Playing with Negative Space

To err is human, and definitely not just feminist

I am a feminist. I am also human, and with humanity, another core part of my identity, comes shortcomings and failure. When I inevitably mess up, it's because like you, I am human - don't blame feminism.

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Dresses, “dressing up”, and the software industry

A few days ago, Lea Coligado, a junior at Stanford, wrote about some of the sexism she's experienced in computer science. One of the things she mentioned was how wearing dresses caused her to be treated differently. I, too, prefer dresses because I find them much more comfortable than pants; I (probably) wear pants once or twice a year outside of the gym and cleaning my apartment. I, too, have noticed that people treat women differently for deviating from the "software engineer uniform" of jeans and a t-shirt.

It seems like fashion choice shouldn't be that big of a deal within academic environments and the workplace, as long as it's appropriate.

An acquaintance mentioned that he gets treated differently when he wears nice slacks to his workplace. His experiences match up with the ways I've seen my male friends get teased by others in the industry for dressing up, and they'll hear comments like "Oh, are you going on a date tonight?" and "What kind of occasion could be cool enough to warrant putting in that much effort?" Both my friends and Lea are dressed up because they think it's important to "seem like they tried", and they both get responses for it.

It is unfortunate that our industry questions people who choose to regularly or occasionally dress up for work. But there are a couple of ways that this bias manifests particularly badly for women.

The first is that wearing a dress and "dressing up" aren't the same thing. Similarly to how there are places where jeans and a t-shirt would be highly disrespectful, there are dresses too casual for many settings as well. Many women, Lea and myself included, wear dresses for the same reasons that many men in software wear t-shirts: comfort and personal preference more generally. It's no more of an attempt to flirt than wearing a witty t-shirt; it's just another option.

On top of that, the responses I've gotten when I've worn dresses are usually directed at my character or skill level. The kindest of them call me naive or better suited for non-engineering positions: "Software engineers learn they don't need to dress that way." Men, too, are mistaken for different roles, though for dressing up as opposed to simply wearing a different article of clothing. However, women are told much more frequently than men that they are just not suited for the positions those people already know they hold: "Real coders don't focus on fashion." I've even seen men who don't dress the part get extra credit for commanding respect in spite of their atypical clothing choices!

Clothing choices have nothing to do with technical ability, and conflating the two will only help perpetuate the gender gap in an industry that already has a serious problem retaining women.


Instead of facing misogyny, we’re talking about banning the word “feminist”

Apparently, Time has decided to vote off the worst word of 2014. The goal is to eliminate a word that causes you to "definitely cringe", "exhale pointedly", and possibly "even seek out the nearest the pair of chopsticks and thrust them through your own eardrums like straws through plastic lids".

Time's Worst Words of 2014 poll

One of those words is "feminist".

"Feminist" is a word near and dear to my heart. It saddens me that there are people out there who cringe at hearing the word for treating women as their equals. And it fucking pisses me off when those people want to get rid of a word to help erase the history of people fighting for the rights of women.

But it doesn't stop there. "Basic" is explicitly gendered according to the article. "Bossy" may imply that we should stop using the word as Sheryl Sandberg's campaign to encourage girls to take the lead desires, but the tone of the article implies that it actually means we should ban talking about the campaign. "I can't even" is an expression that people describe girls as using to say they're stupid. "Obvi" makes the list because people consider it to be "popular with people of limited intelligence, generally of the 13-year-old girl variety".

Anecdotally from my little slice of the internet, "sorry not sorry" and "literally" are associated with unintelligent girls. I admit that I assumed they made the list because I made that association, and I feel really bad about that.

So 7 of the 15 words are likely to be associated primarily with women and girls, while none are near as explicitly gendered with men and boys - unless you assume that successful tech workers and businesspeople are men. It's society wanting to censor women and girls' manners of speech.

From Time's list of "Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?", I only use the word "feminist" with any frequency. Not today. Today, I'll take a mess of these words as my own to point out how much the gendering of this list upsets me:

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Why is it easier to teach girls to code than to teach ourselves to treat women well?

When we ask ourselves "why aren't there more women in tech?", we're quick to discuss how the pipeline fails young women. I would be lying if I didn’t think there’s room for improvement here - I’ve written about my own negative experiences as a young programmer - and it’s exciting to dream about new ways to expose eight year old girls to programming, with or without pink. Unfortunately, we only have limited efforts to put into solutions, so it’s important to understand how we can be the most efficient. Wanting to get more girls interested in computer science is fun and non-threatening. Changing workplace environments would have a more immediate impact.

Half of the women in technology leave.

We know that we lose women over caregiving issues. There are too many maternity leave policies that show workplaces are uninterested in their female employees having healthy family lives, and we expect mothers to put in time at odd hours just to keep up. Our industry needs to find ways to be flexible with talented women who also want to have families.

But the main reason we lose women isn’t related to caregiving - it is a myth that pregnancy is the main thing that holds women back when it only accounts for a sixth of women who leave engineering. We primarily lose women to toxic work environments: misogyny and sexual harassment are commonly cited as reasons for leaving. This ranges from assumptions that women can’t possibly be good engineers to a man erasing the work of a woman because she refused to date him. Treating women fairly could very well be the simplest way to increase the number of women in technology.

But we don't discuss the importance of fixing these problems like we discuss the importance of the pipeline. Discussing the pipeline is convenient - we've agreed that improving the pipeline is a complicated and daunting task that we can't be expected to solve in a quick timeline. So we're able to put it off and pat ourselves on the back for thinking about how to fix things in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. Blaming the pipeline means we don't have to confront the internalized misogyny in our day-to-day environments. It's a cop-out.

Admitting that the culture can be hostile is admitting that there's something we can work on changing now. It’s time for us to decide to change.

The next time someone asks you to help get girls interested in technology, also ask them what they’re doing to support the women who’ve already made it through the pipeline.



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You and I meeting
for the first time.
Together, we found
built in polygons,
yellow, orange, and red.

Places to experiment, learn,
play, create.
The safety to
talk of speed bumps, loss,


But you and I -
an army -
propping up those colored polygons
to turn defeat against itself or,
at least,
make it something we take on

Places and spaces into
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bonds to hold onto
beyond those polygons,
yellow, orange, and red.