• The Reluctant Programmer: Feminism and Tech

    Monday, November 25, 2013

    11/25/2013— Kelsey Breseman

    I’m not an absolute novice on code… but my credentials are pretty bad. I took Visual Basic in high school, played around a bit with Python and Arduino during college, and really sucked at learning Ruby on Rails …twice. My major was in neural engineering (which is some combination of bio, electrical theory, and MATLAB/neural modeling); I had never programmed in JavaScript. I joined Technical Machine because they needed a tech-savvy writer with some varied HR and maker background: somebody who could focus on some of the non-technical development aspects of a business.

    It turns out there are a lot of components to a business that don’t have to do with making the product. These aspects of my job are important (designing the logistics of getting products delivered, managing HR and payroll, continuing to have a media presence), but I realized pretty quickly that I would be more useful if I understood more about JavaScript and Node.js– both to improve my ability communicate usefully about what we do, and so I could help with technical development if the need arose. So I looked around online and started learning.

    It’s a difficult thing for me to come out and write about my coding deficiencies. I like the logic puzzles of coding, but not the screen time. The decision not to pursue coding as a primary interest is one I made years ago. I didn’t want the kind of expertise that limits me to sitting still all day, staring at a screen. But I’ve reconsidered– partly due to the advent of the treadmill desk (I don’t have one yet, but I will someday), and partly because the refusal to learn code feels increasingly like an intentional lack of agency in the modern world. And, well, feminism. I think it got to me.

    I can’t help but feel like a traitor to women in tech when I, an engineer by training, describe what I do as the “non-technical” work. Though I’m proud of what I’ve done for Technical Machine, I cringe to describe what I do– usually because I’m explaining it to engineers, who don’t really go in for “marketing” (my excuse to pursue writing) and who don’t adequately respect the difficulties of learning business and logistics (speaking as an engineer who didn’t). And because I’m a woman.

    I don’t think it’s possible to graduate from an engineering college that’s intentionally half women and not be aware of terms like “gender gap” and “imposter syndrome”. So when I arrive at a code conference, I am not surprised to feel like a fake. It doesn’t happen immediately; the conferences are interesting, and I forget sometimes how odd it is to be a woman in tech. But at some point I always remember. Reflexively, I look around and seek out other females in the room: one… two… three of us! No, four! The numbers are not always that skewed, but they usually are. And then, instantly, I feel like a representative. Worse, I feel like a false hope. Because I really don’t belong: is it still imposter syndrome if you really are an imposter?

    I don’t code, not really. I’m there representing Tessel, introducing my teammates’ impressive technical work. If anybody asks me about Tessel and how it runs, I’ve got that down pat. I’ve seen it work; I’ve run the code; I looked up any relevant terms I didn’t already know. Going to all of these conferences (Wikipedia at the ready), I’ve basically had a crash course in what’s important in the web development scene. And I haven’t felt discriminated against at the conferences. There aren’t very many women speaking, but there also aren’t very many women attending, so it’s not a surprise.

    People who approach me don’t pre-assign me a coding level based on my gender. Quite the reverse; they overestimate me, assuming I have at least as much experience as they have. So when they ask me, inevitably, “What do you do for Technical Machine?”, I feel like a bit of a letdown. I preface my answer with, “I’m an engineer, but…”

    And then, when I say whatever comes next (“I’m working on marketing.” “I’m doing business development at the moment.” “I’m doing a lot of the non-technical work.”), I feel instead like I’m saying, “I’m just along for the ride.” Hair flip, ditzy smile. And in my head, I silently apologize to all four of the other women in the room, who are probably real programmers.

    Perhaps, if I don’t code, I don’t belong at coding conferences. No matter that by now I’m excited by the open source community, that I learn a huge amount of code theory when I listen to good speakers. Regardless that attending helps me fill my community engagement role by putting Tessel in the hands of the people it’s built for. If I don’t actually follow through and write programs myself, do I belong at a programming conference?

    So that’s part of the reason I’m learning to code.

    I can’t decide how I feel about that. I know that feminism isn’t about pushing women into fields they don’t want to enter. But I feel like a traitor to all the women who had a much harder time entering STEM fields if I arrive at a technical conference with below-average knowledge of the subject. And in the modern world, code literacy is increasingly like, well, literacy.

    I’m not interested in code for code’s sake, but I do like what comes with it: When I’m not working on code projects far above my head, solving logic instead of syntax is a delight. At conferences, I’ve been inspired: I now have opinions about open source and the indie web. Independent of my gender, I need to program to have a voice in these communities. And of course, to best engage the community that’s growing up around Tessel, I need to speak JavaScript– the language of the web.

    Kelsey Breseman

    @selkeymoonbeam

    kelsey@technical.io

    #kelsey breseman #women in tech #women in stem #feminism #tessel #technical machine #programming #company culture

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