When I Moved Abroad

I grew up in the States. While growing up, I got interested in the country of Garistan. I was drawn to a country full hard-core passion for living a happy life. I studied the history and geography of Garistan, and got a pretty good feel for it.

So I moved there. At first, things seemed to go OK. Sure, there was a bit of a language barrier, but I was committed. I had a phrasebook. Some days were great, I did everything I needed to do and felt on top of the world. Some days I felt clumsy just trying to do normal tasks like food shopping. But I kept on going.

One day, I found a group of ex-patriots from the US. I went to the first meeting, a bit nervous, not quite sure what I was seeking out. What I found was relief. I could speak English without worry about how fast I was talking, or that anyone would assume I was a tourist. I could speak broken Garistanese without worrying about my accent and without worrying that I was being judged. I could talk about American things without having to explain it in detail. It was so calming, and it made those hard, clumsy days just a bit easier, because I would go back to the group and talk about struggling for a word, or my embarrassment.

We would also go out together, and there was strength in our numbers. I noticed that we all spoke better Garistanese when we were out with each other. I guess we just felt more comfortable.

Then Christmas came around. And let me tell you, it was unbelievably difficult. I love Christmas. Decorating the tree, baking cookies, shopping, the way everyone is nice to each other for 6 weeks (except when trying to find a parking space). Best of all, I love singing Christmas carols.

My first Christmas in Garistan made me realize just how different I really was. They put cotton candy on their trees to decorate them? What’s with the buckets in front of the fireplace? Tell me again what the traditional Garistan Christmas cake is? There are different songs….and even the familiar ones are sung in Garistanese.

I was out of my element. It was upsetting and frustrating. I could do what I wanted in my own apartment, but venturing forth into the street just reminded me how different I really was. My group of English-speaking US compatriots were the best gift I had that year. They helped me navigate the Christmas differences, and they even pointed out some similarities I was taking for granted. We did our own American-style traditions, including a cookie swap. It was so comfortable, and made that first Christmas really bearable.

But I cannot deny that I felt I was an outsider. I would have moved back to the States if it weren’t for my group, encouraging me and just being the same as me. It was not really the Garistan people that had me feeling so uncomfortable, it was the culture in general. It is not what I am used to, and several times I felt as though I was being treated rudely, though now that I have more experience with the Garistan community, I understand that is the way they interact, and culturally it is not thought of as rude. My Garistan friends would ask me to come out with them, but sometimes I did not want to go to a large crowded party full of all those things that made me feel uncomfortable.

SPOILER: Garistan is a made-up country. This story is an analogy about women in tech. Think of Garistan as a random tech community – maybe it’s MySQL, maybe it’s Python, maybe it’s sysadmins, devops, whatever. The group of US expatriates? That is a women-only space.

It is not sexist to have a women-only space in a community that’s so very male-oriented and has so many men in it. It is (arguably) a necessity if you want more women to be a part of the community. If you want more folks from the US to move to Garistan, wouldn’t it make sense to have comfortable spaces for those who speak English?

Christmas in this story could represent a conference or big event. I read an article that complained about women-only hackathons, because a men-only hackathon would be sexist, so of course a women-only hackathon would be sexist. And it is so utterly and completely wrong. Most men do not need a comfortable space to be among other men during a tech conference, because the conference is already mostly men. Just like most folks in Garistan do not need “Garistanese-only” spaces, because Garistanese is the dominant language there.

Is it the fault of Garistan people, that they have a Garistanese culture? No. And it is not the fault of men that they have a male culture. But if you want to retain those who come from the US, you have to change a little, offer up some more English, maybe acknowledge the Fourth of July in some little way. Same thing with tech culture – if you want to retain more women in the community, you have to make the space a little more comfortable for us.

I would also like to point out that not all women feel this uncomfortable. In fact, I actually do not feel this way most of the time. A mostly-male space does not feel that foreign to me. I always hung out with my two brothers, most of my friends growing up were male, and I actually have to put effort into being friends with other women. You can think of this as someone who moved to Garistan after visiting every year for decades. I know how “male spaces” work and I am comfortable in them.

Some women are comfortable in mostly male spaces. That does not indicate that those spaces are welcoming towards women. Maybe they are, maybe they are not. The presence of a few women means that those women are comfortable enough, but that does not mean that many women would feel comfortable there.

The level of comfort that any one woman has can vary, not just on their own experiences, but also depending on the community, and depending on her own situation. Back to the analogy, someone might be completely comfortable with the Garistanese language, having studied it, but still have a hard time with Garistanese culture. Or maybe that person is fine with everything except the different Christmas traditions. Most of the time, that person would fit right in, but Christmas is a trigger point.

If I make a “math is hard!” joke among my coworkers, they know I am smart and maybe just having an off day. If I make the same joke and someone’s listening who does not know me, they might get the impression that I really do not know what I am doing.

I will freely admit that I laugh at inappropriate humor on a locked-down IRC channel, because I know the audience, and I know the intention of the person telling the joke. Those same jokes on a public channel or at a party where I did not know anyone or even on Facebook have caused me to speak up and say “that is not funny.” Context is critical.

To the men reading this – you have a male culture. That is perfectly OK, just like Garistan has a Garistanese culture and everyone speaks Garistanese. But if you want more women in a particular space, you have to change the culture in that space. If you do not know everyone who is listening, be more thoughtful about what you say. And try to remember that we women are trying to learn technical stuff (Garistanese) and cultural stuff (Christmas traditions) at the same time.

9 responses

  1. Markus Eisele wrote on :

    Thank you Sheeri!

    That is actually the first post about that topic that truly convinced me. More than that. It _explained_ something and made a good analogy which I (as a male) can follow. Don’t tell me I’m not blessed with some kind of emotional intelligence, but all the sexism and conduct things merely convinced me because they all missed to _explain_ the reasons and triggered my anti-authoric sensors…

    I’m glad to know you in person. Thanks for taking the challenge living in Garistanese.


  2. Dave wrote on :

    You can probably guess by my name that I’m male. I’ve worked in technical environments with women where the ratios were 1:1 and in technical environments where the ratios were 4:1, males to females. There is definitely a biological difference between men and women in both behavior and culture. There is also a preference among the genders for what jobs they readily pursue on the teams. Time after time, opportunities for writing code came up and invariably went to the men on the teams. Communication, project management, requirements gathering, design documents were areas where women excelled and clustered. Most women blatantly state, “I don’t like to code.” Men who are passionate about coding list it as something that they do in their spare time. The few times I’ve presented my coding hobby, it has been met with respect from men and derision from women.

    During every step of my career, there has been a push to include women and be aware of their needs. Every community can benefit from an influx of new talent with a different point of view. I support efforts to grow the number of women in the IT field. However, just as I don’t want to work with a guy who can’t code himself out of a for loop, I don’t want to work with a woman who can’t. Show me your chops. Earn my respect through domain knowledge and a passion for the field. At the same time we are being inclusive, we have to produce. Help me achieve the client’s mission and we all win. Some people get (grok) this key element of business, some don’t. Men and Women have failed at many efforts independent of their gender.

    I feel the doors have been wide open for women for a long time. Manly men would see your Garistan post as whining. I understand it to be sharing and commiserating. It’s well written but I’m not sure if the analogy is a perfect fit. If you want to have secret societies of women to talk about technology, go ahead. I think cloistering yourself by excluding men is counter productive but if it works for you go for it.

    I feel that in any situation involving people there are power struggles. Between two women, between a man and a woman, between two men. All have power struggles. The question becomes: Is this situation benefiting me or hurting me. If a, then stay. If b, then move on.

    The things women are drawn to…good presentation, flowery language, and socializing are anathema to effective men in technology. People who are focused on how they dress and who is dating who are not alone in their basement studying data structures or running novel code tests. The true leaders in technology are most often not pretty boys. Learning to look past that superficiality is a challenge women have in the field. We ALL suffer the eccentricities of the expert in the field. Why? because Richard M. Stallman wrote much of GNU and has earned respect through his words and deeds. because Linus Torvalds dug down, built something, and at the critical moment decided to share it. because they have some juju that we want more than anything else.

    It takes passion, patience, time, work, and luck to be successful at anything. I don’t envy women their many decisions on how to spend their time among many competing drives. Sometimes, you do have to choose one and exclude all of the others. All of our times’ are valuable, how we spend it and who we spend it with defines how successful we are.

    1. Sheeri wrote on :

      “The things women are drawn to…are anathema to effective men in technology.”

      I agree. Men need to be more open to dealing with people different than they are.

      What I don’t agree with is you seem to be saying that women are well-rounded and men are single-focus driven. You give a list of qualities it takes to be successful and then say that women choose other things. But that is decidedly untrue.

      Also the analogy isn’t cloistering folks away, it’s giving people time to recharge in an environment they are comfortable in, before going back into the place that isn’t so comfortable for them.

      If “most women” in your life state “I don’t like to code”, you’re either talking to the wrong women, or the women have taken the entire experience of coding, including being told to RTFM and being treated condescendingly as a n00b, and that is what they do not like. Sure, some women do not like to code, just like some men do not like to code, but I think your experience is skewed.

    2. njn wrote on :

      Dave, some friendly advice: shut up and listen. And think about what Sheeri wrote. Like, really *think* about it, rather than immediately looking for the parts where you have a knee-jerk disagreement. Like, go off for three hours, walk around in circles, hum to yourself. Sleep on it. Then re-read what Sheeri wrote, and think some more.

      After you’ve done that, consider writing a comment. The quality of that comment will be much higher than the one you just wrote.

  3. Zak Greant wrote on :

    Hey Sheeri,

    Thanks for writing this! I know that you’re opening yourself up for criticism and outright attack by saying anything about sexism in technology, and I applaud you stepping up.

    I’ve just read Dave’s comments, and I’d like to share my experiences with him (and your other readers.) As a small caveat, I don’t really buy into the ideas of gender binary and gender determinism, but let’s pretend like we all do for a bit and dig in.

    I have female friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are accomplished developers. When it comes time to figure out who takes on the coding, they step up. In some cases, they’ve stepped up enough times to become leads of key FLOSS projects. What I see is that even as a chosen leader for a project, they still have to deal with male participants publicly discussing their sexual attractiveness, sexual habits, performance of gender role, social skills, sexual orientation, etc. I don’t think that “Learning to look past that superficiality is a challenge women have in the field.” I think that this is actually the male challenge in dealing with women – both in respecting them as human beings and in respecting their technical skills.

    Here’s an interesting contrast to women participating in mostly male spaces. Like Sheeri, I’m an author, community manager and developer. I’m also a knitter.

    Knitting is a lot like coding. It’s a complex skill that anyone can pick up (though it often takes help from an experienced knitter). If you want to develop deep mastery, you have to spent a lot of time at it, often to the exclusion of other things in your life. Unlike coding though, almost all of the real masters are women and almost all knitting spaces are female spaces.

    When I participate a knitting circle or go to a knitting event, I stick out like a sore thumb – I’ve always been the biggest, hairiest and most deep-voiced person in the room.

    While I’ve encountered open discrimination and misandry in these almost-exclusively female spaces, it’s rare and has been directed at behaviours and beliefs I’m assumed to have as a man, rather than at my skill as a knitter, my performance of my gender role, my sexual orientation or how much of a sexual commodity I may or may not be. It’s not that women don’t discuss these things, it’s just that I almost never have had it being used as a weapon against me by a woman.

    The vast majority of my experience in knitting spaces is really positive. At the times when I’ve been shy about participating, I’ve always been actively welcomed by someone. If I need help, people are supportive and I’ve never been shamed for not knowing (or forgetting) something basic. The few times when I have encountered misandry in mostly female spaces, other women have taken it on themselves to defend me from their peers and check in that I was okay afterwards. This is particularly interesting to me because I’m likely perceived as being the most dangerous person in the room. Women aren’t generally worried about other women beating them, raping them or killing them. I’m the statistical risk intruding into a space where the other participants feel physically safe with each other and I’m the one who gets defended.

    When I contrast this with how we treat women in male geek culture, I’m left dumbfounded. How is it that the group that perpetuates the vast majority of threats and violence against another group gets bent out of shape when anyone says that something unfair might be going on?

    Seriously. What the hell is the matter with us?

    Something else I find interesting is that the only problems that I’ve encountered for being a knitter have been with men. Have I been publicly ridiculed for knitting? Multiple times, all by man-shaped humans. Have I been threatened with physical violence because I was knitting? Yep. Any guesses as to the gender presentation of the perp? Have women assumed that I’m gay because I knit? Often (and it does seems that many male knitters are gay) but I’ve never had a woman yell “fag” me because I was knitting – again, that’s something that only men have done.

  4. Di wrote on :

    Another female in IT here. I was lucky in that I have been working in IT for about 20 years, so have been there for a long time and don’t have many people doubting my coding skills, once they’ve worked with me.

    Yes, I have had sexist jokes and questions about my sexuality, and lots and lots of queries about my dating life, especially after I divorced. The funny thing is that the only people who I felt threatened by with this was not my fellow geeks, but their wives. The idea that a (SINGLE! INTELLIGENT!!) female may be able to work in a primarily male environment without wanting to steal your man is apparently impossible, and I have had friends tell me they aren’t allowed to go to a (communal) beer after work with me, because their wives don’t like it.

    I’m lucky that I’m now in my 40s, so I’m pretty sure I’m not a sex object, and I can tell guys who cross the line to shut up, and out snark them if they take offense. I also recognise that most females in IT for more than a couple of years are there because they are really good and love what they do. But no, I don’t come home and code. I need time where I am not a honorary bloke, but a normal human.

  5. geography in high school was not hard wrote on :

    I couldn’t read the whole thing. I got about two paragraphs in and got bored, because Garistan was a totally made up country so I could see no point in reading further. State your point up front, maybe we would continue reading.

    1. Sheeri wrote on :

      I’m trying to make an analogy and I’d rather not have people influenced by my own conclusion. I’m sorry you couldn’t prioritize a few minutes to read further; maybe you will come back to it later when you have more time.

  6. Mike wrote on :