Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day profile: Sheila C. Alder

This is a profile of a woman in computing for Ada Lovelace Day:

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.

Rather than talk about some of the historical role models, I'd like to talk about someone who really inspired me on a personal level: Sheila C. Alder.

I worked with Sheila for a few years at the National Capital Freenet, where she was the office manager and I was a volunteer.

Now, as far as technical jobs go, phone support has got to be among the worst. And that's what I was doing, for free. And you know what's worse than just being on phone support? Being on phone support as a woman. I'm sure the guys get plenty of abuse, but it's even more infuriating when the fellow on the other end clearly believes you're incapable of understanding his incredibly complex technical problem because you sound like a young woman.

So what did I do? Sweetly said, "oh, sure, I'll transfer you to my manager..." and hand them off to Sheila. Who, if they were being particularly abusive, wasn't afraid to give them a piece of her mind. No boys here, boys.

Sheila taught me by example to just let the rude comments and insinuations that I couldn't do my job just run off like water on a duck's back. She knew I was competent, I knew I was competent, and most of the people who phoned could tell, so what if a few couldn't? I didn't have to let it get to me.

And she knew a lot about not letting things get to her: Sheila has Fibromyalgia, a disease which causes quite a lot of pain. And if the pain weren't bad enough, there are people who believe that it's a disorder that doesn't exist, and may claim that you're crazy if you claim to have it.

Sometimes get told I'm crazy when I mention that discrimination against women happens in Open Source circles. Or wherever. And I think of Sheila. She showed me that sometimes, it's the rest of the world that's crazy and you have to stand your ground and point out what needs changing over and over until you've convinced the world to change. And maybe you can't change everyone, but at least you've learned who to ignore and contradict.

Obviously, there were days when Sheila was in so much pain that it was hard to stay pleasant, but she tried. She'd be there working through it all, the good days and the bad. She spent a lot of time trying to make information about fibromyalgia, and about computers more accessible to a wider range of people. And she took time to teach me a lot about accessibility through her stories: how frustrating a broken elevator can be when you rely on your wheelchair. How a simple choice of the tap on a sink could make a huge difference to someone with limited motion. And to see from her example how the battles you chose could make a huge difference to how you lived your life.

I haven't talked to Sheila in years now, but a quick web search turns up that she's still doing her contracting business Computer Tamers and Woman to Woman Computing. Yes, not only is she a tech savvy woman who's not afraid to tell the world it's wrong, she also owns her own business! She's still out teaching people (especially women!) to use their computers and not to be afraid of technology. And beyond her teaching, I'm sure she's still inspiring people just through her amazing strength.