Programmers and Painted Nails


After the 2012 Grace Hopper conference I wrote a post in which I raged against the company that had the audacity to put branded fingernail polish in the swag bag. My exact quote:

“Nail polish? For attendees of a technical conference? Just… Fuck you. This is so very, very inappropriate  The thought that someone out there assumed that I, as an attendee of the Grace Hopper conference, would appreciate nail polish as a free gift, is incredibly insulting. It completely ignores the intellectual, technical side of me, and reduces me to someone who cares primarily about upkeeping my physical appearance.”

I had a brave friend who talked with me about this afterwards, saying she felt a bit hurt and alienated because she routinely paints her nails. The fact that she would have appreciated getting free nail polish made her feel that I was reducing her to someone who cares primarily about upkeeping her physical appearance.

This exact issue came up again at the 2013 Grace Hopper conference, during which I attended a fascinating set of short presentations on Representations of Women in the Media. One of the presenters attacked the Grace Hopper poster/logo itself, saying that the 3 women it pictured may be culturally diverse but in no way represented actual technical women. They all had slick, styled hair, wore business suits, and had painted nails.

She then displayed a (rather hilarious) photoshopped version of the poster in which she’d “fixed” the elements she found troublesome – giving them more casual clothing, messier hair, and, she was quick to point out, NO nail polish on any of them.

Come question time, a woman got to the mic and asked (and I paraphrase): “Why do you think technical women and nail polish are mutually exclusive? I paint my nails. I bet lots of women in this room do.”

At which point a good 1/4 of the people in the room raised their hands, displaying colorful nails.

The speaker gave some glib self-deprecating answer about how ‘she can’t keep nice nails because she’s always typing but maybe she’s doing it wrong’ and quickly changed the subject, but this issue is an important one.

It’s this idea that technical intelligence and feminine gender expression don’t mix. Which, of course, is bullshit because the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

Note that this is very different from the idea that technical intelligence and women don’t mix – that’s a concept that most everyone agrees is a problem and the tide is slowly turning. (for example, see: the Grace Hopper Conference)

So what do I mean by this? I mean that if a woman walks into a Google mixer with long pretty hair and a skirt, people assume she works in sales. If she walks in with a ponytail and a t-shirt and jeans, people are much more likely to believe she’s a programmer. On the job, feminine appearance can seriously undermine your ability to be taken seriously by colleagues. A friend in college once told me that a professor (a professor!!!) told her she’d never be good at physics because she spent so much time on her clothing and makeup. In short, I mean that this: “You’re an engineer? Really? Well you don’t look like one!” is not a compliment.

On the flip side, and this is the really insidious bit, I mean that feminists speaking at a conference promoting women in technology scorn the thought of programmers with painted nails and pretty hair. I mean that other technical women will also assume someone’s in sales if they walk in with a dress and heels on. It’s the idea that if you’re not 100% fighting the stereotype, then you’re doing it wrong, which is something I have seen come up a lot in feminism. I’ve been tackling it a lot lately, internally.

In short, it’s bad to assume that just because someone’s a woman that she wants nail polish. It’s just as bad to assume that just because someone’s a smart, technical women, that she doesn’t want nail polish.

You can’t fight stereotypes by declaring everyone has to do the exact opposite of what’s stereotypical – that’s just creating a new enforced stereotype. To truly fight stereotypes we must detach the ideas entirely, not replace them with something else.

Nail polish has nothing to do with technical intelligence. (It has nothing to do with gender either, but that’s a bigger battle.) It’s just a colorful paint that you can put on your nails. Some people like to use it. Some people don’t. That’s all, everyone go home now, we’re done.

12 Replies to “Programmers and Painted Nails”

  1. Welp.. In High School I played basketball, ran track, played volleyball, all with painted nails, most times acrylics, always had my hair done professionally, make-up on everyday, perfume and everything.. The girls teased me, the boys loved me. Today with a Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity running large executives teams, coding everyday, PenTesting, etc., I will always stay true to self. Be YOU!!

  2. Okay, how about a curve ball? I’m a guy and wear my nails (toes) painted. And I’m not an artsy, flamboyant kind of guy, I’m an engineer!
    So, does a guy wearing his nails painted mean that he can’t be successful and will be shunned, as you state a pretty girl in the business world might be? Well, I earn six figures and have a long list of clientele that seem to like my work because they keep calling me back.
    I don’t know about these social norms, I think it’s more in our heads than we care to admit. The fear of what someone else might think about us is a pretty influential force to recon with, isn’t it? Ironic, because you really don’t know what others are thinking, and you can’t do anything about it anyway. The only thing you can do is be you. You’re much better at it anyway than trying to be someone you think others will accept, even though you don’t really know what that is.
    Nail polish…pretty cool stuff, eh?

  3. I just found your blog, I was linked to this post. However, I have to say, it’s a delight to read of the evolution of your thought. With clear and simple examples you painted a picture of the issue, and illustrated a better way to think. Thank you.

  4. I love this: “It’s this idea that technical intelligence and feminine gender expression don’t mix. Which, of course, is bullshit because the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.” I’m not a programmer, but I do work in video production and spend a lot of my time editing video content. I just got a manicure yesterday :)

    1. Same here, other than not being in SF. I think it’s more common in hackers than people in general, because they have far more of a tendency to do what they want without as many worries about other people’s perceptions.

    2. After reading the first two sentences I thought it was a very masculine dude being upset to get nail polish and all the women and stuff … :) When i finished reading the post my thought was obviosly a little more complex. A Community should not give women the Impression that they have to appear more masculine to be accepted. Although in a more male dominated community it needs much less feminine appearence to stand out as a member of the female gender and maybe some women are feed up by beeing looked at when dressing or appearing very feminine and entering a Workshop/conference room. I’m trying to think positive and that it will evolve to a community in which you can be a happy geek or geekette.

  5. I don’t think this has much to do with women as it has to do with focus of attention. The old phrase “don’t trust the suits.” while a comment about men in suits is more about the kind of things men who wear suits care about versus the kinds of things hacker t-shirt guys care about. The “suits” isn’t a comment on gender at all. Presentation is just an indication of what a person spends attention on. Nails and dresses, or italian loafers and fancy ties are just indicators of attention and style. That women are going through these same kinds of discussions that men have gone through is really great. The big difference being the added complexity that women have much more cultural variety in expressions of style than men do, which may make it a bit harder to decode the expressions of meaning from fashion and style selected by individual women.

    Besides, nail polish seems like much better swag than another stupid keychain fob.

  6. In the 80s my study friend was a preppy sorority girl. She always had professional long painted fingernails. She was always feminine – make up, nice hair, even pearls on some days. I am a typical tech girl and yet we were best friends. It worked for her. Her father told her she would never make it as an engineer when she started college. She is now an engineer and has been one for over 25 years.

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