A True Disruption: Tales from the Frontlines of Silicon Valley
[published anonymously at the request of the author]
The first thing you have to decide, my friend told me, is if you’re going to do it or not.
Do what? I asked.
Work in tech, he said.
This was almost two years ago. I had just moved back to the Bay Area after graduating college and living in a few other places. It was August and very hot. We were in a dark taqueria in Redwood City, talking about how to get by. How to make art but also money, but also just enough money to live and make art–I wrote and he mostly did radio and film work. Art was all we wanted to do. But we also had to eat.
The ad to which I responded was for a full-time copywriter position. Healthcare, other benefits, equity. $70–100k a year–more than I dreamed I’d ever make at the peak of my career, much less the beginning of it. I was dismayed at the idea of taking a job in tech, but it was an opportunity to get paid to write. I wrote the best cover letter I’d ever written.
A few weeks later, I was offered the job. Well, I was offered 10–20 hours per week at an hourly salary of $20. I’m no big spender–I find $20/hour a great wage. But the offer would have seemed more generous if I knew I’d be working 40 hours a week. And if I hadn’t originally responded to an ad that listed a rate 75–150% higher than that. I replied that I had wanted to work full-time, and then I started the job: I was very low on money, and on the brink of moving back home with my parents. Plus, the work sounded fun.
On my first day of work, one of my coworkers casually asked what my “type” was. He went on to describe me, to me: ”Hmmm, a hippie kinda girl who plays guitar and just wants to be at the beach or outside–I bet you’re into…” “I like people who read books,” I cut in.
On Thursday of that week, one of my coworkers asked if I wanted to get a drink with him. I declined. At the end of that same week, my boss emailed me to ask me out. He wrote that he was no longer at the company (I later found out that he had been let go that day), and thus it was ok for him to ask me this. I did not respond. He called me that night, having gotten my phone number from the directory at work, and asked me again. I declined his invitation.
That week set the tone for my life at the company. I frequently received texts from unknown numbers. Messages that came at 11pm on a Friday night that said “Just wanted to let you know you looked really cute today. Gray jeans, striped shirt, boat shoes… I was into it.” I had to use the directory to figure out who the hell was even writing this. Another time, in the middle of a workday, I got a text that said, “You’re so skinny!” Again, I did not know the number. Again, I looked it up. It was a co-worker who was sitting directly across the room from me.
Here are some things I regularly heard at my place of employment–in reference to customers, coworkers, and figures in co-workers’ private lives: Bitch. Cunt. Whore. Racial slurs. Mocking folks with lower incomes–once a co-worker referred to a customer as a “broke-ass nigga.” I don’t know if the person was black or not, just that he or she was looking at one of the cheapest things that the company sold, and this salesperson wasn’t excited about the small commission that would come from that sale. One day I found myself the only woman in a room of eight men making, or at least tolerating, abortion jokes. Rusty coathangers and such–objectively unfunny and also mortifying stuff. I didn’t say anything. I went home and wept to my best friend on the phone about how weak I had been.
One co-worker took a particularly aggressive liking for me. He followed me around the office. He asked me out over and over–sometimes under the guise of just hanging out after work, sometimes in a more overtly romantic manner. I first discussed these concerns with our (female) COO about a month after I started working at the company. I didn’t identify anyone by name because I felt guilty about getting anyone in trouble or possibly fired. I also saw these occurrences as symptoms of a larger cultural issue that needed to be addressed for the sakes of all current and future female employees. Our COO promised to do a “sensitivity training” in the next month or two and also said that they were on the verge of hiring an HR person, who would help with all this.
The sensitivity training didn’t happen, and I had a few more meetings about the issue. I met with our office manager. She and I met with our COO. Somehow, that discussion turned from an airing of concerns about inappropriate workplace behavior into our COO celebrating the “diversity” of our workplace. I believe it started with the COO talking about how more and more women were joining the company. Then she said, “And how cool is it that we have”–she paused to count on her fingers–“TEN gay employees?!” And she smiled satisfactorily. That’s when I realized that she would not be the mentor and ally that I hoped she, as a female who had worked in tech for years and was in a high-level position, would be.
I never found that mentor, or even that ally. Incidents kept occurring. Other women confided in me about inappropriate comments, touching, and unwelcome advances they had experienced at work. One close colleague overheard a co-worker, in referring to a group of female colleagues who were getting together before the holiday party, mention how they would probably be “scissoring.”
When I finally started telling friends about what was going on at work, they were shocked. Female friends couldn’t believe I had put up with all that. How did I work there for so long? Friends who did work in tech were dismayed that this had happened at a company like theirs, or at least in the same location and field as theirs. My parents were both furious and baffled. To me, all of these problems had always felt frustrating and demoralizing, but not tragic. My experiences were not severe enough to warrant a restraining order. I was never physically harmed. I continued, mostly, to enjoy the challenge of my work. I got along well with many of my coworkers.
And then one day, I had had enough. I put in my two weeks notice, in no small part due to these issues. The aforementioned concerning situation with the coworker had developed into a demoralizing pattern of sexual harassment that had continued for months, even after my reporting it. By the time I left the job, the co-worker in question had been warned three times not to contact me. Only during the third warning was termination mentioned to him as a “possible outcome.” Meanwhile, I had had to go to the police to establish a record about this person. I had had to work from home one week, “for my safety.” I was highly distressed–both at work and in my personal life. And so I quit. My co-worker was never fired, and he continued to work at the company for months after I did.
Silicon Valley is not a comfortable place to exist as a working woman. If you are very friendly and like talking to people and can somehow ignore the types of comments and actions mentioned in this piece, there are sales positions aplenty. Maybe you just want to be part of the great experiment that is Silicon Valley. But your role in the experiment will not be as a principal investigator or even as a research assistant–you will be a subject. What happens when we throw a few women into an economy and social structure largely built and maintained by young men? That is the question at hand.
Beyond that warning, I don’t have any broad statements or advice to give to females seeking to work in tech. I suspect things vary between companies and roles within them. I have no idea how a female engineer would have been treated at my company–we didn’t have any. I do feel that, just as people essentially got drunk on Lean In and its ideals, the world remains inebriated by Silicon Valley’s seemingly “open-minded” and “liberal” nature. The equality. The flexibility. Its “forward-thinking” approach to the very idea of the workplace. To that I would say that, after almost a decade of work in other sectors–from academic research to food service–I have never felt as discouraged, uncomfortable, and disempowered as I did during my time working in tech. I know there are many other women in Silicon Valley who have had similar, if not more extreme, experiences.
I firmly believe that it’s time to shift the focus of the conversation about women in the workplace away from the accounts of high-level female executives. Instead, we should really listen to the stories of everyday working women–whether in tech or other sectors. These women may not have written best-selling business books. You likely have never heard their names. But is that not more reason to give them a chance to speak? Is that not more reason to listen? Because if we don’t give them the floor, who will?