Get the sock out of your pants

The 5 new skills every woman needs to succeed at work

CNN/Oprah had an interesting article today on 5 skills for women in the workplace. I’ve read a lot of these kind of articles, and know the litany pretty well. This one starts off with an old chestnut about how we, women, do a crappy job of negotiating salaries. (So true!) But then it took an interesting left turn with some gender-specific guidance about how to go about asking without sounding pushy. Better yet, they had actual scientific studies to back up their claims.

It was a good and rather empowering article.

So… what gender-specific skills do you think women need to be successful in a workplace?

Thank you, Mr. Jones

Our toilet started running. At 11:15 pm on a day that started at 6:15 am (with another 6:15 morning looming), this is the last thing I wanted to notice. I brushed my teeth eeeeexxxtra slowly, hoping I was hallucinating. Finally I gave in to the cascade sounds and watched the water in the tank run and run. Hmmmm. A quick tap on the float and it raised itself back up, stopping the waterfall. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe this is a one time thing?!”

My ears were extra-vigilant for bathroom noises. They are anyway… with two young boys, you stay vigilant for sounds that indicate someone is drinking out of the toilet, or taking an unapproved bath. And sure enough, that dreaded hiss of water! Truly, this was a problem that must be solved.

I’ve entered this unpleasant stage of life. Let’s call it the “Harry Truman” stage. When I was a girl, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. As a teen, I might have told my parents. Probably not. As a young adult, I would’ve called my landlord and it would’ve been his problem. But now, squarely into my fourth decade, the problem was mine. All mine. Note that I’m not the final stop of the Responsibility Train for just toilets. No. My purview includes dietary choices, project dates, playground time, what we can and cannot afford, appropriate number of treats per day (and whether Flav-r-pops count as a whole treat), business rules for new applications, and how stained is too stained for a shirt to continue in a wardrobe. In so many areas, there is no one for me to escalate problems to.

Thus, the toilet.

Back when other people had all the responsibilities, in Junior High, I decided that shop sounded waaaaay more interesting than Home Economics. I’m old enough, I suppose, to have had gender-segregated classes. The plan was that the girls got a year and a half of Home Ec and one semester of shop, and the boys had a year and a half of shop and one semester of home ec. I got through my first, divided year, and emerged convinced that if I never saw another apron pattern in my life, it was too soon for me. So I ended up the only girl in a class of 26 guys and a poor, harried Mr. Jones.

In that year I made a bowl on a lathe. I turned metal. We rebuilt lawnmower engines. We wired and drywalled a fake wall with real electricity. We plumbed, carefully fitting together the tubes with all the various goos. I used the jigsaw, the planer, the lathe, the scroll saw. I used wrenches and hammers and WD-40. I also learned that just because I had no clue how to do something, it didn’t mean I couldn’t learn. The most arcane of masculine skills were not out of my reach; I simply had to find a book and/or a mentor and roll up my skirt.

This came back to me as I gazed into the swirling waters of the toilet. OK, so I didn’t know how to fix this. I knew how to begin. I pulled out the books on home repair (toilet technology in the US hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years, and our toilet is probably that old). I observed and tinkered to figure out where the problem was. (The floaty thingy wouldn’t float.) I learned the correct name for it, and proceeded to giggle uncontrollably. (It’s a ballcock. I couldn’t wait to go to Lowe’s and tell them that my ballcock wouldn’t rise. Sadly, they proceeded to help me right away.) I bought the spare parts I needed. I turned off the water. I drained the tank. I spent about 2 hours trying to get frozen, rusted bolts to give, until they finally admitted that I was more stubborn than they. I installed the new fitting. And it worked perfectly. I looked down at my hands – black grease embedded stubbornly under my fingernails. It looked better than the finest manicure, to me.

This is a small thing in the realm of home maintenance. Just saying that I can figure out how to fix my toilet, that’s minor. But one of the lessons I think I internalized in that shop course, as I learned about masculine and feminine fittings, was that I could learn about things about which I was completely ignorant. I learned that just because I knew squat about what I was doing right now, that didn’t mean that I had no chance of doing it. I just needed to start at the beginning and follow it through. That lesson, there, is extremely relevant to my Life As a Grownup. Don’t know how to run a meeting? Start at the beginning. What does a meeting look like? Don’t know how to program in Java? Start at the beginning. Find a site or a book with a good overview. Don’t know how to pick a life insurance policy? Start at the beginning. What are the options?

To me, that is the height of what education really is. It’s not about dates or facts or information, although that background is important. It is about the tools to break down problems in areas where you are ignorant, and the confidence to believe that you can learn about things you don’t know. Perhaps other people learn these same lessons doing algebraic equations, or parsing the meaning out of “A Tale of Two Cities”. For me, it came at the business end of a wrench, unveiling the cam shaft of a geriatric lawnmower.

Where did you learn this lesson? Have you?

Advice for the future

I am hoping that some of you reading this blog are younger women, just getting their start in technology. Some of you might be thinking, “Yeah, that might be useful information in a few years, when I’m interested in managing a technical team. But right now, as a programmer/lab tech/engineer this fashion stuff just isn’t relevant yet. Jeans every day, baby!” I get that. I lived that. I agree – no need to do this stuff before you’re good and ready.

That said, there are three things I’m recommending you do today so that when you are ready to look managerial, you don’t have a big uphill slog. With no further ado, here are three pieces of advice I offer for the 22 year old girl programmer:

1) Moisturizer with Sunscreen
Wrinkles are almost impossible to get rid of. So are liver spots. Go take a moment and google “effective ways of removing wrinkles”. Notice how they are a) painful b) expensive c) quacky . Notice how many times they say, “This one really works, unlike all the other ones that totally don’t work”. Right now, you’re trying to look older than you are. There will be a blessed but brief period of your life where you will be happy looking exactly as old as you are. And then you will spend a long time wishing you looked younger than you are. Percentage wise, the largest period of your life is likely to be the “wishing you looked younger than you are”. But once you get to that age… there’s not much you can do about wrinkles or skin damage. So. Every day, put on a moisturizer with an SPF over 30 – even if you don’t currently care about how you look – just in case you change your mind.

2) Cut out sugary drinks now, while you still have a metabolism that can handle them
In the same way it’s much easier to prevent wrinkles than to remove them once you have them, it’s much easier to take smaller steps to prevent weight gain than it is to take the big steps needed to lose weight later. Now, I don’t think there’s much wrong with being overweight or large. I don’t think folks should strive to be skinny or hate themselves if they aren’t. I don’t think there’s evil in chocolate cake and virtue in celery. However, being overweight is another cultural stigma that has to be overcome to gain acceptance in certain circles. If our goal here is to be taken seriously, it is an easier task for a person of normal weight (however normal may be defined) than a person who is not a normal weight.

Not only that, as any plus-size shopper can tell you, it is much easier to get fun, flattering, professional, inexpensive clothing when you are roughly the size and shape that designers are working on. If you’re in the middle of the size bell curve, you can go to any store and find clothes that you can wear. If you’re at either end of the bell curve, the chore of shopping gets much harder, more disheartening, more expensive and offers fewer options.

Current studies are showing that the single biggest impacts on weight gain is sweetened beverages – even if they have no sugar. Apparently, aspartame and some of those other sweeteners play nasty tricks on your metabolism. So if you’re a perfectly fine weight now, and you drink two sodas a day… well, cut down to one. Cut down to none. Develop a love for coffee/iced tea/water. Chances are you’ll thank yourself 30 years down the road.

3) Keep the tattoos in places you can cover
I have mixed feelings on this one. I’m pretty sure there is a cultural shift from the time I was breaking in a decade ago to now. A decade ago, this would have been no-brainer advice. Now, so many qualified people are highly inked that it may not offer an impediment. But if you keep your tattoo in a place you can choose to reveal (or not), you can play it both ways. You should think about the impact of what you choose to have tattooed as well. Celtic knots/geometric shapes are pretty neutral. Arcane code snippits (ok, I’ve never seen that, but you never know) might make it hard for folks to imagine you as CTO. Anime might make it harder for you to get people to take you seriously. Too much to look at on your skin that people get distracted from what you say because they’re trying to figure out what that bit is right there, and means people will be looking at your body instead of listening to your words. Look at the people in the roles you’d like to be in. Any more ink than they have, and you will have to work a bit harder and be a bit more qualified to get the same role.

So am I completely nuts? Terribly old-fashioned? Did I miss something obvious? What advice would you give your 22 year old self, if you could go back in time? If you’re the younger programmer, are you doing any things differently? What would your top three recommendations be?