What’s the Use

Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a women; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was of a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more noteriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruitors or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

Chain or Rocks Bridge

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable, and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me, and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but , “What’s the use”.

Egret in Flight

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruitors will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money, but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do, or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results, because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey, and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there is new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.

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11 Responses to What’s the Use

  1. memer says:

    Hey, it’s only natural that your interview skills got a little rusty since you haven’t been in a series of them for a while. It’s not like riding a bike. Or mebbe it is — but more like when you were first learning. All wiggily-wobbily at first til you get the hang of it and ride right. Your next interview (assuming there need be one) will be smoother still.

    As far as proof-of-competence, you have Wordform as your current calling card. Make sure it solves some problem(s) that most users have (or that most geeks might appreciate), slap a “modern” zeldman-type design on the front end (website/app) for the all-important “optics” and walla… instant fame and riches. And if you have no use for either of those, I will gladly help you with your burden ;-)

    Hey, it worked for the 37 signals guys. Why not you? Keep goin, Shel.

  2. Elaine says:

    Yes, do it keep it going. We cherish your fire…and the light it sheds.

  3. jeneane says:

    Shelley, I know what you mean. It’s often like I have the post written in my head, responded to by others, re-responded to by me, ignored by the orginal responders — all before my fingers touch the keyboard, at which point I say, “Why Bother.”

    I hear that. Don’t give in. What you say matters.

  4. Haacked says:

    Keep fighting the good fight! You’d probably be surprised at the influence you’ve had. Every one person who responds positively (or even negatively) typically represents 10 or 100 lurkers who had a reaction to your writing.

    I remember a discussion we had in comments over a disagreement about hiring women in technology. In the end, it caused me to take a look at my hiring practices to see if there was a male bias.

    Unfortunately now, I’m independent, so I won’t be hiring anyone, much less women soon, but the fact that you influenced my thinking is a small answer to the question “What’s the use?” ;)

    p.s. Typing a comment here gave me script errors in IE (which I opened by accident).

  5. Shelley says:

    I appreciate the positive thoughts. I was hesitant about keeping this online after I publishing it. Wasn’t sure I wanted to dump my dark thoughts on people.

    But a person who is bright and cheerful all the time is on drugs, so at least we know I’m clean and sober.

    Haacked, thanks for note on IE. I’ll test it, see what’s the problem.

  6. Kathy says:

    I’m glad you kept this entry up. We’ve all been there, and we all can relate. The previous commenter is right–you have no idea how many people you touch or what a difference you make. I’ve been lurking forever and silently taking away a sense of validation, a feeling of sisterhood and quite a few chuckles. Without even knowing it you’ve told me “Chin up, girl friend,” and patted me on the back quite a few times.

    My turn. Chin up, girl friend. Pat, pat.

  7. Phil says:

    I’d just like to say that I check thirty-odd blogs every morning, but I always save BB till last – and if there aren’t any new posts I usually look at it anyway. It’s a great place you’ve created here, Shelley. I’m glad you felt able to write this post here, and to leave it up, and to post about leaving it up. (After all that posting you should probably get some work done, though.)

  8. Shelley says:

    Work is the operative word, Phil.

    Unfortunately, I did hear from the first job I interviewed with and they’re not interested. There is a chance this post may have impacted on this decision (another reason I pulled it, originally). We talk about how people get fired for their blogs–how many people won’t be hired because of their blogs?

    (And not exercising good judgment in knowing when to take hands off of keyboard and back away slowly.)

    Still, I didn’t do well in the interview and didn’t feel confident of a postive follow-up. And to be honest, I don’t really want to move back to California–though I will if need be.

    I think I want to move to Florida next. Or maybe North Carolina. And I will return to my original policy of not talking about interviews and possible jobs in this weblog.

  9. Shelley: I was thinking about the men/women thing when I received a flyer recently for CFUnited, a Coldfusion conference. Interesting facts:

    * Of the fifty-four speakers, only nine are women.
    * But on the six or so pages of speaker bios, three women are presented on the first page.

    That strikes me as a pretty decent balance… they don’t have that many female speakers, but the ones they *do* have are very visible.

  10. Shelley says:

    Roger, that’s about the best ratio I’ve seen of women to men at a tech conference outside of SxSW. That’s close to 20%, and though it doesn’t reflect the 25% women techworkers, it’s a lot better than 1-2%.

    Seems to me the Coldfusion community is inclusive as well as being diversified.

  11. Phil says:

    Shelley: Work is the operative word, Phil.

    My, wasn’t that sensitive of me? I was using ‘work’ to include unpaid hacking. And projecting my own guilt about blogging in work time. And is two excuses too many, or is it only when you get to three?