The Million Little Barbs Of "Lighten Up"

Recently, I was asked why a woman who loves coding would ever leave the field. In short, I got tired of being told to “lighten up.”

It's true: at one point in my life, I decided that coding would be something I'd do only in private. I was only slowly pulled back into the fold.

Let me tell you, I love coding. Been doing it since before I hit puberty. I did it when I barely had the money to keep a server up. I do it on the weekends and evenings, and I'm teaching my kids how to do it. I've spent thousands of dollars to go to conferences so I can learn more about it. Why would I ever leave the profession where I got paid real money to do what I love?

In short, I got tired of being told to 'lighten up.'

This industry is one of subtle sexism. I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out. The subtle barbs are usually dismissed as something I need to not care about. It was a joke! Sheesh. Why are you so sensitive?! All I did was make a joke about you needing to be in the kitchen!

Lighten up.

The barbs aren't always jokes, either. Sometimes, it's attempts to push me into a traditionally 'female' role. As the woman, I've been the only person in the group asked to put together a pot luck (presumably, this work is beneath the males). I've been the only one asked to take notes in a meeting... even if I'm the one who's presenting (because my title really should be 'secretary who we let on the servers'). I once had a boss who wanted to turn me into a personal assistant so badly, it ended up in a meeting with HR (he, as white and male, should be allowed to reign in the only female on the team!).

Why did I have to take all of the above so personally? Sheesh.

Lighten up.

Sometimes, even the unsubtle jabs are hard to combat. What do you say to the guy who sits across from you when you dress up and makes a comment to everyone about it? "Oop, Katie's got the low cut dress on today! I know where I'm sitting!" Say something, and derail the meeting? Go to HR and get stuck with his work when they move or can him? Get transferred off the best team and languish somewhere else? Start wearing sweaters, even though my breasts feel like they're boiling in there (yup, that's one reason women like low tops, guys)? Which label do I want to be stuck with today? Ice Queen or Slut?

What is wrong with you? It was one comment! I bet you'd sue him if he complimented your shoes.

Lighten up.

Every time I spoke up about the above crap, I got some sympathy, but I also got some guy who didn't understand what the big deal was. If I wasn't in the middle of being raped or beaten or threatened or fired, guess what I needed to do?

Lighten up.

How long would you put up with it? Do you love anything that much? If your spouse subtly treated you like crap every day, how long would your marriage last? If you saw a friend being treated this way by their boss, wouldn't you tell them to quit?

Or would you tell them to lighten up?

You, person who told me to lighten up, saw one little thing. It didn't seem like a big deal, did it? One little line! One joke! One comment! But it's not just one thing to me: it's one of thousands that I've had to endure since I was old enough to be told that 'X is for boys!' It's probably not even the first thing I've had to deal with that day, unless you've gotten to me pretty early.

That's the main problem with subtle discrimination. It leaves those that it affects the most powerless against it, quietly discouraging them. If they speak up, they're treated to eye rolls at the least, and at the worst, are called oppressors themselves. We're accused of not wanting equal rights, but of wanting tyranny.

I would just like the million little barbs to stop, and I would like to not be told to 'lighten up'.

Katie Cunningham is a Python and Django developer for Cox Media Group. This post originally appeared on her personal blog, The Real Katie, and was reproduced here with her permission.


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