Early in my career, I didn’t talk about diversity-in-tech issues. I worked hard, came from a technologically enriched background, and I received a good education and gender wasn’t a factor. For the most part, I didn’t and still don’t, experience blatant sexism. As I’ve moved forward in my career, I’ve realized that being a minority in tech has affected me and my path more than I realized.
I’ve been friends with folks and mentored folks that have had bad experiences due to their gender or race. Compared to them my stories are minor. The biggest issue I have as a minority in tech is knowing when something happens because of my gender or when it happens for other reasons. Another way I phrase is this is, “did that happen because the other person is sexist, because I’m a jerk, or because the other person an equal opportunity jerk?” It seems like a minor issue. I know I would be happier if I just dealt with what was in front of me instead of thinking about why it is happening. But years and years of having these experiences and realizing that not everyone deals with the same stuff wears on you and makes you wonder if you are playing the game on 1.5x difficulty.
It surprises folks, but I often wonder, “Wait did this happen because I’m a woman” with regards to positive stuff. In my day to day life in liberal Seattle I see evidence of White Knighting, Virtue Signalling, and Ally Cookies way more often than I witness blatant sexism. For me, these seemingly positive behaviors are just as infuriating as their negative counterparts. They seem to say “you aren’t capable of making it without the help of a man.” I know that isn’t true and I resent it when people insinuate that it is true.
When I’m selected to speak at an event, but a more qualified friend or co-worker wasn’t selected I wonder if I was invited because I’m a woman. I wonder if the bar was lowered to include me. Maybe the selection committee thought that historic discrimination against women means I shouldn’t be held to the same standard as the men. When I say or do something dumb, and no one calls me out, I wonder if their expectations for me are lower because of my gender. When the rules are bent slightly to accommodate me, it feels like it is unfair and my internal sense of justice becomes off balance.
I’ve discussed this with a few folks over the years, and they usually say “If someone is going to give you an opportunity just because of your gender you should take it.” I usually do take these opportunities. Sometimes I accept these opportunities because having a woman on stage is important to the organizers. Sometimes I accept because the event sounds fun. But it doesn’t seem fair to me. I’ve been in tech for about 15 years now. I work at one of the best-known software companies in the world. I’m an example of someone who’s “made it.” So why are people wasting their diversity efforts on me instead of seeking out folks who actually could benefit from some support? Spending brain cycles on questions like these is one of the ways that being a minority in tech affects me.
My “did that just happen because I’m a woman” stories aren’t all positive. Throughout my career, I’ve dealt with folks who talk over me, ignore me, pass off my ideas as theirs, or assume I’m incompetent. I know enough folks in tech to know that everyone has these experiences occasionally. What I can’t ever know is if I would have fewer of these interactions if I were man. When someone at work reads about one of my accomplishments and assumes that a male colleague did the work, did they assume that because of our genders or because my male co-worker is more outspoken? When a person ignores the work I’ve been doing for years and insists that until they showed up nothing happened is it because they didn’t do their homework or because they don’t think my work isn’t important? When my performance review says I “need to smile more” and I that “I need to understand that not everyone is as smart as me” is it because I’m expected to be friendly and demure because I’m a woman? Or am I just unpleasant to be around sometimes? When someone at a conference insists that his question is too technical for me and he’ll wait to ask someone else is he being sexist? Is he still sexist if I actually can’t answer his question?
Something like this happens to me about once a month. There’s been an uptick recently, but it has been constant throughout my career. I suspect that my gender played a role in some, but not all, of these experiences but I can’t be sure. I know many men who’ve been pulled into the boss’ office and told they have to be kinder, gentler, and more conciliatory. But anecdotally, many of the women I went to college with have had performance review experiences similar to mine early in their careers. I know men who’ve had others take credit for their work. I know men who are regularly talked over in meetings. I suspect women have these experiences more often, but I can’t prove it. And if I can’t prove it, thinking about it feels like a futile exercise.
I know that even if many women have these experience it doesn’t mean all women have the same experience. But there seem to be some things that other women in tech understand that many of the men I know have never thought about. Once when I was new to a job, I got a very terse email from someone I hadn’t met. I asked my officemates who the sender was and if it was necessary to use “girl words” when responding. My female co-worker immediately knew that by “girl words” I meant adding hedging language to my response. She also knew that adding hedging language is a normal way to deal with tense interactions when you are female or subordinate correcting someone with more seniority. My male co-workers needed an explanation of what I meant by girl words. While I’m sure many of my male friends are careful to add hedging words sometimes I suspect the area between unqualified and bossy is larger for them than it has been for me.
I don’t think this problem is solvable. It is impossible for me ever to know what my experience would be like if I had been born male. In the big picture, it isn’t relevant either. I don’t need to know why something is happening to deal with it. But when something illogical happens I’ll probably always wonder if my gender played a role.
I long for a world where I can just assume someone is a jerk to everyone and not wonder if they are only a jerk to women or other minorities. I’d love to be able to assume that people who act sexist are actually sexist instead of manifesting unconscious bias. For just one day I’d like to play “career in tech” by the “white male” rules. It might help me understand how my experience would be different. And it would be nice to not worry about being called a bitch just for seeing the solution before everyone else.