Inclusion is a Verb

How my experience with jiu-jitsu reminded me of the small ways in which women are discounted at the workplace.

I quit my jiu-jitsu gym last week. I hadn’t been going for a month and I decided it was time. I wasn’t avoiding my gym because of the typical excuses—no time or lack of motivation. In fact, it was much deeper. I have done martial arts for years as a hobby — aikido, tae kwon do, muy thai, and krav maga among the few. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of sparring and the aerobics of training. I started jiu-jitsu to learn more groundwork, as many of the above weren’t focused on sparring after a sweep or a knockdown.

When my instructor handed me the paperwork to quit, I noticed the question “Tell us why you are quitting” printed below my name. I puzzled over the reason. I liked jiu-jitsu. I liked my team. I wasn’t being bullied or harassed. So why?

When they came to me, I saw parallels in why I quit jiu-jitsu to why talented and smart women I know quit their jobs or the tech field altogether. I’ve had various jobs in tech — a UI engineer, a designer, and as a hobby, a video games creator. I’ve been following the conversation on how to fix the pipeline and get women into tech and STEM fields. I’ve also been following the stories of prevalent sexual harassment and a lack of safety in the workplace through #MeToo. These are real issues we’re dealing with. We still have a ways to go.

This article covers neither of these; it covers the more mundane, small reminders that pile up over time and, when women find an offer for something better, or a better environment, we leave. They’re not astounding. They’re not shocking.

They’re mundane.

At least, mundane for most of us who work in tech.

Not Made for Us

When I first signed up for jiu-jitsu, I got a few curious remarks as to why I didn’t come a different day. “There’s a girls’ class on Tuesday, you know,” I was told by a colleague, “it’s great for beginners.” This was said with the utmost respect for me and as an attempt to be helpful.

However, the impression I received was, “this class isn’t made for you.” There were other male classmates of mine who had just joined only a class ago — and to my knowledge, they were not presented with this “beginner’s class” option.

Most of us have experienced this working in the industry —curious looks when we speak up, laughs of relief when we mention a typically masculine hobby, suggestions that “you’re not like other girls. You’re easy to talk to.” These are all spoken with the intent of being complimentary. We have probably considered it a compliment in the past. However, the more we hear it, the more we’re miffed. It serves as a reminder that if we had feminine traits, we might be considered “girls.” And what does that really mean?

I just misinterpreted him, I thought. He was trying to be helpful. I told him I appreciated his advice, but I was not going to the women’s class. The women’s class had different teachers and were on days that were inconvenient for me. I continued to take the men’s class. Though I was initially met with murmured concerns that my male classmates would not be challenged by sparring with me because I was a woman, I quickly dispelled these by wrestling down a senior members. What I lacked in technique I made up for in physical strength. Over time, my instructors and colleagues got used to me being there.

At first, it felt like I had overcome a challenge and won their respect. I felt like I had the beginnings of belonging.

Becoming Invisible

As a beginner, I was bumbling my way through exercise after exercise. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t doing the technique right, so I would ask my instructor for help. One day, I noticed one of my colleagues receiving unprompted one on one help from our instructor, and only then did I realize that the only time the instructor would provide me with one on one coaching was if I directly asked for help or I did something egregiously wrong.

It’s unreasonable to expect an instructor (albeit anyone) to read our minds. I know this from years of working with clients and stakeholders. Only I am responsible for communicating what I need from others. Because I wholeheartedly believe this, at first I thought the best way to resolve this was to communicate more. However, I began to notice it simply exacerbated the problem. The more I asked for assistance, the longer the instructor would take in walking over to me, which slowly morphed into outright ignoring.

As a mirror to tech, we’ve seen countless examples of men being taken under the wing of a powerful male mentor whereas we see it less for people who look like us. On a more day-to-day level, we’re visible if we speak up or if someone notices we’re struggling mightily, but outside of those times, we become invisible.

On a societal level, we are a liability. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we understand how male mentors could be uncomfortable reaching out to the only woman in their class or in their department. It might be seen with ill-intent. However, male mentors have the privilege and ability to lift up women in the workplace, and stepping back from mentorship causes an even larger gap in mentorship. To excel in our fields, we must stand on the shoulders of giants, and the reality is that most of the giants in this industry are men.

Losing Faith

Over time, I watched colleagues who started at the same level as me rank up in their belts while I stayed the same. I watched instructors carefully pull them aside to do one on one training, whereas I found myself simply guessing at the right answer. Initially, I put behind the same effort and work as they did, but eventually I felt like my heart just wasn’t in it. I started to wonder if passion alone was going to get me through this. First, skipping one class to not feel the growing sting of lack of progress turned into skipping a week, which eventually turned into a month.

In that month, I found new hobbies. I’d never done voice lessons before, but my instructor inspired me to join—I would ask for help on a particular part, and in turn, he would proactively offer help on places he felt I could improve. Even though the studio was comprised of mainly male teachers and male students, I felt like I belonged. People were actively reaching out and gladly sharing their knowledge — and no one was staring or commenting. It only took going to one other jiu-jitsu class to realize that I was settling for scraps when I could be pouring my energy into somewhere that actively took an interest in helping me grow. I’m still at the voice studio and just completed a live jam session with several other students.

When I quit my jiu-jitsu gym, I spoke with my instructor. He handed me a form and asked me to sign; there were questions written on the form as to “tell us why you are quitting” or “how can we improve?” so I wrote something like this down the best I could articulate it. Wordlessly, he took the form and, without looking at it, stuffed it in a file to be put back on the shelf.

In that moment I realized I would never fit into a place with people who didn’t care and who weren’t committed to bringing up all members of their community to their own achievable level of greatness. And so I quit.

Other talented women tell me the same stories. They were really passionate about programming or design or mechanical engineering, but over time, stopped having fun. The reasons they got into the field in the first place became eclipsed with doubt about belonging because every day, they were in a workplace that did not include them, but tolerated them. No harassment. No bullying. Just tolerance, plain and simple.

We don’t want participation trophies. We don’t want to be praised for work that isn’t quality work. We’re talking about taking a genuine interest in someone as a human being or a fellow coworker. Checking in on our team when one person is sick or missed a day at work. Openly sharing knowledge and recognizing that everyone’s goals coming into tech are different. Telling us clearly what’s wrong and empowering us to fix it. We’re talking about camaraderie and altruism and knowledge sharing.

It’s so damn small but so damn big. Inclusion is not passive; it’s active.

It takes effort to tolerate. Tolerating a screaming child on an airplane or a lukewarm meal prepared by a loved one takes effort but no action. It takes far more effort to care and act on it. To help the parents distract the screaming child with a smile because they’re trying their best. To tell, kindly, a loved one that you appreciated that they made you a meal and you’re not feeling it (and why), but here are some suggestions for things you can eat together.

It takes a certain amount of courage and a possible risk of failure. I’ve seen startups that take on millions of dollars in investment risk, but somehow can’t take the risk of having women on their board or reaching out to candidates outside their normal pool. I’ve seen men who can go base jumping but cannot bring themselves to jump the chasm between themselves and a female colleague they‘re interested in mentoring.

In exit interviews, these things don’t even seem worth mentioning because they’re so boring. So small. And yet they are the pennies that tip the scale.

There are already people out there practicing active inclusion. My career would not be what it is if not for active inclusion by instructors, mentors and coworkers, many of whom happen to be men. My thanks go out to them. Let them be an example for the rest of us for how our industry could be. A culture that values sharing knowledge and access to power. A culture that welcomes and includes people who are different, not just tolerates them. A culture where inclusion is a verb, not a noun.