Friday, April 13, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Excluding Women Edition

A couple of weeks ago, I followed a link from a Scalzi post to this post explaining how criticism written by women is treated differently than that written by men, and how this difference silences women. Not being particularly connected to the world of Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers, I have no real opinion about the piece of writing that sparked the discussion, but the discussion is still well worth reading.

The comments thread on Scalzi's post led me to two other good things. First, this post about how women are bullied on the internet, and how that bullying leads to exclusion. I particularly liked this quote:

"Give us the space to be ordinarily wrong, misguided, angry, weird, biased. If only the rational angels of sweetness and light are allowed to speak unmolested, that’s just another kind of gag."

Also, this old piece written by a woman explaining why she blogs under her own name, and why making the decision to do that is different for women than it is for men. If you have ever wondered why so many women bloggers choose to use a pseudonym, particularly when so few men bloggers seem to choose to do that, I recommend that you read this post and pay attention to the part where she talks about the internal dialog that she conducted when making her decision. (And if you haven't heard about what happened to Kathy Sierra, go read up on that.)

Fear for our safety is not the only reason women choose to blog anonymously. I choose to blog under a pseudonym primarily because it gives me greater freedom in topics. If I were blogging under my real name, I would worry about potential employers judging me based on my posts about mothering. Although I have not experienced any negative career repercussions since becoming a mother, the research indicates that this is at least in part because I have been lucky. I do not hide my status as a mother in the workplace, but I prefer not to push my luck by making this blog be the first thing that someone Googling me would find.

C. Pellegrino tweeted a link to me this week, about getting more women in technology to "sit at the table". Go read it- it is really good. Someone left a link in the comments to a 1996 essay about how computer culture excludes women. It is also a really good essay, but to be honest, I'm a little depressed at how much of what she wrote is still true.

I wish I could end this post with some upbeat ideas about how we can fix these problems- but I don't have any. Other than to just keep on trying to stay included.


  1. Anonymous6:40 AM

    Cloud, I would like to thank you for this post and it's links. So depressing and powerful at the same time. I have forwarded them to so many people.

    I would like to thank you for what you have been doing. I don't always agree with what you say or how you say it, and it took me some time to really get what you are trying to do here and why is it so important (to you and to others).

    But I wanted to thank you for blogging and talking about all these things, and for trying to understand things, and for making me understand that I also don't understand well things you are saying and things that have been happening in our societies.

    I would like to thank you. Truly.

    You must have seen this film: "We want sex equality." There are two scenes that I love in it. When the husband tells his wife that he doesn't beat her, he doesn't get home drunk, he supports her, he is a nice guy (which he truly is) and she says that he is not going to win a price over that, because that's how all love relationships should be.

    And the second one is when a privileged woman comes to see her and to thank her for what she is doing. I wanted to show you the image at the 1'45" until 1'52".

    And to also tell you:keep posting. It is important what you are doing. Truly.

    1. Wow, that is one of the nicest comments anyone has ever left me. Thanks!

      I haven't seen that film, and I'm a little swamped this weekend- but I promise I'll come back and watch. Thanks for leaving the link.

      I don't think I could stop posting if I tried. I'd be writing even if no one was reading, I think- but I'm glad you are reading. Thanks.

  2. Anonymous1:32 PM

    On the whole “sitting at the table” thing:

    I know that she seems to be a personal hero of yours, but frankly, I’m getting a little sick of hearing about Sheryl Sandberg – for reasons I won’t detail here and now. It especially pisses me off when people refer to her as woman in technology (not saying you have, but others do). I admire her accomplishments, and in general, I don’t think she’s giving bad advice. But as with all advice, it must be taken with a grain of salt. It must be analyzed, and tweaked, and maybe even dismissed as not applicable to your situation.

    It you’re a young woman trying to decide if you can keep your highly demanding job and be a mom and Sheryl tells you that you can do it, you must remember that unless she is your BFF, she doesn’t know jack squat about you or your particular situation. All you can take from her example is that it *may* be possible for you to do what she is doing, that *some* women can (and want to) balance demanding careers and motherhood. Which in this day and age, unless you have been living under a rock somewhere, I don’t think this will come as news to any young woman.

    But back to sitting at the table. I’m a scientist at a national lab – a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) that does a lot of work for the DoD. I have been there a number of years and am one of the few women in a senior position. When I was a rising star (i.e., before I became a manager) and was often a major technical contributor to projects, I would never sit at the table during the working group meetings that we (and other organizations who were our collaborators) held to present our results to the sponsor. Why? Because at the table were only managers and the sponsor – the technical heavy hitters (mostly men) were distributed among the room, with their colleagues. We never had any problems making our voices heard, however. And everyone knew which people in the room did the real work that was pushing these projects forward, and who to listen to on technical matters. In this particular environment, an ambitious young woman, especially someone new to the project, that decided to grab a seat at the table would be committing a faux pas – she would look ridiculous and clueless.

    Young women need to analyze their particular environments and act accordingly. I sincerely hope that this obvious fact doesn’t get lost in the hype that seems to attach itself to whatever Sheryl says.

    1. Actually, I don't consider Sheryl Sandberg a personal hero. I just think she's an interesting example of a life that I often hear people say is impossible to lead.

      I agree with your point about needing to analyze your situation and behave accordingly- but I don't take the "sit at the table" advice to necessarily mean you have to literally sit at the central table in a situation like you describe. I think it is a metaphor, and Ms. Sandberg is telling young women to participate. And I can't really fault that advice. In fact, it is advice I personally need to continue to keep in mind, because it is easier to keep silent, and maybe follow up with my boss after a meeting, when I would be better served by speaking up during the meeting and letting the senior people know whose idea something is.

      (continued below)

    2. I'm going to have to disagree with you on one thing, though. Based on some of the emails and comments I get, I'd say it is quite possible for an ambitious young woman these days to not realize that it is possible to combine a career like Ms. Sandberg's (or even mine- which is far less high-flying) with motherhood and be happy. Or at least to be very, very fearful about the possibility. I think this may be something that has changed in the last 10 years or so- although, to be honest, I remember hearing the horror stories when I was in graduate school, and being afraid that I couldn't have a career and kids.

      I think that as a culture, we're still deeply ambivalent about mothers who work outside the home, particularly when they don't HAVE to do it for financial reasons. In the latest backlash, the popular saying is "you can't have it all- or if you can, you can't have it all at the same time". And I do actually get told that I can't have it all by random people- if I have a crappy day and look stressed out in the grocery store line or at the gas station, there are even odds that some older guy is going to tell me that this is what comes of trying to have it all, and us young women these days are just driving ourselves insane.

      Now, I hate the phrase "have it all", because what "it all" is will be different for different people. But I also hate the implication that I can't have the life I'm leading, because the next step in that implication is to imply that I must be either a bad mother or bad in my job.

      And you know, I think I'd have crappy days and be stressed out at the grocery store if I stayed home with my kids, too. I'd also have them if I never had kids. Crappy days happen to everyone.

      I'm not a huge consumer of movies and TV. But I can't think of a single portrayal of someone like me in a movie or a TV show- a happy woman working in a good career and also raising children. The last one I can think of is Claire Huxtable. Is that just because I don't watch much TV these days? I don't know. But now, it seems that the career women are all miserable, or perpetually having crappy days. And then someone sweet guy comes along and shows her what really matters and she quits her job to raise their kids and is so much happier and more fulfilled.

      And there is nothing wrong with women for whom that is the storyline their life follows. I'm all for happiness and fulfillment however you find it. But it isn't the only way the story can go. Sometimes a sweet guy or girl comes along, you agree with him or her about what matters, and you have kids together and raise them together, while you both also keep your careers.

      And sometimes no sweet person comes along, and that's OK, too. Or sometimes the sweet person comes along, and you decide not to have kids, and instead remain a child-free "career woman"- and that is OK, too.

      So in short, I think Sheryl Sandberg's voice is important, because she is a very high profile counter example. I wish there were more voices like hers out there, actually. But I can't really complain, since I won't even attach my real name to this blog.

    3. And why aren't voices of happy career-oriented women more out there? Because we're tired of getting told that we're liars and horrible people and we should shut up. We're tired of being told that by adding our own voices we're silencing the miserable majority, because only people who are miserable are allowed to speak up. So we shut up.

      I'm giving up. I'd rather be happy without having to call BS on ridiculous Blue Milk posts complaining about people like me silencing her vocal miserable majority (as if). I don't want to have to bend over backwards with false politeness to people who are attacking my way of life. I don't want to have to say, "Oh, but I don't mean YOU," when actually that's not the truth. Some Midwesterners just can't lie, even on the internet.

      Because when the only thing that adds irritation and stress to my life besides the inability to eat wheat is random miserable women who will not or cannot change their lives so they want everybody else to be as miserable as they are... well, it's time to jettison that part of my life. Because in general, happy people change what they can and they move their energies to things they can change when something is no longer worth trying to change.

      (Note: Some women have *real* problems not caused by themselves-- mutantsupermodel's most recent post really puts the whining in perspective. But she's an amazing woman and will overcome despite every set-back in her way. Her circumstances may suck, but I still feel less sorry for her than I do for the women who wear their unhappy lives and relationships as some sort of badge of honor or womanhood or something. I admire mutantsupermodel.)

      Are there happy career women out there? Yup. Plenty. I know many IRL... and I'm taking them at face value when they say they're happy and act like they're happy because I'm happy too and have no reason to disbelieve them. Do I know many on the internet? Apparently not. And when people do dare say that they are... the anonymous attacks start. The passive-aggressive blog posts blaming us for being parts of the patriarchy because we want other women to stop pushing their helpless miserable cultures on us.

      It's gone beyond irritation for me recently... it's poisoned the fun parts of the blogging hobby for me. I'd rather read more novels. (Currently enjoying The Wide Awake Princess.)

      And so, another internet voice is silenced. Which is what happens. I'm sure I'm a horrible person in real life, but I'll cope and deal in my blissful ignorance. And, you know, be quietly and productively happy, because thank God I have a pretty nice life outside the internet.

      We've got another week and a half or so of queued posts, but after that grumpy rumblings will turn into a sporadically updated academic blog (with personal finance here and there-- pf bloggers tend to have growth mindsets). I'm too busy and too anemic to fight the fight anymore, especially when so many people accuse me of oppressing them and making them feel like crap just for daring to have self-confidence and to enjoy my life. The mommy stuff has just worn me down. Score for the patriarchy.

    4. Anonymous7:35 PM

      Thanks for your reply, Cloud.

      “…but I don't take the "sit at the table" advice to necessarily mean you have to literally sit at the central table in a situation like you describe. I think it is a metaphor….”

      If I remember Sandberg’s TED talk correctly, I think she meant it literally, and it has been interpreted like that in a lot of places, including the article you linked to. But even if you say it’s just a metaphor, I still say that universally, it’s not good advice. Environment is everything (or nearly so), and environment is always local – what’s career-promoting at one place can be career-killing at another. Sometimes the right answer is to follow up with your boss later; other times, you should speak up in public. We have to trust women to sort these things out for themselves. But I guess “it’s complicated” wouldn’t make for a very exciting TED talk, or blog post, for that matter….

      As for the rest of your comment: obviously I don’t know what emails you’re getting, but I have quite a bit of exposure to college-age women in the sciences these days, and what I see is the following. I think most young women know that they can have a life where they combine a high-powered career with motherhood, they just don’t know if that kind of life will make them happy. And I don’t blame them for being anxious about this because I think it’s very difficult—dare I say impossible—to know (to really *know*) what kind of life will make you happy once you have kids. And that’s assuming all of that goes as planned to begin with (i.e., you have healthy kids, your health also remains good, etc.) So I think the best we can do for young women is to be very honest about our experiences (I’m not accusing you of being dishonest) and to make them feel that no matter how they decide, it’s OK. That they are not letting anyone down by opting out of the workforce, or that their children will not be irreparably damaged if they don’t stay home to raise them. To advocate for one “side” or another is, in my eyes, only setting up some women to feel like failures down the road. Of my cohort of 40-something friends, most with kids, only about half are living the life they thought they’d want pre-kids. And some of these women have really paid a price, in the sense that they have felt a lot of unhappiness and guilt over a choice that should only have made them and their families feel happier.

    5. Anonymous7:40 PM

      @Cloud - on a lighter note:

      “I'm not a huge consumer of movies and TV. But I can't think of a single portrayal of someone like me in a movie or a TV show- a happy woman working in a good career and also raising children. The last one I can think of is Claire Huxtable.”

      You might enjoy “Up all Night.” I’m not a Christina Applegate fan, but it sounds like the premise of this show would resonate with you. It’s about a woman with a high-powered career (TV show producer? or something like that) and a toddler; I think her “sweet guy” husband is a SAHD.

      “But now, it seems that the career women are all miserable, or perpetually having crappy days. And then someone sweet guy comes along and shows her what really matters and she quits her job to raise their kids and is so much happier and more fulfilled.”

      I honestly can’t think of a recent movie or TV show where this was the plot. Then again, I don’t really watch Lifetime or WE….

  3. It has been a long time since I listened to that talk, so I may have this wrong, but I took it as a concrete example of the attitude she thought we needed.

    Most of the emails and comments I get asking for more details are from grad students and post docs- so I guess a little closer to having to figure out how to make it all work. I wouldn't say I get an onslaught, but enough to make me think there is something real there.

    But I completely agree that you probably won't know until you have kids what you want to do once you have them. Which seems to me is all the more reason to just keep charging ahead until you know- assuming that you like the field you're studying/working in, then there is no harm done if you have kids and decide to take a break or downright quit. If you've already eased off, and then decide that you want to keep working after all, I suspect you'll have done some harm. A lot of the accommodations I got at work when my babies were little I got because I was senior enough to just take them (e.g., working part time for a month, changing my schedule to leave at 4:30 everyday).

    I also think there are a lot of different paths to a career in science/technology, and that some of them can encompass time off to stay home with kids (or, for that matter, a sick parent, etc.) I'd love to see more of the other paths represented in the discussion, but I can only write about my own, which has been pretty standard.

    On the TV/movies thing- I watch so little that me as a pundit on these matters is laughable. So I'll just admit right up front that my reaction is a general feeling based on synopses and occasional trailers. It is probably unfair. But I do remember that there was one specific movie with a plot like I outlined, because I remember hearing about and thinking "didn't we already do that ~20 years ago, with Diane Keaton as the lead? Have we really come no further?" But I can remember neither the name of the new movie or the old one... so I won't argue the point!

    What I'd really like to see is a family like mine in a TV show- i.e., two parents working outside the home, who are both reasonably happy and successful. But that'd be a pretty dull show, so I can see why they don't do it.

    My general feeling that we tell young women they can't combine a career in science/tech with motherhood comes from the fact that we constantly point to motherhood as a reason for the leaky pipeline. And I don't doubt that it is, but we seem to point at it rather uncritically. I get frustrated because we don't really poke at why it should be that way. Some is pure, unforced choice, I'm sure. Some is the fact that "I wanted to be with my kids" is a more acceptable answer than "I was sick of the slow drip of subtle sexism"- particularly since the person giving the answer may not realize the impact that slow drip had on her, since it was so slow and insidious. And some is because we don't demand more of the fathers.

    Also, I want a young woman who thinks she wants to stay in her career after having kids have some idea of what things that she can control might increase her chances of happiness if she does go that route.

    But this comment is getting to long, and I need to go do some chores... so I'll stop here.

  4. @Nicoleandmaggie- I'm sorry to hear you're going to scale back your blogging- I always enjoy reading your blog! But I can understand your reasons. I hope you'll still drop by here and say hi now and then!

  5. In case a drop in the bucket brightens your day, I thought of a couple of tv shows where the women combine family & high-powered science careers. Alison Blake on Eureka, & all, I think, the women on Bones. I can also think of many, many tv shows where the men fail horribly in combining family & work. Especially police procedurals.

    (Not that there aren't significantly more pop narratives that follow the women-needing-the-rescue template you describe. But I was pleased to be able to think of a couple that were, well, cheerier. & I share in hopes they brighten your day, if not the actually world outlook, as it were.)

    (Also, I have a pet theory that U.S. pop culture in general presupposes an inability to be both satisfyingly present in both a career AND a family. & not just because when I got pregnant my grad advisor assumed I wouldn't be writing anymore because I "seemed so happy in my marriage." There's a whole art v. happiness thing that goes on in the popular narrative that might just rival the tech-industry narratives you are fighting against, but there's, frankly, not a lot of money in poetry or fiction writing, so there's rather less high-stakes bound to parenthood as such (i.e., single or married, I was never getting health insurance off those sonnets); pre-kids, the not-suffering-enough-for-art assumptions can show up in happy dating (see above) or even in having a job that pays well outside of the art field. But I didn't mean to go on about that. Though I'm leaving it in, in case y'all find it amusant.)

    Thanks, as ever, for your indulgence. Always a pleasure to expand my mind via your blog & its connections.
    Happy spring!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Never worry about going off on tangents here. That's half the fun.

      Your point about the cultural narrative being that creating anything (be it art or software) requires suffering is an interesting one. And yeah- why do we assume that people can't be happy in two aspects of their life at once?

  6. Come to think of it, there aren't that many shows where the woman does a cool and/or well-paid job.. All women cops are portrayed as lonely and married to their jobs (I guess most male cop leads are, too). But there are women lawyers (The Good Wife) and medical doctors (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice) with families, where women work outside of home. The only scientist I can think of is Bones, the show is not really riveting, but she is smart and has a cool job, and I hear now also a baby (we stopped watching a while ago).

    Good point about the belief that you can only have/do one thing. This is a very American issue, I think: workoholism is glorified in the US, people boast about how much they work. In Europe, boasting about putting in 15-hour days would make one seem pretty lame; when I was a grad student (this was in the US), I witnessed a new German postdoc ask an American postdoc why he (the American) needed to work so much, was he incompetent because he couldn't finish work during normal hours? Ouch. And I don't even think he was trying to be particularly mean, just matter-of-fact. I guess my point is there are cultures where out-of-work time/activities one enjoys are not considered such unattainable luxuries as in the US...

  7. Hi Cloud, did you see this article?
    I'd like to think it's an exaggeration regarding the male population in general, but the vitriolic and misogynistic male commenters would seem to fall pretty close to this description.


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