A few weeks ago, Victoria invited me to guest blog for International Women’s Day. Always one of my favourite postings when I was at Scarlet Opus, I of course readily accepted. We had a bit of a brainstorm and, inspired by women including IBM Chairwoman & CEO, Virginia Romelty, and Yahoo President & CEO, Marissa Mayer, decided the focus would be women at the top of their game in traditionally male dominated industries.
I began with a quick bit of research and was genuinely shocked to discover that even at the top level, in 2012 the 10 highest-paid female CEOs in the US, collectively pulled in nearly $190 million in comparison to a staggering $609 million earned by the 10 highest-paid male CEOs.
Not long after, I joined a conversation on Twitter started by Elaine Cameron, Futurist & Director of Strategic Research at Future Perspective. Elaine had shared a link to the below video, “What the Media Actually Does to Women”, by Jean Kilbourne in which Jean invites us to look at familiar images of women in a new way, moving and empowering us to take action:
Jean is internationally recognised for her pioneering work on the image of women in advertising, helping to develop and popularise the study of gender representation in advertising. She is the author of the award winning book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, whilst her award-winning films, Killing Us Softly, and Still Killing Us Softly, have influenced millions of college and high school students across two generations, around the globe.
Follow Jean on Twitter @jeankilbourne
Thinking about Jean’s lecture and this posting led me to wonder at the complexity of the period we’re currently living in where at one end of the spectrum women are literally smashing through the glass ceilings long ago put in place by men, and at the other, some of the world’s most naturally beautiful women (and that’s not to say unintelligent) are still allowing themselves to be objectified to a degree that’s arguably worse than ever, and on top of that, the majority of us (yes probably you too!) are still entranced by these images, striving to be skinnier, more toned, with bigger lips, a smaller nose, and thicker hair… the list goes on.
Jean highlights Kate Winslet’s disparaging response to her heavily photoshopped image, a perfect example of the attitude more women must adopt towards how they are portrayed in the media. Take back the control ladies, in sitting back quietly and accepting it as standard practise I wonder if we ourselves are keeping the door open for the inequalities and outrageous perceptions by our male peers still in play today:
tracy chou. software engineer. pinterest
Tracy is a rising-star software engineer at Pinterest. Before Pinterest she interned at both Facebook and Google, turning down an offer from Facebook to become the second engineer hired at Quora. She holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford.
I follow Tracy on Twitter and not long ago read one of her tweets referring to an obnoxious comment she’d received at a corporate event:
Yet again, I was astounded at this attitude at such a level and so when I got in touch with Tracy I asked if this happens frequently: “I haven’t had this happen to me as much recently. I think that’s primarily a function of a couple factors: 1. I don’t go to those sorts of events as much anymore. 2. The events that I do go to, I tend to know more of the people, and they know that I’m an Engineer and that I’m serious about my work.
There’s just still a lot of bias left in the field, unfortunately. The percentage of women in the field is very low. [Latest 2014 figures record only 12% of all software engineers are female.] While it’s hard to tease out which things are correlation or causation, or the directionality of causation, the fact that the percentage is so low definitely doesn’t help people to work past the stereotypes. Many people, male and female, will never get a chance to work with female engineers, so it’s hard to start seeing us as individuals instead of a stereotype.”
SP What made you want to pursue a career in software engineering?
TC It’s a great career path, well compensated, very flexible; the work is intellectually interesting, creative, collaborative, impactful, and relevant to society.
But it was not clear to me that I wanted to be a software engineer until I actually took my first job as one, and even a year into that I was still doubtful of my choice. In college, I chose to not major in computer science because I was intimidated by my (mostly male) classmates and didn’t feel like I belonged. I eventually did a Master’s in CS, pressured by a good friend who knew better than I did what was good for me, but even after that I wasn’t particularly committed to CS/software.
[I eventually did give software engineering an earnest try] but it wasn’t easy, and I did feel lonely and out-of-place for a long time. There were certainly a lot of heart-to-hearts with friends in and out of the industry, and many tears involved. I questioned many times whether I had the mental fortitude to be a female software engineer, and I questioned whether I could encourage younger women to go into the field when I myself could barely keep it together.
It got better when I found one close friend at work, another female software engineer, and I realized I wasn’t alone. Some people reached out to me, and I reached out to some other people, and I found more kindred souls. It helped too that I got a lot more involved with the community, connecting with people on Twitter, meeting people 1:1, volunteering with mentorship programs, generally being present at events and meet-ups.
When I switched jobs, it was a natural reset and I made a conscious effort to invest in my social network outside of work. That was actually entirely sufficient for my mental health and happiness to have friends outside of work, but as the company grew and more people joined I also became good friends with a number of coworkers. If you just imagine that you’ll jive with some percentage of the population that has similar interests and/or is compatible values- and personality-wise with you, and you increase the total number of people that you encounter or interact with, the number of people that you’ll click with also increases.
SP What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your quick rise to success?
TC It’s very flattering that you would characterize me as having had a “quick rise to success”
I think the greatest challenge has been self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is well documented as a common affliction for girls and women in the STEM fields [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] – I have never been immune to it. This lack of confidence naturally makes it much more difficult to engage in the sort of self-promotion that is important for manoeuvring professionally; and it also manifests as a greater need for external validation, when not all environments will afford very much of that.
SP Do you ever feel your age or gender stands against you?
TC Yes. Definitely much more so gender than age, because the Valley seems to worship youth and young founders and early success.
As for gender, I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to establish trust with my co-workers now and they know me and my work, but I often feel that I have more to prove and that people still tend to apply a discount on their expectations of my abilities because I am female.
SP What advice would you give to young women today starting out in their career as a software engineer?
TC You’ll find friends, and it won’t be so lonely Don’t give up on something that you love and that is a great professional opportunity too.
Follow Tracy on Twitter @triketora
Despite being smart, savvy women, fully aware of the extensive airbrushing applied to the images we see in print, online, and onscreen, fully aware of the opportunities we now have to fulfill our potential as human beings – reminded of the fact by so many wonderful role models – I can’t help but come back to the point that we still strive to look exactly like the airbrushed 15 year old model!
How and why is that?!
I wonder if on the climb up the ladder, as women we fight a myriad internal and external battles, and in the process lose some of our integrity, adopting tougher, male-like qualities in order to succeed. In putting together today’s posting I contacted a number of successful women around the globe in various industries. Of the very few that actually replied and agreed to contribute, I was disappointed that only Tracy and Jean kept to their word (that’s not to say I was disappointed to only be including Tracy and Jean’s contributions of course!).
With this loss of integrity perhaps a steely, unapproachable image is also projected, as women we feel we can no longer relate and so we continue to turn back to the familiar, and what we perceive to be, more “friendly” images of women we have grown to accept in the media…
Last year I read Caitlin Moran’s, How To Be A Woman, and am proud to call myself a feminist; I can’t help but feel the battle is far from won. We must take our lead from women like Kate Winslet – speaking out against the accepted standard, and Tracy – overcoming our self-doubts and fighting to equalise expectations.
I’d like to extend my greatest thanks to Tracy Chou for so openly sharing her experiences and opinions, and to Jean Kilbourne for her fantastic work and contribution to today’s posting.
I know the lovelies at Scarlet Opus are always happy to hear from you, so do share your comments and views on today’s posting, or why not let everyone know what you’re doing in honour of International Women’s Day.
Thank you for having me back as a guest blogger Scarlet Opus… until next time!