Erosion : Stories from a Woman in Tech
One of the most resonant experiences I’ve had as a woman engineer happened the summer my much younger brother took an internship at the same company as me. He had been hired on his own merits, and it was arranged for him to report to a different manager, to avoid conflicts of interest. But technical crises hit, and my brother and I ended up working on different parts of the same project. For months, I had been working on a difficult design problem and having trouble getting my peers to listen to what I was trying to communicate. I showed lab results, ran simulations, spoke aggressively, then spoke gently, but nobody would listen. Then in one meeting, my younger brother, fresh out of school with almost zero work experience, repeated the exact words I had been saying for months…and the room believed him. They didn’t even blink. Of course that was the problem. They were happy he had explained it to them.
Years later, in a different group, I had again been growing frustrated with my inability to get my point across. The team was making avoidable mistakes and I kept voicing my concerns only to be dismissed, my words consistently not heard. I was sure I just wasn’t communicating well enough. Then, one of the junior engineers called me by name, asking a technical question about a software tool he was learning. I jumped at the opportunity to help and we quickly began troubleshooting his problem. As I was explaining this software, a tool I had years more experience on than anyone at the company, the other senior engineer walked into the room, interrupted me mid-sentence, to ask what the question was, so that he could answer it for me. He interrupted me, to ask what the question was, to answer it for me, on a subject he had only mediocre knowledge of. The first day it happened, I was so shocked I just let it roll by. The very next day, it happened again. I stopped him and asked him what he was doing, and he just continued to hijack the conversation. It was clear he had no problems with what he just did, and as I looked around for backup, it was clear the other four men in the room didn’t either. I began to understand why I was having trouble getting my points across. I was invisible to them.
The sad part is, I’d take these problems any day over the sexual harassment I’ve had to put up with over the years- the kind most women in tech seem to have to put up with. These little insidious crimes aren’t bad enough to warrant a note to HR, but nonetheless distract and disarm and remind me of my otherness. Sure these guys aren’t overtly asking for blowjobs, but being talked over, interrupted, ignored, and undermined, day in and day out, takes its toll. It erodes one’s confidence until it becomes difficult to speak up at all. She stops speaking up in design meetings, sticking to hard analysis work, where the data speaks for itself, and her work is harder to question. She stops voicing technical opinions because it’s not worth it anymore, and she’s relegated to a periphery role, not consulted for big questions, her contributions less valued.
Oftentimes, the problems start with how managers and senior staff assess talent. Typically, in the tech world, a manager is promoted based on technical prowess and achievement- not for people skills. People skills are suspect in the engineering world — viewed as softer, less valuable skills any of them could learn if they tried. People skills are something you develop when you don’t have the more prized mathematical and analytical skills. The newly promoted manager seeks to fill his team with the absolute best talent and not giving much thought to it, forms his vision of a talented engineer — someone like himself — driven, focused, hard-working, and intellectually curious (all admirable traits). But the other adjectives not said are often white, male, educated at a prestigious institution, outspoken, and confident. It’s not that the manager intentionally forms sexist/racist/ageist views, it’s the desire to find good cultural fit. Someone who speaks up is someone who was raised in an environment where that behavior is encouraged. Many women don’t get that upbringing. Many people of color, or other marginalized groups don’t get it either. The manager inadvertently judges intelligence/aptitude/talent based on how well the employee mirrors his own self. A technically competent woman is welcome to join the team as long as she’s willing to be one of the guys. Play along. Go do “guy things” with them. Mirror their values back to them. Talk like them — aggressive, confident, yet somehow also polite and non-intimidating. But she’ll almost always fall short of the ideal, because the ideal is based on traits we inherently attribute to maleness.
I once sat in on a meeting, when we were looking to hire an outside engineering firm to help augment our existing team’s skills. The firm’s CEO had obviously given his pitch many times before and swaggered through his explanation how other firms were more focused on softer industrial design work, not the hard engineering work he was selling us on. He turned, looked me in the eye, and said, “Our team is different. We do what I like to call… real man’s engineering.” I blinked in disbelief. He looked mildly embarrassed. Real man’s engineering.