The other day I witnessed a conversation on Twitter where a woman who is a programmer commented on an admittedly girly and light hearted photo I had posted that I was unaware that there was a “feminine bias” in tech. The Tweeter quoted this excellent blog post exploring how the author, a programmer, is taken less seriously at tech conferences and in the tech world because she is feminine presenting than if she were masculine and androgynous presenting. For about two seconds I sat there in a huff and then fired off a note to my empathetic, techie, feminist, feminine coworker, “I think that nothing will help overcome the feminine bias in tech more than more feminine people in tech.”
A long time ago, back in the Riot Grrrl days when I was a teenager, I decided that glamor, femininity and fashion were powerful and could be tools that I could use to communicate my power to the world. Being both feminine and powerful was a way to reclaim power that is taken from women just because they are women. I decided that even if the world was not accustomed to reading feminine presenting people as “powerful” in ways that went beyond manipulative or overly sexual, I knew I was powerful and the world would just have to deal with me seriously, whether I was wearing a dress or jeans. Or a feather boa for that matter (though now my fashion choices tend towards Everlane basics, but I digress).
Time out for two seconds: First of all, I don’t think “feminine presenting” needs to necessarily correspond with gender or sex. I am a feminine presenting person who also has a woman’s body and is very comfortable in that (this blog is called Killerfemme, after all), but who also understands that being a cis gendered person, as well as white and middle class, gives me a lot of privilege for how I can move through the world. Okay, that said, let’s continue.
To complain there is a “feminine bias” in tech and then to propose that the solution is to discourage women and anyone else who feels comfortable presenting as feminine from doing so is ridiculous. To propose that a way to reclaim power in a certain field where masculine presenting people are dominant is to play down one’s own femininity is gender policing and, quite frankly,sexism. Depending who the feminine presenting person is, it could also be homophobia or transphobia, and all of this certainly enforces a gender binary and the idea that somehow “masculinity” is more powerful than “femininity.”
If women are going to cut each other down for how they express themselves through clothes, makeup (or lack thereof), hair, shoes, attitude, and voice that’s just reinforcing the sexist cattiness that is expected of women. Solidarity does not mean silence, complicity, or bitchy critique. It means an honest dialogue and supporting people how they feel comfortable expressing themselves and their gender, no matter where on the spectrum that expression falls. In addition, if you are threatened by my skirts and heels, or dirty Converse and tech company t-shirt, I encourage you to examine your own perceptions of what a “woman in tech” “should be.”
The author of the Coding Like a Girl blog post, who goes by Sailor Mercury online (and makes some pretty bad ass zines, btw), discussed how her (male) partners assumed she was wearing dresses and makeup simply to please them. She wrote, “I was wearing them for me. And it was then, that I realized that continuing to wearing dresses just for myself was a totally valid way to say a big FUCK YOU to the patriarchy.” Right on, my sentiments exactly.
In so many ways this conversation so closely mirrors conversations I’ve witnessed and been a part of about “women in rock.” These conversations go on endlessly about how us ladies playing rock’n’roll are supposed present to be powerful, cool, tough, and be taken seriously as musicians and it just sounds tired at this point. It does matter – do men in bands have to sit around and think carefully about what they will wear on stage so people will understand they are actually there to play music? Unless they specifically performing a certain kind of gender or character, probably not. Do men working in tech think all the time about what to wear to interviews or presentations so they will be taken seriously?
We have more to do than cut each other down and debate about what is the “appropriate” presentation – let’s take an honest look at all our own biases and get on with the real work here – eradicating sexism and injustice from the tech industry and from culture as a whole.
For extra inspiration, here’s a little Riot Grrrl snippet that reminded me that the feminine is powerful if we claim it as such…
(just substitute “girls who write” with “girls who code” for lyrics this song and you’ll get the picture… and maybe we’ll say “We are turning curly brackets into knives…”)