Having choices is supposed to be a good thing, but when you are a woman, one choice in life sucks. The choice that I am referring to is the one regarding embracing either your feminine side or your intellectual side based on the career you enter.
My childhood friend Tracy Chou, one of the most brilliant engineers in the tech world, was recently featured in Vogue for her ability to break this stereotype. However, it is a constant battle for her. In her article, she mentioned a time where she wore a dress to a programming conference and everyone ignored her. The next day, she wore a t-shirt and jeans, and all of a sudden, people treated her with interest and wanted to talk. The reason she experienced this is that her particular career field, computer science and tech in general, is viewed as a "masculine" career path. That alone is a problem. It is ridiculous that the different choices that we make in our professional lives somehow have to reflect our gender.
I, too, face the same thing as a solo violinist, but in the opposite way. My career path is considered much more feminine. I am very much a performer, an entertainer. I am supposed to look beautiful and awe the crowd. When I arrive to soundcheck before a show wearing my sweats and a t-shirt, tennis shoes and no makeup, it is hard to even be allowed backstage into the green room, because nobody believes that I am the talent. 30 minutes later, after hair and makeup are complete and my gown and heels have been put on, I am treated with respect.
These are problems. However, while I do believe raising awareness about an issue is extremely important, I am also one who believes that criticism of the problem alone will not actually solve it. There is an actual solution to all of this. I have seen it and experienced it firsthand. This solution is ability. I mentioned above that both of us were treated differently for not looking the part of the particular career field we are a part of. However, both of us have been successful in our fields. The reason for this is that we have used our brains and our talent to demonstrate our abilities. And nobody can deny your ability. This is something that you control. Ability and confidence also go hand-in-hand. When your ability rises, your confidence rises, and all of the other thoughts in your brain regarding body image and appearance become secondary.
When I go out for sound check and start to perform my violin, a skill I have continued to perfect after over two decades of practice, people treat me with the respect I deserve, even in my sweats and t-shirt. They see that I do actually have this ability. This music that I create, that brings me and others around me to life, is not something that can be solely defined by appearance. Sure, the dress and makeup may add that extra "wow" factor to the performance, but at the end of the day, it is my ability which differentiates me.
And it is no different for women who are in the tech field. It will be a tough battle along the way from start to finish in the goal of becoming a top engineer. Both my parents are engineers, so I saw it firsthand as a child, when my mother was bullied around by her male superiors in the tech world while my dad seemed to get a free pass. But if you do not allow any of the BS along the way to bring you down, distinguish yourself with your ability to code and problem solve, realize that the negativity that you encounter along the way is actually just other's insecurities and you forge ahead and become the best, then you will be noticed.
So today, I have a message for all of you out there: Focus on your ability first. Practice and study until you know you are the best that you can be. You alone have the power to stand out in your field, and no one can take that from you.