What I'd tell my 20-year-old self

If I could talk to my twenty-year-old self, I would tell her this:

Girl, it's going to be tough, but we'll get through it.

I don't need to tell you that computers and robots are awesome. I don't need to tell you it's fun to try things out—you're privileged and gritty enough to have been doing that for years already. Math and physics are easy. Programming is easy, if you know what courses to take and have a good mentor. (Yes, the Internet counts as a good mentor.) The work is easy. Hell, you'll be mentoring boys. It's everything else that's tough.

Tough is not a reason to not do it, of course. I'm a firm believer of doing things the right way, not just the easy way. But I just want to give you a heads up.

You'll be called a bitch, both in your face and behind your back, by both men and women, as an insult and as a compliment. The sooner you learn to take it as a compliment, the easier it'll be.

People will try to convince you that being a feminist is a bad thing. Don't let them. Surround yourself with sensible feminists. Read about feminism, and don't waste your early, energetic years being naive about equality. Arm yourself with numbers. In Canada and the US, young women outnumber young men as university undergraduates[1][2], but in the States, only 18% of those graduating with a Computer Science degree are women[2:1]. In Canada, we're at 15%[1:1]. That's 1 in 6, or worse. For minority women, the percentages drop to single digits.

They will question your sources and argue that you are biased. Try not to explode at the irony.

You'll be working with guys, and that's both easier and harder than you think. Guys are human. They aren't smarter or better at software development than you are. But you know that already. The hard part is, they don't know that. They'll ask you to do their documentation rather than code because "you're good at communications," which is just dude-bro-slang for "we're too lazy to learn to do it properly." If you call them lazy dipshits, you're just the crazy bitch who isn't a team player. When you become the team lead, you'll have to work three times as hard as the last dudebro for your team to take you seriously. Your boss will doubt you can actually run scrum.

Call them lazy dipshits anyway.

You'll be told, both in your face and behind your back, that you were hired just because you were a girl. Aren't you lucky.

If I could talk to my twenty-year-old self, I'd tell her that she will be sexually harassed at work, and that she will have to wear a Superwoman suit of steel over her heart and tell people about it three times. The first person she tells won't believe her, and the second person she tells will tell her it's "just the culture, Lois, you don't have be so sensitive," and the third time, hopefully it's the union rep who knows the policy so she could have some legal protection.

I'll tell my twenty-year-old self: don't quit your job because of it, but if you do, I understand. I've been there.

People will think that, just because you have tits, they're entitled to stare at them. If you don't have tits, and they'll say they can stare because you don't have tits.

You'll hear denigrating comments about a coworker who happens to be transgendered. Speak up for her. Don't just ignore it and pretend it didn't happen, because you'll come to regret it. I do. I'm sorry.

If I could talk to my twenty-year-old self, I would tell her: don't kill yourself. Really. When you look down from your twelfth floor apartment balcony, don't jump. We'll get through this. When your stupid, depressed brain tells you to off your children and then off yourself, don't try to go it alone.

Do go see a doctor.

Don't try to work right away. Depression is a serious thing. You don't have to prove it to the boys that you "still have it." You'll always still have it, don't worry.

Do try to work a little, because it's fun. And also because the "gap"—you know, when your career takes a five year break so you can be with your kids when they're young—is real. You'll get asked by people (mostly male headhunters and male hiring managers and male coworkers) whether you had "stayed up to date" while you were "off," as though childrearing is a vacation, and as if working full time as a mother to two kids under two isn't proof enough for how great at problem-solving, consensus building, quick decision making, human resource management, multitasking, thinking on your feet and outside the box, being highly efficient at time management, working well individually and also on a team, and diligently meeting tight deadlines in stressful situations.

(It's a good extracurricular activity, the best extracurricular activity.)

If I could talk to my twenty-year-old self, I'd tell her: keep your eyes peeled for allies. Groom them, coach them, praise them when they get it. Don't wait for them to stand up for you—stand up for yourself, all the fucking time, don't misunderstand—but find that ally who will back up your sexual harassment claim. Know that it's not your job to educate anyone at all. The onus should not be on us. It's not fair. But do it, because it's nice to have allies, and sometimes you have to create allies yourself.

I may sound pessimistic. I swear I'm not. I think cultures can and do change. (They don't change overnight, and sometimes, it is easier to cut and run from a toxic environment.) Have hope that cultures change, and that your actions and words make the world a better place. Remember that, in the moment, it will feel like you're trying to empty the River Thames with a thimble. And I can't tell you that it's worth it. It's not. Not for you. It not worth it for your career or mental health for you to go through these things. But, as Courtney Milan says,

"[Do] you know why I keep going? Because I’m not trying to empty the Thames. Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses."

When you go out there, you will be representing not just yourself, but also your race and your gender. You will be pushed to work harder, because if you fail, your race and your gender will also take the fall.

So go forth and wield that thimble with not just pride, but care. Be an ally. Wear stilettos to work. Report sexual harassment and get the shithead fired. Speak up in games, online, in person, during meetings. Kick so much ass that you exceed everyone's expectations—not because you have to prove yourself, but because you are just that awesome anyway. Grow those bluebells and roses for your colleagues, your kids, your colleagues' kids, your kids' friends.

Girl, it's going to be tough. But we'll get through it.


  1. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2013001/article/11874-eng.htm Jesus' holy panties StatsCan, the numbers are convoluted. But maths is easy, right? 39% of 132,500 female STEM graduates who were in comp sci & engineering = 51,675. Total STEM graduates is 132.5k (female) + 206k (male) = 338,500. 51k/338k = 15.2%. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. https://ngcproject.org/statistics ↩︎ ↩︎

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