Sliding Across Genders: STEM, Femme and Feminism
I vividly remember walking home one day with my partner during the time leading up to my leaving for graduate school. She told me that she wouldn’t be making the move with me. I remember the exact spot she said this, and the exact thought that went through my head next, “I’m going to end up dealing with me being trans.” I didn’t want that to be true and my head hoped I was wrong, but my heart knew.
I was in therapy by the end of the year.
When I first got accepted to graduate school I was able to strike the following deal with my employer at the time: I’d switch to a part time schedule while I was studying and I’d have a job until I graduated. I think my performance in the years leading up to my request really helped make that arrangement happen. By then I was seen as someone who was approachable and I had a history of fixing long standing bugs that had stumped others. My contributions in creating the user experiences for the company software were also much appreciated. I felt valuable. I felt that I had the trust of my colleagues to work remotely and solve problems and do a good job. I also still think the company saw me as valuable when they agreed to the part time arrangement in 2010, at a time we were still just starting to recover from the Great Recession.
The money this arrangement put in my pocket was very useful as it allowed me to do things like buy wigs, a bridesmaid dress for a Halloween costume, and soon thereafter a real start on a new gender appropriate wardrobe. By that winter I was wearing my wig and selections from my new wardrobe on the Light Rail to the mall. I was on a mission to buy makeup and get help from the first of a band of stylists who would help me figure out how to express femininity in away that would work work for me.
Makeup did find a way on to my face when was still in “male mode”. I figured wearing some while attempting to pass myself off as a guy would teach me restraint to make sure that I only put enough makeup on to look like I was wearing none at all.
Meanwhile in graduate school I was stressing myself out with fears I wasn’t going to make the grade. Despite being gendered as male by the world for most of my life, I still felt pressure of “science is not for girls” through societal messaging. Barbies emphasizing beauty, EZ Bake Ovens emphasizing women as home makers, dolls that simulated babies with varying degrees of accuracy. Alone as I was I had no way of knowing that messaging was bupkis save for my own intellect. My reaction to the bodily fluid simulating dolls was, “WHY WOULD I WANT THAT?!?”
Then there was the fact that when I started elementary school my parents were told I would need to carry around a calculator for the rest of my life to do basic math. On top of that I was held back in math in second grade. The message that math was not for me was received by my young mind and I find myself wondering now if my desire to become a writer in third grade was influenced at all by my being held back the year before.
I did recover from my math related blows in college but that meant first being terrified sitting in Pre-Calculus knowing I had Calculus and Discrete Mathematics I & II ahead of me. I ran away from Theory of Algorithms cause I thought for sure that class would expose me as the fraud I still knew I was even after getting through Discrete II. No one else knew I was a fraud because yeah, it can take me a while and my mind can take round about paths to understanding, but given enough time I eventually understood things. Even Theory of Algorithms.
Despite my eventual triumph over math, and my time in industry, to this day when I can’t put together an equation it isn’t just that I’m struggling to do it in my mind. It’s that I’m living up to the expectations of my School District in the early 1980’s. I know better, but all the messaging I received makes this NPR article speak to me (especially the bit I’ve emphasized):
“For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype,” Schmader said.
Even when the world saw me as guy I didn’t feel like I belonged in graduate school pursuing my master’s degree in computer science. I wondered if the reason I was even allowed to be there was only because I could pay for it.
With all the stress from school, working 25 hours a week, and having a double life while maintaining a long distance relationship – something had to give. That ended up being me sending an e-mail to classmates with the subject, “There’s a time and place for everything, and it’s called College” with the body, “When I get to class tonight, call me Paige.” Not too long before that I announced that I was trans in another class because I wanted to do a research project to see if I could use my talent as a computer scientist to help transgender people express the gender they identified with.
Just like that, I started to live as the woman I was destined to become. At least in my computer science classes and while carrying out my errands about town. At first I felt like nothing more than a curiosity which, come on, I was in academia so I hope the people there are curious. This meant for a while I got to enjoy being able to do things like offer my observations on the academic papers we were reading and have my contributions be accepted as good food for thought. Then one day, after about two months or so, I made an observation I thought was up to my usual caliber and I was told by a classmate I was missing some understanding. In the moment my reaction was, “Well, this is new…” and in a way, professional respect has been feeling more and more like lip service and less and less like reality ever since.
On graduation I did make the decision to give one more go at trying to pass myself off as a guy due to having difficulty finding a new job. I do want to call out I don’t think there was anything phobic going on with my difficulty. More, “Why did that person bring up they’re trans? Is that going to be a distraction for them from their job?” However by the end of Summer 2012 my anger from having to pass myself off as a guy and my growing alcoholism pushed me to a point I didn’t care anymore about the possible consequences from transition. I knew I had to do it or I would destroy my life and perhaps myself. So, on October 3rd, 2012 I took medication for the first time to suppress testosterone. That was a Godsend and so was the freedom I gained to finally embrace my femininity.
This past year at WisCON I heard femininity described as self care, and that couldn’t be more true for me. So I want to recognize the stylists and estheticians who have helped me have some competence crafting my femme expression. I used to think people had to be a part of something like making the iPhone happen to do something meaningful in the world. I thought this because in my family I was taught STEM fields were respectable. Fields pertaining to beauty or making people feel good about themselves didn’t come up, because they weren’t STEM and they would therefore be less than. Femininity has taught me those who help people feel good about how they look do immensely valuable work too.
My femininity is something I have control over. Getting ready every morning by choosing an outfit and doing my makeup and hair just helps ensure I get my day off on the right foot and that I feel good about myself. Considering I’m still a software engineer, sometimes I need that extra boost.
I appreciate that I’m not at the same job and that other changes have happened, changes going beyond that I’m now seen as the woman I am in the workforce. However, I can’t help but feel being a woman in a male dominated field complicates things. After all the time I’ve dedicated to computer science sometimes I just want out.
I never worried if I was experiencing sexism before. Now when I mention that a candidate didn’t make eye contact during an interview, I’m told by my superiors that it was because the candidate realized from my questions that I’m smart and that makes me intimidating. Ok, I kinda understand that because I was intimidated by some of my professors for being smart. But why didn’t that happen before, when I was also an angry brute?
A technical concern I raise about a tool is described by a colleague as me, “Not liking” something. I probably wouldn’t have noticed before, but now as a woman it’s the idea that my concern was cast as a feeling, of not liking, that bothers me.
I’ve also had colleagues call me smart and then proceed to explain a basic computer science concept to me. Is that “mansplaining”, to use the parlance of our times, or is that just egotism?
One of those people who helped me embrace my femininity was a laser operator. I found out while she was zapping my face to get rid of unwanted hair that she was a conservative Christian. Understand, I grew up terrified of people in that category. Then she said, “isn’t it great to get to a point in your life where you can just celebrate who you are?” My world changed forever, because that statement was not possible in the world as I saw it when I walked into her shop an hour before. It’s because I was wrong that I couldn’t go on a feminist crusade when the above micro-aggressions happen, which I now think is a good thing.
At the same time, I’ve taken to drafting guys I’m working with on tasks to have them present my ideas. This is because I’ve come to believe the idea has a better chance to be heard coming from them. That trust I had when I left for graduate school? I miss that. But I’ve earned the trust of my company, and the team I’m on now are still learning about one another. What’s unsettling is learning another one of my female colleagues had the same solution to the same problem. In part because, yeah I didn’t have to worry about it before, and in part because I learned so very fast what I had to do to help my ideas survive now.
I find these cultural notions of what a woman is, and what she can and cannot do, really complicate the workplace. Especially when most of your workplace is made up of guys, and society has told you for so long you can’t do this job because you’re a girl. The ease and trust I had, compared to the complexity I have now when I show up to work, is difficult to deal with. I’m guessing many women can sense what I’ve experienced when they look at the STEM field. I think that sense removes some luster from the idea of going into STEM careers to begin with. What I do know is that being femme gives me the confidence to go in to my work and shatter gender expectations. I’m not saying being femme is for everyone, but I am saying it’s for me, it’s valuable, and my salvation.