I've been thinking a lot lately about the obstacles women face as IT professionals. One of the most insidious and persistent--and by no means unique to IT--is ridicule. Belittling what you don't understand, trying to make someone less so that you can feel like you're more, is an act so commonplace as to be virtually invisible. Examples are everywhere--in domestic and international politics, in your workplace, in the comments to various articles on this Web site, maybe in your family.
I learned about the realities of ridicule a long time ago. It was in high school, in a girl's PE class. My class was "invited" to try out for a special "sports class" for athletically gifted girls. Part of the tryout was running for a mile around the school track. My friends and I were much too cool to be seen sweating and grunting around the quarter-mile loop in our ridiculous pea-green one-piece gym suits. We opted for the superior route--making fun of the girls who ran. That was hard to do, because most of them were natural athletes who skimmed the track and even looked good in their monkey suits. Except for Karen. Karen was the class dork--large-boned, overweight, hopelessly nerdy, the most annoying thing about her was that she didn't know how uncool she was. But that didn't stop her from running that day. She was slow and ungainly and plodded after the other girls. After the first lap, they started passing her again and again, and by the time the rest had finished, Karen still had half a mile to go. Hoo boy, did we ever have a great time pointing at her, laughing at her lumbering gait and her red face, smirking at the fact that the race was long over, the teachers had turned to other activities, the track had cleared, and she was still out there, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to finish.
Would it surprise you to know that she did finish? That she kept moving around that track with no encouragement from anyone else, with almost no one even paying attention to her? She finished her half-mile without stopping, without walking, without expecting applause or even recognition. She ran through scorn, ridicule, and small-mindedness that day the same way she ran through it every day--with a self-willed determination and no small amount of sheer grit that kept her centered in her own vision of where she wanted her life energy to go, and what she wanted to place it in service of.
It took me a long time to understand what I witnessed that day. To know that my friends and I, who had tried so hard to make Karen out a loser, were the real losers. We, who hadn't had the courage to even attempt to run, tried instead to take away the dignity of the girl who had risked more than anyone else to run. We, who were ruled by our fears, our desperation to appear to be on the surface what we couldn't be on the inside, went home that day no better, no more kind, no wiser, with no broader horizons, than we had the day before. Karen made it into the sports class.
Keep running, friends.