This is a guest post by Fortister, who prefers to remain otherwise anonymous.
This was inspired by a question on Twitter by Dr. Kortney Ziegler: “so much energy focused on women in tech — rightfully so — but for trans men or other non binary gender identities…crickets…”
It is easier now that I look like a guy.
I think of myself as a shapeshifter, and with that comes shifting perspective. I am non-binary identified. I’ve kept my expressive voice and use female pronouns out of political stubbornness, because in this place, at this time, being a woman is exceptional, and I didn’t want to disappear. I spend enough time as the second woman in the room that it would feel like leaving my community to leave that role. Even as a woman, though, it is still easier now that I look like a guy. Masculine privilege is a powerful thing.
In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.
There was a time my long hair and I were assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend or HR rep. Now HR reps walk up to me. I know when it is time for a haircut because people start questioning my tone or dismissing my opinions. There was a time when I wondered how much makeup to wear, and which shirts were too thin. Now my clothes come from Amazon and I dress just like everyone I work with and I wake up fifteen minutes before rolling out the door.
It’s easier now.
The usual downsides of my identity don’t even seem to apply. No one questions my pronouns; after all at times I am the only example of a “woman” in the room. Neither do I feel misgendered as simply “woman”; just being a programmer queers my gender. It is convenient for the men around me to appropriate my presence and ignore the distinction. My boss doesn’t even blink when I get “Sir’ed” at a business dinner.
The women’s bathroom is nearly empty and the women there are unsurprised by my presence. We usually know each others names and at least half them are as grateful for the lack of gender police as I am. I still glance down with a self-deprecating smile, because I don’t want to make anyone any more uncomfortable than we already are.
Just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is easy. So much of my effort has gone to things that have nothing to do with tech. I choose my company for culture and the possibility of being promoted as a woman, even one who looks like a man, instead of for the technical problems that I would like to solve. I don’t move around as much because I would have to establish myself all over again. I’ve wasted countless hours to men who find it easier to ask questions of me than my colleagues, though I value the opportunities to mentor as well. At meetings I’m distracted from the topic at hand when the only other woman is ignored. “What was that?” I ask, interrupting the interrupter, but in the same moment I’ve lost the technical thread in a rush of adrenaline. At technical conferences men ask me what I think about women in tech, or guiltily admit their discomfort with our culture, instead of inquiring about my work. I’ve given up on Hacker News after yet another vicious round of misogyny and had abandoned Slashdot years before, and so my coworkers talk about things I have no energy to seek out for myself. I limit my conferences to ones where I will not be an oddity. (In the rest of the world my masculinity makes me an oddity. Here it is the vestiges of womanhood.)
Instead of spending my weekend hacking open source I spend my weekend figuring out how to defend the notion of my humanity. How to explain, just a little more clearly, why the oblivion of the men around me is harmful and destructive. How to make it about them, so that maybe finally they will care. I’m glad I’m not job hunting; instead of a github I have a portfolio of blog posts I’m too afraid to share (they are all insufficient for the impossible task of changing my world.) When people talk about wanting to only hire the most passionate, the most committed programmers I want to tell them that if I weren’t I would have never made it this far. Merely being a mid-career woman programming is a demonstration of passion the privileged men around me will never have an opportunity to display.
I can smell their fear, the possibility that their mediocrity is merely covered by privilege. When they protest that women aren’t interested, it is with the fear that their house of masculine cards might come toppling down. There is nothing manly about typing, about understanding systems, about communicating with humans and machines to create useful tools. Our work is not white-collar networking and control. It is not blue-collar physical strength. It is not pink-collar emotional labor. It is something new, beyond the gender binary. A huge amount of political work has gone into turning this profession masculine, but that distinction is precarious and some of us seek to actively undermine it. There is nothing masculine about what we do, and so the masculine performances that accompany it are beyond ridiculous. To need pictures of naked women to prove that we are all Straight Men here, we must know it isn’t true. Some of us are so anxious that if we can not use “he” in our job postings and documentation we might, what, forget that we are men?
I have no sympathy; some of us didn’t have this option. If you rely on your profession to validate your gender identity, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as well as acting like an exclusionary jerk.
The capitalists exploit men’s fear of being unmanly, offering them paltry rewards relative to the value they produce in exchange for brutal hours, insulting treatment and the inevitable eventual betrayal of their values. “Do no evil” becomes “evil is hard to define”, and if men admit they care they are considered soft. Organizing for working conditions or caring about missing your children’s childhoods would be womanly, not ruggedly individualistic. When there is any pushback, it is cloaked in the most masculine language possible, of “life hacking”, of seeking time to lift heavy objects or get trashed to cover for the lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in our work-dominated lives. The only alternative to the capitalist-driven workplace is the even-more masculine world of VC and the near-certainty of failure, with egos protected by the knowledge that they are at least not women. They are doing something women cannot do, they assume, rather than doing something no one with any self respect would be willing to do, woman or man.
It is easier because I merely look like a guy. I do not need to protest my manliness, because I know in my womanly education and upbringing I was taught skills that are valuable here. “He” is not as valuable a programmer as “they” are, since “he” is artificially limited. The competence of women is no threat to my self-image; it is patently obvious to me that women can code because I have met good programmers who are women in the spaces where we congregate, reassuring each other of our existence when the people around us deny it. I do not need to believe that I am special, that my profession is exclusionary, in order to feel whole, nor am I willing to write off the millions of potential programmers who have never had the set of happy accidents that led me to the profession. I seek to prove neither my relevance nor masculinity, since I am confident of both. That confidence comes from having to fight for them; it is impossible to know what we are capable of if we never reach our limits.
Men still tell me openly that they think women are better at “that people stuff” than “technical things”, as though their opinion outweighs my experience and citations and as though technical problems were not caused by people. They say that boys are better at math, as though they don’t turn to StackOverflow any time they need an equation. A few brave and very ignorant men suggest that it’s my masculinity that enables me to code. I tell them the best software development class I took was Introduction to Writing Poetry and I am the only one in it who became a programmer. I tell them a story where our insistence on masculinity is bankrupting our profession. I say that there are millions of women who have been driven from the field by the ignorance and sexist behavior of people like them. Each time, I blush in fear at my audacity, but my masculinity protects me. Before the shift, they laughed at my protestations of belonging or mocked my supposed naivete. Now in person the worst they do is walk away or change the subject uncomfortably.
Online, of course, is a different story. I am either assumed male or dismissed, belittled and told to make sandwiches if I make a point to be read female (I use sex here purposefully, for lack of better terminology: online I’ve found read sex more important than identity, voice, tone or gendered behavior. That reading of sex, of course, is fraught.) The area for us shifters is erased; there is no true self for me to show because there is no space in people’s expectations for me. I am presumed to not exist.
Online it’s easy to be a man. It is also deeply uncomfortable; it feels like a lie to erase my other life. However, going out of my way to be read a woman is to cut away a part of myself as well. This is perhaps part of why I keep to the shadows, the private forums, the feminist hideaways. Among the geeky feminists, I have found a story that allows my existence. Things can be more complicated.
Editor’s note: We welcome and encourage guest post submissions from trans women, and from non-binary-identified, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and/or agender people who were coercively assigned male at birth, about their experiences in geeky communities, professions, or subcultures — as well as any other geek feminist or social-justice-related topic. We would love to feature more guest posts about the experience of being gender-non-conforming in tech, from people with a variety of lived experiences.