I Pretend to Be
Feel free to join the tech industry, but remember: being yourself is not an option
by Naomi Alderman
Illustrations by Kelsey Dake
It all sort of happened by accident, working in games and technology. I’m really a novelist, but a friend of a friend was looking for someone to write a new game and it sounded amazing and exciting, and… here I am. And I love it.
There are different kinds of sexism in literary publishing and technology. I mean, they’re both sexist, it’s just that publishing is female-dominated and technology is male-dominated, so the sexism in publishing is the type where women have femininity forced upon them: “Be a proper woman, write about love and have a flower on your book jacket” and the sexism in technology is of the deny-femininity type (“be a man and if you’re not a man, at least pretend”). Of the two, I actually find the sexism in technology mildly less offensive.
But I think the fact I never really intended to have a career in tech has helped me there: At least I didn’t go in with any wide-eyed shiny ideas about how amazing things were going to be. And, after all, I’d come from a background as an Orthodox Jew—where I literally had to sit behind a curtain with the other women in my synagogue—and then went to Oxford University, which retains many of the charms of the 17th century, including a misogynistic attitude to women and occasional period-authentic anti-Semitism.
I think these things made me strong. Seriously. No one in tech has ever been as sexist toward me as teachers and rabbis before I was 12 years old. But I’ve come to notice more and more how working within the particular masculine sexism of the tech industry has nudged the way I present myself, just a little. I’ve noticed how, very slowly, I’ve started to acquiesce into playing roles that get assigned to me. I’ve noticed how I disappear behind these masks.
What follows is not a horror story. It’s a series of moments.
They’re not accusations. They’re just my stories.
The Angry Strident Feminist
Who Takes No Shit
In my very first games job, I ended up being lead writer for an innovative, futuristic game called Perplex City.
I had a series of interviews, and did some test writing. The task was to come up with a set of new characters to join the existing roster of four men and three women. So I thought, just to be equal, I’d balance it out with three men and four women. After all, it was set in a technological future-utopia.
And I had a feeling—just a little bit of a feeling—that this was going to be a thing.
I had my meeting with the bosses, Adrian and Michael. They were complimentary. I longed for this job. And then Michael ran one hand through his mop of hair and said: “Just one thing… we thought this was a bit… women-heavy.” Adrian nodded.
I’d come prepared. I pulled out of my bag a chart on which I listed all the characters in two columns, men and women. You could see — I pointed out — that they were exactly, precisely equal.
I was terrified. If they thought I was a troublemaker, if they felt that I’d made them uncomfortable, if they had been somewhat less than decent human beings, this job—the job that I really, really wanted—would be gone.
“Oh,” said Michael.
“Right,” said Adrian.
And, to be fair to them, they gave me the job and never brought the subject up again.
I actually love being this kind of Strident Feminist Who Takes No Shit. She’s not exactly me, but she’s pretty close to me. I wanted equality, I got equality, I risked something I really wanted in order to get it. Go me.
But people are often scared of this kind of woman; more scared than actual feminism warrants. Talking about the patriarchy tends to have a slightly terrifying effect. I don’t really mind; I quite like being scary. But I know that partly I pretend to be this cast-iron SFWTNS because it protects the tender self within; my actual feminism worries as much about men as about women, and comes from compassion not anger. But, well, sometimes being scary is easier than exposing one’s soft-heartedness.
One of the Boys
Oh yes, I’ve done this one. More times than I can count, I’ve found myself not mentioning the games I like to play around gamer dudebros, because if I talk about Diner Dash that’ll make them notice that I’m a woman. I’ve slogged my way through hours of playing games that did nothing for me, and I’ve attempted to take part in conversations about games that bored me senseless.
In fact, though, being One of the Boys haunts me more in shame than in success. I can’t do it very well, and I feel guilty about all the ways I fail at it.
I’ve felt ashamed of the fact that I really have no spatial awareness (God, it’s so female of me) and can’t aim a rifle for shit. I’ve attempted to conceal the truth that when I play Mass Effect, I’m mostly limited to getting lost and only finding the battle after my henches have already fought and won it.
I feel ashamed of these things because they’re things that are associated with being a woman. Masculine culture, you see: It’s not OK to admit to not being good at things. I find myself backed into that corner, attempting bravado, pretending at competence.
Of course sometimes it’s downright dangerous to pretend to understand what’s going on. You might be convincing. It might not bite you on the backside. Or you might get yourself into really serious trouble, promising things you could never deliver.
In general, I’d rather ask questions and look stupid than keep quiet and not understand what someone’s talking about. So, even if I’m the only woman in an otherwise male group, I stick my hand up and go, “Could you just explain?”
And that’s where a thing happens… not always, but some of the time. I feel a shift in the atmosphere. There’s something mildly gleeful about it. A man has been asked by a woman to explain something! Yes! This is the right way round! Poor her, she does need it explained to her! We should go slowly! We should check frequently to make sure she’s got it now!
It’s related to the phenomenon that occurs when I meet people — both men and women — and tell them I write games. “Write games?” they sometimes say, “You mean you do the programming?” “Well no.” I say, “I have done a tiny bit of coding in my time, but no, I come up with the ideas and write the stories.”
Sometimes, at that moment, I detect a microexpression of relief. It’s odd. I think about it now and feel a pulse across my temples. It makes me feel that I’ve admitted to knowing nothing, or at least nothing that would be surprising, nothing that would cause a re-evaluation of my skills. Somehow it’s easier to bear me if I know less.
This is my most hated persona of all. It’s so female to be a victim, it’s so everything I was always taught to be afraid of, it’s so see what happens when you walk down that dark alley?
But I have been a victim. I’ve been paid less than men I worked with who contributed less to the project. I’ve been sexually harassed by weird men I met through work who, despite my requests, would not stop sending me vagina-related texts.
I remember one particularly bad day at a games conference. The event was, as is typical, about 10 percent female. At the start of the day, one of those “I’m just really touchy-feely” men put his hands where I had not invited them when we were crushed together in a crowded corridor. Then, in a talk, one dude took it upon himself to give a very detailed and enthusiastic account of a “rape game” he’d invented—where you had to stare deeply into the eyes of the “other player” while describing to them how you’re going to rape them, until they tell you to stop. It was genuinely traumatizing to hear the glee in his voice as he talked about it. Shaken, I went to sit in a quiet, empty room to regain my composure. A well-built man at least a foot taller than me came in, sat between me and the door and said: “You know, I messaged you on OKCupid but you never messaged me back.” By this point I genuinely felt too afraid to tell him to just fuck off. So I played nice and smiled and apologized.
And then I left, and went to sit in a park, and never went back.
I spoke to the event organizers afterwards. They, of course, were horrified. They wanted to help. Did I want to name names? (I did not.) Did I want to suggest ways this event could be different? (I could not.)
“Woman as victim” is such a familiar persona. I can feel it settling on my shoulders (even as another voice in my ear, the voice of shame, says “For god’s sake, nothing bad happened to you, stop complaining”). I become a thing. People want to feel good about how they respond to a victim. It becomes important for the problem to be fixed, and for me to acknowledge that they’ve done well and sorted it out and now it’s all OK. But being the victim of something doesn’t mean I have all the answers about how to stop it.
I hate men coming to my defense. I hate having to tell these stories. I hate admitting that I was shaken and upset. I hate the look in people’s eyes when I tell them these stories. I hate being put into this position and I hate talking about it. This is the nature of masculine sexism: Vulnerability is wrong.
And that leads me to the last role I’ve ended up playing: the woman who tells her male friends, “Yeah, there are bad dudes out there, but you’re OK. Many men are beastly, but you’re one of the good guys.” It’s amazing how hard it is for me even now, even writing this piece, not to tell you all that if you are a man who is reading this, you’re probably OK.
The truth is, none of us is OK, not really. The best, most dear, most thoughtful and engaged and open and feminist men in my life have occasionally come out with some statement that’s made me gasp. Then again, so have almost all the women.
I’ve finally come to realize this simple fact: Sexism is not a quality of individuals, it is a quality of the society we live in. It exists in every cultural product, in every grouping, in every brain in our culture. I know, I know, that’s not what you want to hear. It’s not comforting.
It’d be comforting to believe that we could take those damn sexists (or racists, or transphobes, or ableists) and send them away and make a society of beauty and wholeness without them. But that’s not how it goes. We all grew up in a society that ascribes particular attributes to men and women, and ascribes men a higher value than women.
I’ll tell you a secret: I’m sexist, too. When I write Zombies, Run! I routinely find that I’ve put in more male characters than female. Even me. Even with all that I think about this stuff. Then I count the women (because the only way to pick up on this is to count) and I gender flip some of the male characters and make them women. And then—and this is the kicker—when I read back over those newly-female characters, even though I was the one who made them, even though I know I just did a little “turn the outie into an innie” on them, even despite that, I judge the female characters more harshly. The clever science professor suddenly reads as fussy and petulant when she’s female. The badass James Bond–type dude reads as a bitch when she’s a woman. Even to me. That’s what we’re working with here.
Where do we go from here?
It turns out that this has been one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. I didn’t expect it to be, because I write and talk about feminist stuff all the time. But it is, because I, too, am a sexist, and I think it’s better to be strong (masculine value) than to be vulnerable (feminine value). This is why I feel more comfortable in the enforced masculinity of tech than in the enforced femininity of flowery novel jackets. Writing this piece, I realized that I didn’t want to admit to what I don’t know, to the little tricks I use, to the women I pretend to be. It feels like laying down my weapons and entering the world unarmed.
However. Perhaps that’s what we have to do. If a problem in tech is that we all have to pretend to be so damn masculine all the time, perhaps a little bit of vulnerability is just what we need. Perhaps these things only start with someone laying down their weapons. Perhaps sometimes you have to trust that if you do that, no one’s going to just pick up a broadsword and eviscerate you. I guess we’ll see.