Yesterday before I left for ALA in Toronto, I went to the awards ceremony at my kids' elementary school. I stood in the "cafetorium" (the combined cafeteria and auditorium) watching smiling kids go up to collect their reading certificates, safety patrols standing to be recognized, and my son Lane receiving a prize for his "honorable mention" in the Toshiba Exploravision contest.
As I looked around the room at the happy children, proud parents, and last-day-of-school-relaxed teachers, I blinked back tears of gratitude. I take the safe, comfortable world that my family and I live in so much for granted on a day-to-day basis. It's seldom that I can step outside of that world and see it as the privilege and gift that it is.
That's true for all of us, I think. There are certain privileges that most of the people reading this post have grown up with, and over time we become blind to how lucky we are. Often when we encounter people who don't have what we have (intelligence, education, enough money to survive on) it makes us uncomfortable or angry. "It must be your own fault," we think, "because if I could do it, you could do it. You just need to try harder."
But what the privileged often don't understand is how much the deck is stacked in their favor. Money, is an obvious example. Sure, a kid with limited financial resources can go to college. But s/he has to work a lot harder to get there--just the application process alone for financial aid is a daunting process. And once they're there, they're the ones holding down two or more part-time jobs, constantly doing calculations in their head as to whether they can afford that book--or that beer. It change the entire experience by adding a layer of stress that financially well-off students never have to deal with.
Beyond the obvious factors like money, however, are the more insidious privileges. For example, the privilege of being in the majority. Of never feeling like you're being expected to speak "for your group," of never feeling as though everything you do is being scrutinized more carefully because you stand out, you're different. To be able to be anonymous, or to know--without having to analyze it--that you're accepted in a community.
Every time someone like Shelley, or me, posts about our frustrations with trying to participate in white-male-dominated technical contexts, a whole bunch of white males immediately point out to us that of course it's not about gender. Of course women are treated exactly the same as men in this brave new gender-blind internet world. And if they aren't, it's clearly their own fault. They aren't trying hard enough to get along, they're not "team players," they don't "play well with others."
Along those lines, I fully expect that 90% of the comments I get to this post will come from white men, most of whom will want to tell me just how hard they had it, how their dominant status never bought them anything, how women and men face the same challenges, the same problems, yada yada yada. I'm not accusing those men of lies or hypocrisy. I believe that many of them are genuinely committed to gender equality, and that they believe that they're "gender blind" in their interactions with others. But like me taking my safe, suburban school for granted, they're taking their male-dominated work environments for granted.
Don't agree? Before you argue with me, I highly recommend reading Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Here's an excerpt:
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to be now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
I spend a lot of time watching the conversations that are taking place these days in weblogging, social software, and other technology contexts. Yes, there are a few women involved in the conferences and meetings. But their voices aren't the ones we usually hear about from the men. To be heard--to really be heard--a woman has to break the rules. She has to be outrageous. Halley does it by throwing in a little sex. Shelley does it by throwing in a little ass-kicking. Only when they do this do people stop and really pay attention.
Yes, sometimes Halley's heavy emphasis on sexuality makes me uncomfortable. Yes, sometimes Shelley can be prickly and difficult. But I cannot overstate my admiration for both of these women...for their willingness to break rules, to take big chances, to shout out loud enough to be heard. That's exhausting work. Risky, too...because, as Shelley in particular has found on numerous occasions, when you break the rules, you make people feel uncomfortable. And when they feel uncomfortable, most of them will push you away and/or shut you out.
So what's a woman to do? Play by the rules, and hope that she'll stumble into a place at the table with the guys? Make some noise to get noticed, and hope that she won't be blacklisted in the process?
I'm particularly interested in hearing from women with strong voices out there in the technology landscape. I know there are a few of you out there. (Not nearly enough of you, but a few.) What worked for you? What do you wish you'd known earlier? What do you think women should be doing to start getting their voices heard more clearly in technical discussions?