If Hillary Clinton Were a Software Engineer

When Hillary Clinton speaks, some people cringe.  She is a woman with experience, a woman of a certain age, a woman who has an opinion and isn't afraid to say it; and they do not want to hear that voice. 

In my 10 years as a software engineer, I too have been the well-qualified voice that no one wants to hear.  It wore me down, and I eventually left last fall.  In an industry that is desperately trying to understand and fix the gender gap, I am one of the women who dropped out at mid-career. 

I sometimes wonder, if Hillary Clinton had entered the field of software engineering instead of politics, how would she have handled the perpetual dismissal of her voice?  Though we are very different women, I have found that we actually have a lot in common. 

We have chosen male-dominated fields.   

I graduated from MIT in 2001, with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.  Just 20 percent of the graduating class in my major were female.  At my current company, roughly 17 percent of software engineers are female. 

Hillary received her JD from Yale Law School in 1973, when less than 10 percent of law school graduates were female.  She was a Senator for New York for 8 years, where the ratio of women is actually very similar to those in the technology industry – about 20 percent.  She was Secretary of State for four years, only the 3rd female out of 68.  She knows what it is like to work with a bunch of dudes.

Our voices have been criticized as unlikable.

I graduated just after the tech bubble burst, and I entered the software industry with a serious case of impostor syndrome.  As I approached mid-career, though, I felt I had paid my dues, and had some great ideas to offer.  My leadership agreed, and gave me great reviews.  As I continued to climb the ladder, though, I noticed that when I spoke too forcefully, I was perceived as alarmist and aggressive.  And when I spoke too submissively, my ideas were dismissed or appropriated.  For a while, I tried to lean in.  But I eventually conceded, after a prominent leader pulled me into his office, and said in hushed tones, “I’m not sure how to say this nicely, but people on my team just don’t like you.”

How many times has Hillary Clinton been criticized for not being likable?  For her tone of voice?  For not smiling enough, or smiling too much?  For appearing frumpy, or for spending too much on a jacket?  She has been endorsed by an overwhelming number of newspapers, leaders, and heads of state.  She has more super-delegates because she has the support of Democratic party leaders.  But the cringers want to talk about Benghazi, email servers, and campaign contributions.  They hear her voice in the context of suspicion, not the context of experience and wisdom.  They just want to see her smile more.

We have been disappointed by our husbands.   

I have not been cheated on, but the fear of betrayal did lead me to make some bad decisions in my marriage.  I was afraid to want what I wanted, afraid to consider myself worthy enough, afraid of his anger.  After almost 10 years of marriage, I discovered that our values did not actually align very much at all.  My voice had gradually eroded over the course of our nine-year marriage.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke when I was in high school, I was disgusted with Hillary.  How could she stand by him?  After almost 20 years of life experience, I see it differently.  I now believe that Hillary could see the bigger picture; that the vision they shared had to be bigger than her personal pride; that she knew that in many ways their values aligned, and she could forgive him this one way in which they did not.  In many marriages, there is not enough common ground to move forward after infidelity, but time has shown that the Clinton’s did.

We want to make an impact bigger than anyone would think reasonable.   

As I gained increasing awareness of the gender gap in technology, it hit me hard.  I needed to help, so I started volunteering at events that inspire girls to enter technology and I began mentoring junior women on my team.  But I figured that the biggest difference I could make would be to be an example of someone who makes it.  I took the weight of the whole problem on my shoulders, and I became too invested in my own success.  Suddenly every interaction carried a much larger gravity than it should have.  I put way too much pressure on myself.

Hillary has been fighting for women and girls for much longer than I have, and at a much larger scale.  I'm just worried about women in technology, whereas she is worried about every girl and woman on the planet.  Her goals are so expansive that perhaps the cringers can't wrap their own heads around them, let alone give her credit and support.  Some think that other candidates are starting a revolution, but I would argue that Hillary's vision is even greater. 

***

Through nearly constant attacks on her professional persona, and major setbacks in her personal life, Hillary keeps going.  In contrast, I left software engineering.  Had she been in my shoes, I know that Hillary would have found a way to get what she wanted.

Her recent clinching of the Democratic nomination has inspired me to think about going back to software engineering.  But I wonder about the people in our country who cannot look at Hillary Clinton, a battle-tested, courageous, resilient woman, and listen to her voice with respect and regard.  If they cannot do that for the first female presidential nominee, how would they ever do the same for me? 

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