Kathy Sierra On The Primer On Sexism Discussion

Kathy Sierra wrote her own response (like I did) to Laura Sanders’ post about my Primer on Sexism in Tech. She sent it to me and, with her approval, I am publishing her comment in full, below:

I have far, far, far more experience in the tech world than Laura, and I, too, have never – not once – experienced what I felt was sexism in a job or conference. I spent more than two decades as a programmer, in both large companies (Sun Microsystems), mid sized game companies (Virgin Sound & Vision), and tiny start-ups.

I’ve attended more than 200 technical conferences, world-wide, spoken at dozens, and keynoted some of the biggest (SXSW) and most hard-core (OSCON, Emerging Tech, etc.)

Yet not for one heartbeat did I perceive even the most subtle instance of sexism at any of my jobs or any of these conferences. So I, too, have always found posts like Faruk’s confusing at best. These posts describe a world I do not recognize, and my personal anecdotes reflect a deep and long and rich and varied history in this tech world. I, too, felt that the message being sent to young women considering tech carrers was anything but welcoming. Like we were warning them in advance, THIS WILL SUCK FOR YOU. I still believe that.

But… But… But… then THIS happened:

I was given a diagnosis of being “on the spectrum*. And in one shocking moment, I reviewed my entire history through a new (more accurate) lens and realized that I was living in a slightly out-of -phase world. A world where I wouldn’t – couldn’t – recognize what was all around me. Asperger’s – in my one, personal, case (the only one I can speak to), was a beautiful rose-colored lens softly buffering me from just about everything. (interesting side point: if a programmer is dissed, insulted, belittled, excluded, held back, overlooked, etc. and doesn’t perceive it, did it do any damage?)

And then THIS happened: I realized that most of the other outspoken women I knew who were complaining about sexism in tech were really f’n brilliant. Outstanding. Dedicated. Most importantly – they usually WERE the “best person for the job” in many of their work environments.

How does this apply to my point? I was NEVER the “best”. I was a mediocre, decent programmer. So, another piece of the puzzle-that-was-my-never-experienced-sexism existence was that it would never have occurred to me that I had been passed over or dismissed because of gender because I ALWAYS knew I wasn’t The Best. (note to feminists: no, I am not discounting my abilities because of gender norms or insidious subconscious bias and long-standing cultural messages. I have plenty of objective proof that I was never more than average as a coder; it was never my passion… I wrote code simply because I wanted to MAKE things, not because I was seriously into code).

And then THIS happened: I realized that I was both much older (55) and definitely not “hot”. In other words, I was blissfully protected from an entire category of behavior because I was NOT young and attractive. Each time a woman I knew would say something like, “don’t you just hate it when your [clients/co-workers/conference attendees] hit on you?” I would think, “um, that has NEVER, not ONCE happened to me.” I found their stories less than credible because, you know, it had NEVER happened to me. Not for a moment did I consider that they were – simply by being younger and more attractive – far more likely candidates for that one subset of behaviors that made their professional life far less comfortable than mine.

I went to conferences to learn, not network, so I found twenty years of conferences deeply valuable. There was never a down-side (that I was capable of perceiving, given that back channel conversations about my presentations didn’t bother me).

And then finally, THIS happened: a Mack truck’s worth of vile, misogynistic, sexist comments and pictures were sent my way. A pile so deep and disturbing that my lovely, happy obliviousness to it all was pierced, for good. And at that moment, when the floodgates opened and people across the world were talking about what had happened to me or, more importantly, what it dredged up for them, I learned that I was just… Wrong. That denying what my (sadly, too few) fellow women technologists were experiencing was absurd and harmful to them, to future women technologists, and to my own (college-age) daughters.

I am in no way suggesting that you – Laura – or any of the other women who have not experienced sexism in the tech world – are “on the spectrum”, or older (clearly you aren’t), or as in my case CLEARLY not the “best in the room” (which would make it more obvious when you were overlooked). Just saying that I have learned the painful truth that no matter how little you– and many others– perceive what’s happening, that in no way means it isn’t all around you and doing subtle but insidious damage. A damage that can pop out in a wide range of horrible, life-altering (in my case, and not for the better) ways.

Not suggesting you Google me, but it would not be difficult to find posts I made long ago that weren’t all that different from the one you wrote, Laura, though I was throwing my far greater time in the field as credibility for my “sexism is not serious here” claims.

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