Now and then, particularly on Twitter, I’ll see mentions of various “girl geek power!” initiatives, such as events like the Boston Girl Geek Dinner. My interest will be mildly piqued — I mean, if I see two terms that define me lumped together, I should get excited and feel a connection, right? But while those visual cues will usually get me to click, or maybe just think about clicking, I never follow through by reading or attending or doing whatever it is I should by all rights feel obliged to do. And lately I’ve been wondering why. Then, I realized: I’m a geek, and I’m a girl, but I don’t really think of myself as a geeky girl.
My Mom Won’t Forgive Me For This Post
My mom is a feminist — like, we’re talking a women’s studies minor, bookshelves of feminist literature and longtime readership of “Ms.” magazine. I never got that interested in such things, at either an activist or academic level. To tell you the truth, as I proceeded along my life and career in web publishing/online news, I never much considered or encountered a glass ceiling. I never felt like I was at a disadvantage in my field or personal interactions because of my gender. In my first job, my manager was female, and I had multiple female colleagues. When I left for a new workplace, I found myself surrounded by women. Professionally, I’ve never had the impetus or need to identify as a feminist.
So, it could just be that I fell into a situation where I am not competing against men, thus it’s never been something I’ve personally had to deal with. But when I was at Podcamp Boston a few weeks ago, I suddenly had no choice but to think about it. A spontaneous afternoon session evolved about about empowering women to succeed in the social media realm. It took place out on the lawn in front of the campus center at UMass Boston, and it drew quite a crowd — and a range of opinions. I did not attend, though it was fairly easy to keep track from Twitter backchannel chatter during and immediately after the event, as well as the follow-up blog posts after the fact. Why didn’t I attend? First of all, like I said above, I typically don’t feel drawn to such causes or events. Second of all, it was a beautiful afternoon on Dorchester Bay, and I was laying out on a bench enjoying the weather.
While many participants came away from the event feeling empowered and heard, I found myself more intrigued by the detracting views.
One of the best conversations I had at Podcamp Boston lasted about five minutes and took place mostly in an elevator. I encountered Diane Williams just after the session on the lawn, and I asked if she had attended. She gave me a weary look and we talked about the woe-is-me-ism that pervaded the session, the self-fulfilling prophecy of disenfranchisement, how in social media, of all fields, these arguments don’t hold water very well.
Liz, with whom I co-organized an ad-hoc lunch session for folks in higher ed and nonprofits, wrote an interesting post detailing how she felt looked down upon because she self-identifies as a mommyblogger. From her perspective, this spoke to a self-defeating tendency amongst women in the technology/web fields:
Ladies, we are our own worst enemies. It isnt the men, or the technology industry or circumstances. Its us. We are clique-y, bitchy and territorial and thats what stops us from moving forward and up, from being invited to be speakers and presenters in places, specifically the more industry driven conferences, where we dont already have a personal contact (or have already made a significant impact). We dont put ego aside and give a stranger advice and help. We dont try to eliminate stereotypes and prejudice, but instead we enforce them. We dont really listen, we only experience the surface. Noone wants The Drama.
We are stepping on our own feet. It really has to stop. But it wont, and thats the biggest shame of all.
Does Not Compute
I guess I just don’t understand reactions like Sarah Wurrey‘s, who was angered by Christopher Penn saying that all women had to do was “be awesome.”
I’m sorry, I was unaware that we weren’t already awesome. I can name at least 100 awesome women right now. Why is it the responsibility for changing the state of affairs all on us?
Um. I really don’t think he was saying you weren’t awesome now. But there’s a difference between being awesome in a closet and feeling comfortable and confident enough to wield that awesomeness. And really, in the realm of social media, I don’t think there’s a patriarchy waiting to beat you down. The “responsibility for changing the state of affairs” is on ALL of us, irregardless of gender. It’s called the democratization of media.
Sarah states, “Are there not currently TONS of women in social media who are incredibly smart, incredibly accomplished, and incredibly under-represented everywhere–from the stage at SxSW to the Power 150?” Sure. But I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence that that underrepresentation comes from some collective oppression. When Sarah says, “We’re saying that women who are already equally deserving of these chances, women who ARE ‘awesome,’ have been overlooked. And we’re asking that it be corrected,” all I can say is, most conferences I’ve attended in this space accept session proposals, and many are co-organized by women. Again, no evidence of collective oppression. Please prove this to me. (Also, don’t complain about people like Chris Penn saying “provocative” things like “It doesn’t matter what’s between your legs” when apparently the session was conceived with a name that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.)
Gina Minks also recapped the session, describing how women approach the issue from an emotionally charged vantage point while men approach it from a more neutral perspective — one that may lend itself to apparently dismissive comments like “just be awesome.” I agree with Gina when she says that women should strive to move to neutral — which is where I guess I am — but I am not sure that I see the need to “get guys to understand they play a huge role in this.” What is that role? If we’re the ones with the “problem” of perception, what is it they need to do? (Though, as a sidenote, some of the “guys” are stepping up as a result of this discussion.)
Against Arguing For Your Limitations
Cynthia Barnes had a good takeaway from the discussion, I feel:
we concluded that we need to change, one person at a time, and that its up to all of us to help each other. Encourage each other to get out there and share what we have. We need to mentor our fellow women, to make each other the best that we can be. As individuals, we should recognize the skills we have, be confident in them and start promoting ourselves – and support the others around us who are doing it.
This, to me, is concrete, achievable and doesn’t point fingers without just cause. I agree that more women should be out there talking about this stuff — a diversity of perspectives is always good — and if there is a disadvantage, real or perceived, collective will is a good way to conquer any shortcoming.
I was glad to see Chris Penn himself weigh in with a post after Podcamp, and I have to say, I believe he is spot on. He doesn’t mince words, sure, but if we’re going to squeal like there’s a mouse in the room at someone’s blunt (but inoffensive) speech, maybe we deserve the place we perceive ourselves to occupy. Anyhow, Penn cuts right to it, quoting Richard Bach: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” Seriously. If you’re going to complain about underrepresentation in engineering, I’ll listen. But social media? The argument doesn’t hold as much water.
All of the tools and technology are available to everyone. You have complete and total equality in terms of tools and raw opportunity to make your own game. How you use those tools, what results you create are only limited by your talents and your self imposed limitations.
Rakiesha Chase’s post really nailed it for me, though:
It’s like there are some women that are trapped in their vaginas and can’t look beyond being a woman to being…a person. If I defined myself by my gender, or my race, and then lived my life looking through glasses that only showed things related to those things, then I wouldn’t see much of life…
I made a comment in my PodCamp post that “self-hate isn’t sexy”. Basically, I feel that by considering some aspect of who you are a hindrance to progress, you are committing self-hate, and really, that’s #notagoodlook.
Maybe that’s it. In this context, I don’t see myself as a woman; just a person. I feel I’ve been lucky enough to always be treated like a person, and not a woman (by which I mean, coming in feeling defensive with a chip on my shoulder, like I have something to prove). I mean, I always feel like I have something to prove — but to myself.
Another thing that irks me is that I don’t fit the definiton of “girl” that a lot of these movements trumpet. On the “About” page for Boston Girl Geeks, it says, “Look, we’re girls. We’re social. We can like motherboards and MAC.” OK, I barely know what MAC is. I’ve been a tomboy for as long as I’ve had ovaries. The thought of going someplace like Ulta or wearing non-sensible shoes makes me want to die. So where do I go for dinner? Thanks, Boston Girl Geeks, for being so inclusive. Talk about a self-defeating movement.
I suppose we all pick our battles, and mine is simply not to wave the feminist flag. Maybe it’s because of this wearying woe-is-me-ism. If you start your fight from a prone position, aren’t you setting yourself up to fail? I do believe there is something to the tactic of winning by simply acting like a winner, by being confident in your own abilities and executing.
I don’t want to be a part of a movement that focuses on a perceived disadvantage. I’d rather focus, as Chris Penn suggested, on being awesome — on continuing to be awesome, and finding ways to become even more awesome. And gender, for me, is not relevant to that goal.
As Diane said, is part of the problem assuming you are in a deferential position, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of needing to prove and assert yourself, or feeling disinclined to speak up because other voices in the room are louder?
What if you just walk into the room like you own it? Imagine what you could do.