The exhaustion of invisible labor

Into a community

It started at WordCamp Raleigh this year. One of my co-workers was attending for the first time and felt she’d chosen sessions badly, she wasn’t happy with what she was getting out of them. Trying to reassure her, I said that you get what you can out of the sessions, get some energy from being around the community, and maybe meet a couple of people…

In unison she and our other co-worker said, “Maybe you do!”

I have another friend who is trying to find his own way in the WordPress world and when he said he did not want to attend WordCamp at first I was surprised – for me it seems the most logical way to meet people. But speaking is one of my ways in with people at WordCamp, and without that, would I meet people? Certainly not as readily.

So I started thinking about how people find their way into the WordPress community, or any community to which they’re new.

Visibility and credibility

That lead me to thinking about visibility and credibility being important to my goals, which clearly are different from those of my friend and co-workers. My goals start with what if I need to get another job one day? and continue on to it would be nice to have my ideas either validated or rationally critiqued by people who understand them, and sometimes land at I just want to talk with people to whom I can relate. Aside from a genuine desire to share something useful with others (and I do have that desire), these goals underpin my motivation to speak.

To build my credibility I have to be visible, speaking makes me quite visible. I have to show the community that I am credible; I can’t just say hey, I am smart! and have that mean anything to anyone who doesn’t know me. I have to demonstrate a basis for my alleged competence. Speaking, done well, enhances credibility, but doesn’t give me a way to bring much of my past experience to light. I speak mainly about my current ideas and work. However, I have a body of undocumented work from before I came to WordPress, and all of that labor and those accomplishments are invisible to my new peers.


Invisible labor

I realized that there are things I’ve done in the past that are notable, both things I want to share with the WordPress world and things that I am just pleased by in general. There’s no archive of Lisa, however, no wikipedia page about me or handy reference guide. I suppose with enough searching a truly dedicated (or obsessive) person could find the primary sources, read extensively of my past blogs, and put it all together. I don’t actually expect that to happen.

So – I decided to write some things down in one place.

Going through old photos and memories was fun and happy at first, but then it hit me – in the pursuit of my own interests, when I worked with other people, it was almost always with men. In some (many?) cases I did the work that we often expect more of women than of men: to organize, to manage the details, to ensure everyone’s needs are met, to tidy up, to listen, and often to soothe.

The most egregious example of this was a film I worked on when I was quite young. I organized and ran most aspects of the shoot, I was the only woman on the set, and I bore a stunning responsibility for a film to which I made no real creative contribution. I got a credit, and some gratitude from the director and I can’t even say that I made any friendships or useful connections. Mostly I worked my ass off and learned that I probably never wanted to make another film.

But even when I was actually collaborating, it was usually with men, almost never with women. Many of my interests tend to be dominated by men so this is not surprising: cars, computers, and certain aspects of music and college radio. But after condensing these experiences into a few paragraphs it hit me: I’m so tired of the mental gymnastics involved in fitting myself into a male group while avoiding being written off because I am female. Do not act too much like a girl. Do not play into negative female stereotypes of incompetence. Make sure you know all the jargon! Don’t let them catch you not understanding the conversation! Know all the references!

OH GOD the references. I had to have at least surface knowledge of everything from cut-ups to John Muir‘s guide to aircooled volkswagens to pass in these male worlds. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of this stuff, but hated the exhausting work of keeping my credibility as intact as possible for fear of being dismissed as just a chick.

It still happened anyway though, that one time my future manager introduced me to his friend by saying that the work conversation usually goes over my head hahahaha.


This year at WordCamp Raleigh, I spoke in the developer track. This year, another woman also spoke in the dev track. She came in from California (it’s part of her job). I thanked her, because she meant I was not the only woman speaking in the dev track.  While the WordPress world includes so many very visible women, I’m still working in a man’s world it seems.

I swear, I am tired.