A Fair-Weather Sisterhood?
When it comes to women empowering other women in the real, male-dominated world — outside of the memes, quotes and empowerment groups — can we really resist the instinct to compete and become unified as we work to solidify our place?
“I look at strong, successful women like Oprah, Cheryl Strayed, and Brené Brown, and they all talk about how having a strong network of women in their lives has been an invaluable resource for them, and I get so jealous because I want that in my life,” my dear friend, relates back to me. I have just called her to vent about a particularly frustrating experience I had earlier.
“I know exactly what you mean,” I respond.
“I mean, they directly attribute part of their success to the help they have received from other women. And now, when you’re in such a male dominated space, and a woman betrays you like that… you’re forced to pick yourself back up and stand alone. And every time that happens, it grinds you down until you don’t feel like taking risks anymore because you can’t count on anyone to have your back. And the fact that the same girl that betrayed you is running a local group for women’s empowerment that you have attended… I can totally see why you needed to call and vent.”
It may not be a national sisterhood, but I’m eternally grateful for my wonderful friend who always seems to know what I’m feeling without me having to explain it to her.
“That’s exactly it,” I reply back to her.
So let me rewind and give a little backstory.
Up until now, my liberal arts degree has served no practical function in my career of various sales jobs that I’ve held over the last 12 years. Burnt out on the revolving door, I decided after my last position was eliminated that enough was enough. I resolved that I would challenge myself to learn a new skill, and make a career change. Rather than go back to the traditional education model and incur the debt of a graduate level degree, I decided to enroll in a coding bootcamp.
I spent a few months in self study for front-end web development. I completed courses on Codecademy and researched, compared, and listed the pros and cons of the seemingly endless array [no pun intended] of all the currently operating bootcamps. Ultimately, I decided to enroll at bloc.io and am a little more than halfway through an intensive, 6-month/40 hours a week, program.
Immediately after enrolling, I joined the three local tech Meetup groups in my tiny city of Lancaster, PA. The first group was a full stack meetup that mostly focused on back end. I attended a couple of times and was the only woman each of those times. Nobody spoke to me, and I felt incredibly intimidated by the advanced concepts they talked about. I decided that, for now, I wouldn’t attend any more, but I would remain a member of their Slack channel, #AmishTech.
The second was a front-end specific group, which again, was all men, but much friendlier. The presentations were engaging and lacking in pretense, and I was also able to contribute here and there. Best of all, people spoke to me. I was even once invited to grab a drink afterwards with a small group of the guys. Huzzah!
The third was a women in tech Meetup and was promoted as a space for women to gather to both learn code and encourage one another.
Or, so I thought. Only 2–3 women showed up at each event, of which I was always one, with the exception of once when my grandfather passed away. I was committed to trying to make this group work as I knew the potential that it held for the advancement of women in tech in my small community. However, the group never really manifested and was ultimately dissolved.
What did happen, is the founder of that group decided to partner with two other ladies from other industries and create a new group called, “Creating Space for Empowered Women.” So I attended the flagship meeting. They read excerpts from Feminist Fight Club, by Jessica Bennett and talked about “sisterhood” and “women helping women.” We shared stories and created a list of topics we would want to hear about or speak on. I was all in.
That was over a month ago. I haven’t heard anything about any upcoming events since.
In the meantime, I would sometimes post an article or something I found interesting in the local (AmishTech) Slack channel to try and make connections. I only ever posted anything after carefully considering if it was something that might make me look foolish. The channel is a veritable boys club and I felt incredibly intimidated to engage.
“Tech IS a boys club!” I chided myself. “This is what you signed up for, so suck it up and make friends.”
Nobody laughed or pointed at any of my posts… that is until today.
I posted a link to the #general channel about 21.co, a community for developers in which the only way someone outside of your network can message you is if they pay for a response. Then that person can keep that money or choose to donate it to a charity of their choosing.
To my surprise, my post was instantly deleted and followed by a comment that it was the inappropriate place for that kind of post as they considered it to be marketing. I was told that the #classifieds channel ‘might’ be a more suitable place than #general. Another man quickly chimed in, saying to the other guy that he thought the post would best belong in “#general-scams” followed by a troll face.
I was gutted. I posted something and now I was the butt of the joke and being accused of being either a scam artist or the gullible victim of a scam site.
What makes it worse is that the channel had never deleted someone’s post before. I got to be the first. The moderator announced that he has never had to do that, but he did it this time because he got so many PM’s about my post, which these guys dismissed as being a scam.
One man did chime in that he did look at the link, and thought it was really cool. (Thank you, random dude).
I shared that the critique was noted, but that I felt like deleting the post and then publicly announcing that it was not appropriate was a dramatic move which lead me to feel as though the boys instinct was to not trust any information presented to them by a girl when that information was about something they’d never heard of before. The fact that the moderator announced that many people had privately messaged him about my “scammy” message was another indicator that the legitimacy of my post was determined by my gender rather than it’s content, which they didn’t bother to check.
At this the boys came rushing in to defend one another in a way that left me feeling in awe of that kind of camaraderie.
Two women popped in too — both to come to the defense of the men — and one of them just happened to be one the founders of the Women’s Empowerment Meetup.
So much for sisterhood.
One man said he understood how the “scam” comment could of come off as rude, but he knew the guy and knew that he was just kidding.
“Look at this brotherhood,” I thought. This guy rushed in to defend his friend’s honor, insisting that the troll face was his way of saying he was joking, and that he wasn’t calling me a troll. (Just locker room talk?)
And then the only ladies in the channel, who hadn’t been posting prior and did not continue posting after this incident, began liking and commenting in support of the men. Their voices added to the chorus of men’s in this vulnerable moment was incredibly isolating.
Meanwhile, the guys continued to insist that I shouldn’t feel the way I do and that my emotional reaction was unjustified. Their being suspicious of my post had nothing to do with my being a woman and everything to do with breaking channel norms.
They had “strict rules,” I was told, and apparently I had broken them. They aren’t posted anywhere within the channel, but I digress.
Considering the content of the some of the posts I’ve seen over the last few months, going along with this farce was proving too painful, so I laid it out plain and simple and then bowed out.
I simply stated I felt incredibly intimidated to post in that group, and suggested that they be more mindful of how they treat people when they try to engage with them.
I hoped that either woman would private message me to make sure I was okay, but no message ever came from either of them.
Surprisingly, I did get a message from the channel moderator who had originally deleted my post. He was very kind and apologized for handling that in such a public way and said that moving forward, they would address people privately if they feel that a post would be better suited in another channel.
It was big of him, and I am thankful he was thoughtful enough to do that.
Simultaneously, I felt like the sisterhood I’ve longed for slipped a little farther out of reach.
And as for the local Women’s Empowerment Group — as long as the person leading it only practices what she preaches in group meetings held behind closed doors and not in the actual male dominated spaces that we are all trying to navigate — well then, I think I’ll pass.
I am grateful that there are other women’s empowerment resources such as the wonderful online community of Tech Ladies. They not only promote job opportunities for women in the tech industry, but also have created a space where women can go and find a sounding board, an advice column, a cheering section, or whatever else they might need in that moment. It’s a great place for women to encourage, empower and empathize with one another.
I’m still left with the lingering question of: when the privacy walls come and down and we’re faced with the existing power that is the band of brothers, can women ,who have been trained to view each other as competitors, ever really overcome that instinct and defend one another in those environments?
Perhaps I’m naive, but I think yes. I know I’m ready.
And just to keep the faith, I know what the next book on my reading list is going to be:
Update: Since publishing this article, I am happy to report that the local Slack channel has been incredibly supportive in their response, stating that this article helped foster a dialogue that was long overdue. I have received multiple messages of support and thanks and it’s helped me to tremendously. I am still a proud member of the channel and feel more empowered to contribute now that I spoke up, and thanks to some very open-minded members, was heard and respected. #AmishTech pride.