Month: December 2013

Beyoncé and Lean In

I was listening to NPR the other day (this seems to be the thirty/forty-something ubiquitous intro to a story) about Beyoncé’s new album, and how Twitter trended when it dropped, and there as an awful lot about how She Is A Feminist and This Album Is A Tribute To Feminism. Naturally, it being NPR, the second person they interviewed pooh-pooh’d this, pointing out that in her videos apparently Beyoncé is gyrating in such a way that she is gyrating for men, and therefore it isn’t any different than any other oppressed-female gyrations. This is all very normal and to be expected anytime someone declares something “feminist” or “the new feminist”, women will gather on either side and debate earnestly. None of this really irked me until this lady (Tanya Steele, which is a fantastically appropriate name) pointed out that when women were telling her about how they feel Beyoncé’s gyrations/music/etc. made them feel empowered, and/or they felt it was a good example of feministic power, she had to “walk them back” and “explain it to them”.

It took a while for me to sort through why this irritated me. I don’t normally engage in discussions on feminism or women’s issues, it wasn’t part of my educational background and it just really doesn’t come up. I’m more likely to get into an economics debate. (NB: I have not taken a single women’s studies class. I do however own a vagina, and have friends who own vaginas, so I think I’m somewhat qualified to discuss the condition of having a vagina and the thinking that may or may not go along with vagina ownership.)

Merriam-Webster defines Feminism as: “The belief that men and women should have equal opportunities”. (It also defines it as an “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”).

Beyoncé and Steele

As best as I can tell, Ms. Steele’s contention is that when women view Beyoncé’s new album, and more specifically her videos in which she “gyrates” (I have not seen them nor is it really necessary to do so to illustrate this particular point), as “feminist”, they are incorrect. Her reasoning is Beyoncé is gyrating sexually, as to appeal to and/or entice men, and therefore is acting like someone who has to sublimate their own needs/desires in order to attract someone else, and therefore that isn’t beneficial in any particular way to her gender representation.

This reasoning is highly subjective. First, it assumes a knowledge of what is in Beyoncé’s head as she’s gyrating on the screen. I am willing to wager as she was gyrating, under a myriad of hot lights, multiple takes, makeup touches, reminders on choreography, adjustments to the mic, etc. that what was in her head was,  “I am working, I am working, I am working, I can’t wait for a hot bath and a glass of wine, but I am working.” Beyoncé’s reputation in the industry, even for one who doesn’t follow it altogether much, is one of extreme professionalism and hard work. Her personal wealth is such that she never, ever has to work again, independent of that of her husband. Beyoncé works if she wants to work, she busts her butt because she wants to, and she gyrates because she wants to.  Second, it assumes that Beyoncé’s gyrations were intended for the sole or at least primary benefit of a male and/or lesbian observer (and/or customer. Remember kids, she’s selling a brand.) The assumption is she is gyrating sexually, she is therefore objectifying herself sexually for a sexually interested party. Demographics aren’t readily available for her album but I’d be willing to put the $20 down to say it trends female more than male. And they are not all lesbians. Third, Beyoncé has gone on record, on multiple occasions, for “loving being a woman” and “enjoying her curves” and “dressing sexily”.  It would be a little disingenuous then to expect her to stand in a full-length evening gown when singing songs about seducing her lover.

The fact of the matter is, some women like to exhibit and some do not. Because Ms. Steele does not see value in exhibition she would like others to not see value in it as well. This is human nature, but it is unreasonable to then have to explain to someone why something they like, that you don’t, that doesn’t cause you any personal harm, is “wrong”. If a male person sees Beyoncé gyrating and from that infers all women should gyrate, then it is NOT Beyonce’s gyrations that are to blame. It is his rationale that “female person gyrating on TV = all women gyrate for me” that is wrong. To assume that Beyoncé’s gyrations set feminism back in any way is tantamount to saying that “because a woman dresses XYZ way she is asking for it”. You can’t have it both ways: either the observer is responsible for their own behaviors or they are not.  I prefer to think that men, and women, are rational human beings capable of using their brains and if they are NOT, it is not the fault of society or other folks. Your brain, and your actions, are your own to manage.

Lean In

The larger discussion, though, is how women are perceived in society and, in terms of Lean In, how we perceive ourselves (vs. how we “should” perceive ourselves, as best as I can decipher it).  While the “Beyoncé is/isn’t a Feminist” debate is exciting mostly because it can be and mostly because of the method in which she chose to drop her album, the “Lean In” concept is trickier and, I think, longer lasting. The basic takeaway I had from reading Lean In is that women don’t get opportunities as much as men do because either a. we would if we spoke up but we don’t speak up, or b. we need to speak up more so men get used to it and therefore will “see” us in the roles we want.

Here I think I need to step aside and explain something in my own, personal world that means my subjective take on this is going to be just that — very subjective. I am 5’10” tall. I have never been of slight build. Physically, I do not appear meek or weak or shy. Further, I am the daughter of two strong-minded, outspoken women, and two male engineers. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem asking for something if I wanted it, and/or providing a rationale on why I should have it. (True story: when I first moved to San Diego 15 years ago, I worked for a company that believed you should get personality tested before you got a position within the company, so everyone knew how to work with you. The sociologist who reviewed my results said that I was a bit like an elephant: when I entered a room everyone would know it, and if my foot fell it would be a resounding stomp, whether or not I intended it to.) A casual reading of my employment reviews would validate this: the best term I think that has ever been applied to my attitude is that I was “highly apolitical”. Time has allowed me to learn how to say “No”, for example, in sixteen different and appropriate ways, but the long and the short of it is if I want something I will ask for it, and if I am told No and I don’t understand why I will press.

Which I guess makes me rather “mannish” in the workforce.

So when Sheryl Sandberg talks about not even thinking about asking for something until it became a really big issue (e.g., preferential parking for expectant mothers) I must confess I don’t understand. When one of the most intelligent, driven women I know in my social circle tells me that until she read this book she would have thought twice, or not at all, pursued a particular project because she wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing so, I am aghast. This book wasn’t particularly instructive to me. It was however, revelatory.

Leaning In Objectively

There is an old joke that PMS is “when women act like men do all the time”. I don’t really think this is accurate and in any event because of better things and better living through chemistry it doesn’t apply to me. However I do think that women can be raised, or conditioned, to not ask for things they want.  It is kind of bittersweet that a Pantene commercial illustrates the deltas in how some women perceive themselves (as well as how they perceive society perceives them, etc.)  It’s entirely possible I am perceived as a bitch, that I’m bossy, or that I’m self-promoting. The question becomes though: what is the end result of my efforts? If I get the promotion, or the project, or the job, or the budget, have I failed still because I ruffled a feather or two? If the tenet is that “men do it all the time” do feathers get equally ruffled? We are told that men “ball-bust” each other and the sting doesn’t last; why must I assume it does if I engage in it as well (abiding thoroughly by the rule that if you dish it, you need to take it).

Bottom line: if I earn what I was after, does it matter if I’m “liked” as much as if I had stayed put? And does it matter, to me, to be liked by someone who would  rather I had stayed put? Like blaming Beyoncé for the perceptions that men may have of other women because of her gyrations, I don’t know that you can blame the woman who gets the project, or the raise, or the bonus, and possibly irks someone, because she asked for and earned it. If there’s anyone who needs to own that, it’s the one who is irked.

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In Development

I was at a holiday gathering the other day and during the usual course of “…And what do you do?” I replied that I was a developer. The inference was that I was a Real Estate Developer; I had to explain that I was a Make the Computer Do Useful Things Developer. I was talking to two ladies about my age (Hi, I’m 40), and was surprised at the reply: “Oh, that’s unusual!”

I suppose I should not have been. I know a lot of women in IT, but darned few who do development.  To be clear: most of the women I know in the Information Technology space were at one point developers, or have a passing knowledge of some development language. They merged into Project or Product Management, or Business Analyst roles. These roles require knowing what is possible of code without actually having to write any of it, and so if you get tired of the incessant progress of development technology then that is one way up and out (and it is a way I took, about five years ago).

Careers arc and opportunities knock and itches flare up and I am once again a developer.  And I find myself, when talking to people who don’t work with or know other developers, battling not only the usual misconceptions about development, but the gender-based ones as well.

Development (in IT terms) is the handle one applies to the concept of using a series of commands (code) to tell the box (tower, laptop, server, etc.) what you want it to do; if you want it to take in something or not, if you want it to spit out something or not. In order to create this blog post many people did varying forms of development (from creating the templates that instruct the browser how to make this post look all shiny, to the protocols that tell the server where to put this post, to the widgets on the front end that tell you things like I haven’t posted in a while). If I typed it in MS Word, that required a bunch of other development by a bunch of other people.

Development is not:

  1. Something you can do on five screens drinking 3 bottles of wine to create a “worm” that appears as a graphic on your screen (as in Swordfish), and usually doesn’t involve a developer logging an Easter Egg of themselves in a bad Elvis costume with sound effects (as in Jurassic Park)*. If I drank 3 bottles of wine and was looking at 5 screens they’d probably be the ones you see in a hospital room, and the only graphics I would see appearing would be the “worm” that is my heart rate monitor flat-line.  And while I have myself buried Easter Eggs and commentary in code, it isn’t that elaborate because you don’t typically have time to build elaborate things. You’re busy rewriting all of the stuff you just wrote because someone decided to change the scope of your work.
  2. Anything involving a graphic user interface (GUI). When a developer talks about manipulating objects, they are things that are typed out phrases, they are not boxes that are dragged and dropped. There are some development environments that offer up a GUI in tandem with the “scripting” – that bit about writing out words I was talking about – but they are there to illustrate what you have scripted more often than not, and not there to assist in your scripting.
  3. Finite. Development technology is constantly changing and no one developer knows all of the development methods or languages. That would be like someone knowing all of the spoken languages in the world. Rather, it’s typical you’ll find one developer who “speaks” one development language really well, or maybe a branch of languages (much like you run into a person who can speak Spanish and French and Italian, because they are rooted in the same “base” of Latin, it’s not uncommon to find someone who can code in ASP.Net and VB.Net and C#.Net, because they’re all of the Microsoftian .Net base).  No one hires “a developer”, they hire a .Net Developer or a Java Developer or a Ruby Developer or what have you. Specialization exists because the base is so broad.

Modern cinema has done an injustice to developers in terms of making what we do seem both simple and sexy; the “shiny” environments typified by the interfaces “hackers” use on-screen looks really slick and probably took some real developer hours of time to make look good… with absolutely no real purpose. That said, actual development can be simple (with clear requirements and a decent knowledge of the things you can and can’t do) and can be quite sexy (if you’re sapiosexual). It’s just not well-translated in current media. (To wit: Jeff Goldblum uploaded a Virus to an alien system on a Macbook. He didn’t have to know the alien system’s base language, machinery, indexes, program constraints, functions, etc. And it was on a Mac, in the 90’s, for which development was not one of its strengths).

Most of what development is, is trying to solve a problem (or two), and generating endless logic loops and frustrations along the way. You build a “thing”, you think it works, you go to compile it or make it run, it fails, you go dig through what you wrote, find you’re missing a “;” or a “,” or an “END” or a “GO” or a “}”, re-run, find it fails, and go dig through some more. For every hour you spend writing out what you want it to do, you spend about an hour figuring out why it won’t do it.  This process of “expected failure” is not sexy or shiny or ideal, and that’s why it doesn’t show up on-screen.

These are misconceptions every developer, regardless of gender, has had to deal with at some point. Some deign to explain, some gloss over, some simply ignore; much like I really hope we get a socially-functioning, intelligent person on-screen soon, so do I hope that we get a showcase for the simple elegance of real development.

It would be great, too, if there were more female developers on “display” as well (and not for their bodies, hence the scare quotes).  Think through every movie you’ve ever seen that shows people doing any real development, “hacking” even (a term that is abused beyond recognition); how many were female? Go back to the movie “Hackers”—did Angelina Jolie actually, ever, really type anything? You inferred that she did, but the real development, the real “hacking”, was done by the crew-of-guys. Oh, and that’s right, she was the only girl.  The Matrix? Carrie Ann Moss spent precious little time in front of a computer there. She did look damn good in skin-tight leather.

Fast-forward a decade (or two) and we’re pretty much in the same boat. You see women behind computers on-screen, but they are typing in word processing programs or moving the mouse to click it on the shiny picture of the Murderer/Prospective Boyfriend (or, you know, both). They aren’t buried under a desk trying to trace a network cable or eyeballing multicolored text trying to figure out *WHY* it won’t compile, they’re delivering the shiny printout to the Chief/Doctor/Editor from which Decisions Will Be Made.

We find it surprising in social circles, I suppose, for women to be in development, because we don’t see it exemplified or displayed in any of our mediums.  TV, Movies, even proto-development toys for children often feature eager-looking boys interacting with them, the girls are reserved for the beading kits and temporary tattoo sets (actually, there’s precious little out there for getting your child, regardless of gender, to learn code, but that is changing). We have crime-solving anthropologists, we have NCIS ass-kickers, we have cops and coroners;  maybe it’s time we had a developer.

*Jurassic Park is a good example of both great and poor development display. Right before tripping that “Dennis Nedry Elvis Graphic”, Samuel L. Jackson’s character is eyeballing Nedry’s code. That stuff that looks like sentences that don’t make sense? That’s code. That’s what it looks like, for the most part. Unfortunately, later on when the little girl is hacking the “Unix System” that “she knows”, it’s all graphical. And that’s not accurate.