Archive for March, 2010

It’s generally accepted that maternity leave is a bad thing for careers – there’s up to a year’s gap in your work history, you’ll have forgotten lots of stuff and failed to keep up with changes. Add in that you’ll have lost touch with all your important contacts, and at the end of it you’ve got a demand on your time and energy that means work will never be able to take first place in your priorities. It looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I found that for the first half of my 9 months away from work, I was pretty much incapable of anything even vaguely like work. “Baby brain” was in full swing – I was so forgetful that leaving the oven on became a regular occurrence – and the birth itself was messy enough that I needed counseling for a minor form of PTSD. In the second half, however, I was craving the kind of mental challenges that work provides.

I was involved in a family-oriented charity project that needed a website, and I saw a possibility: I could write it. I’d have to learn HTML and CSS, but that sounded like just the challenge I was looking for. It was something I could do as and when I had time and felt like it, and I could drop it at a moment’s notice if my baby needed me. So I took to spending nap times immersed in W3Schools tutorials and hacking at code. In a few weeks, I had a working website and a working knowledge of (very) basic web design. At the time, it scratched the itch and it did a good thing. I figured that was it.

Then I went back to work. Over the following year, work changed a lot – my department was shrinking, but another was growing, and I moved across and up. Our online database product was being re-developed, but nobody was updating the help files. Everybody that could do something about it was far too busy doing the developing, or doing their day job, to take on an extra mammoth task. Then I saw a possibility: I could write it. I already knew basic HTML and CSS, and if one of the techies could provide a file with the corporate headers and such already in place, basic is all I’d need. The first revision is now available to individuals across nearly two hundred customers.

Instead of coming back to work out of touch, distracted and unfocused, I came back with new skills and enthusiasm that I would never have had if I’d not gone on maternity leave. My company are benefiting enormously from this, in many ways beyond the up-to-date help files. So it seems maternity leave hasn’t killed my career – it’s advanced it.

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Most teenage girls idolise pop stars, or actresses. They want to be princesses or models. I was not most teenage girls. I dreamed about growing up to be a scientist, like the ones in the John Wyndham books. Then one day a friend told me about Rosalind Franklin, and I was in awe. At the time, all I knew about her was that she had done a significant amount of the research that allowed Watson & Crick to build their DNA model. Since then, I’ve found a few other things out and I like here more and more.

From reading around the subject, I conclude that Rosalind Franklin was a geek. She was almost obsessive about her science, and was astoundingly well informed as well as brilliantly incisive. She would rather spend her time staring at the structure of molecules than worrying about make-up, and was unnervingly forthright in her manner. She held herself, and others, to impeccably high standards. Even while undergoing treatment for the cancer that would prove fatal, she continued to work.

She was by training a chemist, and by trade a biophysicist and x-ray crystallographer.
Her most famous work was on the structure of DNA – research that at the time got very little recognition. She might have shared in the Nobel prize awarded for the discovery, but she died quite young and they are not awarded posthumously.

DNA was only one aspect of her short but prolific career. She investigated the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, and suggested details of its structure that were later proved to be true. She was instrumental in discovering the structure of the polio virus. Even at the start of her career, Franklin was an expert in the structure and porosity of coal. This might not seem too exciting, but it allowed the development of high-strength carbon fibres, which are now used in everything from vehicles to violin strings. I wonder what she would have made of carbon nanotubes and buckyballs?

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I have never understood why gender matters. To me, it doesn’t. I have never had difficulties in speaking with men as equals, and generally they have responded in kind. I have a number of friends across the transgender spectrum, and have never struggled to accept them for who they are – their gender does not matter to me beyond knowing which pronouns they would prefer me to use. In many ways, I am “gender blind”.

This has all led me to be confused by the apparent necessity for women-oriented Open Source projects and communities, such as Ubuntu Women. I can understand, on an intellectual level, that not all women are as comfortable as I am in a room full of men, but never before did I truly grok the problem.

Lately, I have had something of an epiphany.

Just over two years ago, I became a mum. This threw me into the world of play groups, sharing baby woes and breastfeeding support. This world is inhabited almost entirely by women. It is a world I never knew existed, and one which has given me a totally different perspective on single-gender communities. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the balance – I was, in terms of gender, part of the majority. Seeing my husband struggling with it all has been another eye-opener. He was uncomfortable, and just didn’t quite know how to fit in, because he was different.

Slowly, slowly I have come to realise that, in a way, I was right all along, and gender doesn’t matter. What matters is affinity, and recognising shared experience. It is always difficult to get involved with a new group of people, but instant affinity gives you an “in”, a starting point for them not to be faceless strangers. That affinity could be appreciating the slogan on someone’s T-shirt, noticing that they’ve got an ORG sticker on their laptop, or something they happen to be talking about. That affinity can also come from gender. And now I think I understand.

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Recently it was International Women’s Day. This is a concept I struggle with. I have lately had something of an epiphany, but that is for another post. Right now I want to talk about the competition Ubuntu Women ran. The idea was to gather a repository of inspirational stories about how women got into using Ubuntu, and entries were accepted from across the world. I didn’t quite manage to write the how part, but did accidentally write about why I got into Ubuntu. I didn’t win, and didn’t expect to, but I was both surprised and flattered when Jono Bacon read it out while announcing the winners because it was “so cool”. Both the writing and the response have been part of why I’ve re-started this blog, so it seemed appropriate for me to share my entry here.

Learning To Fly

Some years ago, I used to travel everywhere by bus. The company that ran it was called Microsoft, and I used the Number 3.1. It generally got me where I needed to be, but it took a bit of an odd route to get there, and it would often stop at seemingly random points. If I fancied a change, I could take my walkman, or a book. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but it did ok, and I was used to it. After a while, the company decided to upgrade all their busses and change all the routes – and put the fares up. I went onto the Number 95, and everything looked nice and shiny, although I missed my stop a couple of times because I wasn’t used to the route. After a while I realised that although the route didn’t take the same detours, it took new ones, so I didn’t really get where I was going any faster. The busses all seemed to get a bit dingy after a while, too. Still, I had my CD walkman, and it became familiar again.

Eventually, I took the plunge, and got a car. I loved the freedom – I could go where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go. I wasn’t constrained by having to have the right money, and I didn’t have to stop for the sake of everyone else. It was a SuSE, and it was mine and I loved it. Except, any time anything went wrong I had to ask for help. When the radio stopped working, I had to get someone else to fix it. If I couldn’t find a particular stick or button, I had to get someone to show me where it was. It also wouldn’t play any of my old CDs. In short, it was frustrating. I tried a couple of other cars, but they weren’t any better. I took ages getting my Debian to even start, and somehow had a knack for stalling it before I got to the end of the street. Eventually, I gave up and went back to the bus – the XP route now had air conditioning and contoured seats, and I could cope with the delays (and occasional breakdowns) because it did tend to get me there in the end.

Then one day, something quite miraculous happened: someone gave me a pair of wings. In only a couple of lessons, I was flying! I no longer have to wait for the bus, and I don’t need a mechanic to come and rescue me any more. If I want different music, I can just pick up a media player and set it going. If I want to dye my wings a different colour, that’s easy too. I decide which route to take – I’m not even limited by roads any more. The best thing is that flying feels so natural – like walking only better. I call these wings “Ubuntu”.

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Time to start again

I last posted here almost exactly three years ago. I stopped not by conscious decision but by not knowing what to write about. The last post was made around the time I found out I was pregnant, and that took up pretty much all my spare head space. It has taken a very long time for me to be able to properly address other matters and give them the time they need.

I’ve been thinking for some time I should re-start this blog, and have recently been given several ideas for what to write about. So if this still comes up in anyone’s feed anywhere, watch this space!

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