Women in Tech: Stories from the Trenches

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A couple of months ago, motivated by yet another invitation to speak about the general topic of Women in Tech, I wrote an article titled Why I Am Not a ‘Woman in Tech.’ My argument was that it is better to treat everyone as people in tech, and recognize them for their skills and accomplishments rather than their gender.

What followed was a great discussion, with comments from friends, colleagues and strangers across many different fields. The message I kept hearing was that people understood why I wouldn’t want to be singled out for something as unintentional as being a female – but at the same time, it was important to acknowledge that many women have had terrible, traumatizing experiences directly related to being a female in a male-dominated field.

And I started thinking: Of course it’s easy for me to sit here and type up an argument for not talking so much about women in tech – my gender has never felt like an issue. I come from a place of privilege, having worked solely at companies and with colleagues who have never made me feel singled out or inferior. I also possess a very forward communication style, so I don’t hesitate to call people out when I see subtle acts of unfairness, and I don’t feel uncomfortable speaking up for myself. But there are many women – SO many, as I’ve come to realize – that haven’t had that type of empowering and unbiased career path. And I want to help them tell their stories.

I reached out to a couple of different “women in tech” social networking groups to ask for their stories. And the stories poured in: heartbreaking, infuriating stories of women who have really struggled on their career paths, seemingly due to their gender. I started seeing a few themes emerge.

Inappropriate Behavior

When people think of women being compromised in their careers, they often think of outright inappropriate behavior, or sexual harassment. Some of the stories I heard fell into this category.

“I was in the process of interviewing for another team and had coffee with the hiring manager. Entering the elevator, he leaned over and kissed me. He then sent me emails about how awesome it would be if I joined his team. I never reported it but I left the company a couple of weeks later.”

“I was on a work trip to Reno and sharing a rental car with a male director. On the way back to the hotel, he said he wanted to take a detour and proceeded to drive to the Mustang Ranch brothel, which is about 15 miles outside of Reno. He parked and asked me to come in. I declined.”

Ideally, situations like this can be dealt with through HR. Of course, each one is complicated, and unfortunately, not all organizations foster an environment in which women feel comfortable reporting them. Most disheartening were the examples I heard of issues being reported, but not addressed.

Overt Sexism

Slightly less concrete than sexual harassment, but still blatantly infuriating, is the overt sexism experienced by many of the women I talked to.

“It was known that one of the product leads at my work wouldn’t talk to women or non-whites. I was told to work around it by having a white male coworker present all of my stuff for me.”

“I was asked during the interview process if I was sure I could handle the demands of the job since I was engaged.”

“I was the first woman to work at a company of 25. I would hear a lot of ‘I would say something, but there’s a girl here.’”

The thing that’s especially unnerving to me about these stories is that they seem to be an accepted part of the culture in the writers’ workplaces. Clearly, these are very poisonous cultures.

Forced Gender Roles

A common experience of many of the women I spoke with was being forced into roles that their coworkers believed – either consciously or unconsciously – belonged to women.

“I see many women who are asked to take notes at the meeting, asked to schedule the meetings, asked to coordinate the parties, to order the food, etc.”

“I was literally yelled at for not taking notes in a meeting and instead participating in the discussion. My male coworker with the same title and role as me was in the meeting and was never told the same.”

“One team called my female boss ‘Mom.’”

This one is hard, because most of us want to be helpful and take on what is needed. But, if these women are anything like me, they don’t enjoy making coffee or taking notes. This gender bias with roles and responsibilities can be disheartening and career limiting.

Stifled Career Paths

This last theme can be the trickiest to address because it is the most subtle. I heard from so many women who felt they had slower, more difficult career growth due to their gender.

“Upper management would pressure me to build out their nebulous ideas, and when I finished them, I was removed from the project for my male counterparts to lead.”

“My boss left, and four of us left were asked to step up and lead the team together. Later I found out the three guys had received a promotion and a raise, but I needed to prove myself (with vague guidelines about what that meant) before I would be considered.”

“I turned around and realized that those men who started where I did or behind me, and are less accomplished and haven’t worked as hard as I did, somehow made it way further. And I have to ask ‘What happened?’”

It’s fairly easy to analyze data to determine gender wage gaps at a given level or to file formal complaints when soething as blatant as harassment occurs. But when a woman’s entire career path is being subtly constrained, as many of these stories indicate, it is a difficult wrong to right.

That’s why I think it is so important to keep sharing these stories, keep training our companies to address unconscious biases, and keep focusing on women’s accomplishments instead of their gender. As one of the women I spoke with said, “I hope sharing my stories can help other women persevere, even if it feels hopeless.” I hope so too.

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