being a woman in tech

Speak up — but don’t talk too much. Light up the room — but don’t overshadow others. Be confident and critical — but not cocky or negative.

New York Times  on Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins

I am proud to be in tech. I was a middle-schooler that would run home to get on the computer and frequently stayed up until 5 a.m. studying website source files. For fun. On dial-up connections! Yet, because of others’ expectations and perceptions, I wouldn’t have imagined that I would have gone to business school and developed a tech-focused background.

I remember being one of two women in my programming classes, and being regarded with surprise (almost shock) when I calmly stated my major in university. “Shouldn’t you be in social work? or communications?” their looks seemed to say. I remember being flatly told by one of my best friends that I would most certainly “fail” in the business world. He stated that I am too shy, too amiable, and not enough of a “type A personality.” Men still “apologize” to me if they think a meeting will be “too geeky/nerdy,” as if I won’t belong, or as if I couldn’t possibly take interest in the things that they do.

I remember receiving “developmental feedback” during my performance reviews – and no matter how outgoing or assertive I had tried to be throughout that quarter, they would tell me I would have to “take more initiative” – this was, of course, only because of perception. As a 5’0″ Asian woman, I had to work three times as hard to garner respect from middle-aged white males. “Why do you always dress in slacks? You should wear pencil skirts, you’d be so much hotter.” Really? My goal in the office should be to serve your hungry lust?

In my first three months I had dozens of meetings with tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors, and the only women I met were scheduling the meetings and bringing drinks to the boardrooms. I started asking myself what year it was in Silicon Valley for women. Had we reached the point where we could wear pantsuits and play golf, or was it still the Mad Men era?

The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up. Why would a woman want to work for Uber, whose chief executive told GQ he calls his company “Boob-er” because his wealth makes him attractive to women?

Who would want to work for Snapchat, whose CEO, five years ago in college, sent emails to his fraternity brothers characterizing female students as “bitches” and “frigid” and “sororisluts”? Why would a woman want to attend industry conferences that feature presenters miming masturbation from the stage, or presenting apps that help users “stare at tits”?

– Why women are leaving tech by Sue Gardner

I work at a tech accelerator now – in arguably one of the most progressive cities – and unfortunately I still receive gender-based comments that should infuriate me. The saddest part of this is that I don’t even notice anymore. It has so firmly become part of the fabric of my career that I just don’t even bother- because if I did let it get to me, I’d have left a long time ago.

But I think part of the reason we’re stuck here is that we’re understanding the problem incorrectly. When I hear people talk about it, they use words like “encourage,” “support” and “nurture.” We advise companies to do a better job of “looking after” or “caring about” their women employees. We categorize the problem as though it were an issue of corporate social responsibility and as if we really believed women aren’t good enough and need coddling or remedial help.

That doesn’t fit my experience. The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled. They have to be, to have pushed through the barriers to get to where they are. Like Charlotte Whitton said, back when she was mayor of Ottawa in the middle of the last century:

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” (And then she added: “Luckily that’s not hard.”)

I’ve learned that I just need to take a deep breath and tough it out. I crack jokes with the execs. I make them laugh. I’m not afraid to cuss. I’m not afraid to walk into a room with my eyes shooting daggers and letting them know that I mean business. I don’t mind speaking loudly to be heard and arguing my point while using better vocabulary. The intimidated middle-schooler inside of me feels a little triumphant when they say, “I can’t imagine that you would call yourself a shy person.”

As a courteous person by training, I still happily offer to get the coffee and schedule meetings- but I’m leading those meetings.

To this day, I still remember what I responded to my friend’s comment that I’d fail in business. I quietly argued that i think in this world, it’s not necessarily all about having a homogenous workforce of “dominating drivers” – diversity of thought and personalities within organizations is what matters.

We still have work to do.

Studies show that when women speak up in negotiations or other meetings, they are often penalized for doing so. And should women get ahead by aping the air of overconfidence and bravado that characterizes the Valley’s most cringe-inducing men?

“I think that in 2015 we can give women better advice than ‘Behave more like men,’ ” said Cate Huston, a software engineer who has worked at Google and IBM.

Instead, Mr. Wadhwa’s response to women who questioned his ideas often reinforced their belief that men don’t like it when women speak up.

“I think there’s value in men talking about this — I absolutely do,” said Melinda Byerley, a marketing consultant who has worked at several tech firms. “But if you’re telling us to be tough, to lean in, to speak up — we’re going to do that.”

New York Times on Vivek Wadhwa’s tone

Added: “Coding like a Girl
(this was originally given as a talk at AlterConf in Oakland. this talk only addresses gender diversity and was given in the context of other talks addressing racism, disability, classism, and many other topics.)”

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  1. Pingback: On being a girl geek, and a new look for the site | Kristan Hoffman

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