How Do You See Gender?

I submitted this as draft post to Hacker Noon just under a week ago. Haven’t heard anything back from them. I know I could get it published in one of the other Medium zines I contribute to, just by changing the title to something like “My Pronouns are She and He.” Then I could do a little educational segment on what it means to be genderfluid. The more you know, right?

Transphobia is only part of the problem. Because the issue isn’t just how you present your gender — it’s also how you treat everyone else, regardless of whether their gender presentation (cis, trans, queer, nonbinary) matches up with yours.

Don’t Call Me a Cool Girl

Women in tech need to stop reinforcing gender stereotypes

Sexism is old news. Nothing special, right? We know what women are supposed to do. We are supposed to stick together. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs. But what happens when other women don’t do their part? What happens when our sisters betray us?

Some would accuse me of falling into the “Cool Girl Trap” because I have male friends. Huffington Post defines this conundrum as “the one who goes out of her way to say that she gets along with men better than women. The one who considers herself one of the guys.”

The problem with this rhetorical “trap” is that not all of us fall neatly into the gender binary. What is wrong with liking kickboxing, fast cars, and electric guitar? I consider myself genderfluid — which means I possess some stereotypically male traits as well as traits culturally accepted as female.

To be clear, I think sexism is less of a problem than racism. But it is still a huge problem. In 2021, women make 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes (NBC News). We have yet to elect a woman president. I work in the male-dominated tech industry, which brings unique challenges. One of these challenges is gender presentation.

I generally present as “femme,” or feminine. This makes me a target of partner jealousy — a situation that occurs when men’s wives or girlfriends act as gatekeepers, controlling access to women that they see as a threat. On one occasion, I was trying to recruit a male programmer for my new company. I wanted to share a demo that contained proprietary information, but he insisted that his girlfriend attend too. The end result was that the demo didn’t happen.

Many men allow their significant others to police their relationships and forbid them from getting too close to other women. This arrangement is known colloquially as being under “lock and key.”

In theory, this should be no problem for women in business. We should simply connect with other women and kick ass.

Sort of like that Ghostbusters remake. Or something.

The problem is, separate but equal is not equal.

I actually did put together an all-female founding team for a mobile app. We bonded and put a lot of time and effort into our new startup, but we were never funded at the level we needed to be competitive. I almost cried when we lost our tech lead to a full-time, well-paying job in the public sector.

I had a prominent mentor and member of the tech investing community beg off from advising me because, he said, “Most of the entrepreneurs I work with are older dads, like me.”

It took me two years and three months from the date of that conversation to find a female mentor in my industry. There are simply not that many of us. My new female mentor helped me get my presentation accepted at a well-known conference; however she didn’t show up for my talk. To my knowledge, she never watched the video recording.

COVID-19 and school closures have increased our isolation, as more women stay at home and take on increased responsibility for housework and childcare. “Cosmos with the Girls” and “Craft Night” become distant memories instead of something helping us get through our week.

Partner jealousy can affect both men and women. All that I can say is that I prefer to believe in a world where people trust each other — and see each other as people first, and sexual objects second or not at all. My personal belief is that if you can’t trust your partner, you shouldn’t be with them at all.

I do not say this lightly.

I lost my husband to infidelity more than a decade ago. He was tall and handsome, a Harvard Law grad, and a “catch” by anyone’s estimation. He always had more female friends than guy friends. Many of these were colleagues at his firm or friends from college. We planned backpacking trips in the Sierras with our mutual female friends. Another single female college friend, who was in training to be a rabbi, flew down to North Carolina to visit and took part in an egg hunt at our new house. These friendships were part of the tapestry of our community. I wouldn’t give them up for anything.

I love Harry Potter as much as anybody else, but J.K. Rowling made a serious misstep when she attacked the transgender community. Most people exhibit a combination of gender traits. Trying to force people into one box or the other is cruel and shortsighted.

Rigid gender apartheid is also a great way to isolate people and keep them from finding genuine common ground. Partner jealousy and mistrust of other women keeps women isolated and focused on the basic survival tasks of caring for themselves, their elders, their children, and in many cases their husbands or boyfriends. We are not taught to look beyond gender or to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Trust, boundaries, and clear expectations are what form the ties that last. This holds true for business and creative partnerships as well as dating and romance. I want to envision a world where all people are free to interact with each other as equals.

“Divide and conquer” won’t work on women for much longer. We’re too smart to keep being fooled.

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