For many women, working in an office and for a tech company can be challenging, especially if they’re a minority and in Silicon Valley. It can be challenging to be heard, to be valued, and even to be safe. In the era of Lean In, one entrepreneur is creating her own meaning of freedom in the workplace. Here’s our Freedom Creators interview with Elissa, and how freelancing helps.
What inspired you to produce Lean Out? Who should read the book?
I was frustrated with the way journalists would portrayed my story — it was never about giving me a place to speak but instead about fitting me into whatever story they were trying to tell. I wanted to give women in technology the opportunity to share their own stories, without sensationalism or editorial bias.
Lean Out is a wonderful read for anyone seeking to gain more empathy for marginalized people in technology, or to better understand the cultural issues in Silicon Valley. It’s also a strengthening read for women, queer and trans people, and anyone who knows what it’s like to not fit it. Lean Out is a reminder that you are not alone in your struggle, you are not alone at all.
Why is leaning out a better way to fight discrimination in tech than leaning in?
Leaning in is a great way to move up the career ladder but it’s not for everyone. We’ve reached a point where people want to not only be included at work but to be authentic.
When I think of Leaning Out, I often think of freelancing! Freelancing gives you the luxury of multiple clients, and of working in an environment that you choose. This means you can fire a client (say, if someone is sexist or just unprofessional) and you can create your own work culture. My favorite place to work is curled up with a blanket, in the warmest room in my house, with a cup of tea.
Leaning in, for me, always involved putting up with a lot of discomfort and quite frankly, sexist bullshit, in the office. I’m grateful for the freedoms — and the dignity — that comes with freelancing. #LeanOut
You make an important point about the stories of women who helped build companies like Apple being erased. How can people prevent that from happening today?
We are starting to do a better job of acknowledging the contributions made by women and people of color. But people still try to take women down!
These days recognition isn’t as big of a problem as harassment. As soon as a woman is recognized, she is harassed. That has a chilling effect. It makes women think twice about shining in public.
We need stronger laws to protect women from abuse, we need stronger protections on social media and most importantly — we need stronger community support. I’m tired of hearing people say that trolling is no big deal. This is psychological warfare, it matters, and we need to take it seriously. We need to make it psychologically safer for women to shine.
Why is there not better representation of women and minorities in tech today?
Isn’t that the million dollar question? My chapter in Lean Out discusses how this isn’t a pipeline problem. It’s about white male supremacy, which is becoming quite transparent these days. Talented women and people of color are already here, and already awesome. It’s time that they received the opportunities that they deserve.
I have something controversial to say on this topic — but I think it’s relevant to CloudPeeps and freelancing. There is a movement for more women to run for political office. If we have more women in political leadership then that will help. But it is still a very uphill battle and at best, it won’t improve the landscape until 2018. So I’m rather bullish on “exit” as an option at this point. Work is so remote these days — why not go live in a country that is more supportive of freedoms for women, while earning an American salary working remotely? Companies like CloudPeeps — founded by women, clearly friendly to women — tend to attract women friendly employees. So… why not work for CloudPeeps and live abroad? Toronto, Berlin, Tel Aviv — all more hospitable places for women and people of color. I love Toronto and Tel Aviv, and my friends have said wonderful things about Berlin.
I know this is a pessimistic thing to say about the state of American business. I am just grateful that we have this option. My grandparents and parents did not — we are quite fortunate to live in such a miraculous time, where we can move so freely and work for a company halfway around the world.
How can minorities and supporters of minorities in tech make their voices heard in a meaningful way?
It can be difficult to be heard at work — I’d be happy to offer advice for people on a more individual basis (since every work environment is different.) I’ve found publishing and social media to be very rewarding for being heard. But I have 10K followers now — how does someone break through? I first became noticed by my proximity to a scandal. I don’t recommend that for everyone!
I have seen that if you choose a topic, keep blogging and posting on that topic–and are responsive to readers/viewers — then you can grow an audience. So much in life is just showing up. If you have #hustle and you’re authentic, you’ll cultivate an audience and be heard.
What do you think the best response to sexism in tech is?
I think “Eff you” is a solid response.
More seriously — I’ve met women who say that they just navigate around the sexism. I think that’s the ideal, if you can pull it off. There is a great essay in Lean Out by @ashsmash on this topic. She talks about how consulting has freed her from the emotional labor and the drama of the workplace. I’ve found much of that myself. My best experiences have been either running my own company (which allows me to have a big say in the culture, and to fire anyone who is inappropriate) or to work remotely.
Otherwise, it’s just about loving your craft so much that you are willing to do whatever it takes.
All of the essays in Lean Out are impactful in very different ways. Are there any underlying themes among all of them you wanted readers to identify? If so, what are they?
Women and people identifying as queer or trans are having a hard time right now. I want them to know that they’re not alone. And that they are strong. You are strong. You will adapt and you will survive. And you will find new joy.
What’s your top piece of advice to a woman starting a tech company today?
As Steve Martin says — “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
What can VC firms and tech companies do to support women and minorities in a meaningful way? Any examples?
It’s meaningful for VC firms and tech companies to have women and people of color in partnership roles. When I see VCs say that they can’t find ANY women sufficiently talented or experienced to join as partners, what I HEAR them say is “my pattern recognition for success is white and male.”