2009 was the year I rode zeitgeist like a motherfucker.
My blog became more widely read in software testing circles. I presented what still stands as one of my favorite talks on software quality and data visualization at the PNSQC Conference in Portland. One week later, I presented that same talk, my first ever conference talk at Adobe Software in Seattle and again at Microsoft in Redmond. After graduating with an MS in Software Engineering I moved to Australia to work for a company making killer software development tools.
From the outside, my career was taking off and there were no limits. My twitter exploded, I was in contact with a lot of conference organizers and I met so many people. But, at work, I found my opinions being questioned and put down in ways I hadn’t expected. In going from one job to the next, I found that, each time, what I had to say felt diminished. I didn’t feel listened to or heard. I was told I should be less abrasive, less aggressive, less defensive and take things less personally. When I did that, I was told that I shouldn’t bottle up my emotions.
I was #thatwoman.
Zeitgeist has a way of turning around and moving on without you. I could feel its energy and power withdrawing as a particular stack of books grew taller on my bedside table: The No Asshole Rule, Crucial Conversations, The Sociopath Next Door, What Every Body is Saying, The Five Dysfunctions of a team, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management and Good Boss, Bad Boss.
If it made you tired reading all of those titles, think of reading each one cover to cover and making sure you apply what you learn from them every day at your job because you’re trying to survive and be the employee management seems to want. That’s what I did over a period of 6 years.
What I found is that no matter how much I read and worked at not being an asshole or finding the “right way” to say things or get my opinions across, I could never be silent enough. Quiet crept into my head and started to expand there like a cancer.
What? Quietness? Me?
The writing I do is smart, ambitious and full of backbone because that is who I am. These qualities, however, can lead to suffering at work…particularly for women. This is called tone policing.
Tone policing shows up in one-on-one meetings, performance reviews, chats with well-meaning co-workers, beers with friends, meet ups with strangers. It even comes from the mouths of well meaning women and men who consider themselves feminist and/or interested in equal rights for women…that’s right. It is everywhere and it will chip away at you and chip away and chip away until it becomes something else entirely and you are being erased and even erasing yourself.
This is the equivalent of clear-cutting and terraforming your emotional acre and it can happen to anyone, even those who appear, on the outside, to be highly successful.
Here I am, on my birthday last year at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley. The low was also metaphorical. Yep, I was down. Way down. Further than ever and talking to no one.
I had erased myself. My writing no longer made sense because I couldn’t allow myself to say anything. My tweets were more polite than ever and slowed to a trickle.
What I didn’t anticipate at the bottom, was that zeitgeist, would once again, turn and present itself at a different angle, an angle I wasn’t expecting.
This is Kathleen Hanna. She’s one of the firestarters of the Riot Grrrl movement. I hadn’t heard of her before going to see the film about her titled “Punk Singer” on a get-to-know-you outing with San Francisco’s feminist hacker space, Double Union. DU was, at the time, just getting started and looking for new members.
Riot Grrrl was a punk-rock, DIY focused movement born of Pacific Northwest, 90’s grunge zeitgeist. Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer of punk band Bikini Kill and the person who spray painted the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s wall. When taking the stage, she would call for all women to go to the front so that they could dance because, at the time, men had turned the front of the stage into unruly and unsafe mosh pits.
As I watched “Punk Singer,” I couldn’t stop looking at Hanna’s hair. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had worn that same shade of hair back in my heyday. I fingered strands of my own long, brown hair and had a cry as the movie neared its conclusion. After the film, I went home, cued up Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl on YouTube and made an appointment with my hair stylist.
Sometimes finding your voice starts with a hair color.
For me, it was changing my hair color back to black and finding my place among those bringing the RiotGrrrl zeitgeist back around and into San Francisco’s tech scene where it is so sorely needed.
I got accepted as a member at Double Union and I began learning. I’ve learned that the more smart and ambitious you are as a woman, the larger a target you become for other people’s projected insecurities and assumptions i.e. the more I follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to be bold, the harder and more damaging the knockbacks are likely to be. I learned that it doesn’t matter how much I work at erasing myself, it will never be enough. I learned that not all women are feminists and even women who think they are feminists are capable of tone policing other women. I learned that anger is a beautiful, inspiring emotion that I’ve earned the right to feel in every cell of my body, and above all, I learned that it’s ok for me to have a voice and to use it.
I’ve been using that voice lately and sometimes it’s harsh. Sometimes my voice shows the anger, grief and frustration of a woman who has been cut down time after time but who is still, somehow, a fighter. Sometimes this takes people by surprise and they don’t know where the anger comes from, they only see me letting it go. There was a time when I would have said, “don’t mind me,” or “so sorry, I don’t mean to offend,” but, I’m done with that. To some extent, this means that I might lose some followers and that some people will shake their head and say, “she used to be so accommodating.” So be it. I’d rather be myself.
Over the holidays, I went to see the art exhibit Alien She: Examining the lasting impact of Riot Grrrl exhibit at Yerba Buena Arts Center. Looking at the huge wall of Zines (pronounced zeens) assembled for the exhibit, it reminded me of the amazing zine community we have at Double Union. In looking at the hot pink, barbed wire fence made of yarn, I thought of the large number of members at Double Union who have brightly colored hair. The sound of the punk music strewn throughout the exhibit on iPods tracks not only with our collective frustration that tech is so fucked up and we’re just trying to survive it, but also with the happy chaotic noise of gatherings at DU. The exhibit is open for another week until January 25, by the way.
In the meantime, another legendary Riot Grrrl band, Sleater Kinney has reunited and is releasing a new album today.
Between Double Union, Punk Singer, Alien She, Sleater-Kinney, Model View Culture, AdaCamp in Portland last Summer and the upcoming Alter Conf, it’s as if there is a badass, feminist zeitgeist that has ridden into San Francisco on the back of Karl the Fog. It has, for now, decided to settle on the 4th floor of the The Fog Building in the Mission. I show up there and breathe it in. It, along with some great friends and a wonderful partner have helped take me back to the powerful, unafraid woman I was in 2009. It’s help me slough off the dead weight of jobs past and prepare me to advocate for myself more, to give myself more credit and to sing and sometimes shout like a motherfucker.
The Riot Grrrls are back and so am I.