The miracle of the Internet getting older is that you get to dig up all sorts of embarrassing things about yourself. For example, this old answer of a younger me answering ‘What is it like to be a woman working in the tech industry?’
I’m shocked that this was just four years ago. The thing that strikes me is that my first course of action was to distill my experience into an easy chunk of data. Ha ha ha! 2011 Ash still believed in meritocracy and the truth of numbers!
I’ve thought about deleting this post because it makes me cringe, and people still seem to find it through the miracles of Quora’s whirring content robots. It makes me want to reach back in time and shake myself, tell myself what’s coming down the pike.
It’s a fruitless exercise. Not only because I haven’t mastered time travel, but because I wouldn’t have believed me. Who wants to hear that their career path full of shinies and promises is systematically corrupt in the same boring way that all of America is systematically corrupt?
So I’m posting an updated version of what it’s like to be a woman who happens to tech from time to time. No numbers, no nonsense. Well, a little nonsense: instead of posting random numbers, I’ve decided to make this both a rant and a game:
If you’re female and feel comfortable, highlight anything that’s also happened to you.
What is it like to be a woman working in the tech industry?
Being a woman who happens to tech is another shirt in my closet that I’ll never wear because it doesn’t fit, and won’t throw out because that feels wrong. It’s feeling grateful that only one stranger on the Internet has threatened to rape me in his sex dungeon. It’s putting feminist in my Twitter bio specifically to discourage assholes from following me. It’s being told by groups of men that my design is too girly whilst designing for an audience of mostly women. It’s being told at interviews that they thought I’d be a man based on my work. It’s wanting to stab my eyes out every time men debate if women should freeze eggs to have more productive years. It’s defiantly scribbling on heavy eyeliner and stumbling around in heels so they won’t even assume I’m a ‘chill girl’. It’s being the only sober one in the room and hoping my manager stops mistaking me for his wife. It’s a friend telling me an acquaintance cornered her and ripped her clothing open. It’s going online in the midst of some battle about being allowed to be a woman, being allowed to take up space in the industry, going, “nope, not today” and watching old episodes of Alias instead.
It’s feeling guilty that work is not my whole life, and that I decidedly don’t want to ‘crush’ anyone or anything. It’s being called ‘sweetheart’ by a designer more senior than me. It’s picking outfits in the morning that don’t make me look fat and dumpy but also don’t make me look sexy. It’s talking about how much I love my boyfriend when I start to get the uh-oh feeling, and then making sure my engagement ring is very, very visible. It’s being told that as a matter of fact, I have the same level of experience as a guy who has a fifth of my experience. It’s eating with a room full of men talking about how thankful they are that their wives stay home and take care of the kids while they build the future. It’s sheer delight and surprise when a tech restroom has free tampons next to the free toothbrushes. It’s coming to work with horrible almost-vomit-painful cramps because I’m not dead, and I can’t afford to fall behind. It’s that baffled look in their eyes when I offer to change the CSS myself. It’s being asked in interviews when I last pulled an all-nighter. It’s everyone (including me) constantly referring to any group of humans as guys! guys! guys!
But I am stubborn. I choose optimism. As Mr. Roger says, I look for the helpers.
It’s also Dan encouraging people to donate money to girls who code instead of buying a shirt only cut for men. It’s Sabrina showing what a ‘person in tech’ actually looks like. It’s Victor pausing a lucrative tech career to help put a woman in the White House. It’s Maria helping women step into their own power by confronting the biases that buffet them day after day. It’s Harper telling a room full of white men that just hiring white men will destroy the industry. It’s Elana making a shop/statement on gender wage equality. It’s Tess organizing !GHC and providing even more awesome lady time for those who can’t schlep down to Houston. It’s Ryan making illustrations that feature strong lady heroes. It’s Julie and Clef open-sourcing their diversity policies. It’s secret Facebook groups full of women of color helping each other.
When I started my career, I wanted an honorable monolith. I am no longer sad that what I found was just a group of people. People can surprise you. They can hurt you and delight you.
While the tech industry is made of people, people are not made solely of tech. A person has to exist outside of what they do. We cannot punish people for doing so, or pretend the industry is some safe haven from the rest of what’s happening out there. What’s happening out there is the same thing that’s happening inside our warm caffeinated bubble.
In the past four years I have wanted to condemn the industry and burn it down like a good underwire bra. But the interesting problems keep drawing me back in. The good people who truly want to help draw me back in.
Here’s what I hope happens next. I think it will get better. Through social dynamics and sheer will, racism/sexism/-ism will all become unpopular. I won’t have to actively look for the good. Instead, I’ll have to unearth the bad. The non-helpers will be even more underground than 4chan, than Weird Twitter. In some future, good will be something buttercream-rich that we skim off the surface.