When Excellence Isn’t Enough

Why I talk about gender

In elementary school, my dad walked me to school each day. In high school, he drove me. Along our walks and drives, he taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to. I just needed to be excellent enough. Even now, he asks me the hardest questions, and is my biggest supporter.

So when I was 21, I believed that if I was excellent enough, I could do anything.

I was vehemently against the Society of Women in Engineering (SWE). I thought anything that called attention to being female hurt me. That it would make people think I’d gotten my role for being “female” instead of for being excellent. I felt degraded. I felt like “those women” were making me less likely to succeed. They couldn’t compete on excellence, so they made shit up about how the playing field wasn’t level. They just weren’t good enough. Other women were the problem, not me.

It wasn’t that long before things felt wrong, but I refused to notice.

My senior year of college, everyone asked me why I wasn’t moving to San Francisco with my boyfriend.

It came from nowhere. I’d always been “more driven.” I ran for student government. I took a year off to start a company. I cared so much. I’d found the perfect job for me. Everyone had encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Yet, we both had job offers in SF, and we both had them in Seattle. They were equally good. Still, everyone asked me why I wasn’t moving to SF with him. Only one person asked him why he wasn’t moving to Seattle with me.

Maybe it was because SF sounded cooler for what I wanted to do. Maybe it was because “women care more about close relationships.” I have no idea. It was the first time things didn’t seem fair.

But I knew the better job was in Seattle. I moved to Seattle and moved on with life. I kept being excellent. I got my first promotion. Just being excellent was enough. I kept repeating it to myself. A mantra, a self-reassurance.

But things kept feeling wrong.

There weren’t many senior women around. There were posters in the women’s bathroom talking about “work life balance,” but men were never invited to work life balance events. No one found it ironic that we expected women to solve work-life balance all on their own.

Maternity leave was months longer than paternity leave. Everyone I worked with was married to a woman who used to work at Microsoft. Most of the women stopped after they had kids.

I tried to mention that it seemed weird that parental responsibility always fell on gender lines. Everyone said, “Oh that was just my family. My wife wanted to stay home. There’s no systematic issue here. If you want to work, you’ll be able to. It’s just my situation.”

I’d always believed in just being excellent, so I kept trying to be excellent. But it was getting harder and harder to ignore that there was some issue beyond it.

No one wanted to talk about that issue.

At some point, I just snapped. While in college everything felt like an equal playing field, at work it suddenly didn’t. Being excellent hadn’t worked for the women who came before me. I started trying to bring up issues.

I picked an easy one to start with. Something that seemed obvious to me: when we talked about subscription services, we didn’t use our external term — admin. Instead we used internal slang — dadmin. The unsubtle implication was that the man would buy all the tech for the home.

I explained the implications of “dad-min,” to my coworkers, hoping they’d see my point. Instead, the response was that my female coworkers on the marketing team had dubbed it! It was cute. It wasn’t sexist — after all, women came up with it! Whenever I tried to bring up my discomfort for any issue, it wasn’t a problem. It was just me.

I started to feel like it was just me.

No one else thought there was a problem? Maybe there wasn’t a problem. Maybe I wasn’t as excellent as I thought. I was working as hard as possible, but it still seemed like something else was going on. Maybe I was afraid I couldn’t cut it, so I was inventing sexism that didn’t exist? So I decided I’d just try harder. Lean in. Be excellent.

I got a new job at Kickstarter as a Product Manager. I kept doing my job. I didn’t talk much about gender at work, and definitely not in public. I wanted to keep being excellent, not talk about gender issues.

The first time I felt compelled to speak up was during a project called Above the Game. As a woman who had been working in tech for years, I had more context than the average employee. Sharing my thoughts, even with just a few coworkers was emotional and hard.

That was the exception. Speaking up when something is egregiously wrong is different from speaking up all the time. I still believed that being excellent was more important than focusing on problems. Bringing them up would scare off other people.

But I knew things weren’t right. I paid more attention.

I started following what certain people were saying about gender and tech issues. I wanted to see what incidents occurred. Turned out there was a lot of anger. I didn’t like how we were discussing the problems, and started considering what my voice could add.

I kept seeing unfair things happen. I researched and analyzed for myself. I wanted to believe that I could just be excellent, and that these issues wouldn’t happen to me. But that’s not true. For almost every woman who’s made that statement, something has (eventually) gone wrong.

The situation between Julie Ann Horvath and Github was my breaking point. She’d always been someone who had done excellent work. I looked up to her. She believed in excellence, and that made me hope that I could just focus on excellence, too. It wasn’t the first thing, but it was the metaphorical straw that broke my back.

Even if a few women manage to squeak by by being excellent, that’s not enough. We’re losing and hurting many excellent women. That was what made it crystal clear for me. Ignoring the issue might make it better for three people who get lucky, but at the expense of so many more women.

For years, I tried to bury my head in the sand and “be excellent” instead of speaking up. It’s so tempting. It’s easier. It’s depressing to read articles about discrimination, and more depressing to read the comments on the ones you write. It feels like a hopeless battle. Sometimes it makes me want to give up.

No matter how bad it is to talk about, ignoring it is worse.

Ignoring the issues is setting yourself up for failure because you don’t want to face the truth. Once you know what’s likely to happen, you can do something about it. You can prepare. Assuming it won’t happen to you is naive.

So, I’m going to keep talking about these problems. The more of us who share, the harder it is to ignore. The more of us who share, the more we’ll know about the extent of the problems. The more of us who share, the less burden will fall on each of us.

First, I’m writing for me. Writing about my experiences helps me understand what’s going on. I don’t share everything I write. Sometimes my issue is just mine. But often, it’s ours. Writing helps me pry those apart. Before I wrote about how people portray women in PM, I had no idea that other women in PM felt the same way.

Then, I’m writing for our leadership. I hope having seen one of my pieces makes a leader realize there might be an issue in their organization. I hope that my voice makes someone consider an issue who might not have otherwise. I hope it makes people go out of their way to see and fix them. The more people we have looking for solutions, the more we’ll be able to fix this. My voice alone won’t carry this argument, but maybe it will sway voices that can help.

But most of all, I’m writing for other women. All this writing is to say: You aren’t crazy. This has happened to the best of us. You’ll manage to get through it. People will be here to give you a hand. Hopefully your leadership will have heard someone else say this, so you won’t be the first person to bring it up. If you are, know that you aren’t alone. You can always reach out and ask for help. It’s scary and hard, but at least we aren’t alone.

Oh — And — I will never stop trying to be excellent.