Category Archives: books

book review – “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”

As a female software engineer, I’ve been finding myself thinking more about what to do about the paucity of women in my field. I recently read “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”, a research report from the American Association of University Women, which lays out many of the challenges women face in those fields1. One of its points is the role that stereotypes play in how girls perceive their own success in these fields, and how gender stereotypes play a role in girls’ confidence. The report is fascinating and accessible; I highly recommend reading it.

I stumbled across Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein soon after I read the report. It’s clear that gender stereotyping issues appear early in life (after all, it was Barbie who famously proclaimed “math is hard!”). While I don’t have children, it’s impossible to not notice both the pink phenomenon and the princess phenomenon. Do these well-marketed phenomenons play into gender stereotypes?

Orenstein takes a look at what is marketed to girls, and the ages at which these items and ideas are marketed. Her view is through the lens of raising her own daughter, and the book illustrates the debates that she has with herself about pink princesses and how they shape girls in general and her daughter in particular. She meets with the Disney exec behind the highly-successful Disney Princess line, attends a beauty pageant for little girls, and ventures deep into the belly of the beast by visiting an American Doll store. She looks at the hyper-feminity presented to girls, first in the pink and princess phase, which then transforms into “sassiness” (which is a codeword for “sexy”) of Bratz dolls. The next step is a return to Disney and its well-marketed tween stars like Britney Spears (remember: she was a Mouseketeer long before she shaved her head) and Miley Cyrus.

The book doesn’t directly answer my question about the princess phase and how it might impact gender stereotypes that decrease girls’ confidence and performance in science and engineering fields, but I didn’t expect it to. It’s a look at how marketing plays into (and perhaps causes) hyper-sexualisation from a young age. Orenstein’s method of considering each phenomenon, how it might impact her daughter, and questioning her own assumptions is well-suited to this book. It gave me a lot to think about, not to mention a long list of books and other research about girls’ performance to read in the future.

  1. I wrote about this recently in my post girl power, woman power, and being one of the boys.

girl power, woman power, and being one of the boys

I’ve been thinking a lot about software engineering for women lately.  In that earlier blog post, I referenced Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, a long research report that hits home for me since I am a software engineer with a degree in mathematics.

I’ve also been reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  I’m not finished yet, but so far, it’s a walk through a lot of research about our culture and how we raise our little girls, as seen through the lens of Orenstein raising her own little girl.  In one passage, she references Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown1, and says this about female identity for girls:

She can be “for the boys” — dress for them, perform sexually for them, play the supportive friend or girlfriend.  Or she can be “one of the boys,” an outspoken, feisty girl who hangs with the guys and doesn’t take shit.  The latter starts out as the kindergarten girl who is “independent and can think for herself.” … The trouble is, Brown and Lamb say, being “one of the boys” is as constricting as the other option, in part because it discourages friendship with other girls: a girl who is “one of the boys” separates herself from her female peers, puts them down, is ashamed or scornful of anything associated with femininity.

Reading that, I recognise my own childhood.  I was one of the boys, and I’ve never been particularly good at forming friendships with women.  Today, most of my friends are male.  I’ve always written that off to being an engineer.  Most of my professional relationships are with men, and professional relationships occasionally become friendships.  But it’s not as though there aren’t other women around.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to assume that it’s simply that I’m an engineer.

  1. Which has now been added to my to-read queue.

book review – “Bit Literacy”

As someone who is a geek, and as someone who has done extensive research into how people manage their time (with a focus on how various electronic devices fit into their time management practices), it’s fair to assume that I’m not the target audience for this book.  But I’d heard good things about Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst, and I got a free copy somewhere, so I figured I’d give it a go.  What a mistake.

Bit Literacy is a self-help book, and it feels like it.  It spends the first few chapters trying to convince you that you have a problem and that only this self-help book can solve it.  With some minor search-and-replace, I bet I could take any Dr Phil book and turn those first few chapters into the first few chapters here.  The tone for the rest of the book is just as preachy, and just as arrogant.

The book is both unoriginal and misguided.  The email chapter is nothing more than an overview of getting to Inbox Zero, a concept that isn’t his but the author doesn’t give credit where it’s due.  The to-do list chapter is an seemingly-endless ad for the author’s website for to-do management (an issue which mars the rest of the book, although not as completely as in this chapter).  The chapter on file management was so misguided as to make me laugh out loud.  Likewise, the author’s statement that we should use a service like to manage bookmarks because it’s somehow open is obviously bunk, given the Sturm und Drang associated with Yahoo!’s decision to cut support for it1.

I was surprised at the author’s pervasive anti-Microsoft stance.  I’m (obviously) a Mac girl myself, and I have no skin in the Windows/Mac game at this point in my life.  I haven’t used Windows in any appreciable manner in something like 15 years.  But the constant digs were both needless and inaccurate.   For example, there’s a cheap shot at Outlook 2007 for Windows that whinges that the help file for how to create a new to-do is too long.  Sure it is, since it lists every single step, including both changing to the task list view and all of the optional steps in the process (like setting a due date and changing the reminders).  Go document your own process to that level of detail and see what that looks like.

What really annoyed me was that the author obviously came to write this book with no understanding of why people manage their time the way they do.  This fault firmly puts it in the camp of many self-help books: no understanding of the underlying causes, but a layman who is convinced that their arbitrary solution is actually The One True Solution.  In this regard, I view Bit Literacy as being rather too similar to books that propose cabbage soup diets as weight-loss methods.

The single piece of advice that I found useful in the book was the admonishment to take lots of pictures, and then delete not just the bad ones but also the ones that are only mediocre.  If you take a lot of pictures of a given event, then you’re more likely to get some really great ones.  Then you keep only the really great ones.  It’s hard to get over the hump of deleting good-but-not-great pictures, but he is right that there’s little need to keep them.

As someone who has extensively researched time management, I think that any given person’s solution is going to be tailored to their usage.  As a result, when considering the various approaches out there, you have to consider their underlying principles and not just the methods that they use to try to implement those principles.  In reading books like Getting Things Done, while some of the specific tools haven’t been useful to me, the principle has been useful.  For example, I’ve got my own way of getting to Inbox Zero, and I find that concept to be essential in how I manage my digital life.  I didn’t feel like Bit Literacy had an underlying principle other than “do things my way”.

As I was writing this, I half-remembered something from Hurst, years ago.  It was a discussion of The Page Paradigm, in which Hurst takes a simplistic view of how websites should be designed.  Peter Merholz did an excellent job of responding to this in The Oversimplification of Mark Hurst.  The comments thread is a good read too, and has further discussion about where Hurst went off-track.  In the comments thread, Merholz says this:

All that said, Mark’s argument ends up being flip and facile, an effort to grab attention without addressing some of the very real complexities at stake.

… which, I think, is an excellent description of this book, too.

  1. I am a Delicious user, but not for things that I care about.  I mostly use it to keep track of recipes that I intend to try.

book review – “Being Geek”

I’ve been reading Michael Lopp’s blog, Rands in Repose, for some time.  Lopp has a pretty good geek resume, with experience at Symantec, Borland, Netscape, and Apple.  His blog is one that I always read.  He’s got a great gift for distilling lessons out of his experiences.  Being Geek: The Software Developer’s Career Handbook is mostly a compilation of his blog posts, with some new essays added to help define the overall arc of a geek’s career, from starting at a new job to deciding to move on to the next one.

Looking on my own experience in tech companies, I think that his advice is often spot-on.  There have been times when I’ve read one of his blog posts after a difficult situation and found myself understanding it better.  He’s got a keen eye for detail and for understanding the nuances of geek behaviour, as well as all of the interacting forces that come into play when you’re working for a big geek company.  I’ve gone back to read half-remembered posts that I felt were pertinent to a given situation.

I found it amusing that Lopp says in his introduction that he’s not writing a book that gives you ten steps for anything, or that will define the five characteristics of a top leader, but most of his essays are structured in just that form: distill a situation into some archetypes, identified by Capital Letters or catchy names for people and their foibles.  For an occasional blog post, I don’t mind this style; as a book, this structure got rather repetitive.  While I love the blog, I found that I couldn’t read the book for more than a half-hour without losing interest because the style just didn’t work for an actual book.

Honestly, I was hoping for more.  The blog is excellent.  I hoped that a book would use the blog as a starting point and give more consideration, more depth, to the topic at hand.  But it’s not there.  If, like me, you’ve been reading his blog for some time, I can’t really recommend this book.  You’ve read most of it before, albeit in a different order.  The new pieces don’t really add that much.  If you’re not a reader of his blog, this book is a good look at moving through your geek career.  I’d recommend adding his blog to your reading list while you’re at it.

Here’s a list of the blog posts which are included in the book.  I think this is complete, but I might be wrong if something got re-titled or my search-fu was weak.  Also, I didn’t do more than a cursory glance when looking for the blog posts, so it’s possible that blog posts were updated for inclusion in the book.

Now that I’ve catalogued the posts that made it into the book, I see that the book has 41 essays, of which 27 are listed above.  That means that 14 essays are new content, about 1/3 of the book.