than I am or perhaps they think I’m stupid. I try not to beat myself up for being so new, and I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to focus and to continue my learning.

    Definitely being queer, single, and newly well-paid are helping me create an environment where I can strive for those “ideal” work days with long, uninterrupted hours or productive coding. Thing is, after years of doing very physical odd jobs, childcare, and kitchen work, my body can’t handle sitting still for long stretches. So even as a newcomer, someone who should be eagerly putting in more time to prove their commitment to a project, I have limitations. And then for outside of work tech interests – where’s the time? When I spend all day busting my brain and trying to pull my weight with my team at work (where I am the most junior member) I find that by 6 or 7pm I am fried and can’t always find the energy to jump right into a non-work related project. That being said, I am an artist as well as a geek so I do make the extra effort to produce creative work as much as I can within the confines of the 24 hour day.

    I have observed the romanticized stereotype of the male scientist with non-scientist partner. It makes me think of the movie Kinsey, where the wife is support staff for all his big dreams and undertakings. In a recent relationship, I realized that this concept doesn’t work so well for me because a) there’s not really a queer version of this dynamic being modeled and b) having a partner who is not also chasing their dreams to the fullest extent is incredibly boring. So that leaves having partnerships where both people are busy, driven, and engaged in their geekery of choice. This makes it harder (though not impossible) to factor in children, owning property, playing sports, growing food, having a social and culture life. I feel like so many women I know are these superheroes who are trying to save their corner of the world and then also have to find the energy reserves needed in order to juggle all the other important areas their lives outside of work.

    Is the point of life to spend your whole time trying to attain balance? I really hope that it’s not. I really hope that there will come a day where all those elements will be factored in, get their proper attentions, and that life will be mostly about continuing to learn new things without feeling some kind of pressure to “keep up”.

    1. Liz Henry

      I feel quite a lot of what you describe as far as being stressed, always feeling a bit more amateur than i should, and so on!

  20. Q

    Messy houses can be mitigated by hiring other people to clean them. This helps keep the peace between me and my SO.

    Edit by Mary: no more comments in this subthread about domestic labour please. This thread has taken over the discussion, and cleaning responsibilities aren’t the only issue facing women who want to intensively study a skill. Also, the intersection of gender, class, race and disability here is strong and the thread has angered people for insufficient attention to the intersection.

    1. Restructure!

      This is another example of class privilege, and there is nothing feminist about it. Instead of sharing the housework equally with your SO, you offload your burdens on to women who have fewer choices than you.

      It also reminds me of white feminism.

      1. FoolishOwl

        One of the things I’ve noticed about the middle-class opposite-sex couples I know, in which both partners have professional careers, is that a) nearly all of them make use of nannies, housecleaners, etc., and b) within the couple, it’s still usually the case that the woman is supervising and coordinating anyone hired to do domestic tasks, and taking charge of any remaining tasks.

        Our kids go to a private school with a very generous sliding-scale tuition system, and a surprisingly progressive curriculum, which means that our kids go to a school with fellow students from families that are generally much richer than ours. One thing that nags at us is that we expect our kids to participate in housecleaning, but their peers frequently aren’t so expected. That tends to reinforce the mental/manual labor hierarchy, and I also worry about people being disconnected from the immediate consequences of their actions in that way.

      2. Skud

        I wonder about this myself. I’m in a different situation because I’m not partnered, but I am considering getting a cleaner, and (since I’m in San Francisco) that cleaner will most likely be a Latina immigrant.

        In the past, like lauredhel elsewhere in this thread, I have had cleaners who are not immigrants: a friend’s (white, female) partner who was putting herself through art school, an (white, female) ex-roomie who was studying to be a registered massage therapist and doing various work to support herself, a white man who ran his own business, and a variety of people from an agency (of whom one was an immigrant, and the others a mix of francophone and anglophone white Canadians). Those were in Canada and Australia, both of which have universal health care. I generally paid around $20/hr and provided all the necessary cleaning materials. I also used to have part time jobs doing domestic work (and agricultural work, now I think of it) when I was in school. I’m a middle class white Australian woman.

        Now I’m in the US I’m very much aware of the more marked class and racial aspects of domestic labour, and I’m not quite sure how to navigate them. My gut feeling is that the main thing is to pay fairly and treat people with respect, but I’m interested in any other suggestions people have.

        1. Carla Schroder

          Skud, someone who is looking for work now wants a paycheck now. You’re describing a multi-level issue not an either-or problem. Hire a housekeeper in good conscience; reforming society has bit of a longer time horizon than someone who has bills to pay now.

          I cleaned houses lo so many years ago. I had a good clientele and some people working for me, and did pretty well. The biggest downside was it was boring, my brain felt like it had died. But it allowed me to be independent and learn a lot of useful business skills.

        2. Carla Schroder

          Forgot to mention that housecleaning is good honest labor– there’s nothing demeaning about it. Anyone willing to work hard, be reliable, and do good work is worthy of respect and a fair wage.

      3. Liz Henry

        Yes it is and I don’t like it that the main solution offered for my “liberation” is for me to become an active participant in the oppression and exploitation of other women.

        1. Terri

          Whoa. Hold up.

          I’m a 3rd generation immigrant, and the males in my grandfather’s generation had to work construction jobs because the government stole all they owned. Life for the first gen immigrants was hard, especially with racism abounding even after the end of the second world war.

          Second generation: the kids were malnourished, but thanks to saving and hard work, they were able to get university degrees. No longer in the lowest class.

          My generation: I don’t think any of us even really know what it’s like to be poor the way our grandparents were after the war.

          If a bunch of higher class folk had said “Oh, we can’t pay you stereotypical Asian men to do construction because we’d be oppressing you,” the end of this story would have had us all on welfare and struggling to find jobs. We *need* those lower-skilled jobs for those who are just starting out, those whose credentials aren’t recognized because they come from other countries, those who are still learning the language skills necessary to do other jobs, for those who really *have* been oppressed in the past, like my grandparents… there are lots of reasons one might want one of those jobs and not have a lot of other options.

          So I completely disagree that paying someone to do menial labour is necessarily contributing to their oppression. Even if it’s labour typically associated with their race/sex. If you’re paying a fair wage and not abusing your employee, you’re actually doing quite the opposite by providing them a tool that can help move them and their families into better situations. Pay well, be respectful, and you’re potentially doing a lot of good.

          I’m glad people were willing to hire my immigrant relatives. Those people, plus the hard work my relatives did, really changed the paths of our family’s lives.

    2. Skud

      Terri, that’s true, but there’s also something to be said for alleviating the issues that put immigrants in that situation to start with: better support on arrival, free language classes (and a requirement for employers to provide time off for them, or funding to offset loss of casual wages), recognition of foreign qualifications, etc.

    3. Restructure!


      Whoa, I’m not suggesting that people should discriminate against job applicants who are non-white and hire only white people who already have some money!

      I’m just saying that hiring domestic workers does not solve the underlying problem of housework being considered a woman’s responsibility. Most women in the world, and most women in developed countries, cannot afford to hire someone else to do the housework. I can’t afford it. The problem of gendered division of labour is not solved just because a minority of women are rich enough to hire domestic workers.

      That’s all.

      Racial discrimination in employment is bad and illegal.

      1. Asad

        I think that’s kind of the conflict/point though. If we lived in a world in which it were possible to achieve those things (ungendered labour divisions) by individual economic decisions, then it would be obviously wrong to hire domestic labour.

        In a world in which our individual acts don’t really make much of a difference, how is it worse to avoid hiring domestic labour? I mean, it unemploys someone who needs the job. On what should we then spend the money to fix that person’s problems?

        1. Restructure!

          Hiring domestic help doesn’t solve the core problem of gendered responsibility in a different-sex relationship. Also, most different-sex couples cannot afford that.

          I retract my earlier suggestion that an affluent woman is burdening the domestic worker by hiring her/him. However, the affluent woman is not being progressive or feminist by doing so.

  21. lauredhel

    Restructure!: sometimes, likely most of the time (and I gather exploitation in the domestic cleaning market is pretty much par for the course in North America, where I’m not but where a lot of these conversations assume all participants are); but not always and everywhere. Example. I hire a white able-bodied couple (one man, one woman) to clean my house. They have fair pay, worker’s compensation insurance, comfortable working conditions, and flexible hours; I don’t know the details of the rest of their financial situation, except that they live in a more expensive suburb and drive a much fancier car than I do. They also have infinitely more employment choices than I do. I’m lucky and grateful that my disability pay allows me to hire them, with some penny-pinching – that’s a privilege – but I’m not exactly convinced that it’s an exploitative and antifeminist situation.

    1. FoolishOwl

      That is an excellent post.

      The comments on Tom Waits using domestic work as a metaphor reminds me of a friend who had a favorite Marx quote, a warning against Utopian models, something like, “The recipes of a future society will be created in tomorrow’s kitchens.” (I haven’t been able to find the source.) More directly related to the topic at hand, I had a calculus instructor last semester who would use cooking metaphors to explain concepts, such as describing the process of using integrations by the disc method to determine the volume of a curved solid as being like Chinese cooking, in which you make fine slices.

      The point being, there’s a wealth of concepts in domestic tasks — a great deal of valuable knowledge — and concepts discovered in one field of human endeavor often prove valuable in another.

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