Sunday December 27th
What never being given the benefit of the doubt feels like
- This semester, I looked reluctantly at my grade. “They’re going to find some reason to knock some points off”, I thought. I legitimately believed that people who were in a group project with me were better off going solo, because by being in a group with me, their grade would be lower. “It’s better to work alone”, I’ve thought. Not just for myself, but because I endanger people’s grades, because people have low expectations of me, in spite of who I am and all I’ve done. The last I had heard in this class, I had a 96. But I loved this class. Encryption was part of what got me interested in everything in the first place. It was filled with memories of hanging out with my Maths major post-doc friends writing on blackboards, and hikes to the Gourmet Ghetto to eat Momos. It was filled with hanging out at Hackerspaces and being silly, having spontaneous barbecues at 2am and watching people playing with firecrackers, or getting their butt handed to them in video games or in pinball machine matches. It was toying with Wireshark because there was an online IEEE course in 2015 with about 10 of us in the middle of the day that just sounded fun and interesting so I signed up and then found myself taking enough of the classes to earn a certificate. My first IEEE certificate. My earliest memories growing up were of working together with my brother trying to figure out Chip’s Challenge, when he said “you know, you have good logic skills”. Or my friend inviting me to see him do Matchmoving work until he ran out, and turning to me and saying “you know, you’d probably make a good programmer” (I’m still terrible and learning, but I enjoy it). I glanced and saw an A+. I was overjoyed.
- The memories came flooding back. I was sitting in a car with an individual, and reluctantly mentioned that I was taking workshops at my local hackerspace with an Arduino, learning Radare and about things like Haskell at Meetups. What I got instead was a 30 minute lecture that “programming was hard”. They wanted to make sure I knew. I was supposed to expect that I wouldn’t succeed, and I should know that. They had to be sure to tell me. Just so I would know. Never mind that they actually weren’t a programmer (I didn’t know that at the time).
- Another time, someone had made a crack that I “didn’t look like a programmer”. Whatever that meant. Over and over again. And when I interviewed, I was constantly being judged on my ability, rather than my potential. No chances for me. Looking around at the final rounds and seeing no one who looked like me, or in the accepted cohorts at no one who looked like me, was also a constant reminder. I didn’t fit in, and I wouldn’t be expected to make it through. It was probably a fluke that I got this far anyways. Just feel good about having gotten this far.
- I’ve gotten used to standing at booths, even in a tech hoodie (it can even say Google on it) and being ignored. I am just a recruiter, most likely. I remember at the last one held by my school, one recruiter at a company didn’t even give me the time of day (the gentleman at the booth didn’t want to speak with me, but certainly pre-occupied himself with Bachelor’s students dressed in shirts and ties, with less populated resumes); he simply assumed that I was not qualified, so I never bothered to send them my resume, even though they had, when I first moved to the state, somehow found my phone number and flat out asked me based on my experience if I “wanted a job”.
Why am I paying attention to them?
- At some point, through the tears, I kept going. I still don’t know why. Maybe in spite of all that nonsense, it was still worth it to me. I’ve never been a “girly-girl” after all. When I was growing up, a relative announced that it was “time for me to start wearing dresses”. They were never able to convince me. While other females had certain toys, I had tea with He-man dolls and carried a horse shoe Magnet with me everywhere. I preferred to hang out in tree houses with my male cousins, watch video games and learn about wire nuts from people who came to re-wire our family house.
- Being black and female and awkward is really as terrible as it gets. As writer Octavia Butler says, “shyness is shit”. Society has all these expectations on people who are in these groups as is. You begin to realize that not being cool (because being black to some people who aren’t means you’re supposedly “cool” or “hip”), not being a typical female (don’t speak to me about “how do you girls” because I have no context for that) and being awkward and geeky is really the worst. It’s like a macro embedding of being an outsider inside of another one inside of another one. There are so many levels of expectations you don’t hit societally, and everyone’s disappointed with you LOL. Why aren’t you cool? Why aren’t you stylish? Why are you so…awkward? The worst is that people also have this expectation that you “did what all the black kids did” in whatever limited (and often stereotypical) impression they have. That usually means you like Wu-Tang and listen to DMX or something. I wouldn’t know. My mom loves Abba and my favourite bands growing up were Aerosmith and Roxette. Weird. It’s like you can’t be yourself as a black geek; you’re disappointing in multi-dimensions (a subspace of disappointment! Yay!).
- I was curious about welding and decided to take night classes in it, and classes at a local Makerspace, because I realized that the place in which I worked would never teach me. Mediocre, incompetent guys would walk in, who fumbled through using a multimeter (they couldn’t even figure out how to turn the setting from Amps to Volts; this is particularly nefarious when working with electricity, because the person then becomes a liability, as you must now look out for their safety and yours when working together!), and they were given opportunities to learn and wire things before I did. But that wouldn’t stop me from learning. That wouldn’t stop my curiosity.
- At my job before that, I would spend the hour or two before heading over to my job reading and learning the resistor codes from a book. It was a book on Architectural lighting, and about codes. Later, I picked up a book on Automotive Lighting, and learned about the CIE Chromaticity scale and types of lights and the chemistry of how they worked. The CIE scale made sense to me because of my high school Physics classes, where we memorized the various band widths for frequencies of waves (and therefore velocities).
- Even before that, I took classes in high school in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Additional Mathematics for 16 years. I took classes in Physics, Mathematics and Art for 18. In college, I found myself fixing equipment and having a knack for it, to the point that most persons wanted me on their crew to repair things when dimmers wouldn’t quite work. One of the directors, on a student film set, said “okay, no one can touch this dimmer besides her.”
- Another clear cut case of implicit bias is that when persons learn that I had been involved in film, they will often assume that I did something non-technical (make-up, wardrobe), and if a male person has similarly been involved, the expectation is that they did something technical. The time I spent in that profession was gruelling, and I was often the only female in my department. As I told a friend, “I would wake up black and blue and was used to hearing crude, sexist jokes on the walkie talkie all day long.” That was the norm. You had to be tough and occasionally you would run into a guy who just didn’t think you should be there at all (you were taking the job of a man) and make your life a living hell for the time you were on set. You would have to suck it up and cry at the end of the day if you wanted to feel upset about it. They would laugh if you showed it; it was a sign of weakness and that weren’t cut out for the job if you showed it publicly. I did a bit of work with Nuke as well. By the time I got into the simulators for things like Virtuoso or GrandMA and Previz plug-ins with Vectorworks (eg ESP Vision) / projection mapping, I’d like to think that I was pretty much hooked on CS. I wonder how many lighting board operators got into scripting because that path is kind of a gateway drug.
- Still, I had gotten my first job because of my ability; they hadn’t been able to actually find someone who claimed they knew how to use a particular piece of tech that I knew with my eyes closed. I got a call that afternoon asking when I could start. It was my first experience that people (not me) usually lie a lot, and they expected not to be caught. I didn’t have that benefit. Still, on the surface, presumed never technical enough at technical events. Being asked if they could “verify with my manager” that what I said, was in fact true. At my first job, at my second job. At my forever job, and at the job that doesn’t exist yet. What about at a company that I build? Who will they ask?
- Still, it hasn’t been enough. People who do a fraction of the work are assumed to have more ability. They are not questioned. They aren’t asked if they’re technical. I haven’t given up, but I’ve learned that for some of these people, it will never be enough.
- I remember years ago, a camera guy tried to talk me out of a job because he wanted his friend to do it instead, although I was the first pick. Once again, he started asking me “are you sure you can take the pressure of doing this job? It’s very hard, you know”. The patronizing tone, over and over. Being judged not on potential (the way his friend would), but on an assumed lack of ability.
- I can’t do it every day. I don’t always have the energy.
- My dad says that having people who believe in you, and the expectation and entitlement that you’ll always succeed, versus having the resilience to succeed in spite of everyone thinking you won’t, are both different experiences. The latter, he says, is like jumping over a canyon. Not everyone can do it. I’m built like that, and I’ve done it over and over again throughout my life.
- Sometimes people ask me how it was “going into a very technical area”. This question often confuses me. You see, before college I had never shot a frame of film. I climbed to the top of my undergraduate class without having any experience besides having worked on local crews in my home country for a year and a half (mostly as a production assistant and Assistant lighting designer). Before that, I was a science student who also did an extra subject; Art. I have years and years of Mathematics as a foundation (although I’m quite rusty). So switching back (even though it was after several years) wasn’t very difficult. Unlike many of my other peers in filmmaking, I was on the technical side, anyways (fixing electronics, assembling stuff) throughout. So it was a pretty smooth transition. I was able to bring both my creativity in thinking about how tech could be used and my high school background. It’s also quite bizarre that out of all the persons people assume “couldn’t make it” it would have been myself, when several of my peers never had my high school background and didn’t take 6 or 7 Maths classes back to back. Bias is a heck of a thing. I’d say that in fact, many immigrants come in with a strong technical background; the level of Mathematics and science in these countries is often much more rigorous than in the US at the high school level anyways. In my high school, everyone had to take a science.
- Although I’m not as great as say, someone who spent all their time since the age of 10 coding (those people should be retired by now anyways lol) and I’ve always been slow (I’m definitely on the more deliberate side and care about correctness so I am not running to companies that are “move fast, break things”), it confuses me that the benefit of the doubt of success is given to people who don’t look like me who don’t even have a technical foundation. That is clear bias, based on an expectation that based on what someone looks like, it’s easier for them to “pick up a thing”, even when all the information seems to point to otherwise (For all implies…). Fwiw most of these people, even when given (multiple) chances such as these, have failed. Throughout my career, these are the people who have failed upwards (they’re not very good at “the thing”, but we hired them so). They often end up stuck in their own mediocrity.
Why Unfair advantage leads to failure
- In speaking of the “forall” group: I think that this is twofold: a person sets up an expectation based on entitlement, so there is less desire to put in the work, and the person already comes in with a lack of a foundation, so they are already at a disadvantage. So in many ways, bias aside, you’re setting them up to fail. You’d be better off giving them the lower expectation and the oppoortunity to prove themselves if they put in the work imo. That’s how it should work. Whereas someone who doesn’t look like your expectation but is in the pool and seems to be doing well regardless is more likely to have overcome significant hurdles, meaning that they statistically might be more capable than your baseline metrics are able to measure. In other words, they might become, if given access the opportunities, even more awesome.
- Sidenote: on a hiring standpoint, I’d be incredibly intrigued to learn about what motivates them, how they got there, and the kind of perspectives that they can bring to a team, which I personally think would be much more valuable long-term (ie making space for that) than “this person looks like us so they’ll probably pick up the thing, even though they haven’t done the work and they lack the qualifications”. Then again, I’m generally of the opinion that people should hire for what a person brings to the team rather than just for the laziness of familiarity (ie. you remind me of myself). Hiring for familiarity leads to incestuous, nepotistic cultures, which leads to mediocrity (which also tends to have a side-effect of making those with talent and ability leaving).
- I recently mentored someone from another country who lives in the US, who just completed a bootcamp. She was able to find a gig pretty quickly, but even without that, she already had strong logical thinking and analytical skills. She’s fantastic and very talented and is the kind of person who can succeed in whatever capacity she chooses; she just happened to choose another field before coding, but she always had these strong skills. Woe betide the person who underestimates her!
- I’ve been part of this reading group where we read some work and conversations from Octavia Butler. In one piece, called “Positive Obsession”, she asks questions about the use of literature, and Science fiction, to Black people. What is the use of reimagining yourself outside of limits within which other people have set for you? It’s an important question to ask. How can you carve out a space for yourself to exist within which you can do the thing that you love in spite of what others think of yourself and your expectations?
And I wonder if it will change
- I am not solely responsible for changing the minds of these people, and how they inherently interpet, with implicit bias, the inherent skills, or lack thereof, of people who look like me. But I have learned to try to be fair through my interactions, to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. And to build people up, to give them confidence and the tools to accomplish things, when I can teach them. I am hopeful that more people (especially in tech, which is a lot more meritocratic than many other industries I’ve happened to be a part of) will, too. In fact, I think it’s one of the best industries for underdogs; people who are assumed to statistically never succeed, who aren’t, upon first glance, taken to be anything worth considering at all. You climb the mountain over and over, starting at the bottom each time, while being told “it’s impossible”. I like that. And when you fail, especially as an underdog, you’re used to picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying again.
- I’ve watched some of my peers from other industries who are used to being given the benefit of the doubt crumble because all of a sudden, they were put in an industry and had to start over from a place where they were not as statistically likely to succeed. But they were used to expecting that they were. Being constantly underestimated means you thrive in areas where people expect you to not succeed. Enter PhD. It’s like someone made a degree defined by society’s expectations of me. It’s a match made in heaven.
- I think about how far I’ve come in spite of being constantly underestimated, and I’m proud. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, because I can say “you were right; it’s hard, but I did it anyway” and laugh. I have been able to change a few minds. I’m still underestimated, but some are now wary of their preconceived judgments.
- Still, I’m optimistic. I’m spending the break learning more about things I don’t want to talk about, because I expect when I do, that people will find a way to tell me that “it’s hard”, and that I shouldn’t be doing it. But I’ll do it anyways, because it makes me happy, and I’m doing it for myself.
And that’s it
Written on December 27, 2020