It’s becoming a common story we hear in passing or over drinks with industry friends. Every woman I personally know has either experienced it or knows someone who has. The responses to it can vary from a genuinely concerned, but poorly worded “Why didn’t you say anything?!”, to your entire social circle unfollowing and unfriending you online, to losing your job and financial stability and independence.
What is it exactly?
It is the discrimination and harassment that Women in Tech experience in the workplace.
A small note: This is the first part in an ongoing series about workplace harassment and the toll it takes on Women in Tech. I reached out to my followers on Twitter to see if anyone would be willing to talk with me about their own experiences with workplace harassment and discrimination and was overwhelmed by the responses. I’ve decided to write a series of pieces that address harassment in tech and to help some of these women tell their stories to the world, anonymously.
Falling Out of Favor
One of the most dangerous things about speaking up about harassment and discrimination in the workplace is falling out of favor with our peers. In an interview I gave to Model View Culture last year, I mention that speaking up internally at a company comes with a ton of risk.
“If you raise awareness [internally] about one issue, and you want to keep your job, you can do that like once in a year. Otherwise it becomes less credible, and that’s fucked up because we’re only allowed to share a little bit of what we’ve been through.”
Speaking up internally is scary. But you don’t even have to raise concerns around sexism per se to risk falling out of favor. Even participating in “diversity work” or pointing out the underrepresentation of women and other minorities in your workplace can put a target on your back.
“I’ve had things said about me like ‘I don’t think [she] actually cares about getting more women in engineering. she’s just using this as a political play to gain power in the organization.’ But I don’t even know who it was. Or if it was my manager hiding under the guise of anonymous feedback.” — Anonymous Woman of Color in Tech
Vocal women are often labeled complainers. And it’s scarily common to have coworkers and even managers accuse you of doing diversity work as a means to gain power. Tech companies too often make witches out of vocal women. You don’t necessarily have to be told you’re not welcome to start feeling alienated in the workplace, either.
Not comfortably being able to bring up concerns in your workplace and have those concerns addressed in a way you feel is productive and fair can take a huge toll on you emotionally and psychologically. When raising concerns also makes it harder to do your job, the problem becomes much more complicated and the risk of losing your job can escalate very quickly.
“If you weren’t on the good side of upper management, it was a pretty hard place to work.” — Anonymous Woman in Tech
When We Choose To Speak Up
When you become that woman, the complainer, the social justice warrior, people start taking your actual work, you know, the job you get paid to do, less seriously. You’re stripped of your responsibilities and in a lot of ways your agency. People rarely talk about this part. You could even be the public-facing image of diversity at your tech company and still be disrespected, discredited and have your work trivialized.
At this point it rarely seems like you have any option other than to leave and start over someplace new.
The Non-Disparagement Agreement
So what happens when you want to leave? Well, friends, if you’re a white dude? Typically, nothing. You say your peace, do your exit interview, and make your way on to your next venture, all bridges still standing.
If you’re a woman? If you’re someone who has filed as few as one complaint with HR?
“The non-disparagement agreement issue is such a big deal. I don’t think people realize how many times a non-disparagement agreement is brought in right away when there is wrongdoing that’s happened and discrimination and inequality is involved.” — Shanley Kane, Founder and CEO, ModelViewMedia
I have several friends who are Women in Tech who have signed non-disparagement agreements with popular tech companies. Some of these companies are even ones we talk about as leaders, unicorns, and having great company cultures. They are companies the industry continues to laud for their work in diversity and the releasing of their dismal diversity numbers.
“A week [after sending a complaint to HR], I was given an offer for a chunk of money attached to a gag order, which I turned down, and [I was] told I had to leave the company immediately. [I] left with very little money…I simply can’t defend myself against a multi-million dollar corporation’s legal team, or afford to get blacklisted from my industry (which happens, all too often).” — Anonymous Woman in Tech
Not all of us can say no to the money that often comes with a non-disparagement agreement. And in my opinion, there is absolutely no shame in taking it. None.
As a result of my experience being so public, women often reach out to me when they’re dealing with difficult situations in their workplaces. Some of them are dealing with more nuanced discrimination and some of them have been repeatedly sexually assaulted by their coworkers. Again, all at popular tech companies.
When women ask me whether or not they should take their stories public, like I did, I mostly advise against it. Sure, sometimes it feels right, like it’s the only thing you can do to protect yourself. It may change the way people look at the company where you experienced harassment, but it won’t get you justice. It may stop the same thing from happening to the next woman who joins said company, but it won’t help you heal.
What does happen? You become a public spectacle. One that any and everybody within shouting distance of your industry will feel entitled to comment on, dissect, and analyze. Both your professional and personal lives are dragged out into the open and scrutinized by strangers online. You receive death and rape threats.
Temporarily, you lose your faith in humanity.
I tell women who come to me for strategic advice that the best thing they can do is to take care of themselves first. As much as I like to see companies held accountable for how they treat their people, I like to see other women living their best lives a hell of a lot more.
Would I Do It Again?
I honestly don’t know if I would.
Shortly after I began receiving rape threats in 2014, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I could no longer be intimate with my partner. I had repeated episodes that left me laying on the floor clutching my chest because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. And I wanted to die.
I couldn’t imagine life ever being OK again.
And so, at the request of my friends and my family, I chose to move on. To start fresh. Much, I’m sure, to the relief of my harassers and the people who victimized me the same.
A Different Path
It takes a much stronger person than I am to seek justice. It takes someone who, in a moment of incredible pain and uncertainty, can see a clear path to it. It takes a stronger person than I’ve ever been to know and truly accept that they deserve justice.
This is what left me in awe of Ellen Pao this past year. It is why I will always feel grateful for her journey and her courage. When one of us fights this battle, whether they win or lose, they’re fighting for all of us. They’re fighting for those of us who couldn’t risk our careers, what little resources we have, and/or our health. They’re fighting for those of us who, because of our circumstances, felt like we couldn’t.
A Friend Who Needs Your Help
My motive for writing this piece is not purely to share my own or others’ experiences with you. I wrote this piece for two very specific reasons:
- To remind you that just because you don’t read about it on Twitter or on TechCrunch, doesn’t mean women aren’t still being harassed and discriminated against at tech companies.
- To help raise money to cover the legal fees for a friend who was fired from her workplace after years of dealing with discrimination.
In her own words:
“I’m a Black woman in tech who is raising legal funds to fight an ex-employer over racial discrimination…After a year of struggling (couchsurfing, not being able to afford to eat for weeks on end), and coming quite close to homelessness (I owed about 6 months in back rent as I couldn’t find a job), I’m finally getting back on my feet. And I’m ready to speak up. And after searching, I’ve found a fantastic lawyer who’s willing to fight for me. He specializes in discrimination cases and he’s willing to work with me, but I need to come up with $7500 for his fees.”
Read her whole story here and please donate what you can afford to.
Thank you to all of the brave women who continue to inspire me to be vocal about my own experience and to use what time and resources I have to build a better industry for the women who will come after us. And thank you to those of you who have allowed and trusted me to help tell your stories.