Compliments, Credit and Gender oh my

A friend of mine complained to me the other day that since we started talking about feminism he’s started spotting things he never saw before. In this case it was Bechdel Test related conversations around movies and TV. He can’t help but wonder if there are more than one named female character and watch to see if they talk about anything other than men. Once you’re in deep it goes beyond spotting instances of imbalance though and also thinking about the context, depth and possible real life reenactments of those imbalances.

For me, this post started with an episode of Agent Carter. In this particular episode Agent Carter goes on a mission with one of the office guys who regularly dismisses her abilities based on her gender. At the end of the episode they are reporting on the mission and he says, “Really Agent Carter was the one who made this mission a success.”

There it is! Acknowledgement! Change based on his observing her skills instead of clinging to stereotypes. Let everyone on the couch leap up and scream “Touchdown!”

Then it happened. Agent Carter says, “It was a team effort.”

This is where everyone goes “aaaawww” and thinks what a great job she is doing at creating allies and being a team player. They’ve both complimented each other and the universe is in gender balance.

Except not.

This episode followed me around for weeks replaying in my head as I tried to figure out why it wanted my attention. Then someone posted about Grace Hopper and I remembered how when I got started in computer science Grace Hopper was presented as a programmer who worked on the team who created COBOL.

This is how her work in COBOL was/is presented: “In 1952, her team created the first compiler for computer languages (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would be used around the world. Though she did not invent COBOL, Hopper encouraged its adaptation.

Which is different than this newer way of looking at her work: “She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944, and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and the one of those who popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.”

As an engineer I am really good at splitting hairs and I’m going to do it here. There are two stories about Grace Hopper. One is where she was on a team that created COBOL and the other is the one where she was instrumental to the creation of COBOL. Both are true.

Likewise with Agent Carter. She was the reason the mission succeeded and she did it as a member of the team. Both are true.

What’s wrong with being on a team that accomplishes things vs being integral to the accomplishment of things?

This is where we start getting into how credit is given. As people try to increase the number of women in science research is done into historical women who can be used as role models. This research seems to be uncovering a sad number of women who discovered things that men got Nobel Prizes for.

And it’s more than about Nobel Prizes. It’s about paychecks. Rock stars get paid more than the band. It’s about respect. Rock stars get more social credit than the band.

Just recently a coworker sent out a status report on a project she’s on. It was amazing, thorough and well written. More than well written – highly readable and entertaining while imparting a lot of real information. I sent her a “good job” email. She replied, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without the team” and named some of the people who helped her.

She wrote that status report. She made it readable. She credited the team. These are all good things.

But…

If all the men reply, “Thanks” and all the women reply, “Thanks, it was a team effort” then who is the creator and who is the support? Who is vital to the project and who is replaceable? Who gets the award for the successful launch and who did the other half of the work? Who gets a raise?

This ties the topic around to women in United States culture and how we receive compliments. I told a male friend today he looked good. He said, “Thanks.” I told a female friend she looked good. She said, “Thanks, this is a new top I really love it.” There are a ton of articles about how women deflect compliments. I don’t need to add to it. What I do want to point out is that women deflecting compliments regarding work also deflects credit away from them.

Grace Hopper was on a team that created the first compiler.

Larry Wall created Perl.

Nobody says Larry Wall worked on a team that resulted in Perl. Larry Wall alone magically created Perl in the basement of a tech company. The Lone Man Made Things.

There are important stories being perpetuated here and women themselves are helping perpetuate them. Grace Hopper didn’t want credit. She wanted to work. I  don’t want credit. I just want to do my job. Yet a side effect of not taking credit, of sharing the compliment, is that women are viewed as supports while men are viewed as creators.

This is a surprisingly actionable realization. The next time someone says “good job” all I have to do is say “thank you.” No more, “Couldn’t have done it without [insert team member name here].”

Is this a bigger solution? No. Because it sucks that the fact that I couldn’t have done it without my team can’t be acknowledged without diminishing my own part. Even if he acknowledges me back. It sucks that women are more likely to be viewed in supportive roles than as leads. It sucks that we want rock stars and not symphony orchestras.

But maybe over time as women accept credit, get credit, get respect maybe we can change the dynamic a little. Maybe a solid productive team will be valued more than a lone genius and then all those lonely geniuses can join really nice teams.

Categories: feminism, geeky, women in computer science | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Compliments, Credit and Gender oh my

  1. Rob Eaglestone

    “it sucks that the fact that I couldn’t have done it without my team can’t be acknowledged without diminishing my own part. … It sucks that women are more likely to be viewed in supportive roles than as leads. … It sucks that we want rock stars and not symphony orchestras.”

    I’m a typical programmer guy, so my communication skills are typically inexpert. But surely there’s a formula that acknowledges your achievement and the proper place of supporting co-workers at the same time? (Or should we always assume that the team itself is smart and competent?)

    I think that understanding deflection is key here. I have probably deflected for much of my life, and as a result my career in one sense may have suffered. On the other hand, I believe that proper humility is important. Of course, on the Gripping Hand, yes, deflection and humility are probably not the same thing.

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