Women in Tech and Trauma

I’m going to get honest for a few. Really honest. Down and dirty, gut-wrenchingly honest.

According to R.A.I.N.N 1 out of every 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed, rape.

1 in 6.

Let that sink in for a second. Think of the women you know. 1 in 6 of them have been a victim. Maybe you.

I have.

The first time I was raped I was barely old enough to tie my shoes. I can’t tell you how many times it happened after that. Most of my younger years are either puzzle pieces I can’t make fit, or flashes of memories I have worked years to forget. The P.T.S.D remains, though thankfully, is not as severe as it once was. I still jump at sudden noises, no matter what they are; my children dropping a toy, an unexpected knock on the door. I still grapple with anxiety and depression that, if I’m not diligent, will drag me so far down I fear I may not come out.

I was a “state kid” for the latter part of my teenage years, after (finally!) a social worker saw through my refusal to speak the unspeakable. That started a 4 year trend of suitcases and group homes. I left the final group home at 18 not knowing how to boil water (they don’t let kids in the kitchen), but determined that somehow, some way, I would make it in this world. The one thing I did learn growing up, thanks to an uncle, was how to code. It was really the only thing I knew. I put myself through college with various jobs (one of the worst was 12 hours a day, folding hospital sheets) and coding on the side.

I was keenly aware that I was surrounded by men. Men who thought I didn’t belong in computer science. Men who thought that my blonde hair meant I was good for a good time, but not good enough to code. I tuned them out, dug in my heels and worked my ass off. Not because I wanted to prove to them that I was more than my female appearance, but because I wanted to prove it to myself. I felt I needed to earn my place in this world; verify my right to exist. I fell flat on my face a lot, but I kept getting up.

Throughout my career I have been “mansplained” more times than I can count. I’ve been hit on, disregarded, disrespected, and ignored. The worst was in one of my first real jobs in tech. It was a local start up and the offices were in the owner’s basement. He insisted that he and I share an office because we needed to “work closely together.” I was uneasy, but I tried to tell myself that my anxiety was unfounded, that I shouldn’t judge everyone through the lens of my past. The sexual harassment quickly began and finally ended when he pushed me into a corner and tried to force himself on me. I ran out and never looked back.

That experience led me to be even more timid. Every time I wanted to share an idea, I silenced myself. Every time an opportunity presented I didn’t feel qualified enough, even though I knew logically that I was. Eventually, I tuned that out too, and forged ahead, building a career that I’m proud of.

Almost 2 decades later, with titles like Director of Engineering and C.T.O under my belt, I sometimes feel like I’m still rolling the boulder uphill. I absolutely love my work; I love creating and building products that solve real world problems; I cherish the relationships I’ve built with other women in tech and have the utmost respect and gratitude for the men who’ve treated me as their equal. Yet, in spite of all the “success” I’ve achieved, I often feel that fight is far from over. Some of that is realistic; women in tech are under represented, under promoted, and unheard far too often. And then there is imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome to a survivor of trauma is much more pronounced than it is for others. It feeds the anxiety and issue of self worth that I’ve endured because of what I’ve been through. When I am wondering when I’m going to get “found out” it feeds on the terror that was instilled in me as a child; forbidden secrets. It’s as if the secrets I was forced to keep as a child have followed me into my career and adult life.

Being a woman in tech is tough. Being a woman with a trauma history in a male dominated field is even tougher. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m no longer a victim. I’m a survivor. I’m a survivor who is competent, creative, and dedicated. My professional experience speaks much louder than my inner voice that was conditioned by trauma. It has to, not just for my own sanity, but because that is what is real. The monster of trauma is deceptive at best, a full blown liar at worst.

1 in 6. That tells me that I’m not alone in this silent battle. It tells me that there are women like me who, perhaps also like me, have dared not speak about this because it would damage us professionally. We’re supposed to be tough, but not too tough. We’re supposed to be honest, but not too honest. We’re supposed to be so many things, but never too much.

Today I throw off the cloak of fear and shame in hopes that I feel less like I’ve lived a dual life, and that my honesty with the world helps other women in tech be able to throw theirs’ off too. You are not alone.