Invisibility or the spotlight – women in “historically male-dominated” fields

I’m pretty duff on the technical side of what I do but if I were better I can’t think of a much nobler calling than open source software development. Just stumbled upon the Geek Feminism blog and a guest post from Melissa Draper on the experience of being a minority in your field. This takes me back to a conversation with a bloke in the department where I did my PhD. He had a fearsome intellect and was getting recognition for what he did but, because he happened to be almost completely deaf and almost completely blind, he had been approached by a deaf-blind organisation to mentor other people with his combination of impairments. I asked some kind of crass question and he told me sadly that he didn’t want to be a role model, he just wanted to study like everybody else.

Taking anti-discrimination law into account, Melissa Draper sums up the situation for women in software development:

“With this perceived fair playing field, we often find ourselves asking how we can get girls and women to choose to be involved in fields which are perceived as “historically male-dominated”.

Asking this question, in this manner, inadvertently highlights one of the obstacles which girls and women still face in spite of the applauded taboo on sexual discrimination. It highlights that many of the potential role models for girls and women today, the women pioneers of computing history, are invisible.

Invisibility does not limit itself to history either. The founder of the Free Software movement, Richard Stallman, has previously failed to identify women that have played important roles in the GCC project.

This feminine invisibility (including the “honorary guy” culture) is hurting our budding female software developers. It is robbing them of their inspiration, and creating an atmosphere in which they feel even more like an anomaly than they deserve to.

Because these women of computing past are invisible, the women of modern computing are often put in the spotlight in an attempt to fill the motivational void. Women in software development do not become ‘just a software developer’ like the male super-majority do, they become software developers who must carry the extra burden that being a role model brings, simply because they are so rare.

This spotlight is not always a flattering one. It can draw additional attention, and opens women up to a level of scrutiny that men are generally not subject to.

Being in this spotlight is akin to walking into a saloon in the old west and having every eye turn to watch you. It is like having someone watch over your shoulder as you type. In some cases, especially for women of low self-esteem, it can be as intimidating as having someone follow you into the bathroom to watch you pee. It is an extra pressure, it is an extra stress, and for some women, it is too much.

Women in software development can choose to avoid the spotlight, and many do. Women can avoid the spotlight by assuming a neutral or male identity. Women can avoid the spotlight by telecommuting or avoiding face-to-face events such as LUG meetings where their femininity will be obvious.

Women can avoid the spotlight, by not being women.

Women can choose to be a women and a role model to the girls and women who will follow in their footsteps — at the risk of extra pressures. Alternatively, they can choose to lose part of their identity and the ability to claim credit for what they achieve.”

Women in such fields are serious pioneers.


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