A thousand papercuts

All the things you don’t notice

Nikki Lee
Nikki Lee
May 9, 2014 · 3 min read

The boys at school won’t let me in on their playground games. Joining the other girls means bringing a Barbie doll to school and playing house. I try to fit in, persuading my parents to buy me a toy I’ve never expressed any interest in. Their games are boring.

I make the boys play with me.

My little league is having an awards ceremony. They’ve managed to convince a league alum who is a professional baseball player to come hand out trophies. He cheerfully congratulates each child on their participation and says something encouraging to each one.

When it’s my turn, he hands me a trophy and says “Here you go, sweetie.”

Seven year old me is outraged (all of my male teammates were “champ” or “slugger”). In a huff of indignation, I inform him that I am not his sweetie.

Neither he nor the league president know what to say.

Black belts are expected to help teach classes, and I’m no exception. I seem to end up with the youngest children, 4 to 6 years old, a lot more frequently than the teenage boys in the studio. Luckily, I’m good with little kids.

At the end of our first mechanical design class, our professors ask everyone to fill out a survey about what tasks they completed for our group project. I am the only female student to report doing all of the team’s CAD work.

A guy on my team was going to do it, but I took over when he got sick and was bedridden.

We have a big admissions event coming up, and I’m in a meeting with the admissions team to brainstorm ways to help applicants develop a more meaningful connection to the school. The dean of admissions muses that we should have a current student give an opening address. It should be someone who’s really involved in the community, he says. And we should definitely get a female student to do it.

Everyone turns and looks at me.

Not a single one of the electrical engineering courses I take in college is taught by a female professor.

I’m gone the day teams are assigned in one of my grad school design classes, because I’m helping my boss run a week-long HCI seminar in Seoul. When I get back to Seattle, I connect with my teammates: two guys in my master’s program, and a certificate program student who has just joined the department. It doesn’t take long for our new comrade to take charge and establish himself as project manager, even though he has far less experience in this space. After every meeting he assigns me the easiest tasks, things that take a fraction of the time that my friends spend on their group work.

I wonder if I’m overreacting, so I bring it up quietly. My teammates agree, shrugging to communicate that they’re not impressed with his leadership style.

None of us speak up about it.

    Nikki Lee

    Written by

    Nikki Lee

    Designer, engineer, maker-of-things. Product manager building a better government at 18F.