“Olivia lives with an albatross around her neck: the fact that she is female…”
by: Miriam Hamilton
This firm is the next new thing in intelligent machines. At least the trade magazines say so, and Olivia reads trade magazines. She’s also in the reception area, counting floor tiles and waiting to be called for an interview with the next new thing. Her job with the Army has been reduced to analyzing budgeting and costs, which for an engineer, is akin to death itself. While the characterization may be a bit extreme, Olivia has been bored to tears and needs to find something, anything else to do.
So today she’ll be topical and inventive, and create a strong first impression. As a technical manager, she’s used to the drill of presenting ideas and fielding questions. After thirty years, it’s expected. And as she waits she inspects her watch and smooths a lapel, tucks a stray hair into its clip.
A secretary arrives. Mr. McManus is now ready to see her. Olivia is led through automatic glass doors and down a long hallway to the Vice-President’s suite. The secretary pokes her head in. “Mr. McManus, Dr. Scripps is here.”
A man with silver hair is seated behind the desk, a striped tie loosened at his neck. He doesn’t look up but motions with his hand. “Sit, please.” Olivia takes the empty chair and glances briefly back at the doorway where the secretary moments ago stood.
She fishes out a copy of her four-page resume and places it on the desk. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes, yes.” Mr. McManus waves off the papers. “I know all of that.”
Although he has angled himself sideways behind the desk to accommodate crossed legs, he uncrosses them so that he can face Olivia directly. Deep creases in his forehead suggest anxiety and concern, and the folds of skin around his mouth furrow as he speaks. “Let’s make no mistake,” he says, frowning, “good on paper is all very well, but I’m looking for someone who can get programmers in line…”
Her back stiffens. She wouldn’t have been invited if she were not good on paper!
“With all due respect, Mr. McManus, I assumed that my resume and our mutual interest in future software tools brought me here today. I spoke with the Army Secretary earlier this year about tactical radio support of artillery…there was a Command and Control demo at Ft. Hood…?”
“The Secretary?” he interrupts.
“Yes. We discussed forward thrusts for the Army…as it is my responsibility to ensure that ground forces are pleased with radio technologies.” Olivia reminds Mr. McManus of her current role as a radio developer for the Army. Beltway companies love engineers with military contacts because they believe that those contacts are going to help them win government business.
“That’s all very well, Dr. Scripps, but we’re a different kind of outfit here. Only five years out of the gate, still kicking our way in. Not many succeed with us, not many at all.” Mr. McManus looks like he’s in a huff, as if he hates the job of explaining himself. He stands up, wagging a finger. “Can you motivate my developers and force them on schedule, make the client happy? Can you deliver six months of delayed product and assuage our backers? Tell me, Dr. Scripps, is that your talent, too?”
The “too” sails over his desk like a missile. Olivia has been dealt her share of sharp comments over the years, from blatant attacks on her gender to the bloody, intellectual knife fights that spring organically from engineer DNA like high math scores. For the engineers Olivia has known, being perceived as right is a minimum requirement for survival, but either behavior is considered too common generally to take note of, so she takes McManus in stride, too. “Why, of course, I’ve done this sort of work for nearly twenty years –“
He stops her. “So you say. Well, I spoke to Jeffries, your accounts receivable. Someone I’ve known for years…yes, we were at the Navy Labs together years ago, you know, in the good old days when defense meant “weapons,” before this business became all about cyber offensives.” He shudders, then grudgingly adds, “This really is a brand new world. Anyway, Jeffries tells me you managers over there have a kick for writing papers. Dr. Scripps, we haven’t time for papers. People who write papers should work for universities, not for-profit enterprises. You get it? Because we’re in what is called a “bind,” Dr. Scripps, what with short deadlines and a deep backlog, customers biting at the bit for deliveries. Our temperatures run…well, hot.” Mr. McManus turns to face the windows. When he parts the blinds, a shard of sunlight escapes across the desk.
Olivia agrees that she should work in a university and would gladly be there now, except that she was fired in 1990. In 1985, office spaces for engineers did not typically include ladies’ rooms, and when she saw the university had one, she was so elated she accepted the job without much thought. But five years later, a student overheard the Chairman say, “We can’t have Scripps apply for tenure, because she’ll get it and we can’t have a woman around here!” and the university fired her without cause.
Olivia was mortified, but before Title VII and the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, women couldn’t sue employers for intentional discrimination, and having nowhere to turn, she left academia and never went back. It was a terrible defining moment. She was never able to find that research work anywhere outside of academia, a fact that has haunted her ever since.
So she’s here today because he called her for this interview and not the other way around. “I get people to work, Mr. McManus. I lead a team of forty…”
He interrupts again. “We fired our last manager after a month for shenanigans. A month! Oh, I tell you, I’ve noticed a big trend with you managers. Cooking up something in the lab, are you? For all I know, you’re breeding rats in there….no time for budgets or managing the programmers, either, I suppose, if it’s the patents you’re really after.”
“Exactly what kind of research director are you looking for?” Olivia counters, sitting up taller in her chair. He’s obviously not familiar with her brand of managing that she’s come up with after all sorts of trials: that personal goals must be matched by targeted rewards when goals are met, and a revolutionary product development plan based on bonuses. “Of course, researchers like papers and patents, don’t be silly. But we obviously run teams and build products, Mr. McManus. I assumed that since Research Director is the title of the position you sent me, naturally I thought that research played a key role there. Now, you haven’t changed your mind in a week, have you?”
Before he can answer, Olivia adds, “And if the people you hired failed so quickly – didn’t you know whom you were getting?”
Mr. McManus is turning red and clenching his fist. He stands and lunches forward over his mahogany desk gleaming with polish.
“Look, I’ve got contracts to work off! And we aren’t going to get out of this hole without some management. No manager is going to mess around like a programmer on my time, I can tell you! And after our last debacle, I realized, well, it’s Army folks I need to get the new work. Winning five hundred million dollar contracts isn’t going to be a walk in the park. So we need help, and when we found your resume, I thought, well, you do seem to have the right experience.” He sits down again. “I’ve got to have someone with solid credentials, friends at the Department of Defense and the big companies to help us…”
“Yes . . .”
“…if we’re going to get those DoD bids. The business these days is all about anticipating the market and our problem is, it’s hard to find a lead connected well enough to be of help. No one in-house to pick from…brilliant young people, I give them that, but not manager material. And before I ever get near new contracts, I’ve got to deliver on work already promised, for heaven’s sake. And it sure is tough moving forward when backorders take up all your time.”
“I read proposals for the Army and you might know that selection criteria has changed. Bidders have to be on board with terminology and cost structures…cost is critical…I could help you win contracts and put your developers on track,” Olivia adds sternly. “I’ve been most successful doing just that.”
“But our day-to-day business needs tough leadership to move us forward. A bold and forceful personality…”
Olivia swears under her breath. So she is not tough? “I’ve managed teams for fifteen years and find difficult situations personally challenging. No situation intimidates me, I can tell you.”
Mr McManus shrugs. “You’ll deliver your presentation and the team will decide.”
Is the interview over? she wonders. Olivia snaps her briefcase shut. If she’d known beforehand what this was, she wouldn’t have come.
She stands up to shake his hand. They step into another hallway on their way to the conference room when a crowd of precocious, young developers duck and jostle past. She knows they’re developers because of the slouching and anti-corporate attire, and wonders if she ought to step around them, as if they are the danger beyond the orange cones. Perhaps they helped to get these managers fired.
But Olivia is confident in herself. Over the past year, she’s forged a path from radio to data mining, and invented an algorithm that searches documents for individual style, syntax, and mood. It can detect unusual emotional states that could lead to bad acts, and operates on a synthesis of flow engines, sorters, and mood characterizers — all terms from the rich lexicon of electrical engineering that roll off her tongue. From experience she knows that if she doesn’t say the words herself, however, then they will never be said about her. Women haven’t been associated with these kinds of terms or expertise, or with leading research and development teams, either, for that matter.
Twenty-five years ago, with Affirmative Action in full tilt, Olivia was tracking tumbling missiles with radar, and at thirty-five, planning to write a textbook. But since leaving academia she’s had to become an expert du jour. Meanwhile, women enter the field and drop off like flies, amid hazing and humiliation. It’s a certain fact that certain men claim the field of engineering for themselves and openly assert the preference that women are kept out. While she’s survived several rounds of intimidation, after working alongside them all these years — and many who discredit her abilities — Olivia has grasped the necessity of asserting herself as men do, has made it her mission that women will not be discounted in engineering. She’s mostly given up being liked along the way, since fighting for rights politely is a bit absurd, even for Olivia. Still, she’s careful with her words, however. Random comments don’t fly at her unremarked, nor does she assume that anyone will recognize her accomplishments.
But it’s a brand of hairsplitting perfectionism that propels Olivia through projects that others with comparable backgrounds find impossible. She has seen her share of good fortune. But she’s also wallowed equally in the despair of gender discrimination and unfair terminations, and is frequently cast into the disgraceful position of having to fight alone, without support.
She wonders whom she’s had to become to make this tightrope act a success, her tireless, scholarly inquiry that is frequently stonewalled by a hostile generation of men. Attempts to invalidate her have only intensified efforts to squash them. She doesn’t know the cost of all this, but her sense is that it has not been good.
They approach the podium. Mr. McManus introduces her to a sea of young faces: all between twenty-two and thirty-five, she thinks, all male, and much younger than her own university students would be today. Do these young men see her as a fellow engineer, or it is their mothers they see instead? She believes she knows the answer. Perhaps they will accept her one-on-one, once they are convinced that she must be respected.
The intelligence community has a need to source documents, she tells them. She has developed an algorithm to discern authorship of literary material. With a known writing sample, she can include and exclude all writers in a universe with ninety-five percent probability. Training requirements are sizable, she admits, pausing deliberately along the way so that major points sink in. Below her, rows of heads huddle over tablets and smartphones, fingers tapping. A few are watching her. She demonstrates with a sample and flashes a colored map highlighting deployments of various detectors.
They arrive at the question-and-answer portion of the presentation. A young man waves his hand.
“What does literary material have to do with artificial intelligence? We write code here, not novels.” He’s smirking and wearing a bright green Xbox T-shirt.
“Code!” the man next to him echoes.
Olivia shrugs. “You know, I’ve worked in statistical detection during most of my career. The context is evolving, from radar in the forties to sonar in the seventies, speech in the eighties, and so on. We’ve moved from physical to information warfare and we must have the right tools to address new challenges. This analyzer operates as a mobile app. Its has been tested on ten popular blogs and was found to perform best against three hundred words or more. At five hundred words, performance improves to ninety-two percent…” She’s aware she hasn’t answered their question. But she’s also left out the fact that she was fired after demonstrating this analyzer, because the company’s lead engineer was too competitive to work with her. On another job she authored a one hundred million dollar proposal for a boss who asked her daily for sex, and when she said no, also fired her.
Xbox demands, “So what’s the approach, semantic indexing? How last year.” He cocks his head to the side. “No one uses that anymore.”
“Indexing went out with laptops,” the Echoer adds.
“With the dinosaur.” A third pipes in.
Several heads turn up. Olivia smooths her lip with one finger. “Oh? Semantic analysis finds words in a text to determine the document’s topic. It’s useful in sorting out state of mind. Suppose you defend this conclusion of yours. I haven’t heard it expressed anywhere else. Besides, speaking so disparagingly of technology obliges you to be something of an expert, doesn’t it?” She regards Xbox gravely. “So go on, give us a lecture.”
“Indexing finds the frequency of keywords in a document, and was invented for cataloging subjects. I suppose her algorithm uses it…” As Xbox rattles off his opinion, he’s facing the audience and avoiding Olivia’s glance.
“My algorithm doesn’t, it turns out . . .” Olivia cuts in.
“So who cares? Not us. We’re coders, like I told you. We don’t want to hear a lecture on that.”
Olivia suppresses a smile. “Then how about the linguistic analysis of tweets? Capable of assessing mass movements based on psychological states of individuals. A concept that originally got me interested in detecting propaganda.”
Xbox makes a droll face. “Like I told you, we work on real things, like landing gear, horizon optimal control and potential functions for spacecraft autopilot. It’s what we do!” He glares at her. “We’re busy as hell, and haven’t got time for this.”
“Yes, of course. I’m also interested in controls.” Actually, Olivia isn’t. But she has the feeling she’s standing before a classroom of freshmen whose belief, against all odds, is that their ideas are all superior to hers. In a class years ago, a student declared that her math explanation was incorrect, but like graduate assistants and professors everywhere, she had been up late, ensuring that her answers are right. “Silly me to have studied for that pesky Ph.D., when you were here all along to explain the answers!” she had told him, while the others laughed.
Olivia glances over at Mr. McManus, who is sitting at the back of the room, looking bored. “Back to the analyzer…”
Xbox shouts, “Like I told you, the controller for Mars Rover landing gear doesn’t use text!”
“Mars Rover has a communications module for listening and speaking, you know.”
“Robotics! Not novels!” someone shouts.
She taps her pencil on the podium. “Both use communication tools. I don’t know what’s so complicated about this: Mars Rover senses his environment, and then it gives and receive commands.”
Another audience member with a pierced eyebrow calls out. “There’s no text on Mars Rover. Everybody knows that. Even it wasn’t passé,” he rolls his eyes and laughs, as his colleagues titter, “text is irrelevant to robots! We build learning devices, for crying out loud…”
“Irrelevant to robots…” Olivia gulps a pocket of air. “Decision-making — based on spoken commands and text, ordinary interpreters — irrelevant, you say? Are you people rewriting the textbooks on learning?”
Xbox blurts out, “We don’t care about your analyzer!” He’s sputtering and his ears are turning pink. “And we don’t buy your Army story, either, because, because…well, you probably made it up!”
A dark hush descends over the room.
Olivia signals the operator to scroll backward through her slides and stops him at the picture of detectors scattered over the map: Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, and so on.
The audience has by now stopped typing. People are watching her, aghast, as she resumes her speech as though just prompted for an encore. “The speaker system finds pitch from second-order statistics. It iterates for an optimum sequence and computes similarity with formatted voice samples. I have written all of the algorithms and every line of code.”
Someone coughs. Olivia taps her foot and wipes her forehead, now damp with sweat. Aware she has lowered herself to their level by participating in one-upping, she has also had to remind them that women are capable of math and spatial thinking, and this distracted her from the main event.
The voice of Mr. McManus booms from the rear of the room. “Passé aside, Dr. Scripps has built fine algorithms, don’t we agree?” He stands up and joins her at the podium, over another wave of tittering. He has also insulted her algorithm, but perhaps recognizes, rightly, that things have gone too far. “And so we thank Dr. Scripps.”
After a mild smatter of claps, he urges, “We’ll go back to my office,” and they head off.
Olivia is seething under her three-piece suit, but is not a bit surprised by McManus’s actions, since she knew who he was when he first called her for an interview: a marketeer who cares for sales and only that, someone who thinks dollars flow into the company through improvements in productivity, as though inventions do not matter. For them to call her work passé is atrocious. And on what basis can they possibly assess her management ability, when she has not been asked about managing?
A few steps short of the office, a cheep-cheep ringtone sings out. Mr. McManus retrieves his phone from a shirt pocket and turns to Olivia. He asks her if she wait while he takes a quick call.
Back in the reception area, Olivia glares from the edge of the hard sofa. Preposterous! It’s like being fired at every major achievement of her career, as if by collective decree it has been decided that she must not accumulate too much, that for her there must always be limits. She knows engineers will fight to the death over the last word. These young men didn’t want to hear her talk and so they shot her down. She knows it but this other feeling is overpowering, and she hates not being right as much as they do. Olivia lives with an albatross around her neck: the fact that she is female. She can’t make sense of anything else.
The outer door opens and ushers in a harsh breeze. A roar of car engines and a blast of sun pour in. An employee walks through with his mailbag, nods briefly, and then makes his way down the long hallway.
Thirty years of electrical and computer engineering, where innovations eclipse the past at five year intervals, Olivia’s had to grow herself from vacuum tubes to ICs, from telephones to support vector machines, from radio astronomy to text mining, each time reinventing the lexicon, the mathematics, the forward thrust. She’s met the challenges, accomplished expertise in untold iterations of devices and theories. Colleagues envy her work, most of whom are not half as focused or stubborn as she is. Very few dedicate themselves to the task.
Still, they deny her ability. A lone woman in an office of men, she has had to explain to the world its historical absence of women engineers, account for her own presence and explain how she happened. She was schooled well and took to the work. That’s all, that’s the explanation. There is nothing more to say.
Still, these men aren’t satisfied. They disbelieve her, as if an impostor in disguise has tricked her way into their labs and cubicle farms, bribed the authorities with equations. Here are my degrees, she proffers. My research, my professorship. Still, they are dubious. To stay in, she has to be first and ahead of the pack, building algorithms with ever more cachet.
She’s chosen the most masculine of professions, perhaps second only to active combat or policing, whose members don’t reveal weakness because their ethos forbids it. Like the men, Olivia’s learned to grit her teeth and slog forward into the fire, intent only on winning. But a lifetime of being right has exacted her free time and weekends, and an unimaginable pressure has squeezed out her life. When was the last time she fell in love? 1995? Has the boorishness of her colleagues chilled her heart towards other men?
Because whatever advances women have made, it seems nothing will convince certain people that women deserve a place in male kingdoms. And the situation cheapens with each passing moment. It demands that she prove yet again who she is, only each time she meets new engineers, she’s treated as if knows nothing! There is something basically wrong here, that her experience carries no weight. And when others don’t acknowledge who Olivia is, it becomes harder to remember herself.
Yet she’s held on. Not to particular jobs but to the game itself, to the one that people claimed a woman couldn’t play.
Only now, perhaps…she can refuse to play.
Yes. Olivia’s eyes close as the chant of an eighties rock anthem fills her ears. There is rhythm and a bedlam of drums. The words we’re-not-gonna-take it! rumble in her throat like affirmations. They drown the voices of scornful men.
Only Mr. McManus has returned, offering his hand. “Thank you for waiting,” he says.
But she isn’t going to sit there now. She can’t hear herself think. The lights have dimmed and objects around her have become a blur. She should find her way out.
“I believe we’re finished here.” Olivia grabs her briefcase and elbows him aside. “You’re the problem with this company, Mr. McManus. You can’t even stand up to a bunch of spoiled brats running slipshod over the place like little kings! And how dare you criticize my inventions when you haven’t got any of your own. As if inventions grow on trees!”
Her words rocket across the room.
But a heavy weight bears down on her chest. She clambers through the door and out to the sidewalk when her briefcase suddenly yawns open, and pages and pages of her resume whoosh into the parking lot like a flock of white birds.
“Look what you’ve done now!”
But she chases across the asphalt, reaching for pages as they soar higher and higher into the sky.
Miriam Hamilton is a researcher and former professor who retired in 2014 to pursue fiction writing. She holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Yale University and an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins and writes stories about women engineers. She lives in Bethesda, MD. “Manosphere” is her first publication!