Friendships in a Male Dominated Field

In my profession, the disparity between the number of men and women is stark. Twice as many women computer science majors graduated with my mother than with me at the same school. I have always expected that any place I work will have fewer women than men because of this fact.

It’s kind of sad that I never expected anything else, but I have always been OK with the fact that I would end up working with a lot of men. Sometimes it even feels like I’m working with a bunch of boys whose senses of humor are stuck at a middle school level. Which can be both entertaining and very inappropriate. Then again, I never really enjoyed spending time with girls at that age anyway.

Despite growing up with two younger sisters, by the time I got to college, it was easier to talk to guys than girls, especially if those girls were in my Computer Science classes. In fact, the first few weeks at school I was approached by some older girls on my floor who wanted to warn me that it looked suspicious that I had half a dozen different guys up to my room over the course of a week. Little did they know it was always related to homework, just a side effect of the fact that I was one of two freshmen girls who had declared my major. I guess they were more right than I wanted them to be, since I ended up marrying one of those boys from my first CS labs.

That other freshman girl in my class didn’t end up sticking with the major (the girls I graduated with came over to CS from math and engineering). Some part of me still wants to take some of the blame for that girl leaving the program, because I never really talked to her to encourage her to stay. At that point in my life, I was taking great pleasure in being the favored child in class, flitting around talking to the boys and showing off how much I knew. I felt like I needed to prove myself and that somehow she was my competition more than the guys were.

I kick myself now for such behavior, because I recognize how immature it was, but that type of attitude is still something I’m working on. I don’t need to be the best in the room, and I don’t need to show off for attention. I can be kind and friendly without discriminating who I show those attitudes to. And without looking or acting like a terrible flirt (thanks again floormates for that epitaph).

I imagine avoiding the perception of flirting is somewhat easier for me than it would be for a single woman, since I’ve got a ring to indicate I’m taken, but it’s sad to think that friendliness could be so easily misconstrued. But everyone should be able to form friendships without being perceived as having an ulterior, romantic motive. How can we treat our colleagues and friends as uniquely valued individuals unless we put aside such attitudes and perceptions of others.

The men in my life are really all throughout my life. At home, at work, with friends, I’m constantly surrounded, and often out numbered. Finding a way to relate to and engage with the people around me has necessitated forming friendships with them. Friendships with these people come out of the environment and attitudes we share, and help me to grow by giving me access to different perspectives. Perspectives that are different and valuable to me, regardless of what gender they come from.

I value and trust my male friends, but I also know the importance of being able to relate more easily in some ways to my female friends. There aren’t nearly as many around me to be friends with, but that means I value them even more. I’ve learned, since those early days of college, that I cannot be in competition with people in a way that will push them away. Their successes are not my failures, but admiring their skills should help drive me forward in developing mine. Friends build each other up and challenge each other.

I know its cliché, but the best way to make a friend is to be a friend. And that means being a friend to the people around you, regardless of their gender. Friends support one another, and I know I would not have made it where I am today without the support of the people around me.

How To Say No

People Pleasers unite! Sometimes I feel like I can do anything and everything that I am asked to do, and volunteer for even more. It’s part of what I need to work on when I invest in others to my own detriment, I just want to help, and so if someone asks, it is really hard to say “no” to a well-meaning request. This is especially true if I am signing myself up for something I know I can do better or more easily than the person who asked me to do it.

Does this mean I’m a bad delegator? Sometimes. Other times my need for control manifests in telling others what they need to do instead of just doing it for them. I’ve been getting better and better at knowing when I should trust someone else to take care of a project for me, but a lot of times I still want to take on the responsibility, because I believe I’ll enjoy it.

For example, I have this project I’ve been working on for myself, but I’m administrating several other sites as well as favors for different individuals and groups. I also have commitments to teach and lead club meetings for groups I am passionate about and whose members matter a lot to me. I love saying “yes” to these types of things because I enjoy doing them, but it doesn’t always mean I have the time or energy to do them all.

A person’s priorities are revealed in how they spend their time and energy. Whether that means they spend time on work, relaxation, volunteering, family, it is all motivated by what that person values. It’s easy to over simplify this, claiming that a person makes one of these too high of a priority, without realizing that each person has their own motivations and reasoning for why they do things. For example, it might be easy to say a workaholic prioritizes their job or money without reflecting the fact that they spend time at work to maintain job security or sufficient funds for their family. Without knowing the personal perspective of an individual, judging them by what they spend their time on can never give an outsider a clear picture.

By saying “no” to some things, we make conscious decision that we have other commitments that we are treating as more important. It’s OK to make those choices because time and energy are limited resources.

Every once in a while it becomes necessary to reevaluate and reprioritize, and that’s OK too. Just because I have been doing something for a while doesn’t mean there isn’t something I would rather be doing if given the opportunity.

This is where navigating these decisions gets tricky: when you have to tell someone else that you have prioritized out a task that you were counted on to get done. It feels like you are letting people down, and that you are breaking commitments, and I won’t advocate that either of those things are OK in all circumstances, but in most situations there is a gracious way of letting people know that you need to step down from a role. And most mature people will recognize that such a decision is made out of a healthy preservation of self, not out of selfishness.

Be honest, sincere and brave. You know your own life better than anyone else ever could, so you know when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and the best course of action is to avoid overextending yourself, because that will have a negative outcome in the end. Even when others question your choices, you are not obligated to justify yourself to them. It is your life to live, and you choose what to say “yes” to.

Motivation in the Face of Procrastination

I have never excelled at self-motivation. No matter how many times I end up cramming in a project at the last-minute, frantically cleaning as friends walk in the door, or packing late into the night before a trip, I never learn.

The procrastination isn’t limited to chores or schoolwork, although putting those off were the hallmarks of my high school years. Prime example: I started this very blog post approximately two months ago. Even hobbies and fun projects get put off, or end up half started, like all of my energy is used up with the inspiration and none is left for the follow through.

I have a list, longer than I would like to admit, of things I need to get done, to say nothing of the things that I want to do. Especially now that I have a house to maintain and this blog that I have decided deserves some of my energy, it has started to get overwhelming.

When things like laundry and dishes start piling up, instead of choosing to take care of them, I let them aggravate me and put them off until they feel convenient, and of course they never do. This isn’t the way to live, in constant state of procrastination. I can’t let things get to the point where I choose from my to-do list the item that feels least distasteful and let the rest wait for tomorrow. At that rate, I will never be able to actually accomplish anything.

Thinking like this runs the risk of getting overwhelmed and never starting anything. If there’s so much to do that it won’t ever be finished, why even bother?

One of the best ways I’ve learned to deal with this mindset is to prioritize the tasks waiting for me and chip away at them with smaller goals in mind.

This is an approach we use in software development, dividing up more complex projects into a manageable size and working on the next most important thing until it is all eventually finished. By setting smaller goals they seem achievable instead of impossible, and that alone can make enough difference in perspective to get started.

It is very important to set goals that are reasonable to accomplish, but still require hard work to achieve. I can give myself a month to pack for a trip, but if that is the only goal I intend to accomplish during that time, I’m still procrastinating on the other tasks I should take on.

Having someone keep me accountable when I feel like procrastinating has also been helpful. Feeling like I’ll have to tell someone when I’ve failed sometimes is enough motivation to proceed with distasteful tasks. Other times that person is the one who tells me its OK to relax when my to-do list is stressing me out. I have found this so important to keep me from getting burnt out on a project and giving up entirely.

So now that I’ve procrastinated on publishing this post for another few weeks, I’m going to follow my own advice and call it finished. This post doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done. And with one thing completed: do the next thing.

Life Is Not A Competition

One again, one of my “strengths” is also one of my fatal flaws. This time it is my competitive drive, to do the best, be the best. And most of the time I can keep that in check and focus on myself without comparing me to others.

During college I took a somewhat lame personality test that was all about finding traits that a person is strong in so that they can cultivate them. I don’t put a lot of stock in personality tests, for a variety of reasons, key amongst them is a distrust of labels. Since that time I’ve learned how labels can be tools for understanding and empathy instead of just alienation, and I can appreciate the use of such analysis to foster conversation about personality by providing vocabulary.

However, before I came to this understanding, I was dead set against taking a test to tell me who I am. My results from my college experience were a set of five traits that included empathy and competitiveness. I’ve already addressed and acknowledged my tenancy towards extreme empathy, but learning to deal with that behavior has been a wholly different animal than learning to balance competition.

In some ways the empathy and competitiveness combine to produce a horrible result: jealousy. My empathic heart lets me feel what others are feeling, but my mind just wants to compare my situation to theirs. I struggle with maintaining a sense of my own contentment when I am pushing for continual improvement in myself.

As the oldest child in my family, there have been a lot of things that I was the first to do: first to learn to drive, first to graduate, first to have a romantic relationship, first to purchase a home. Some of these things are a rite of passage, but others are never a guarantee in life.

I struggle a lot seeing other people get things that I want faster or more easily than I can. It sounds immature, but here’s an example I’m willing to admit: I want a puppy. I have wanted a dog for a long, long time, and it hasn’t ever been possible due to our housing situation. My family even got a dog after I went off to college. Visiting family and friends’ dogs isn’t the same as having my own, and I always leave feeling disappointed that other people can have something I want while I have to wait a long time or work really hard to make it happen.

It’s not just trivial things like wanting a pet, I have spent a lot of energy trying to accept the fact that my life’s path is not the same as anyone else’s, that my version of contentment and success is unique. I don’t have to have the most glamorous job, the most put together home, the most exciting vacations.

I can’t keep living like this. I can’t continue to envy everyone else’s successes. I have to choose not to see someone else’s successes as my failure in comparison. There’s no need for comparison.

If I can stop myself from trying to one-up everyone else…

That doesn’t sound quite right.

My life is nobody else’s and if there is something anyone else has that I want, I either need to use that as motivation to make it happen, or realize that I don’t care enough to make it happen…

Nope.

This one’s hard. I just don’t know. It’s not a healthy way to live, and I’m trying not to, but right now, I don’t think I have the answer.

And maybe that’s OK.

Stop Solving Other People's Problems

In my family of three sisters we get told a lot how similar we are. And it’s true, when you spend your formative years with someone all day every day, as our homeschool family did, a lot of behavior rubs off. But I see more differences between us than most people notice, especially in our motivations and the way we relate to the world. I oversimplify if I say we don’t still each have these traits, but in different proportions. The balance between them is what gives us each our unique personalities and motivations.

My youngest sister, for example, is a very empathetic person. She feels everyone’s feelings for them, pain, joy, sadness, excitement, everything. This makes things like reality TV and everyday interaction with people a challenge for her, but it stems from her vivid imagination, which in turn helps her to write engaging stories.

My other sister is empathetic too, but the way she shows it is to care deeply about everyone around her. She loves everyone in spite of their flaws, including when loving them means her heart breaks for them and their flaws. I can see this aspect of her personality shine through in the way she cares about nature and conservation. To her, even killing bugs hurts her heart.

I am the oldest of the three of us. I have always felt responsible for my sisters’ wellbeing, and sometimes for other people around me. I am also intensely curious. Those traits contribute to the fact that I am constantly driven to fix everyone’s problems.

Problem solving is a skill that serves me well in my job, and it is part of the reason that I got into the field of computer science in the first place. The critical analysis doesn’t always stop with coding problems though, I usually have an opinion on what is going on around me. I certainly have the drive to come up with solutions; I have a hard time letting things go. But it also means that I constantly have to control that impulse, and leave others to solve their own problems and live their own lives.

Coming up with solutions for other people’s problems is unhealthy for many reasons:

  • I can’t allow myself to be wrapped up in other people’s successes and failures. Like it or not I am responsible for myself and only myself.
  • Likewise, suggesting advice to others is like telling them that I know what they should do better than they do. It can offer a scapegoat for when things don’t work out. It can also be a crutch for them to rely on if they don’t continue to come up with their own solutions. Each person deserves credit and blame according to their choices and freedom to make those choices for themselves.
  • It isn’t really my business what other people do, even if their decisions directly affect me. If asked, I should be able to contribute my opinion without forcing the issue and while respecting the autonomy of each individual to reject that advice.

I shouldn’t view others challenges as a place for me to take over. When someone trusts me enough to tell me about their problems I need to show them respect and just listen. Sometimes a listening ear is all a person really needs, not someone to fix their problems, just someone to acknowledge that their problems matter. I want people to feel like they can talk to me without jeopardizing either of our emotional or mental states.

Choosing to use myself as the solution for everyone’s problems is a surefire way to wear myself out. It’s like using the same piece of duct tape over and over to fix everything. Even if I want to be the one to fix everything, I won’t have enough left to solve my own problems if I spend all my energy attacking problems I’m not responsible for solving.

If I want to keep myself sane, I need to learn how to balance the analytical drive I have to do good and to make a difference with respect and tact. I need to remember who I am responsible for and that what I can do to help others starts with the choices I make for myself, the way I approach my own problems. Instead of becoming wrapped up in someone else’s issues and triumphs, I should take what I observed in their situation and examine it for what I can apply to myself.

I don’t think I can really take this to heart without applying the command in the title directly to myself. This post is for me. I need to stop solving other people’s problems. I can’t really offer this advice without it becoming hypocritical. This is my problem and this is what I have decided I need to do to solve it. I hope that in challenging my predisposition to take other’s problems personally I can find more fulfillment and happiness, while remaining the critical, creative thinker I know myself to be.