As a child, my parents fed me the same line most parents do: “You can be anything you want when you grow up.” While I never distrusted their encouragement, I never truly internalized it, either.
In the rural community where I was raised, men had the “real jobs,” and women were secretaries, teachers, or stay-at-home moms. My parents followed this pattern; my friends’ parents followed this pattern; everyone I knew followed this pattern. In fact, the only model of a successful, powerful businesswoman I can recall from my childhood was my wonderful Aunt Leanne, and even as a youngster, I recognized how her decision to chase her dreams and bring home the bacon cast her as an “other” in our small community. As a naive kid, it seemed like she made her life more difficult for no reason. Couldn’t she let my uncle do the “real” work and be like all the other “normal” moms?
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on women who choose to raise a family, teach (I’ve been there; it’s freaking hard), or hold other “traditional” roles. My mom was a secretary and a bookkeeper for most of my life, and she remains my biggest hero. Women who find a passion and pursue it to mastery never cease to inspire me.
Unfortunately, when these roles are the only ones you see actually modeled in real life, it becomes difficult to believe you should aspire to achieve anything else. As a straight-A student and giant nerd, I fully believed I was capable of attending the School of Mines or some difficult science program, but why would I voluntarily separate myself from the other women in my community when I could take what I saw as an easier path and do what I assumed was expected of me?
So I decided, without any sense of direction or true passion, to take the road more frequently traveled. I pursued a degree in English literature. I ran an office at a small roofing company. I worked as a writer and editor. When I still failed to find satisfaction in my career, I went back to college to become an elementary school teacher. After public education chewed me up and spit me out, I even attempted to be a homemaker! In the decade following high school, I tried all the women’s roles I saw modeled as a child (except for being a mom; that’s never gonna happen). None of them made me happy.
My unhappiness caused me to feel really awful about myself. Why couldn’t I just be “normal?” When will I ever find my tribe? It was during this period that I began to spend more time with my Aunt Leanne, who had recently moved back to Colorado. As an adult listening to all the complicated stuff that woman does as the VP of Operations at a major company, it dawned on me: my aunt is a freaking badass.
She and my uncle had a vision for their future, and they worked hard to achieve it, small-town pettiness be damned. And it turned out great – they have three successful children, a beautiful home, and a marriage to be proud of. As we talked, I realized the woman sitting across the table did it: she took the more difficult road, and it paid off in spades.
As I began to plot my next move after teaching, I kept thinking about that promise my parents made, the one that said I could do anything. I also thought of the women that raised and inspired me. They all took different journeys, and none of them were easy. The ones who really inspired me – women like my mom and my aunt – chose their path because it was their passion, not because it was_ society’s expectation_.
What was my passion? What would I gladly spend my days doing if I didn’t care what anyone else thought? Instead of searching for a specific career, I considered the best parts of all my career choices thus far. I quickly realized my passion isn’t a career, it’s a skill: problem-solving. And what is software engineering other than a job where all you do is solve one problem after another?
This week, I was offered the opportunity to complete a code challenge for a job I applied for. The challenge was in Python and MySQL, two technologies I’ve never touched before. The challenge was hard, but I applied my passion for problem-solving and completed it successfully. I submitted that pull request with such a feeling of pride, and that elation served as such a counter to the way I felt just a year ago.
When I joined Flatiron School’s software engineering program, I constantly felt like I had to justify my choice. I prefaced my announcement with “I know this seems like it’s out of left field, but I want to be a programmer and…” I worried my teacher friends wouldn’t understand me anymore. I was terrified I would be the only woman I knew who liked to write code and make stupid technical jokes.
I should have known better. I should have known that my aunt isn’t a woman in a man’s world. My mom isn’t a woman in a woman’s world. They are simply women in the human world. Upon my entry to the tech industry, I found a horde of intelligent, friendly women with whom I can share my journey. I talk to some of them on Twitter, visit with others over video chat, and practice coding with even more on CodeWars. We support and grow together. I found my tribe, and I invite you to join us.
Our parents are right; we can do whatever we want, regardless of our gender. To all the humans out there chasing their dreams, you are inspiring, and I’m cheering for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be coding.