Saturday, January 12, 2008

Is looking pretty the new taboo?

Is looking pretty the new taboo?

High tech looks a lot like kindergarten: folks with inferior limb control dressed in sneakers and jeans. There’s not much of a premium placed on adult matters like, say, matching. The stereotype of the distracted, frumpy programmer has a basis in reality, and sometimes he doesn't even have a scraggly beard, and that's because he's a woman. As the high-tech gender-gap slowly closes, women are finding a new uniform for work: one that eschews style for comfort.

The new regime can yield moments of culture shock. It seems practically every female newcomer to tech has a story about showing up for a job interview dressed in a beautiful suit, with a full face of makeup, only to find the interviewer clad in shorts and a T-shirt. Once the shock wears off, though, many women are only too happy to join their male counterparts in putting up their feet, sartorially speaking.

Says Cindy, a games reviewer and tester, "I'm a jeans person by nature. So my move into the technology industry was like a glorious, happily trousered homecoming. At least here on the West Coast, most high-tech companies don't expect their developers or phone-support people to wear ties or high heels."

“Comfortable” is the word that keeps cropping up among tech women. "If it's not comfortable, I don't wear it," says Lori, a development director. "I wear what I'm comfortable in," says Michelle, an experienced programmer. One program manager says she lapses into a "uniform of polo shirt/jeans/disreputable tennis shoes most of the time with no adverse effect."

So adamant is this commitment to comfort that one starts to wonder: Do women in tech miss what could loosely be termed "fashion"? Are they pressured to conform to a standard of grunginess? Do they ever yearn to put on the trappings of femme-hood, to feel hose on the legs and bangles on the wrists? And if they did don silk, would all the other programmers point and laugh?

Not necessarily, says Jan, a technical writer. "If you don't know the technology, you could come to work in Navy Seals combat gear and no one would give you the time of day. If you do know it, you could show up in Saran wrap and still be respected."

Cindy sounds a similar note: "If she dresses like a girl, but codes like a pro, there shouldn't be any trouble with respect. Now, if she dresses like a babe, as in skintight miniskirts and sheer tops, she may have a problem with respect. But no more so than a guy who came in to work with tight black pants and a silk shirt." Cindy's husband chimes in from the other room: "If she looks like Cindy Crawford and codes like John Carmack, they'll worship her as their pagan god."

Being worshipped as a pagan god sounds awfully nice, but in the workplace it’s probably not as desirable as being treated like a plain old equal. Tammy, a Web developer, tells how wearing a dress can prevent a woman from advancing in tech. At a former job, she was hired in accounts receivable. Wanting to make a move into the testing department, she cannily switched her style in order to switch her job. She cropped her hair and let her earring holes go empty. She shunned the dresses she’d been wearing to work and “really dressed down. I wore only jeans for six months, which is what the other developers wore.”

After a while of being on the job, Tammy began to notice a strange lack of freedom. “My mom called me up and said, ‘How wonderful, you’re getting paid for your brain and not what you look like.’ And I thought, hmm, now that you mention it, I am getting paid for what I look like. I’m dressing to a type.”

Tammy describes a former job at a bank where she got sent home for not having a crease in her slacks, and laughs about her new situation: “So far, I haven’t gotten sent home for wearing a dress.”

Stacie, a tester, has more pragmatic concerns. "It feels funny to wear dresses," she says, "and quite honestly, it doesn't make sense. When you have to crawl under a desk and rip the guts out of a machine you don't want to be wearing hose and a skirt. It's even worse in a lab situation. People coming through may not make the most politically correct statements about your attire."

Women in the trenches of tech do seem to agree on one thing: If you dress too nicely, you might become the object of suspicion. Jan explains, "The closer you are to the technology, the more important you are and the more status you have. The farther away, that is to say, if you're in human resources — which is 90 percent women — the less power and status you have. And the farther away women are from the technology, the more gorgeously they dress."

The upshot is that those who are “close to the technology” tend to rear up like nervous horses when a nicely dressed female comes around. That benignly pretty silk dress could be a signifier that you are the walking enemy of pure code: management maybe, or marketing. Lori agrees, "If you dress 'too nice' the tech folks are suspicious that you might be marketing or sales."

High tech is clearly not an entirely sunny field for women. If it were, the president wouldn’t need a task force to study the tech gender gap. Still, for Jan, the tech world offers freedom from defined ideas of womanhood: "For a woman like me, who hates dressing up, and in a way even resents having to think about the effect of my appearance at all, much less in any kind of political, get-ahead-on-the-job sort of way, high tech is a refuge, a safe haven. A respite from the reductive and poisonous cultural dialogue we seem to be trapped in about gender."

Still, like it or not, that cultural dialogue continues. Women in tech may have found a respite, but that respite is not the same thing as acceptance of femininity in all its variety. As a tech editor at a software corporation says, “The path to the cafeteria is sloping and covered with gravel, so it's really hard to wear a shoe with any kind of heel because you slip and slide. You can see that women just weren't even taken into account.”

This doesn’t sound like freedom; it sounds like invisibility. The women of tech walk to the cafeteria, clad in an all-cotton, relaxed-fit chador.

By Claire Dederer

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