realinterrobang (realinterrobang) wrote,

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How To Choose A Career If You Don't Have A Penis

"Under Communism, man exploits man. Under capitalism, it's the other way around." The old threat was always, in the Soviet Union, the (eeevil) Communist government chose your job for you. In modern North America, the (eeevil) capitalist culture chooses it for you, especially if you're female. To quote Harlan Ellison, "This, damn them, is a personal account."

When I was in Gr. XII, I got called down to the office with the two other students whose names were alphabetically adjacent to mine in the Gr. XII roster, to talk about the possibility of our enrolling in community college (a post-secondary, certificate or diploma-granting institution). The three of us were sitting in the office, two guys and myself, and the then-vice-principal was giving us a lecture on the various programmes available at the Province's colleges. We'd been given books with lists of programmes at each college in the Province (sort of like a generalised prospectus), and were flipping through them. The VP himself was looking at a three-ring binder with our course lists and transcripts in it. At one point, the VP looked at the two guys and said, "Perhaps you want to look at police work, or electronics?" Then he looked directly at me and said, "And perhaps you'd like to look up ECE or nursing?"

I came halfway out of my chair in an outrage and said, "ECE or nursing?! I'd rather study auto mechanics!!"

The funny moral of the story is, later that night, I told my parents what had happened, and they were sure he didn't mean anything by it (ha ha, and that in itself is the subject of another rant), but agreed to talk to him at the next Meet the CreatureTeacher Night. Once there, they mentioned the incident, and he said, "Was she serious? There aren't any tech courses in her transcript."

(There you have it, folks. Simultaneously slimy, sexist, and clueless.)

The next instance I can remember was being in grad school and desperately, desperately needing my own computer. I had already decided that I was going to go into technical writing if at all possible once I graduated (itself a choice fraught with gender difficulties, because in many ways, technical writing is the 21st C. equivalent of the steno pool, and, although it is a vastly female-dominated profession these days*, the male technical writers still overwhelmingly tend to work in the higher-paid and higher-respected fields and positions). So, I had further decided that I needed the best computer I could possibly buy at the time (late 1998). I had about $2500 to spend (and even then, if you were smart and careful, you could get one hell of a computer for that kind of money). What's more, I had done my research and decided that I wanted a custom system, because that way I could be sure I was getting exactly what I wanted and needed. I had looked at pre-built systems at Costco and Office Despot and Staples, and I hadn't liked any of the then-available packages. I thought they were underpowered and emphasised too much flash and too little substance.

* The latest figures I have for female dominance in technical writing are from 1999, and at that time, according to the STC, some 70% of technical writers were female, which was actually a dramatic reversal that started in the 1970s and 80s.

I started calling around. At one of the first whiteboxers I called, the snarky-sounding guy "listened" (for a certain definition of "listen" which means something like "hear what you think the person is saying, and respond accordingly"), and then cut me off with, "I don't think you understand. We sell high-end custom systems here, and I really think you'd be much happier if you just went to Staples and bought something out of a box." I said, "I'm actually looking for a high-end custom system. I have about $2500 to spend, and I won't be spending it with you." (I really love how so many people think that they just know better than you do what would make you happy.)

The next egregious instance after that was after I had finally gotten some technical writing work (which took me some years to accomplish, because people kept offering me marketing writing jobs -- again, a gendered experience, because, even today, the perception is that women do marketing and men do technical work, regardless of how many women the STC counts), the IT consultant my boss hired to come in and do periodic maintenance on our network would do things like drop a CD-ROM on my desk, say to me, "I'll be back in 10 minutes to help you install that." He would consistently act surprised when, by the time he returned, I had the app up and running. I should probably point out that part of my job at the time was documenting usage procedures for a complex online VPN-accessible-only document management system involving some 40 or 60 thousand documents, and most of the rest was handling Material Safety Data Sheets (which, while not technical in the IT sense of the word, are definitely "technical documents"), and what was left over was writing course material for distance learning in occupational health and safety, industrial hygiene, and related subjects (like inferential statistics).

More recently, I have gone for interviews for technical writing jobs (a field in which I do, actually, have some experience) and was told more than once by the persons responsible for doing the hiring, "I really think you'd be happier in marketing or academia." Right. Again with the presumption of happiness which runs entirely counter to my own perception of what makes me happy.

(Being a rhetorician at heart, I really wonder about this curious framing of the issue. I suspect what they're actually saying is, "You'd make me less uncomfortable if...")

I've actually provided you with a link to my resume. Go click it and see if you can spot anything marketing-related on there. No? That's because there isn't any! I haven't done marketing writing in almost 10 years, other than self-promotional stuff for my business, and that's largely because marketing writing drives me fucking bananas, which is not "happiness" by any definition. Also, having done a stint in academia, I can tell you, technical writing is a lot less stressful. Perfectionist programmers aside, most of the time it's just you, the software, and your test environment.

Peace. Quiet. And the software doesn't care if you can piss your name in the snow or not.

On the other hand, a lot of people in the IT industry do. There's still a perception that women are not to be taken seriously, which is fed into in part by the programmerish mystery-religion mindset that if you don't program, or don't spend at least a significant amount of time grinding code every day, or at least know as much about computers as people who do, you're automatically basically a lesser life form. I had numerous clashes on the subject with my old boss' IT consultant (I kept calling him on his bullshit and he kept telling my boss that I couldn't possibly know what I was talking about, and my boss believed him over me). You can see the attitude writ large on sites like Slashdot, which is one of the reasons why I've pretty much given up on the "front page" stuff there and moved entirely into the journalling community. (Those who think that women are by default lesser IT lights should meet the female CEOs of Simpli and Phoenix Interactive, respectively, just to name two off the top of my head, both of whom are making more money, and wielding more power than any ten of the bigoted codemonkeys in question.)

So, each of these examples, I think, provides insight into some of the various mechanisms by which society can (attempt to) steer a person into a certain career path, many of which are themselves implicitly gendered. (In another post on feminist backlash and gender-role perception, I should discuss in detail the odd trend I noticed amongst my students -- taking a programme called Business Marketing -- where the vast majority of the males in the class wanted to go into sales, and the vast majority of the females wanted to go into marketing proper. I wish I knew why that was, but in my experience, marketing itself seems to be a "female" job -- like nursing, or ECE, hueh hueh...) Of course, sometimes this steering doesn't work, exactly, and the person persists in pursuing the career path anyway. I did it, but I have to wonder what consequenses have I incurred, exactly, for not taking the easy or societally-approved way out? My income-level-to-experience ratio would suggest that there's an economic cost, which may be the most significant cost of all...

This post was inspired by The Gender Gap. Part I: Theories at Echidne of the Snakes. I very highly recommend it. And give me my goddam quarter.


Addendum: I should probably add, just in case anyone gets his nose out of joint, that I have encountered many, many male programmers who are decent, wonderful, and not inclined to look down on other people for any reason. You guys know who you are. The problem is, in the aggregate, they're a (cherished) minority. This isn't their fault. I'm not into the collective guilt or collective punishment trip. However, in this essay I am speaking in generalisations, so their exemplary behaviour gets washed out by normative bigotry and assholishness. Those who are genuinely on the well-behaved side of things will know exactly what I'm talking about.
Tags: being interrobang, dealings with the man, employment, family stuff, feminism, gender-conform or die, high school confidential, ibtp
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