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Women with coding skills are no Passover miracle

Posted by on Apr 5, 2010 in Blog, theory | One Comment

Today, at sunset, the Jewish people mark the end of Passover. I know the High Holy Days are the most, well, holy, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Passover. The English major in me likes that everything has symbolism (salt water, matzo, lamb bone, etc.), the journalist in me loves a good story and roots for the underdog and the Jewish part of me likes the cooking and the eating and the communing and the eating….

And now, something new!  There’s a connection between Passover and coding.  So many assume coding skills are magic, as miraculous as frogs appearing in Pharoah’s bed.  I beg to differ.

Seeing friends and family is also one of the best parts of almost any Jewish holiday (and the reason the posting has been lax). Even as I attend various seders, I’m conscious that it’s not a given that I’ll be back here in Chicago in 2011. One of my favorite traditions is the Women’s Seder at our local synagogue — Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates, Ill. — it’s been held since I’ve been little. The idea is that the typical Passover story leaves out the women, and they have a right to be heard. One of my favorite quotes is that a woman was once told she had as much right to leading a seder as an orange has to be on a seder plate. So, we put the orange on the Seder plate. Take that, patriarchal society!

This year, I walked in to the synagogue and was enthusiastically greeted by a family friend. “Oh, Michelle, it’s so good to see you!” ….small talk…. “We need your help, someone who knows Hebrew well…” Turns out, the cantor was sick, and they needed someone to lead the blessing after meals. It’s not short, but it’s not hard. It is, entirely, in Hebrew, with a strict melody. Different parts for leader and follower. A lot of fellow students had trouble with it, some told me my understanding of it was nothing less than magic.  And, it suddenly occurred to me. I’ve applied the same skills to coding as I did to learning Hebrew.

In both cases, I approach learning the skill with fervor and zeal, giving anything less than 100 percent just won’t do. Computer languages, foreign languages, they are all made up of characters that create phrases. People think it’s magic.   “But it’s not!” you want to scream.  It’s simple:  The more you practice, the better off you are. And in the end, there’s nothing like pressure to give you that added oomph to make all go well. You get up in front of a group, and the prayer just falls out of your mouth. There’s a deadline, and you just make it work. Demonstrate your knowledge, and feel the passion rush through you.

The rest of the Women’s Seder talks of sisterhood and bonding and mothers and daughters. Inspiring words and uplifting tunes make my heart swell, like I’m at a sentimental movie, but a movie about people I’m related to.

I don’t think about gender a lot in my everyday life, but after that experience, I’m on a bit of a kick.  I don’t talk about this often, but I’m not blind. The gender issue begs mention.

I notice there aren’t a lot of female Web pro-journos. Someone asked me recently if I was a feminist. I suppose maybe, but I feel as if that word has a negative connotation. I’ll go with this: I believe women have as much of a right to pursue any career they want as men do. But I also believe women have the right to work as homemakers, and that the work of a stay-at-home mom is just as important as that as a high-powered executive. (I’m biased: my mom stopped teaching when she had me,  and I loved growing up with her as a constant presence.)

I enjoy that female bond that I felt at the Seder, and need to be careful not to let it go just because newsrooms — and especially the geeky side of newsrooms — still feel a lot like an old boys club. I’m not the first to enter it, Jennifer LaFleur told me there was a group called “CAR Chicks” that used to meet up at NICAR conferences. And very few people have brought it up, and we’re only as far as we are because of many predecessors. But the difference is there.  While I gave birth to articles, Web sites and data-driven apps, I have friends from high school who have given birth to three kids, some who have married and divorced twice. We’re the same age. For everything you do in life, you give something up. Code too much, lose sleep. Report too much, forget to eat. Go to school far from home, miss out on family functions. Notice the pattern?  I regret nothing, but I must always remember that everything is at a cost. Balancing the personal and professional remains a struggle in my life, which has more to do with my age, and less to do with my gender, I suppose.

In terms of feeling welcomed, I couldn’t ask for a better group than the CAR community. Professors and supervisors almost never brought this up. This recent self-reflection is purely self-inflicted.

But prejudice still creeps into our society, and for our daughters, we must do better. It’s not so easy to stand up to negative thoughts while you’re finding yourself.  Like much of life, it shouldn’t be this hard.

I argue women don’t need special treatment, but don’t tell them they can’t do something. This isn’t the norm, thankfully, but it exists. Why is it still happening in 2010?

Here are a few personal examples of what’s not okay:

  • A scientist at Argonne saying “No offense, but women’s minds just aren’t built for this type of stuff. You can do it, but not as well as we can.”
    My response: Yeah, that may or not be true.  I know this for certain.  Our minds won’t be built for it if you say they aren’t. I can give this needed consideration.  But tell a young girl that, and she’s done with coding, math and science.  Possibly forever, and at least, for a while.
  • Someone saying to me at NICAR: You looked nervous during your lightning talk. Was that because you were the only woman?
    My response: Wow, I didn’t even think of that. Was actually nervous because of the standing room only crowd at my first non-class presentation. Thanks for putting that in my head, though. Why do we need to do this to people?
  • The backlash in the comments, and elsewhere online, against this MediaShift article on pro-journos that happened to just include men.
    My response: We’ve only reached true equality when we’re not bending over backward to include both genders. If you’re choosing people based on best work, just choose them. Quickest response rate? Fine. Don’t profile someone because they are the first woman in their field.  I was particularly annoyed with this NY Observer piece – a textbook example of what not to do.  Don’t write headlines like “Times Interactive Team Makes First Female Hire.” Don’t write ledes including the phrase “…it’s a girl! Well, woman, really.”

Because in the end, the journalism isn’t about us. All we get is a byline at the top of a story, a credit line under an interactive. Our opinions matter, because we shape journalism. But in the end, we tell stories. Of men and women. Judge me on my work, don’t judge me on my gender. Don’t degrade me, but don’t make me any excuses, do me any favors. Not because I’m short, not because I wear glasses, not because I’m an English major, not because I’m a Gemini, not because I’m a woman. The industry has so many challenges right now, why must we create uninteresting ones?

Miriam had her own part in leading slaves out of Egypt. But there was no comment section under the Bible for her to complain in, she just did it. Credit or no credit. Whether she had to work twice as hard as Moses to be listened to, we’ll never know. If it’s good enough for Miriam, it’s good enough for us. We must use journalism to stand up for the freedom that others fought for centuries and decades ago and forget the egoism. Don’t tell me I can’t, or that it must be hard. Look back through history at people who really lacked freedom. Our struggles are not so great.

Pinch me if you hear another diatribe from me on the subject at my own initiation. I will always be willing and ready to encourage young women as well as men in the field, but other than that, I hope you’ll find me working to establish my own reputation, not discussing gender inequities. We’ve got enough meaningful work to do.

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