Letting down my entire gender

Years ago, probably around when I started my master’s degree, I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD.

I’m reminded of this because that’s a theme that’s come up in a few comments on my recent post about impostor syndrome.

Quill says,

I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it)

Restructure says,

I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.

I wish I could say I’m immune to this, but when you’re one in a small minority (be it due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability/ability, etc.) it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Guilt about not being able to do everything strikes everyone. Parents, teachers, pastors… probably even politicians. But I think it’s worse for those of us who are minorities in some way. You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority. There’s a world of difference between competing on a sports team and representing your country in the olympics. You want to do your best not only for you, but for everyone like you.

And that’s just the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Then there’s the requests for you to represent $people-like-you. “We need women for our co-ed sports team” or “we need you to advise the board on how we can better meet the needs of disabled folk” or “I need some dating advice and you’re the only woman I know…” or “we need you to talk about your experiences as an immigrant.” And you’re suited to the job, and maybe you want to help even, but you’ve got 30 of these requests and you barely have enough time to do your own job let alone all these other things.

Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?

And then there’s the spotlight. You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do. People can be more resentful when you say no because they don’t know who else to turn to, and they can’t understand why you might choose to turn down such a great opportunity because they haven’t got 10 of those on their desks for that day alone. You try to gripe about it to people, and they’re utterly unsympathetic, “Oh, my life is so hard, everyone pays attention to me. wah wah.”

So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.

I wish I had some magical advice to deal with the paragon guilt, but sadly I don’t. But I have a few non-magical things I’ve found help me:

  • Practice saying no, and learn to say “Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that…” so you have time to think and make the best choice you can in a sometimes very hard situtation.
  • Seek out more $people-like-you. Maybe they’d be happy to do some of the things you can’t (e.g. there are women who’d be happy to speak who just don’t get asked as often). Maybe you just need someone who can empathise with your problems. Maybe they’ll know a better way to help.
  • Seek out allies who aren’t as much like you. They can help with some of those requests too, and it can’t hurt for them to understand the problems you face.
  • Remember sometimes the demands on $people-like-you are just going to exceed the resources because there are few of you. That’s not your fault.
  • Try not to let guilt stop you from making choices that make sense for you. You’re probably going to want to make some sacrifices for $people-like-you, but you can’t help anyone if you’re burned out, so try to find a balance.
  • Remind yourself of all the awesome stuff you have been able to do. Save thank you letters. Contemplate indirect impacts you might have had. Think about things you did well that weren’t related to being a minority at all, but are awesomeness that people might now associate with your minority.

So… what makes you feel like you’re letting down your entire gender/race/sexual-orientation, etc? What are your coping strategies? I think this sort of guilt is felt by lots of people, just magnified by being a minority, so feel free to provide links to advice and coping strategies that are more general.

49 thoughts on “Letting down my entire gender

  1. PharaohKatt

    I feel once again obliged to pull out the old XKCD comic How It Works. There’s this double bind where if you aren’t doing something “unfeminine” you’re letting down your gender, but if you do and fail, you’re letting down your gender. So blagh.

    Personally, I often feel like I’m letting my gender down by working in a female-oriented industry: childcare. I feel like I should be doing something else, something that doesn’t scream out “woman” (or “girl”, given that we’re called “The Girls”).

    It’s not an easy thing to stop feeling guilty. I tell myself that my work matters, I tell myself that I can’t write sic-fi and pay the bills, I tell myself that I’m using my work as activism, I tell myself that not everyone can do everything, or fight every battle…
    Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes it’s not.

    1. Terri

      I actually linked that in the text because it’s really the perfect comic for this. I guess I should have made the image visible rather than just a link!

  2. Eivind

    Very much true. A female professor of mine in math, once complained to me that it’s all well and good that the university tries to encourage equal representation in various committees and boards, but that the practical result is that she’s asked to be on one 5 times as often as her male collegues, and that if she said yes to half of it, she’d hardly have time to actually teach or do research.

    At the same time, it puts you in a tricky position, if you first decline an offer to, for example, be on the board of the institute, thereafter critiquing the university (or, by proxy, others) for having male-dominated boards.

    Same thing happened to my wife. At her workplace, the leaders are overwhelmingly male (though the CEO is female), and she’d like for them to have a more balanced leadership. At the same time, she was offered a leading position herself, and turned it down.

  3. Eivind

    Forgot to ask: Does anyone have any advice on how to best handle this from the opposite side ? Assuming I’m the employer.

    Would it be better to *not* over-proportionally ask under-represented groups when positions open up ? (I don’t think so.)

    Would it be better to not ask specific members of the under-represented group, for fear of making them feel pushed into representing the group, but instead just generally encourage, for example by explicitly in the internal info saying that we strive for a diverse group, and that employees who belong to under-represented groups are particularily encouraged to apply ?

    1. Terri

      Here’s three suggestions:

      1. This is probably good advice for any committee period, but remember to be efficient when using someone’s time. If you were a charity with a high-powered CEO on your board, you wouldn’t ask her to attend every single operational meeting. Similarly, when you invite a minority member to sit through meetings, make sure those are the ones with highest impact and relevance. Treat them like celebrities, like valuable resources, like the very busy people they likely are.

      2. Provide incentives that help minority folk deal with extra demands on their time. Consider offering someone a part-time assistant in exchange for sitting on an extra hiring board, for example. Give your minority prof an extra TA. Provide extra grant money so your researcher can hire an extra sysadmin. Give your employee time and a half for any diversity-related work. Make sure you’re clear to everyone that they’re getting these perks because of extra service and not because they can’t hack it without help.

      3. Include diversity-related work in evaluations. Make sure that it is considered for promotions so that people don’t have to make the hard choice of doing what’s right for their career or what you want them to do for diversity work.

      1. Eivind

        I can’t legally do 2. Well, I can (and to some extent do), but then I have to do it to everyone on a certain comittee or with a certain responsibility. It’s legally non-allowable here to say that minorities that do X get Y. Not unless everyone who does X get Y.

        As for 1 and 3, I don’t think it’s a problem. Sure, being on the board of directors, for example *do* take time away from other work, but it’s hardly a career-brake in any sense. Infact the oposite is true, it’s just about the most significant stamp-of-approval you can have on your CV around here. Employees are typically only invited onto the board if they’re considered highly qualified to offer substantial input on the best way forward for the company/division as a whole, in practice “boardmember” tends to be read as “this person is among the most valuable employees we have”.

        I’m basically pondering what I could’ve done differently at my previous job. I was in the board, and we had an opening. A ~35-person company with ~8 women, 2 of which where deemed qualified where both asked, and both said no. A woman I met here on GeekFeminism decided to apply, this made me very happy, but ultimately we decided to go with someone local (she was from another city, and so logistics would make things more complicated) – the position went to a male, thus maintaining a board with 6 males and 1 female.

        Maybe we did what can reasonably be expected, I’m still pretty annoyed at the outcome. It’d be okay if it sometimes ended that way, but it tends to end that way *most* of the time, and that’s not ok.

        At the moment, I’m not in a position to influence hiring-decisions, but if and when the opportunity arise again, I’d like to do a good job of it. Thanks for the advice.

        1. Terri

          I can’t legally do 2. Well, I can (and to some extent do), but then I have to do it to everyone on a certain comittee or with a certain responsibility. It’s legally non-allowable here to say that minorities that do X get Y. Not unless everyone who does X get Y.

          Don’t dismiss it out of hand: what if X is “serve on 10 committees” or something similar? You may be able to find a condition that works and supports the few people who are doing an exceptional service/diversity work regardless of their minority status.

          As for 1 and 3, I don’t think it’s a problem. Sure, being on the board of directors, for example *do* take time away from other work, but it’s hardly a career-brake in any sense. Infact the oposite is true, it’s just about the most significant stamp-of-approval you can have on your CV around here. Employees are typically only invited onto the board if they’re considered highly qualified to offer substantial input on the best way forward for the company/division as a whole, in practice “boardmember” tends to be read as “this person is among the most valuable employees we have”.

          This may be true in your workplace, but it is far from universally true. In academic environments, you can be penalized for doing too much “service” and not enough research when it comes to tenure. (We linked an article about this issue in the past month, if you search through a few linkspams.)

    2. Restructure!

      Would it be better to not ask specific members of the under-represented group, for fear of making them feel pushed into representing the group,

      I can’t speak for other people, but when people have done this to me, I became hyper-aware of my minority status (gender: being female) and it made it seem like the person in charge thought of me primarily as my gender. Then for any subsequent interactions, no matter the scale, I thought I had to represent my gender.

      1. Meg

        But on the other hand, it is well known that absent any other factors, less-qualified men will come to mind before more-qualified women. I think the most important thing is making sure there are women on your consideration list, and only then as much as possible using objective criteria (not criteria that boil down to “do I like them?”) The best answer is to hire enough women to have a large and qualified potential pool to draw from.

        That said, there is also demonstrated value to having at least 3 women in any group. Is it sexist? Yes, but only in the sense that it acknowledges we live in a sexist society and can place excessive demands on individual women (it’s not women’s job to socialize men.) On the other hand, as a business person I want that dynamic on my side. It improves performance by breaking up sexist, harmful, social dynamics. It isn’t about tokenism, because if you have less than 3 women in a group a woman is actually going to bring more to the table than an equally-qualified man.

        Even if they are the most qualified person, women are still likely to be suspicious that they are being invited just because of their gender. The important thing is to lay out in the invitation their accomplishments that make you believe they are right for the position, address concerns about work load or time spent, and explain the ways in which this will benefit their career (for example, when I was invited to be on a council my boss said, “This is an excellent chance for you to become known as an expert in this, raise your profile across the company and increase your chances of obtaining X position in the future.” Which it did.)

      2. Restructure!

        I want to clarify that these weren’t job positions, but extra things (including responsibilities) that I didn’t need. I suppose if they were job openings, I would be a bit more thankful.

  4. Mym

    I’m in a bind about coming out to my advisors as trans; on the one hand I would like to get my proper name on my thesis, but on the other I haven’t been doing good work lately (because of mostly-unrelated depression), and I don’t want that to get blamed on being trans, and dumped on any other trans people they run into in the future.

    1. Leigh Honeywell

      If you’ve not done so already (if you have, sorry for the ‘splain!) it might be worth checking if your school will allow you to change your name on your thesis via the institution, rather than via the prof.

  5. L. A. J.

    As a pre-everything trans man who is also a graduate student in the sciences (in a very masochistic, misogynistic discipline), I am ridiculously familiar with this pressure,

    It is good to hear someone else tell me not only that I am not alone in feeling this ridiculous, awful, self-imposed pressure, but also that it is important for me to do things like staying sane and healthy…

  6. jen

    I really think deciding whether to come out as trans has to be based on what’s right for you personally at the time, rather than anything more general. Just my 2 cents.

  7. Vinaigrette Girl

    Re coming out as a trans-person, there are many issues to untangle; but it’s a matter of timing: if being out is more important to you than anything else, be out. Fact is, maybe nobody cares as much as you do. It’s amazing how someone else’s sexuality actually doesn’t matter to an awful lot of people who have other things to think about.

    No matter what you *do* or don’t *do*, someone will have something to say about it, but – to quote a Quaker divine: – what dost thou say?

    Concentrate on what’s really most important for you to do. If getting the name change sorted out via the institution means you can move on to the next thing, get it out of the way. If it actually doesn’t do anything useful, leave it until later.

    1. L. A. J.

      Wow, that was really dismissive. There are a lot of factors that come into outing oneself as trans, and assuming that ‘many people don’t care about sexuality’ (and being trans has nothing to do with sexuality) and that, therefore, trans people should out themselves, just because they would feel more comfortable being out, is really problematic.

      Being out would alienate me from my family, who are, at the moment, my only source of support right now — and with an incompetent advisor and an anti-semitic work environment, that’s really important.

      Being out, in the state where I’m currently located, would make me a target of harassment and violence on a daily basis.

      I don’t have the money that I need for top surgery. Harassment on top of gender dysphoria on top of alienation from my family and peers? Yeah, that’s a real recipe for success in graduate school.

      Do I dread having to out myself to every single employer that I ever have, because the name on my degree will not match my legal name? Yes, I do. Do I need to start testosterone as soon as possible, for my own mental health and sanity? Yes, I do. Am I going to out myself during my master’s program? No, I’m not, because doing so might coast me a lot more than my degree. And I’m one of the lucky ones — I can manage my gender dysphoria by binding, which goes unnoticed by my colleagues, and I’m a fairly effeminate man, which means that I get cis privilege, for the most part.

      But, sure, reduce that entire set of conflicting experiences and sociological pressures to ‘concentrate on what’s really most important for you to do.’ Yeah, that’s a real solution. I can’t imagine anyone telling a cis person to sacrifice their entire gender identity for the sake of their career, if their career was ‘important’ to them.

      1. Blake

        I’m transmasculine, and my relationship with feminism was absolutely an important part of coming to terms with my gender, just as coming to terms with my gender was required before I could be fully feminist.

        It’s not just about “what you want” or “how you’ll be happiest”, because you might be happiest hating every minute of living in your body but still able to eat, if the alternative is unemployment, homelessness and being broke. That was the first decision I made.

        Later on, I was often the second woman in the room, and I knew that if I transitioned I would leave the other women as the only women in the room. That was important enough to me that I put transition off a couple years until I found a space where I was the fourth or fifth women in the room, where I would no longer feel like I would be immediately coopted into a hegemonic, misogynistic, oppressive culture whether I wanted it or not. (Oh, people were *super* accepting: after all, they didn’t see gender, they just saw people who act like geeky men and people they didn’t want to talk to *sigh*)

        Gender is personal *and* political, and the pros and cons we consider are never going to be the same for two people. However, culture and the role we want to play in it is frequently a major factor.

    2. Mary

      Fact is, maybe nobody cares as much as you do. It’s amazing how someone else’s sexuality actually doesn’t matter to an awful lot of people who have other things to think about.

      The reason we have feminism, and other social justice movements, is that this is not true. Or it might be true, for certain otherwise privileged individuals at certain times, but it is not in the main true.

      Sorry you received this advice, L. A. J.

      (Edited to add: also, sexuality is not the issue L. A. J. was talking about, it was gender.)

    3. Tim C.

      “It’s amazing how someone else’s sexuality actually doesn’t matter to an awful lot of people who have other things to think about.”

      It’s also amazing how somebody else’s sexuality can provoke physically or verbally violent outbursts from an awful lot of people. That may (or may not) be less likely to happen in a university environment, but one friend of mine was kicked out of a Ph.D program for coming out as trans. Given that she finished in less than three years when she got another attempt at a different university, it is, in fact, notable that the faculty in her original program cared so much about what her gender was that they were willing to give up what she had to contribute to them.

  8. Anthony

    You’re *YOU*, not just a symbolic avatar for your gender or race or city or whatever. Don’t let advocacy get in the way of having a life. And if a PhD’s not for you, then better to leave on a high note with a Master’s than on a lower note after struggling through the doctoral course.

  9. Meg

    For me, the most important thing is to be honest about why you are doing what you are doing, and if at all possible, outspoken about it. So even if the reason is “I want to have children and stay home to raise them”, the reason is more likely to be, “I want to have children, and don’t want to keep working because my partner makes more money than I do/my partner doesn’t want to stay home and raise kids, so I feel obligated to if I want children at all/I really like childcare and wish it was something valued by and rewarded by society/day care is too expensive/I can’t bring my child to work/I and my partner can’t work from home half time with a helper/we can’t do that without risking career advancement/I’m unlikely to get promoted anyway if I can’t work unreasonable unpaid hours/I don’t want to put up with X, Y and Z behavior anymore/It’s not worth putting up with X, Y and Z behavior anymore while also facing the stress of parenting/I haven’t gotten the promotions and career advancement that would encourage me to stay in the field/I feel like I’ve hit a dead end and might as well stop to raise kids and have an effect on the future.”

    I don’t think women who weigh the options and come down on the side of conforming are doing a disservice to their gender; I think it’s that patriarchy has already done a disservice to them. When my boyfriend brought up kids and I started talking about how long it would be before I could support him at home to care for them he was quite taken aback. It turned out he wanted kids as long as someone else was going to take care of them; I told him I felt exactly the same way.

    We each choose the battles we fight, we each prioritize, and none of us have the energy to fight every battle every day. I would argue that no matter what, it is still possible to be subversive. I know one friend who took every nap time as a chance to code on open source, and there are lots of stay at home parents who play Puzzle Pirates, for example, massively shifting the dynamics of what a “hard core progressive” gamer looks like. And there are the people for whom performing that role is harder and more exhausting than working ever was, but who feel stuck. It is them I think we need to focus on and push for alternatives to the private/public dynamic of childrearing.

    Someday I want to start a start up where kids are welcome in the office, just to see what would happen. I’m sure it could be terrible, but with the right people and the right kids I also think it might be awesome.

    1. Deborah

      I’m always startled how many of the feminist male allies of my acquaintance take it for granted that childcare is something they “help” with, but that the primary caregiver — the person who downsizes the job/career — is the mother. Not all of them, but many of them. I’ve known marriages that broke up because it was obvious based on financials and job satisfaction that it should be the father who stayed home with the children, and the father couldn’t cope with feeling unemployed.

      (This is not a geek specific occurrence, of course. It feels that way to me, because most of the people I know operate in, around, or near STEM.)

      1. Eivind

        I don’t know if it’s much comfort to you, but I can assure you that *that* particular braindeadness is just as insulting to males who are more than “helpers”.

        I spent a year at home, being the primary caretaker for my son, my wife worked full-time during the same year. Nevertheless I was frequently complimented on how nice it was of me to HELP MY WIFE.

        I.e. even when the daily responsibility was primarily on me, many people still saw her as responsible, the best I could hope to rise to, in their eyes, would be a competent assistant.

    2. Kim Curry

      This was us:

      I want to have children, and don’t want to keep working because my partner makes more money than I do/day care is too expensive/I can’t bring my child to work/I and my partner can’t work from home half time with a helper/

      Except I’m the partner making more money, and he’s the one who stayed home. But even with that, breastfeeding meant I couldn’t stay for long hours the first six months. And so:

      It’s not worth putting up with X, Y and Z behavior anymore while also facing the stress of parenting/I haven’t gotten the promotions and career advancement that would encourage me to stay in the field//I feel like I’ve hit a dead end

      meant moving on to a new position.

      It’s hard, not conforming.

      I still feel the expectation that he should make more money than I do. I still feel the perception (real or not) that my promotions and raises don’t matter as much, because my partner is expected to be helping with our finances.

      The reality is the opposite, that my salary and promotions matter as much to the success of our family as any breadwinner’s do.

      1. Blake

        It isn’t fair, but the people most impacted by something are always the ones who bear the brunt of the pain in changing it.

        Single parenthood used to be considered shameful, and now 26% of children live in single-parent households. It only shifted because so many single mothers didn’t have the luxury of hiding in shame and refused to give up their children just because society told them to. A couple generations later and I hardly ever hear the “broken home” meme anymore. The debate isn’t over, but people proudly, defiantly living their lives and raising their children well are winning through shear force of fact.
        It is people like you, who find it personally worth while to fight against society, to value your achievements when society won’t, to support your partner when society refuses, who can ultimately change the assumptions our culture makes.

        1. Cynthia L.

          Maybe this was meant to be encouraging, but to me it just feels like piling on the burden. It is exactly, exactly this kind of thinking (even if true) that creates the kind of oft-unbearable pressure the original post was talking about. Is it worth sacrificing my and my children’s sanity to make one drop of difference in the ocean? And if I decide no, am I letting down my entire gender?

  10. Deborah

    The way I cope with feeling like I’ve let down my gender (by doing high-tech outside of high-tech in a pink collar job, having left high-tech titles, companies, and sectors behind me) is by reminding myself how much happier I am. It’s really very personal. I like my job now in a way I haven’t liked my job since I was in my early 20s. Sometimes I feel terrible taking the personal benefit over the perceived political gain, but if I’m going to give up my happiness for perceived political gain, I should do it working for the Peace Corps or something, not being a systems administrator. (Well, maybe being a systems administrator for the Peace Corps.)

  11. Aoede

    I really do want to do everything. Even stuff that isn’t directly related to my primary fields of interest. I can know that it’s highly improbable and probably wouldn’t be a good use of my time and resources to try doing everything, but that isn’t going to stop me wanting, now, is it? Do I want to stop wanting?

  12. Eric

    I teach computer programming at a college and I have two smart, tech-savy daughters, one of whom is developing into a serious geek. I try incredibly hard to encourage the women in my classes. I have people from 18 through over 50 and I’m finding the younger ones are less intimidated with the material and are more comfortable with computers and around the men. Most of them have never heard of all the great women pioneers in programming’s history and I make sure they’ve heard about them in my classes. I am not overtly aware of my women students feeling like they are representing their gender, most just want a good paying job. When one of them drops out I always ask if they’d like to explain why. What they tell me is no different than the men. I hear things like, “This is too hard for me”, “I just don’t have the time.”, and “My family needs me.” If they are comfortable with discussing this with me, I usually ask them if they felt any negative pressures from male classmates. I have never had a student say that they were giving up because they felt intimidated by the men. Some of the older ones are intimidated by the young ones, but that’s true for men, too.

    Is there anything I could be doing to be more encouraging? Most of my women students have gone on to good jobs and are enjoying the field. I’d love to make this even better for them.

    1. Terri

      I’ve found this too. I had one year where I was teaching first year programming and a large number of the women came up to me one after the other at the end of class, and told me why they were dropping the class. It was heartbreaking, and despite the fact that they all had really good reasons, I felt like I’d failed them.

      I think it’s really important to give people some evaluation when they’re leaving, since they’re not going to get any more from you. In my case, I honestly could tell them all that they were capable of doing the course, and that they were great students who had a real aptitude for programming if they wanted to develop those skills later even if now wasn’t time for them. I told them a story about a friend who’d chosen to take the course later in her university career and had found it much better as a result. Nowadays, I’d tell them the story about my sister who, despite not being a programmer, uses her programming skills to enhance how she does her job through automation and organization. So even if being a programmer isn’t for them, they might find knowing the basics useful in any career. I told them that they shouldn’t feel guilty about not doing it right now if that didn’t make sense, and they should do what was right for them but that they should leave knowing that they could have done it.

      I think as a teacher you have to accept that people will have good reasons for leaving, and that’s not always your fault. I know, guilt guilt guilt and it’s hard. I’m sure you’ll think of more ways to be encouraging, and it sounds like you’re doing some great things already, so try not to dwell too much on the people you lose and instead concentrate on doing well for those you keep.

      1. Mary

        Nowadays, I’d tell them the story about my sister who, despite not being a programmer, uses her programming skills to enhance how she does her job through automation and organization

        Some academics I know are restructuring their advanced first year programming courses to make it dual purpose: introductory programming for CS majors and introductory programming for science students identified as highly talented who are likely to have other majors. The idea is that the latter may remember late in their course or early in their career how useful programming is for automation. There’s some focus on spreadsheets, even, and a lot on manipulating, essentially, tables of figures.

        Part (by no means all) of their reason for doing this is that they think it will expose more top women students to programming, and a minority of them may switch majors, others may remember it as a career path later, and still others will improve the quality of science with their programming skills.

        Obvious few people are empowered to substantially revise a curriculum, but I think the idea deserves more exposure.

  13. Mel

    I feel this way about not wanting to go into a scientific research career, but a more technical/support staff sort of career. I kept trying research, hoping I would like it. I know I’m smart enough to do it. I just don’t have the drive that the best researchers have. (If I had done history, things might be different–but I also want to be able to pay off my student loans, and there just aren’t that many jobs in history.)

    But–am I letting down my gender? Ugh.

  14. Anne

    This issue has always bothered me a little. Throughout life to varying degrees I always felt like part of why I was doing things was because I had to prove “girls can too do that!”. These days, however, I find myself tending to downplay the fact that I’m female, at least at work.

    That may sound odd. What I mean is that I avoid making gendered statements, I keep my personal life personal, and I’m not an activist about feminist issues. Sometimes I feel bad about that, that maybe I should be making more of a fuss.. but I’ve found that I get more respect if I just stick to being myself. I have many interests/mannerisms/skills that could be associated with one gender or the other, but guess what? We’re all human. We all have a different set of skills and circumstances.

    So.. my philosophy for now is that hopefully I’m setting a good example so in future, my coworkers will have less assumptions about women.

  15. Erika

    Really? It’s okay? You mean it? Because I have been carrying around the guilt of dropping out of the tech world, after being The Only Girl doing Unix/Linux sysadmin work in four different job positions from 1999-2005.

    I got real tired of being The Only Girl. And I got tired of the work. The continual user demands, the mechanical boring bits, the frustration. I left to do – double guilt – “soft work” like web design. And from that I transitioned into writing, and basically had to give up any remaining pretension to geek credentials.

    And I’ve always felt bad about it.

    Like I should have stuck it out, for all woman-kind, and to be an example for those who could have followed in my footsteps. Enough so that I still enjoy reading a lot of blogs like this one, even though I am soooo far out of the Open Source movement, it’s ridiculous. But I hang out here because it makes me feel retroactively better, if that makes any sense.

    You have no idea how much this blog post means to me. Sorry if this is kind of incoherent, I pretty much burst into tears halfway through reading it, and I’ve been trying to type through it. I just.. you really made me feel better. Thank you.

    1. Terri

      I just want to say how much your comment means to me. When I wrote this post, I spent a lot of time debating whether it was worth posting. Surely, I thought, this has been covered elsewhere? Was I adding something to the discussion that would help people?

      Your comment makes me feel like yes, I did something right. So thank you so much for that moment of “this is why I write.” You made my day.

  16. Liz

    I feel like this too. Cannot even play a game of chess without The Honor of Womanhood resting on my shoulders. I like programming. It just sucks to feel like I’m letting people down by not being brilliant at it, to represent. But the game never ends and I can never win no matter what I learn or do. Since other women I know who are 100x better programmers than me feel like this too, I just have to roll with it and enjoy what I do and the back of my hand to what other people think and whether I am being tokenized or not.

  17. Dorothea Salo

    I am slowly giving up my geek cred at work to do other things, and yeah, it bugs me for all the reasons Terri articulated. I couldn’t do those other things without my geek skills, but those other things aren’t themselves part of the geek realm.

    More saliently, though… a few years ago I did a classic flounce out of a tech-boy locker-room environment, because I just could not take the sexist bovine excrement any more. I have had many, many days when I wish I’d stuck it out. It’s a little silly, because my honest sense is that I made more change by throwing up my hands and leaving than I would have by staying and continuing to argue. But it’s galling to think I knuckled under, and even more galling to think that I betrayed others like me in so doing.

    I was invited to join the GF crew early on. I STILL feel bad about declining the invitation. This place is doing such great work; I am so impressed with it and enthusiastic about it! But I know myself, and I know that if I had to put up with moderating crap comments and talking sense to people who won’t talk sense back and — and just generally bursting the “it’s okay” bubble that I mostly live in to keep myself sane, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself sane.

    Which doesn’t make me feel better, honestly. Wish I weren’t quite so fragile over these issues.

    1. G

      “knuckled under”? But you didn’t! You fought back by refusing to put up with the BS.

  18. Addie

    This would be the #1 reason I have not quit as a programmer in the many times I have considered it over the past 10+ years. Has it paid off? I could make arguments in either direction, although I’m currently leaning towards the “yes” category.

    My current iteration of this internal battle is tied to negotiation and salary. My family (male AND female) has always struggled with self-advocacy and negotiation; to discover that this is a characteristic that leads to career setbacks, and disproportionately hurts women, has made me extremely focused on training the behavior out of me (even though it is extremely painful and uncomfortable). After all, I can’t change the culture to stop rewarding the biggest egos until I’ve stuck around long enough to acquire a position of influence. Negotiating for a raise in my current job has become a twofold task: one, getting the recognition I deserve, and two, making sure that I don’t become yet another statistic cited in books like “Ask for It”. The latter is far more painful.

    I felt similar paranoia in a former job with a decent proportion of female coders but only male coders in the more powerful positions within the team.

    I also struggled tremendously in my first few years as a junior developer. It was a very disempowering experience to feel the pressure to represent my gender and make changes for the positive (when I noticed things were awry) when I was just figuring out the ropes. Most of the time I felt like I was drowning and the gender pressure just amplified the feeling.

    So, thank you for addressing this; it’s a really important phenomenon, and I honestly wonder how many women or other minorities would persist in a field like this one if they *didn’t* feel this guilt.

  19. Elizabeth Krumbach

    Thank you for this post!

    When it comes to my job as a Linux sysadmin I have no doubts that I belong there and I love my job and have an exceptional employer.

    But it turns out that most of my public open source work lands in “soft skill” territory and I sometimes feel super guilty over this. It was sad when I scaled back my Debian development work because I wasn’t enjoying it “at home” (I do a lot of it internally at work) anymore and I put off actually scaling back for about a year after I realized I wasn’t enjoying it anymore because I felt so guilty. After all, if I can do the techie work, shouldn’t I do it in the community to Show Them All?

    Plus, it all around sucks when I get trolled and attacked for being “just another non-techie female open source cheerleader and coordinator.” Hello additional internal struggle: “Female open source cheerleaders and coordinators are awesome and serve vital roles within the community… but I’m not one of them! Look, I make my living as a Debian sysadmin! Look, I can answer your packaging questions! Look, I can answer your Perl questions!” Why am I so defensive? Doesn’t this undermine the great work that non-techie contributors do? Clearly people making these accusations have not made an effort to know anything about me and are just making themselves look like fools by 1) attacking ANYONE for this 2) doing it to someone who doesn’t actually fit the criteria of their criticism.

  20. G

    “You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do.”

    I see this in other categories of $people-like-you, too. For example, people over 40 in Open Source. At users group meetings maybe 5% are in that category and I cringe when one of them (that is, one of us) asks a stupid question.

    When you’re part of a very small minority it is SO hard to see yourself and the few other $people-like-you as individuals rather than as representatives of $people-like-you.

    I don’t know if the younger people at the users groups even notice the age thing.

    1. Kim Curry

      From my experience, YES, the younger people in STEM fields do notice when they are noticeably younger than the mean and/or median ages of their associates.

      I’m approaching mid-career, and just starting to get over the “I’m the young one here” feeling. But it is a strange thing… it’s very situational. In my previous job, I became recognized by a community as the expert in my position, and the experience provided me with a great deal of confidence. Not nearly as much “teach me!” feeling there.

  21. Heather

    Thank you for this post! You’ve articulated why I feel guilty for letting my open source work outside of work slide in favor of my own sanity. Why do I always fight to be the one to answer questions and do probably too much in my own dev realm? Because I want it to be clear to my company’s clients and and employees that I am also capable of doing the virtual heavy lifting required.

  22. Cynthia L.

    I read this post a few days ago but I had to wait to comment.

    I feel like so much of my life has been directed and dictated by this pressure. There were so many times during my slog through Ph.D. that I thought, do I even like this? Am I only here because I am stubborn and wanted to stick it to everyone who thinks women can’t do this, when what I really dreamed of being/studying was XYZ? Or, worse, am I only here doing the token thing out of a culturally-absorbed ethic of self-sacrifice and duty to stick it out because others “need” me? (how depressingly stereotypically feminine!) It got 10 times worse after I had kids and I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to stay home with them, or if I wanted to work, and both options involved picking huge fights I didn’t have the energy for with people in my life who felt otherwise, but I definitely didn’t want to let down everyone and reinforce the notion that women grad students make poor investments for advisers because they just drop out when they have kids. Sometimes I feel like I have no sense of self, no internal direction. Whether swimming with or against the current, I feel like the current defines me, not what *I* want, since I often feel like I don’t even know anymore.

    Ok, sorry, now I’m meandering off into depressing-land. (Stop!) See, this is why I had to wait.

    Thank you for this post. It brought to the surface some dark feelings, but ones I needed to deal with, and reading the post and thread has given me some keys to doing that.

    Y’all are great. I’m very glad I found this blog recently.

  23. Gretchen

    Thanks for this post.

    Dropping out of my PhD program was the best thing I could do for my health, and things have been much better for me in the two years since I left. But I still feel occasional shame at contributing to the statistics that show less women finishing grad school than men.

  24. Mel Chua

    Yes. Thank you for writing this.

    Sticking it out silently sometimes puts you in the situation of “but *you’re* here and you do all right” when the $minority topic comes up in discussion.[0] Not that either choice is wrong – more like it often feels like you’re damned whether you do or don’t.

    [0] Sure, but look at how much I have to fight, and imagine how many folks as good or better as I am dropped out along the way because of it – I survived, but who are you missing?

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