On
from
pinterest
Tech’s ‘Women’s Problem’ Is Back in the News

What if instead of leaning in, women in tech just left?

03.06.17
Is-Leaning-Out-is-a-Thing-Now-Man-Repeller-Technology

I, like many women, have embraced the concept of “leaning in” as canon. In order to insert myself into the narrative of careers traditionally dominated by men, I adopted the idea that I had to play the man’s game, break the glass ceiling, climb the ladder of success or whatever corporate buzzword is trending in order to move forward. What the cliche du jour doesn’t communicate is the physical and emotional tax often paid by the women who reach towards these professional peaks.

As a woman working in the tech industry, I haven’t had to employ the platitudes much. I’m able to just do my job. I’ve been fortunate in that regard, which is a sucky thing to say because a respectful work environment should be standard practice. But it’s not. And while these issues face women across all fields, there is no industry with a more egregious reputation than technology. An issue clearly articulated in Susan Fowler’s recent essay on her time as an engineer at Silicon Valley’s town darling Uber.

Fowler’s experience covered the gamut: inappropriate sexual advances, being penalized by upper management for calling out inequality and working for an organization that dropped from 25% female down to 6% in the span of a year.

I was sent Fowler’s story by a male colleague with the message that her experience was terrible and “working at Uber would suck ass.” I agreed with him on the latter point, and wished I could also feel the shock he felt. Because while I have thus far been spared the worst of Big Tech, I am well versed in the possibilities. This is an old, highly probable story. Many in my industry endure everything from steady streams of casual sexism to getting passed over for jobs because of “abrasiveness,” to being doxed.

Tech and start-up culture is as notorious for its workforce skewing white and male as it is for craft beers and the consideration of in-office ping pong as a legitimate part of a benefits package (one might even make the leap to say that the former is the reason for the latter). With the current graduation rate at 20% for female engineers, this leaves the few women who enter the tech industry to experience everything from isolation to objectification in what is ostensibly a nerd-flavored boys’ club.

But what if there was another option? What if women just left?

A group of women explored that concept in Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture. To be honest, I found the title misleading. I expected this collection of essays from women in tech to be a retort to the popular message of leaning in despite the high cost of self. The title suggested an introduction to women of all stripes who decided to leave what had undeniably been revealed as another industry toxic to women.

What seemed to be a more prominent message from the contributing authors was that they were torn. Stuck between the struggle of doing work they love and having to exist in both an environment that regularly questions their merit and an industry that doesn’t particularly want them there (see Gamergate for a particularly heinous example). But, for the most part, they didn’t lean out much at all. Many of them continued to code from the belly of the beast.

They tell their stories: getting unfairly passed over for VC funding, unwanted advances from industry peers, the vilification of those who chose to speak up about predatory sexual behaviors in tech. Each story is coupled with messages of unwavering dedication to their craft, and for many, a turn towards activism based upon their experiences. It seemed that each of these women continued to ask of their field, “How can I make you love me if you don’t?”

Bonnie Raitt-inspired aphorisms aside, tech’s “woman problem” is an issue that has become an unfortunate hallmark of the industry. While inclusion and diversity may be the cry on Silicon Valley’s lips, the reality is much less heartening. Numbers often reveal a hypocrisy between the words and actions of industry leaders.

While the percentage of women pursuing tech degrees at university is still dismally low, it is growing. Katie, a 2016 graduate with a BS in Computer Science, was often the only female in her class. “I definitely felt like I had a chip on my shoulder, like I wanted to be better than all of the boys,” she tells me. Katie is bold. Unafraid to speak up, ask questions and challenge ideas, a combination many women before her have found marked them as troublemakers. That’s a label Katie felt ascribed to her from certain professors, especially when she worked her way into the most sacrosanct arena for the Mountain Dew-fueled male: video-game development.

Katie persisted, despite discouragement from one professor in particular. In fact, she often found herself “using her femininity as a protest.” As if to further make the point that, by the way, you could code in a skirt.

While the majority of tech’s bigwigs remain nestled in their native home of Silicon Valley, there are pockets of tech bubbling up all over the country. Maybe these new tech towns can leave behind the unsavory traits of their founding culture, and instead act as havens for those who don’t fit the white-male mould. Katie found a job as a software engineer in Portland, OR, a city that’s experiencing its own growing pains of tech gentrification.

She is still grossly outnumbered by her male peers (by about a 1:10 ratio), but says that she hasn’t experienced any sort of hostility or office sexism. They treat her with respect. She gets to work without having to navigate her new career under the threat of sexist presuppositions. Coincidentally, she doesn’t feel the need to wear skirts much anymore.

Perhaps as women like Fowler and those that contributed to Lean Out continue to fearlessly share their struggle inside the walls of Big Tech with the public, the positive work culture that Katie and I enjoy will be less anomaly and more standard practice. As the number of female engineering graduates continues to steadily grow, the industry will have no choice but to embrace them. Hopefully, this leads to the death of having to choose between leaning out for the sake of your mental and physical health, or leaning in at the cost of it. Those days will no doubt be laid to rest among the discarded ping-pong tables of a less-inclusive industry.

Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images.

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Kattigans

    This is a great read and echoes exactly how I feel as a women in tech. I’m not a an engineer. I’m an account manager and I work in the gaming industry. The level of sexism my female colleagues and I have experienced is a major problem. One that is sadly shrugged off as expected and as part of the industry. Its also one that is hypocritically brushed under the rug by the same companies, people and teams who advocate for “diversity and inclusion”. Its a sham and one that can’t even be openly talked about.

    My company has two female executives. One is in marketing and the other in HR. One of them told me that they were many times when she considered, “Maybe I just shouldn’t be an executive and should just go do something else”. She told me this because she knows and has experienced, among other things, being the only woman in the room, been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances, and countlessly interrupted by male colleagues. She told me there were days when she would go home and cry. She powered through though because what other choice do you really have? When you want a career and have worked so hard are you really going to let others come in the way of that? It’s a internal conflict that women don’t just face in the workplace. We face it every single day when we head out into the world. It’d be nice to sit at home barred off from sexism, but it can’t be done. And frankly, it needs to stop being a choice women have to make – to choose their careers or their mental sanity when dealing with men and women who keep sexist ideas alive.

    For me, and I think for many women I know, the bigger question that needs to be addressed is not how women can lean in (barf), but why the hell would we want to when this is how w’re treated? And its not just at the top. Its everywhere in every position within this industry and others. It makes me want to leave, but I also can understand being torn between being treated like crap and also loving what you do. And this shouldn’t be something women need to answer for. It also needs to fall on the MEN in these companies to be allies. To advocate when they hear and/or see a female colleague being mistreated. There are plenty of men that I’ve spoken to who know its wrong and it makes them uncomfortable, yet they don’t say or do anything. They aren’t equipped to handle it or they figure “well its not directly affecting me”. And that! That is at the heart of the problem!

  • Stephanie

    I work in tech for a large retailer, and there are benefits to working for an established company i.e. HR department that has established policies surrounding behavior such as this. That said, the issues I face at work are much more subtle than unwelcome sexual advances- it’s stuff like “are you speaking to me this way because I’m a woman or are you just an ass?” It’s tough to tell sometimes. I will give my work credit though in that I was recently promoted and I was 35 weeks pregnant at the time (super pregnant) so in that specific instance I really felt supported as an employee and not penalized for being a woman.

  • Kattigans

    This is an interesting read, but IMO it waters down what its like to be a women in tech and in the workplace. The author sheds light on a lot of my own sentiments, but fortunately for her she’s managed to work in a workplace where she hasn’t been subjected to the treatment that many women (like Susan Fowler) have experienced. Also likening leaving “sexist Silicon Valley” to work in a more “open” place like Portland as a way to escape sexist work environments just sounds ignorant. That doesn’t solve anything. So now we have to up root our lives, seek out “sexist-free” havens just to be able to do our work? How about people and companies start being held accountable for their actions? Rather than women being tasked with yet another way to prevent ourselves from being antagonized. Are the men different in Portland then they are in San Francisco? Have I missed the latest news?

    I work in tech in the gaming industry here in San Francisco. I don’t work in engineering, but instead I work in sales as an account manager. However, trust me when I say the two departments don’t differ a whole lot when it comes to being female. Across the board, the various degrees of sexism my female colleagues (in various departments) and I have experienced is a major problem. One that is sadly shrugged off by many as expected and part of the industry. It’s also a conversation that is hypocritically brushed under the rug by the same companies, people and teams who advocate for “diversity and inclusion”. Their level of awareness and care is a sham. And what’s worse is that it can’t even be openly talked about.

    My company has two female executives. One is in marketing and the other in HR. One of them told me that they were many times when she considered leaving her post as an executive and “just going and doing something else”. She lamented that maybe all the bs she’s had to endure just isn’t worth it. Throughout her career, her like some many other women, have experienced, among other things, being the only woman in the room, been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances, countlessly interrupted by male colleagues and passed up for promotions and projects. She told me there were days when she would go home and cry out of pure frustration wanting to give up. However, she persevered because what other choice do you really have? When you want a career and have worked hard, are you really going to let others come in the way of that? Are you going to let the ‘boys club’ keep you from taking a seat at the table? Even if no one wants you there. It’s a internal conflict that women don’t just face in the workplace. We face it every single day when we head out into the world. It’d be nice to sit at home barred off from sexism, but it’s not going to happen. And frankly, it needs to stop being a choice women have to make – to choose their careers/whatever or to choose their mental sanity when dealing with men and women who use sexism as their weapon of choice.

    For me, and I think for many women I know, the bigger question that needs to be addressed is not how women can lean in (barf), but why the hell would we want to when this is how we’re treated? No seriously, why would we want to sit with the boys when no one wants us here? And is it our fault that its like that or maybe just maybe as I suggested earlier in this rant, its the responsibility of those who perpetuate this behavior and those who say they are meant to prevent it (HR I’m lookin’ at you). We complain about the stats that reveal a lack female CEOS and ask, “how do we get more women empowered to be in business?” But hello! Why would any woman want to do those things when this is what you have to go through to get there? And its not just at the top. Its everywhere in every position within this industry and others. And yea it does make me want to leave, because I’m torn between being treated like crap a lot of the time and also loving what I do. But again, this shouldn’t be something women need to answer for. It also needs to fall on the MEN in these companies to be allies. To advocate when they hear and/or see a female colleague being mistreated. There are plenty of men that I’ve spoken to who know its wrong and it makes them uncomfortable, yet they don’t say or do anything. They aren’t equipped to handle it or they figure “well its not directly affecting me”. More often then not its the latter mindset that these guys have. And that! That is at the heart of these issues! This mindset stands in the way of enacting any real change in people’s behavior. My executive can’t control others. I can’t control others. We can march and we can fight and we can rally. We can try and hold these men accountable, but as long as they have the encouragement of their peers to behave like this and a society that normalizes sexism and misogyny then it will never ever change.

    • Kattigans

      Also, I’m not surprised the topic might be watered down. It’s not a black and white subject. I hate to generalize people in what I wrote. I’ve just worked at enough tech places now and spoken with enough women to know that this is attitude from men of all levels permeates the workplace. It can even come from other women! Misogyny and sexism take many forms – from being overt to also questioning, as another commentator notes, if someone is speaking to you in a particular way because you are a woman. And the bottom line is that men do not deal with this. It doesn’t mean all men are terrible and horrible, but they are not experiencing this first hand. Often they don’t even know what to do about it except say “that sucks”.