An Ugly Side of Women in Tech Organizations

Doing rewarding work shouldn’t damage your mental health

I share all this with hesitation. I don’t want to draw attention away from such a worthwhile and necessary cause, which I continue to support. But it’s so important to acknowledge that even the most well-intended, socially conscious organizations can have an ugly side. Please note: I speak only on behalf of myself and my experiences. I won’t name any names in specific examples. My intent isn’t to shame anyone. There’s many sides to a story, so here’s mine.

I recently graduated from the computer science co-op program at the University of Waterloo. I’ve come a long way through five years of mental exhaustion, heartache, and failure. This period was the first time in my life I truly acknowledged my mental illness, embraced many facets of my identity, and sought out better support systems. Thanks to so many supportive friends and mentors, I’ve published widely shared articles, spoken at amazing conferences, volunteered with fabulous organizations, and continue to lead my open source mental health project if me. I’m passionate about building communities where people can feel comfortable being their authentic selves.

Taken from DevTO’s International Women’s Day Talks 2016

The Beautiful

Being involved in organizations that support women in tech is a huge source of support and fulfillment for me. When I was a part of my school’s WiCS (Women in Computer Science) organization, I developed a handful close friendships. These friends have supported me through suicide attempts, fighting for mental health services, and much more. I love them like family.

My main role was leading Big CSters (pronounced as “sisters”). Formerly a one-on-one mentorship program, I transformed it into a series of workshops and community-driven events to promote inclusivity, self-care, and thought leadership. The new version took immense inspiration from the Write/Speak/Code workshops (which I would later help organize in San Francisco during my co-op terms) and OCD & anxiety support groups I participated in.

We’ve collaborated with people outside of STEM disciplines — for instance on a blogging workshop with Arts and Humanities students. We’ve helped to connect women and non-binary people who might have never connected. In my first few years of university, I struggled to meet and maintain friendships with fellow female classmates because I felt intimidated by them. Being in WiCS helped me to overcome these insecurities. It has shown me that minorities don’t need to compete with one another for an arbitrary crown.

“Get to Know” was a series of interviews with female students I conducted

I’m proud of what Big CSters has become and it’s refreshing to see new faces interpret the program’s mission in such creative ways. Overall, I’m proud of WiCS and the incredibly diverse events and programs it offers due its also diverse members. The incredible people that have helped to organize WiCS have created so many beautiful things, including technical workshops, a solid sysadmin group, and industry talks/panels. Every workshop, event, or initiative is unique and equally important to the organization.

Just a few of the wonderful events and workshops…

This workshop was led by Melissa Tedesco
This event was organized by Akshaya Senthil, a past Big CSters Director

Everyone who is part of WiCS is a volunteer. Whether it’s balancing that with school or co-op, there is no question that they are extremely passionate and driven individuals who want to make the world a better place.

The Ugly

That being said, the truth is there were many times when WiCS was damaging to my mental health.

Although incredibly rewarding, doing volunteer work that is oriented towards social justice is exhausting. It’s also a test of your beliefs. That being said, it’s no surprise that people disagree and clash behind the scenes.

That happened a lot in WiCS. There was always some kind of internal conflict. Rightfully, everyone agreed that the organization needed to support and espouse for intersectionality. Naturally, that meant different things to different people.

There were times when one interpretation of feminism was held up as better than others. Members chastised and shamed each other for it, both in person and, unfortunately, behind each others’ backs. There were power struggles between people.

With such a worthy and admirable cause, it made sense that people wanted to be seen as the “key figure” or “trailblazer”.

But the repercussions of this are ugly. I witnessed certain members bully and intimidate others to acquire power.

At some point we began a mediation process for such feuds. I heard a lot of nasty gossip — people gaslighting one another. At the time, I was relieved that I was not being hated so I accepted being seen as neutral or diplomatic. However, eventually it came out to me there were certain people who didn’t like my work and shared this feeling with others rather than to my face.

I rarely confronted people about this because I was tired and didn’t want to be sucked into more conflict. So I avoided heated debates and I focused most of my time on Big CSters.

Feeling marginalized

I don’t want to blame anyone or call them out. But I do want to identify and address how I felt marginalized because I have not been able to find real closure since leaving WiCS.

Mental illness

During the time I was advocating for better academic and mental health accommodations for myself, I discovered that a certain individual said behind my back:

“There’s Julia the person, and Julia the case.”
One of many emails I’ve written about mental health services to university administration

I never confronted the individual who said this, but I often revisit their comment when I feel insecure about my mental health work.

Ethnicity and race

When offering to participate in a co-op career panel, I was advised, from a white woman who was participating, to be the moderator because the panel needed more people of colour and that I would be better as a moderator. Last time I checked, I’m of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian descent. In the end, I was allowed to participate, so I tried to move on.

Exclusionary leadership

Certain individuals referred to some members as their “army” or “minions,” and that really bothered me. Language like that asserts that members are not treated equally. It was in fact true. Certain voices were valued and heard more than others. I saw a lot of younger and newer members have their ideas shut down with little justification. Cliques were formed to promote and reject ideas from certain people.

Part of the “Values” section of the WiCS constitution

Senior members could often do whatever they wanted and were not held accountable for questionable actions. All of the wonderful values encouraging open collaboration in our constitution flew out the window when egos and emotions took control.

Shaming and erasure

When I was briefly interviewed for the “Ceiling Breakers in STEM” issue of the alumni magazine, certain individuals quickly criticized me for participating. The article showcases a number of STEM inclusion and diversity initiatives on campus. They specifically interviewed me to talk about Big CSters and how mentorship can help promote inclusion. The article overall took a positive approach to the cause. This makes sense given it was published in the alumni magazine, and let’s be real here, they’re not going to publish things that make the university look bad. They want donations.

I will say that in my phone interview with the writer, I spoke candidly about my problems with the university administration. I read the article before it was published and I gave my consent. I still stand behind my decision. I accepted the article for what it was — something to showcase and appreciate wonderful volunteer initiatives. Inclusion and diversity work often yields few noticeable results, so having it featured anywhere can feel like a win.

I had a few people approach me and complain on behalf of a certain individual. They shamed me for participating even though the article was showcasing Big CSters and WiCS. They talked about writing their own articles exposing how the university failed them, which I completely supported and also wanted to do myself.

Being able to write and speak on behalf of your experiences is one of the most empowering things you can do.

During our weekly meetings, the topic of this article kept re-emerging and people kept asking me what I felt about it even though I made it very clear from the beginning what my stance was. It was as if they wanted me to take their side and shame myself for participating. However, I’m proud of my work and I’ve earned the right to be. In the end, some people wrote about their experiences, and new interviews and photoshoots with the university were conducted.

Making sense of the ugly

It’s so important to give credit and thanks to people for their hard work and dedication. Erasure is a horrible thing, especially in volunteer work. No one is perfect when it comes to showing appreciation and giving credit, but we can always improve.

I respect everyone I have worked with in WiCS and I believe that everyone has an equal stake. Everyone offers something special. No one is superior or inferior to the next person. No one is the “face of WiCS” or the “army general”. But you are allowed to take ownership for the things you create and be proud of yourself.

Don’t let other people take that from you because it seems easier or looks better for the cause.

The minute you think you own others and their work, is the minute the organization gets ugly. If you are only supporting others so they owe you a debt of praise then you are not worthy of getting credit.

Everyone is at fault in some way for the ugliness. Being a bystander and not speaking up is also problematic. I’ve been a bystander — I’ve noticed and acknowledged the ugliness but never took the necessary steps to confront people directly. I didn’t express how uncomfortable I was when I should’ve, and I take full responsibility for that. But I am correcting that now.

I’ve written all this to openly acknowledge my experiences and point out that even the most meaningful organizations can mess up and alienate its members. It can be done maliciously, but it’s often done unintentionally without any recognition. There are no excuses however.

People need to respect each other, handle problems and feuds directly and transparently, and put aside differences.

With such a wonderful mission, it sucks to openly acknowledge that there are issues. But it has to be done and everyone should feel comfortable doing so. If not, then the organization ceases to be productive. Instead, everyone ends up carrying emotional labour and silently resenting each other. That’s when things become abusive.

Finding closure

Stepping back, finding distance, and taking a break helps. I did this a couple of months ago. Sometimes you can’t get the closure you want, but you can learn to forgive and move on. It allowed me to make sense of all the contradicting emotions. I’m proud of what I accomplished with the help of many people, but I also feel undervalued and unappreciated.

It was hard to let go of something that was integral to my identity, but stepping back has allowed me to focus on more pressing issues and surround myself with love. Always take care of yourself. There’s no point in advocating for others if you can’t even advocate for yourself. Sometimes things get ugly before they can be beautiful.

Infinite thanks + hearts to Catherine Vendryes and Kerry Benjamin for proofreading and for the endless support.