“I see you eating with the Polish kids,” a friend said to me. “I don’t get it. To be honest, it’s kind of weird.”
Summer 2012, I was taking a three-month hiatus from my Ph.D. at MIT to intern at Facebook. I ate most of my meals with a crew of male Polish university students, fellow interns at least three younger. Looking at me, a mid-twenties Harvard-educated Asian-American woman, you would expect me to be friends with my fellow yuppie-geek-hipsters who spent their free time appreciating the yoga and cocktails of San Francisco. Instead, I spent most of my days with my friends who spoke mostly Polish and honed their competition programming skills in their free time. It was kind of weird. But no weirder than anything else that absurd summer, when I felt equally alien in most aspects of my life.
Four years into my Ph.D., after I thought I had gotten too old for summer camp, my Spanish-speaking advisor sent me to Facebook to establish what he called “street creed.” My research was on programming languages for privacy; Facebook had interesting privacy problems. In the name of confirming my relevance, I found myself, a female academic with a liberal-arts education, transplanted into Facebook’s macho engineering culture. That summer I lived the programmer dream, taking an unmarked white luxury shuttle for forty-five minutes each morning from gentrified San Francisco to the post-apocalyptic salt marshes of remote Menlo Park. I ate all three meals in the Facebook cafeterias, with its tables painted so white there were buckets of sunglasses for loan. Everywhere I looked I saw the mottos “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS” and “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT” in all-caps. Though I shared an alma mater with the founders and the same social network as many of the engineers, I felt like no more an outsider with my Polish friends than I did with anyone else.
My Polish cultural experience happened by the accident of my start day. Not thinking about the social implications, I had requested to start my internship in mid-July, just after a major paper submission deadline. I found myself at orientation with at least twenty college boys from various countries in Eastern Europe, where summer vacation apparently begins in July. Over the last few years, tech recruiting and Eastern European programming competitions have coevolved to send these students en masse to the Facebooks and Googles of the world. These were the best of the best of the Eastern Bloc, trading their summer vacations and a few thousand lines of code for enough money to last for years back in their home countries. The others introduced themselves as coming from Poland, Croatia, Russia, and Georgia. I was the only female intern, the only American intern, and the only Ph.D. intern there.
Faced with a Facebook cafeteria scene that looked like a male-dominated version of the Mean Girls lunch room, I was grateful to my Polish orientation table-mate for inviting me to dinner. Like the American university interns, the Polish students hung out mostly with their schoolmates, taking all meals together. Excited to make an American friend, they invited me not just to meals but to join the #polish Facebook-internal chat channel, on which conversations occurred solely in Polish. In using #polish I learned that Google Translate was not the most useful for producing Polish (a particularly difficult language due to noun declension rules), but it will translate the created Polish faithfully back to the original English. Pretend-speaking Polish on #polish was how I would find out when to meet the Jagiellonian University students “pod mostem” (“under the bridge”) for meals each day. At the meals, I quickly learned that phrases from my Lonely Planet Polish Phrasebook didn’t cut it. (“Is there a doctor present?”) Fortunately I learned to say “nie pogadasz” (“nothing to say”).
Truth was, speaking fake-Polish was no different to me than speaking “male” or “engineer.” Instead of going West to find my fortune by building things, I had stayed back East to think about how things should be built. In contrast to the motto “move fast and break things,” the motto of my research might as well be “move slow and make sure things never break.” Plus, I was neither geek nor “brogrammer,” the new breed of the cool beer-drinking, party-going programmer. In my spare time, instead of playing Street Fighter or participating in beer-fueled hackathons, I like to read, write, and discuss the workings of the world over wine. Fortunately, growing up in an immigrant family had gotten me used to speaking a different language at school than at home. And by then, I had come to expect that being a woman in tech, academic or not, brogrammer or not, means speaking different “languages” at home and at work. As Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen discusses in Talking from 9 to 5, due to observable differences in conversational goals women are often maladjusted to the male speech patterns expected of them at work. (For instance, men tend to view conversations as a battle for dominance, while women view the goal as preventing others from being subordinate. When a woman and a man converse, everyone agrees the man “wins.”)
Being friends with the Polish crew was interesting on a meta-level because they seemed to be integrating into Silicon Valley tech culture particularly well. Upon reflection, I realized that they had two things that women in tech most often don’t: a tight-knit group and a sense that they deserved to be there. First of all, they had a group of similar people with whom they could speak their language, intensely miss their mothers’ home cooking, and reflect on their foreignness in California. The group had sufficiently many things in common besides simply being Polish—similar ages’ similar places of origin; shared interest in competition programming—so that even if they were not friends coming in, there was a fundamental level of trust. In addition, my Polish friends had the confidence that comes from being highly respected in the greater community. Besides being revered in their own countries, my Polish friends were respected by American programmers for their programming talent. It was fashionable to recruit from Eastern Europe: even my summer roommate, then the CTO of a small startup with no American employees, had his beloved Belorussian programmer. To accommodate his programmer’s hours, he became nocturnal, leaving on our bathroom fan each night to protect me from the sound of their Skyping. As the cool kids on every block, my Polish friends felt like they had every right to be there. And so they could focus on comfortably settle in.
From this experience, I wondered whether we could recreate the Eastern European programming competition model for women. That is, whether we can create a system that assimilates women into the tech world as a highly-respected group with its own group identity. An important part of this involves creating groups of women who strongly identify with each other—and are also respected by the greater community—based on a shared interest or talent. Hackathons such as Chime for Change, sponsored by Elle Magazine with the goal of making apps to help girls and women around the world, could help create female sub-communities that are externally respected. We may also be able to find structures other than hackathons for doing this. For instance, I don’t find hackathons a good fit for me, but have always loved being a part of robotics teams. (Relevant side note: when I have been part of all-female groups, my teammates have taken my input into account more than when I have been on teams with males.) The challenge lies in creating an environment where women are engaged while producing a result that the rest of the community respects. Communities created by the upcoming Female Founders Conference may achieve this goal.
Learning to speak “male” and “engineer” on my own was good for me—and even prepared me for a summer of speaking fake-Polish. If we want to increase the number of women in tech, however, we should make it easier for women to assimilate. Viewing gender diversity issues as cultural diversity issues helps identify problems with current approaches and also provides models of success from which to learn. Rephrasing the problem of how to include women in tech in this way turns it into a social engineering problem, one that we may finally be able to solve.