The compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing

When not making music and splattering it unceremoniously across the Internet, Lindsey Kuper braindumps on her blog about life as a computer science Ph.D. student and human being. It took her fully half an hour to write this two-sentence bio, but it would have taken longer without Emacs.

This post originally appeared at her blog.

I’ve talked to a few women who’ve said that they fear they won’t be taken seriously as computer professionals if they dress in a “girly” way. I used to think that I was immune to that fear. But two weeks after my job started at GrammaTech, I looked at my closet and pushed everything I’d worn in the last two weeks to the left and everything I hadn’t worn to the right. On the left were jeans and t-shirts and gray and black and brown. On the right were dresses and bright green and bright blue and pink and floral prints. I was very surprised. I took a picture of what it looked like so that I wouldn’t forget.

I realized that what I thought my clothes looked like, based on what was hanging in my closet, was completely different from what my clothes looked like to other people in practice. I clearly liked the dresses and the floral prints and the bright colors, or I wouldn’t have had them in my closet — but I wasn’t wearing them, because on any given day, they seemed like the wrong thing to wear. I realized that I feared not being taken seriously by my co-workers if I wore floral dresses to work. I decided to call bullshit on that. After all, as Kathy Sierra points out, the compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing.

Of course, there are a lot of women programmers who choose not to wear girly clothes because they don’t want to wear girly clothes, not because they’re afraid to do it. And a lot of the time, that’s me. In 2008, when I was living in Portland, someone I knew was hesitant to wear her preferred everyday outfit, a skirt, to OSCON out of concern about not being taken seriously by people there. Eventually, she did wear the skirt, and a friend of hers congratulated her on being brave enough to wear the clothes she liked to wear. I remember standing there listening to their conversation and feeling rather irked. I, too, was at OSCON and wearing the clothes I liked to wear, but because my clothes happened to be a t-shirt and thrift-store sneakers and jeans, nobody seemed to be congratulating me. It made me wonder, briefly, if I was less brave than the woman in the skirt — or if anyone at OSCON was concluding from my clothes that I was less brave. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone was. Bravery is extremely personal. One person’s brave act could be a neutral or cowardly act for someone else. And certainly the idea that one’s bravery can be determined from one’s appearance is completely senseless.

3 thoughts on “The compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing

  1. Carla Schroder

    The BS here is that we do waste time on these sorts of contortions and are forced to think excessively about every tiny detail of our appearance and demeanor, because to the vast majority of men that is all that matters, and they make it into a big deal. It’s all about them– we are put on this planet as boy accessories and enhancements, and thus everything we say or do must– yes, must! — be judged, loudly and often, on that basis.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      I’m inclined to say that it’s less of an issue for those of us in the geek professions than in other professions (like, say, law, where apparently discussions like this have to take place). Geeks have a high tolerance for eccentricity, so wearing something that might raise eyebrows in other circumstances is perfectly acceptable among geeks. Given that, I’m tempted to say that women geeks have an easy time of it.

      But complications arise in environments like the one I work in, where women are an extreme numerical minority. First of all, if you’re the kind of person who tends, consciously or unconsciously, toward dressing like the people around you, then you’ll end up wearing men’s clothes. I have done this. Second, if some of the people around you consciously or unconsciously think of you as representative of all women, you might dress in an intentionally neutral and non-attention-drawing way in order to avoid misrepresenting all those other women you’re standing in for. I’ve done this, too.

      There are some excellent comments on reddit that touch on these things. I particularly like this:

      Reacting against superficial appearance-obsessed mainstream/business culture, geek culture goes overboard… and sometimes instead of simply disregarding appearances, actually views people who look like they take care of their appearance with mild suspicion[.]

  2. the scrum mistress

    We tend to adopt the uniform of those around us. For me the office norm is generally dark t-shirt and jeans. I have fought hard to resist blending in. But then I am in charge. I like for this to be expressed visually by differentiating myself from the developers under me. I dress more colourfully and formally and more femininely.

    There was a wise old hand here who had been in IT for like a 1000 years and told me once that most women in IT end up becoming men. And indeed there seems to be a certain generation women (maybe 15-20 years older than I) who went into IT that have felt they needed to do just that for what ever reason. They are all quite grey and masculine and pant suited. I have met and worked with many and indeed it would seem to be a stern warning of things to come if I don’t keep my wits about me. It would be so easy just to go with the flow.

    Everyone wants to fit in. If you are in a field where everyone but you wears trousers I can understand why maybe you start wearing trousers. Or t-shirts. Or fish net stockings. Whatever everyone else does.

    I am definitely not a girly girl and never have been but I have never been afraid of being feminine in the office. Mostly because I will be discriminated against and patronized no matter what I wear. I might was well wear what I like. I was also raised as a non-conformist so perhaps this why I don’t care to blend in with my male counterparts and colleagues. Although with that fashion for pink shirts a couple years ago I was in serious danger of being out-girlied by the men.

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