On Being a (Young) Woman in Technology
I woke up at 6am for a call the other day only to open my email and be greeted by a note from a senior sales executive. It opened with a condescending, “Hey girl,” and proceeded to outline how I wasn’t being aggressive enough with bringing a new product to market and that I should call him so we could discuss further.
First time for everything. I didn’t know if I was more taken aback by being called slow and passive or being addressed as “hey girl”. As is typical for women in the industry, I’ve often been called too aggressive, unduly assertive, or bluntly that I need to work on softening my tone.
Shocker – I wasn’t in a rush to call him. In fact, I never did. However, I quickly responded to note that in fact it was his team that was causing the delay, and that P.S. – in the future, “Alyssa” worked better than “Hey girl.” This interaction is similar to many I’ve had and unfortunately seems to be the norm amongst my female colleagues.
- I’ve been called a “Hot ginger,” which would make a “great draw” for a marketing event.
- I’m referenced as “the mobile girl” more times than I can count.
- I’ve been asked if I’m going to be late because I might need time “for a mani pedi.”
- I’ve been told that big opportunities were given to me because they need folks on stage who “aren’t old white men.”
- I’ve been propositioned by senior staff members – both directly and, on occasion, in writing.
- I’ve been entirely ignored / talked over / interrupted in technical discussions, seemingly presumed not to have either a valid opinion or any relevant knowledge.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a “woman in technology” – I’ve wrestled with a lot of different questions on both the macro and micro levels. I’ve spoken with my boss, my family, my boyfriend, my therapist, my friends, my colleagues, my executives, attended conferences, and begun thinking critically about my own daily experiences.
A few things I would like to share:
- I’m not alone. I’m humbled by women like Sandy Carter, Tara Lemmey, Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ellen Pao and many others whom I follow and from whom I try to learn. There are a lot of women who have navigated these waters before me. They put on conferences like the PBWC and WITI. They form groups like Anita Borg, LeanIn and Girls who Code. They host lunches and seminars and try to help elevate others. These have become sources of strength, knowledge and relationships which inspire and humble me.
- It is hard. Harder, different, difficult, awkward, and challenging. First step to fixing anything is identifying the problem. One problem is that simply being a woman brings additional barriers, navigation, and hassle towards making a contribution. It is harder to be heard, harder to know what’s appropriate, harder to form relationships, and harder to get ahead.
- There are no easy answers. Every situation is nuanced. Depending on my mood, the background, or the lead up, my response to an insensitive comment varies significantly. Sometimes I smack the person, sometimes I make a joke, sometimes I launch into a discussion, or sometimes I do nothing. I have never reported anything to an HR department. I don’t know where the line is, and the line seems to change. I look at examples like Elen Pao and wonder if I’ll get support or become the victim of even more jokes and remarks.
- I think most people are well-meaning. That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. I don’t think those who have made a hurtful comment, hit on me, or been inappropriate are ill intentioned. Insensitive yes, but they aren’t trying to be pigs. Maybe I’m young and naïve, but I believe that most people are using phrases as terms of endearment, ways to break the ice, or occasionally even as a compliment. That doesn’t mean the comments aren’t hurtful, or damaging. It’s okay to call them out. Acknowledging the damage is the first step in repairing it.
I’ve wondered at times why I am so fixated on the topic – can’t I just add value, work hard, and not think about what gender I am? Why do I care so much?
I realized that what gnaws at me is bigger and more important than just what I am experiencing as a woman. I believe that there is damage being done, and I’m worried that I’m contributing to something negative. Certainly there is a lack of female presence, but there isn’t enough diversity – of any kind. Technology is being built by a group of people who are from a very small – and insular – subset of our society, with limited viewpoints and narrow set of experiences. I believe that the technology we are building as an industry – which is quite literally building the future – is not particularly good – or as good as it could be.
Furthermore, how will I participate in change? What will my contribution be? I struggle with integrating my own sense of self – my character – in the technology world.
I often marinate on teachings from my own Jewish upbringing as well a pivotal moments in history. One of my biggest fears is that I will be a bystander- that I will not participate in the work of making the world a better place.
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of repairing the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it. -Pirke Avot (2:21)
I’ve resolved not to be a bystander. I won’t behave correctly every time – I won’t engage with every comment or person, but I will not be silent. I’m worried there will be negative consequences for me. I’m worried it will make people uncomfortable. I’m worried it may stunt my career advancement, and I’m worried I’ll be wrong.
The only way I know how to move forward is engage and speak up. I do so on a macro level because I think it’s important to have diversity in our workforce, in the work of building the future. I do so on a micro level because frankly, I’m sick of being the only woman in the room.