I spent last Thursday and Friday at the jQuery conference here in San Francisco. It was the first time I’d been in such a developer-heavy environment since leaving MIT, and from the second I got in line for registration I could feel myself getting tense.
I’m not what most people expect a programmer to be, and I find myself very uncomfortable in situations where that becomes obvious. At a tech conference a young, sharply dressed female carrying her laptop in a purse instead of a Targus bag is usually interpreted as a designer or project manager instead of an MIT trained engineer with experience in everything from Android to Assembly. I felt both conspicuous and overlooked, neither of which set me at ease.
I’ve gotten used to being a developer in an environment with plenty of other females and tons of non-engineers. My job environment is extremely non tech-y, which makes me feel surprisingly comfortable – I think because that, while I am a very passionate about computers, there are other large parts of me that clash with a traditional programming environment (woman, artist, etc.) and those other parts feel much more accepted in the kind of creative agency atmosphere we have at Hattery.
Now that I was surrounded once again by small groups of chatting, laughing men in tech logo t-shirts I felt like I had everything to prove. (not to insinuate that there weren’t other women there, but like me they were mostly quiet and came alone) I felt like judgement was being passed on me as I was just standing there, and it wasn’t coming out positive. I felt like I had to hold myself at a higher standard than usual, like I was a representative for women everywhere and if I let myself say something naive or acted insecure I was letting my people down. I found myself correcting my posture and sucking in my stomach more than usual too, as if to give those critical eyes less to sneer at.
I took a seat in the large auditorium where all the talks were to be given, and immediately started trying to predict the reactions of the men sitting next to me. Should I try to hide my purse under my chair, or leave it blatantly out in front of my feet? When I pull my MacBook Air out of it, does that make me seem tech-savvy or like a hopeless fangirl? Does the hat decal on the front of it seem clever or cheesy? If I cross my legs in the ‘masculine’ fashion, as I am wont to do, does that make me seem confident or butch?
Of course, I do realize that the men around me were probably focusing on the talks or their own lives and possibly didn’t even notice my purse, my computer, or how I crossed my legs. I realize this, I realized this in the moment it is happening, but it doesn’t stop the all-consuming pressure to do the right thing, to be completely irreproachable so as to avoid being dismissed offhand as an untalented hack or a simpering woman. Even if these people are people I don’t know and will probably never ever see again, I cannot escape the constant stress to perform for them. True, I feel this to some small degree every time I go out in public, but at a conference of professionals is was magnified a thousand-fold.
Luckily, lunch gave me a surprising bit of reprieve. I got through the line early, and took a seat at a large table with one other woman already sitting there. Apparently this made our table the largest concentration of females in the area, because within 5 minutes we had 3 more women join us, and by the time lunch was in full swing we had an almost-full table of all women. (Iin fact, when I got up to head back in I did a quick survey of the tables, and it looked like we were the only one that had more than two women at it)
I felt free to relax and start a conversation for the first time all day, breaking the ice with some comments about ‘the cool kids’ table’ as people sat down (yes, I know, I’m so clever) and then starting in on the ‘so where are you from and what do you do?’ circle. We talked about our jobs and how we used jQuery in them, what we thought of the conference and which talks were most inspiring, and, naturally, about being female programmers. Nothing too in-depth, just sharing stories and ratios and talking about how some companies like Facebook are making a huge but relatively unsuccessful push to hire female engineers.
At one point I mentioned I had cats, and the woman next to me turned and said “so, I normally try not to be stereotypical, but do you want to trade pictures of our cats?” I, of course, immediately whipped out my phone and we started cooing over each others’ kitties, shortly to be joined by a third woman on the other side of us.
Not only was I comfortable enough to talk naturally to a group of strangers, I was comfortable enough to get all giggly about my kittens, something I usually avoid around new people as I feel it somewhat dents my desired impression of a strong, mature professional.
Eventually we all wandered back inside after agreeing to meet at the same table for lunch the next day, parting with a wave and a cheery “see you in the bathroom!” After all, in a conference that’s 98% male you’re going to see the same people in the women’s room every time. And there is never, ever, a line.
I, emboldened by such successful conversation, attempted to chat with the man sitting next to me while waiting for the talks to begin again. It didn’t go well.
Sure, he was polite enough, but he gave extremely short answers, didn’t ask questions back, and I stopped trying to force the conversation after a few awkward minutes. When I got a new seat after a break a few sessions later, I tried again with my new neighbor. Same result.
At one point a speaker started his talk with a joke about teaching us all how to talk to girls. “Not like that,” I thought, as I squirmed awkwardly in my seat, feeling alienated and embarrassed.
At one point I sat next to a guy who had a mostly naked anime chick as the background of his iPad. I rolled my eyes and ignored it, but it did make me feel not-at-all-guilty and perhaps a little vindictive as I blogged some Bad Boys pictures the next day and thought about all the men behind me in the audience who could see my screen and were, I hoped, feeling uncomfortable about it. Petty and childish? Why yes, but it made me feel considerably more pleased with myself for being there.
It was a decent conference and I certainly picked up a bunch of new tricks for building websites, but I’m quite glad to be done with it and back in my female inclusive, designer-heavy environment where I can be completely open about my love of kittens.
If any of you reading this have had similar (or, hell, contrary) experiences, I’d love to hear about them. One of the biggest negatives of being a female programmer is the isolation, so leave a comment, especially if you have any tips on getting comfortable in situations like this.