Sexism in tech is something I am asked about somewhat frequently, because I am a woman, and because I used to be a programmer in Silicon Valley.
Part of me just doesn’t want to engage with people on this topic because I find it painful to remember. About 9 months ago, I quit my job as one of the first engineers at an early stage start up, and began taking classes to become a massage therapist. One of the things I loved about taking massage classes was interacting with my teachers. My teachers were often women over the age of 40, and they were kind, and loving, and funny, and witty, and were people who just generally seemed to be enjoying their lives. Not only that, however, but there was a respect that both male and female students had for the teachers. I heard male students gush about their one on one time withe a female teacher, and how much they learned. It would not have been embarrassing for them to say something like, “I would really like to be like Julie when I become a massage therapist.”
I think it’s that essence, that essence of men being willing to emulate female role models – or rather, lack of it – that I found very difficult in tech. Being an intern is easy, because usually men are very kind and would like to increase the number of women at their company, and will happily teach women whatever they know. Being an equal on a team I found more difficult, and being a team lead I found the most difficult. The biggest obstacle I faced, I believe, was that many people were more interested in impressing me than learning from me. That’s why I was so moved to see men being willing to learn from their female teachers when I took massage. I realized this is not something about men and women, this is not something about human nature, this is something about tech.
When writing this post, I burst into tears, remembering what it was like to work in tech. I felt like there were a thousand challenges I had to face alone, that no one else could see. I was usually the only woman where I worked, and I felt so isolated. More than anything else, what I found myself really wanting was for someone to say “I see how difficult it is, and you’re doing a great job. Just keep going.” For instance, once I was accused of being emotionally attached to my code (in front of a client, might I add) – an accusation I didn’t believe anyone would levy at a man.
“Well, were you emotionally attached to your code?” a friend of mine asked when repeating the story. And the truth is, maybe I was, but, nearly everyone is emotionally attached to their code (recognizing this is the first step to behaving rationally about it.) The thing is, even if I was particularly attached, and even if that *was* a comment that was just as likely to be said to a man, I didn’t *believe* it. I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female, and I felt resentful about this . And, I had no one to talk to – I thought people would just judge me for not being rational. What I wanted, deep in my heart, was for someone to say, “Yes, I see this is difficult for you – I see hearing that comment was hard for you because you are worried about the sexist implications, and it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.” I don’t mind taking on a difficult task, I just minded having to do it alone and unseen.
I wrote love in the title of this post, intending to somehow circle back and discuss the role love plays in all this, but the anger I still feel about my time in tech is getting in my way. I mean, I suppose that’s the ultimate problem with the whole thing – there is so much anger it impedes movement. Thing is, I think women are unlikely to get empathy for men on their situation if they’re unable to see the forces that are leading men to the behavior they exhibit.
Life is very hard for men in tech as well, a point which I have grown to appreciate over the years. Many of them are single, many of them work 70 hour weeks for years and survive with minimal love and compassion and kindness. They are also unseen. There are not many people, and especially very few women, who can truly appreciate their technical accomplishments. I have watched my coworkers slave away for days on a project, to have someone in the marketing department say “oh, it’s like magic!” when they’re done. It’s not magic. It’s blood, and sweat, and lack of sleep. It’s time, and devotion, a little chunk of their soul, and a very particular kind of love. Our entire modern economy is resting on the toil of these unsung workers, and all flattering lip service doesn’t disguise the fact that most people don’t *get* it.
I’ve struggled with this for over a decade now, coming to terms with the humanity of those I believe oppress me. I can see why they do what they do. I can see that men are sometimes so desperate to be appreciated by me, they try to impress me and this blocks them from learning from me because they will find my criticism very painful. If this happens too many times, I feel angry, because these men “refusing” to learn from me are making it harder for me to improve in my career. So, I begin resenting the people I’m supposed to be teaching – but they feel it, and become even more desperate to impress me, and are able to hear me less. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – broken by love. When I can make it clear that I care about the people I work with, that I will still care about them if they make a mistake, that I will not think they are stupid for trying something that doesn’t work – that’s when these walls start coming down. But, truthfully, I find it very hard to do when I’m so full of pain myself.