The Cool Girl Trap: Or, Why Sexism in Tech Isn’t Going Away.
“So…I have a question for you.”
My new art director, Neal, sat across from me, wiping a bit of pizza sauce from the sides of his mouth. The animator, Richard, sat to the right of him, and seemed to tense up anticipating the question. It was the first week of my first job out of college, a small games studio in Florida that I’d been initially proud and excited to have landed. The three of us had gone out for lunch that day and were getting to know each other a bit more.
“What?” I asked.
“What exactly is your…genetic…makeup?” He asked.
I paused, chewing for a second before answering, “that’s a really bizarre way to phrase that question. Do you mean like what’s my…ethnicity? Or racial background?”
“Well my mom’s white and my dad’s Mexican. But I mean, they both were born here. I was born here.”
“Yeah, I was just curious, ‘cause like…your last name is totally Hispanic, but I was like…she definitely does not look Hispanic.”
“Ehh, yeah. I get that a lot.” I dabbed awkwardly at my pizza with a napkin. The subject was quickly changed, and I wrote it off as just a one-time snafu. I almost forgot about it, until, as we were leaving, he asked me a bit more about my family.
“So do you have any brothers and sisters? I know you probably have a ton of them, right?”
“No, just my sister. Wait, why would you think that?”
“’Cause, you know…” he shrugs. “You’re Mexican!”
In retrospect, this probably should have been a red flag back then. Especially as he immediately followed it up by explaining that “[his] wife is Mexican” so he “knows how it is.” I didn’t know it then, but that was only the tip of the iceberg on things that were said to me there.
Gyllian Flynn coined the ‘Cool Girl’ archetype in her novel Gone Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
In other words, she’s a girl who makes men as comfortable as possible when they’re around her. She laughs along with their shitty jokes, maybe joins in on them, and certainly never challenges a guy to maybe think more critically about what’s falling out of his mouth. She’s usually the solitary woman in the group, either because she’s “only friends with guys,” or, as is often the case in tech and gaming, is literally the only woman in the room.
It’s a trap, though. This status is only granted to girls who are cool on her male colleague’s terms — the second she steps outside the bounding box of that status, she is ostracized, or at the very least, looked at differently forever. It’s why sexism and other negative behaviors are so common in the industry. Speaking up about these things, once you’ve already been established as a ‘Cool Girl,’ can at minimum make you a social pariah and at worst, impact your career.
And so the Cool Girl I tried to be at Firebrand Games, for a while anyway. I pretended I didn’t care when I was being insulted, because it’s all in good fun, right? I was one of the guys.
Fast forward to a few months down the line.
“Kennedy is definitely not gonna look the same way when she’s like 40.” Neal declared.
They were talking about the way certain actresses aged “badly.” They did this a lot. Picking apart the appearances of everyone from celebrities to random passersby on the street. Taking particular glee in tearing down conventionally unattractive women. Making up little stories as to how they got to that point in their life. Does it matter that none of these guys are particularly attractive or socially graceful in their own right? No, but it’s probably worth mentioning.
“Yeah, just wait till she hits like, 25, and her hips just start swelling up like a balloon,” said Richard.
“And I mean, she is Mexican, so there’s like double chance of that happening.”
“Fuck both of you,” I said, polishing off the rest of my coffee.
“Yeah, you just wait,” said Richard, leaning back at his dirty dishes and empty bottles-covered desk. Richard was a particularly loathsome person to work with, due largely to him being so two-faced. He talked a lot of game about feminism in the industry and generally tried to come off as very progressive — maybe the male equivalent of the Cool Girl archetype? It didn’t actually matter, because it was completely hollow. The second I was out of the room (or, even when I was still in the room) he turned around and talked just as much shit about women as any other dudebro. “We’re gonna see her at a game conference, 5, maybe 10 years from now. And we’re just gonna be like — “
“Holy shit, what the fuck happened,” improvised Neal.
“Yeah, holy shit.” Said Richard. “She’ll have gained like, 40 pounds.”
“Greasy hair — “
“Smoking a cigarette — “
“With like, three kids running around her.”
This was another thing they delighted in — speculating on how many kids I was going to end up with. They did this specifically because I said early on that I had no interest in having children at any point. Apparently that idea didn’t sit well with them, because from then on I got grief for it daily.
What exactly do you do in this situation? These two guys, along with the producer, were about the only people in the office that bothered to talk to me. If I stopped associating with them, I’d be completely alone in the place. If I asked them to stop, then I’d have shown weakness and they’d just have one more thing to dogpile on me for. If I put my foot down, I’d lose my Cool Girl status.
It’s not as if there were any other supervisor I could talk to, either. We had no HR department. There was the CEO, but he was rarely in the office. There was the producer, Al, but he was essentially a lame duck. At times I thought he was actually afraid of being in charge of other people. There’d be little to nothing he could do about Neal and Richard.
And this was barely even noteworthy, compared to the other things they’ve said or done. Richard was fond of lobbing cunt, wetback, bitch, etc freely; while Neal was particularly fixated on the idea of me being pregnant. Like…really, weirdly fixated.
But I did what any aspiring Cool Girl would do — pretended I didn’t care. I flipped the bird, propped my feet up on my desk, laughed it off.
While going home later and contemplating driving my car off a bridge just so I wouldn’t have to ever come in to work again.
It’s a lot like an abusive relationship; the way women in these situations make excuses for the male friends and colleagues that treat them poorly under the guise of camaraderie.
“They didn’t mean it, though.”
“They were just kidding.”
“It was my own fault — I shouldn’t have responded at all.”
“It’s not that big of a deal. It could always be worse.”
On the subject of self-deception, these men probably don’t actually believe they’re sexist or racist. Most people don’t. Most men in the industry probably read the horror stories about sexism that get passed around the internet and consider themselves completely separate from— and free of the sins of — their peers.
In 2014, 83% of the 6,862 sexual harassment complaints made to the EEOC were from women. And yet, more than half of women have experienced harassment at work, according to one of the biggest-ever studies of women in the workplace. But the fact that there are 66 million women in the workforce currently suggests that the low number of reported incidents means that the majority of women don’t report their harassment. It means that likely they’re either afraid of the repercussions of speaking out, don’t want to disrupt the status quo of their workplace, or…convince themselves that it’s nothing.
But when you’re surrounded by your abusers all day every day, it’s easier to just swallow your pride and pretend that it doesn’t bother you than to cause a stir.
I put my computer to sleep, grabbed my keys, and headed for the door.
“You going to that concert this weekend after all?” asked Neal.
I turned around. “What, Ultra Fest? Hah, not unless I suddenly get about $600 in the next two hours.”
He glanced up from his iPad, his eyes doing the ‘elevator’ up and down. “Hey, I’m sure if you went and stood on the corner over there and hung out for a few hours — “
Richard howled with laughter, immediately followed up by faux-terror and that sucking noise people make when the room suddenly gets tense.
Again, what do you do in this situation? I was getting more and more fed up by the day. If a dude ever said this to me at a bar, I’d punch him in the balls. This was my boss, though. What could I possibly do to save face? He obviously said it because he wanted a response.
So my response was walking over and tossing a few of his action figures and figurines off his desk.
“Now pick ’em up. Trash.” I spat, turning to leave.
A completely useless gesture, I know, but at least I got a laugh out of Richard from it. That was the game, essentially. As long as someone laughs at how shitty you are, you’re still winning. And so hanging around them was more or less a contest of who can do or say the worst, most offensive and infantile things they can think of. It’s like hanging out with any group of sophomoric dudes in their early 20’s. Except all of these men were in their mid-30’s, most married with kids.
I never realized quite how toxic groups like this are until I found out I was doing the same thing to my boyfriend as they were doing to me. Teasing is something we’ve always done with each other, but completely ripping in to someone is a completely different thing, as he told me one night after we got home from dinner with friends.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I was just kidding.”
“Yeah, but you’re being a real dick about it,” he replied.
I paused. I hadn’t said anything at the table that was any worse than things I’ve heard at work. Isn’t that just how guys operate with their friends? By “busting each others’ balls?” Did I just not know how far was too far anymore?
What was this place turning me into?
Michael, the CEO, sat at the head of the table as I walked in to the conference room.
“So…I understand you’re having some problems with some of lads out there?” he asked, looking down his glasses.
“You could say that,” I said. This conversation was coming a bit too late, as this was, in fact, Neal’s last day at the studio. He’d gotten a job elsewhere, a fact which made it sink in to me that he would never ever be held accountable for any of the things he’s said to me. I had reached a boiling point.
Somewhere along the line in one of their talks behind my back, Neal and Richard apparently used their combined psychiatric experience and expertise to diagnose me as having some form of Autism. Neal inexplicably took to calling me “Ass-burgers” a couple times. One day after he called me this and immediately followed it up with a particularly nasty rape joke, I went home that night…
…And publicly called him out on Twitter.
It wasn’t exactly a decision I made lightly, my fingers hovering over the Post button. Then I thought about him treating another woman at this new company the same way he treated me. And the next company after that. And how there was nothing I’d ever be able to do about it. And my boiling point hit a new high.
I hit send.
And that’s why I was sitting across from Michael now, the next morning.
“I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t have come to me first,” he asked, apparently forgetting how little time he actually spends in the office, or even the country.
“Or me,” chimed in Al from the corner. I snorted at the thought.
“I want you to understand,” Michael began, “that harassment in the workplace is never okay. I absolutely do not accept that behavior from my employees, and if I had known that it was a problem, I would’ve…” as he talked, I noticed something odd. He kept glancing…down…while he was talking to me.
Yep. Just…staring at my rack, there. Not even trying to be subtle.
“We absolutely want you to be comfortable here,” he said, addressing my chest. My chest did not respond. “I absolutely would have taken the appropriate actions if I had only known this was going on.”
“Sure. Okay. I’ll come to you first in the future.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to add?” he asked.
I stopped, taking in a breath. “Ah, yeah. I do. My face is up here. That’ll be all.”
“Kennedy, can I see you in the conference room?” Al asked softly.
I looked up from my computer. This was several months after talking to Michael. Neal had long fled the studio, and the rest of the office was an icebox. From the day after he left onwards, no one spoke to me unless it was strictly about work. Eventually, I just shut down and started giving them the same silent treatment. I kept my earbuds in at all times, ignoring anyone and everyone around me. I fired off applications to other jobs daily, I worked on my portfolio at night, desperately scrambling for a way out. I went and ate lunch by myself, taking my time so as to put off going back to the office. Even if they tried to include me in things, why would I want to be around those people after everything that had happened?
And so I followed Al. He kept his head characteristically down, his arms tucked close to his sides. I could never actually tell if he was massively passive aggressive, or just really that meek and fearful.
I sat down, across from Michael yet again.
He sighed, and said the next sentence in a single stream, as if he were reciting something he’d repeated many times before: “Kennedy, as you probably know the company is just not doing well at the moment, some downsizing and other changes are going to have to happen, and for that reason I’m going to have to let you go. So if you could just collect your things and we’ll work out….” He kept talking, now having reached a mumble as I nodded flatly. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming. It was just a matter of when, not if.
The office was somehow even quieter as I walked out to get my stuff. Did they know? They definitely knew. Didn’t matter. If nothing else, at least I’d never have to come back here again.
The ‘Cool Girl’ trap is, while not the only factor, essentially one of the reasons sexism, racism, and other –isms are so pervasive in such a homogenized industry. Of the eight people that worked in that office, I was the only woman, the only Hispanic (or any non-white person), and the youngest in the office. This small sample reflects much of the industry itself — women only make up about 22% of developers. Caucasians still make up an overwhelming 79%.
When you’re surrounded by only one particular group, and they constantly remind you that you’re the outlier, you struggle to find footing in that group. You struggle to be accepted, so you sweep things under the rug. You put off articulating your real feelings because, what’s the harm in it? But you work so hard trying to get in to the inner circle that you find a hard time getting out without risking everything.
But, ultimately, you still lose everything. And you realize that you’re part of the problem. You’re part of the reason why the industry is so slow to change in its attitudes towards women and minorities. Because you never speak up.
But what choice do you have? Being the Cool Girl is how you survive.
Play the game, or lose. But you’ll probably lose anyway.
Addendum 2/11/16 — Since writing this article, the names of the people involved have been changed.
It was no mistake that I used the real ones in the first place. I was angry, bitter, and freshly laid off. That’s not to say that I’m not still angry when I think about it. But in these last few months I realize that leaving those people open to abuse and harassment of their own wouldn’t give me any peace about what happened. Since leaving the company and becoming self-employed, life has improved for me in nearly every facet and I’d rather just forget I ever met any of those men.
Resentful as I am about what happened to me, I’d rather not perpetuate the cycle of abuse and ask that my followers/supporters/random folks that’ve stumbled across this article follow suit.