Note: If you link this (especially on anything high traffic), please send people to the copy on tumblr. Thanks!
In Once Upon an Internship, I learned early that sometimes being a software engineer means death by 1000 cuts because you don’t have the power to make it stop. Even the tiniest little things add up to something big – sometimes it’s really death by 1000 paper cuts.
The cuts started early. I’m discouraged and humiliated in math classes throughout my school years to the point where I still get anxious doing math in front of others despite being good at it in private. A high school teacher tells me that I shouldn’t go to college for engineering, but instead something nurturing (you know, what women are good for).
My college classes have next to no women in them. A professor makes creepy comments about “geeky girls” during class. One of my few female classmates tells me she’s just doing this to prove her father wrong. Classmates don’t take me seriously until I scream. The first time I learned that you get to be a bitch or you get to be ignored – a choice that would later follow me to the working world. Four years of paper cuts. Four years of pushing myself too hard because I wanted to prove something.
Nearly every technical conference I attend has at least one person with a microphone making a comment along the lines of ”my wife/girlfriend doesn’t understand technology and gives me shit for being interested in it.” It’s clearly intended to be a joke that the audience will identify with, and most of them do because theses conferences are largely straight and male. For those of us who aren’t, it’s a regular signal that we’re not considered, that maybe we don’t belong. The heavy drinking makes some of us feel unsafe. A paper cut for every conference.
At an old job, someone in authority pats me on the head to dismiss an argument I’m making about something at work. As though I was a child – a thing he’d be unlikely to do with a male coworker. Same person makes comments when I wear makeup to work – I feel uncomfortable doing so again. I’m asked to take notes in meetings where I am a technical lead and should be actively participating. Male coworkers make comments about stalking women on facebook and looking at images of booth babes in work meetings (some later apologize). Others say that front-end development isn’t real software engineering. I suspect I’m paid less than male colleagues (perhaps paranoia, perhaps real – it’s a hard thing to verify). Problems are easiest to resolve by finding a new job – this is what I do (thankfully the new job is much better). A thousand paper cuts for the working world.
Every time I try to push to make things better, I am guaranteed a patronizing response from someone. If I had a dollar for every time someone suggested that some demographics just aren’t biologically predisposed to be good at programming (even though research does not support this argument), I’d be rich. On more than one occasion, I’ve had people try to engage me in arguments about the importance of diversity only to later claim they “were playing devil’s advocate” or doing it “for the lulz.” I’ve had people derail diversity discussions to victim blame and try to speak for the minority that they were not a member of. I’ve had people claim minority-only safe spaces are sexist. A paper cut for every time I speak up.
Before someone suggests that these patronizing responses are just jerks on the internet, no, that’s not the case. I get these responses fairly regularly in person. From people I’ve worked with. From people who know me. From prominent members of some tech communities. From people who should know better. The cuts are deeper when they’re real people because you can’t just turn them off.
Cuts I don’t feel safe posting here because they’re too personal or I fear the consequences…
I mention one of the above, and someone tells me that I’m just looking for things to get angry about. As though my feelings are not valid. Maybe they don’t understand that probably wasn’t the only thing that happened that day or that week or that month or the duration of my career. That I can’t detach and view these things in isolation. That no matter how tough I get, how thick my skin, the paper cuts still hurt. I’m not the only one covered in bandaids trying to stanch the bleeding and focus on programming because it’s a thing that I love. I’m terrified of the day that it becomes terminal, the day myself or one of my friends becomes another statistic in the book of “they leave and they don’t come back.”
One of the issues I mentioned in my last post took place at intern lunches that were optional and off-site at local restaurants. Is professional behavior required at social events between colleagues that don’t take place on company property, time, or expense? I went through my list again and noticed that many of my negative experiences happened in this hazy grey area.
For those who only know me now, you may be surprised to hear that I was once very quiet, reserved, and passive. Early in my career, I was just trying to navigate being in the working world and trying to get along. Sometimes this meant going to the bar after work with coworkers to shoot the shit, complain about work, and just generally socialize.
I rarely minded when these evenings at the bar included some sexualized comments – I was mostly amused by the limited and heterocentric knowledge of my coworkers. We weren’t at work, and I can enjoy a good general sexual joke that isn’t at anyone’s expense. The problem is that conversations didn’t always stop there.
On more than one occasion, talk would veer towards sexualizing female coworkers. It was a comment about how hot one of the new employees was or a joke about looking up the intern’s skirt while she changed lightbulbs (apparently she was asking for it by not wearing pants). Rarely (if ever) were these same coworkers discussed for their merits at their job – in fact sometimes they were discussed negatively in these regards.
It was assumed this conversation was ok as long as the mentioned parties weren’t there and that nobody in participation minded (again, nobody can hear us). This brings us back to my prior comment about how meek I was then. In these situations, I felt I had a choice: complain and stop getting invited to the bar, or put up with it and get included in social outings with my coworkers. At the time, I chose the latter. I’m still angry with myself about this, but I’m mostly upset that I was put in a position where I had to make a choice like that. These conversations were another reminder that some people in the software industry see women as sex objects first and engineers second.
Another time, a group of coworkers created an after-work club (basically just a group of people going to the bar) with the sole intention of excluding and mocking another coworker they did not like. The name of their club was a twist on the name of a professional organization for minorities this coworker helped organize and was rightly proud of. This kind of behavior made me feel like I’d been transported back to high school.
Those of us who vocally disagreed with this “club” were argued with for not joining the mob. “But <targeted coworker> is lazy and bad at their job.” “Management won’t fire them.” “Their constant mentions of <minority professional organization> are annoying.” “All the cool kids are doing it.” As if any of these things justify bullying. The lack of reflection from the people doing this, many of which were probably bullied in school themselves, was astounding. The club didn’t last long, but the fact that it existed at all disgusts me to this day.
Is it fair to police every action coworkers take in this hazy grey area outside of work? We could probably go round and round about that all day. It’s legitimately difficult to figure out where one should draw those lines.
The part that worries me about the incidents described above is not that someone said or did something distasteful outside of work hours. We all do that. What I’m worried about is that these actions are indicative of motivations that also likely infect the professional world. Coworkers would later become managers of the employees they sexualized at the bar. Is that a problem? The “cool kids” club created a mob mentality. Is it easy to turn that off when the mob is at work?
My first experience with working in tech was an internship in college. There were good parts to that experience, but it was also rife with problems.
The man who ran the weekly (optional and offsite) intern lunches frequently used it as a platform for his political views, some of which potentially fall into hostile workplace territory. These included diatribes about the immorality of those who use contraception (probably most female interns) and how we should not fund HIV/AIDS research because people with those diseases had earned them with their immoral behavior. I rarely attended the lunches because of this despite them being a good opportunity to network with other interns.
For part of this job, I was placed in a small office with a supervisor and two other interns. This supervisor harassed me about attending church with him on more than one occasion despite a clear “no” from me the first time he asked. I was on the road to atheism at that point, but his comments about the evils of Catholicism still rang inappropriate to me.
This supervisor regularly made homophobic comments (ranging from inappropriate jokes to disgustingly nasty comments) and the other interns often joined in. Most attempts to make this stop (polite comments, trying to wear headphones, etc.) were futile. I wasn’t queer-identified or even a particularly good ally at the time, but these comments still really upset me. I was miserable and started really hating my job. The comments didn’t stop until months later on a day I snapped and was more forceful – saying that they needed to stop. The initial response? “But nobody can hear us.”
Nobody can hear us. Like I was invisible. That my feelings didn’t matter. Words that showed my previous polite pushing back had not even registered. I explained that I could hear their bigoted comments and threatened to go to HR if they did not cease. It stopped, but things were tense for the rest of my internship. Despite doing an excellent job, I was hesitant to ask for recommendations for fear of retribution over this incident.
This is the same job where a very senior engineer I had respected told me it didn’t matter if I was good at something because I was nice to look at. An early reminder that to some I was never going to be seen the same as my male colleagues.
Why didn’t I ever report any of the things happened here? I was an intern and the people creating a hostile workplace were in positions of power over me. I was terrified that reporting them would mean all my work as an intern was for naught. That I’d end up with a black mark as “the woman who cried to HR.” That it would cause problems for me with the university who set up the internship. That it would mean no recommendations when I went to get a real job when I graduated. Even then I recognized that HR is there to protect the company, not me. So I mostly put my head down and dealt with it.
I learned at this job that being a software engineer sometimes means death by 1000 cuts because you don’t have the power to make it stop. That women are seen differently. That homophobia can run rampant. That people will say whatever the hell they want because they think there are no consequences. They’ll assume it’s ok because you must be in on it too. If nobody can hear them, it must be ok…
Instead of writing this afternoon, I just took a long nap. I needed it, but now I’m back to thinking about writing. I’m having a hard time collection my thoughts into words. There’s so much going on in my head right now.
Something I can focus on is the past and my personal experiences. Fallout from these incidents usually includes inquiries about how bad the industry really is. When this question came up about a year ago, I wrote a protected post with a huge bulleted list of my negative experiences in the tech industry. I’ve been meaning ever since to share some of it more publicly.
What is the utility in sharing negative experiences? It’s to show that we’re not just “looking for things to get angry about” – I get this accusation (from both men and women) on occasion. It’s to share solidarity with others who have had similar experiences. It’s to let people know that they’re not alone. And maybe it’s to shock people who didn’t know these things happen into action.
I’ll be adding posts about these experiences. I think it’s easier to break them up than to post one big thing all at once.
I’ll add links to them here as I write:
My experiences in tech: Once upon an internship
My experiences in tech: Adventures outside the workplace
My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts
This has been a bad week for a lot of us. We’re tired. We’re burned out. A lot of us are not ok right now.If you know why, then you’re probably hurting too. Please remember to take care of yourself right now. Self-care should be your first priority.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I guess ignorance is bliss.
I think some of my recovery process around this should be writing. Journalists are asking us for thoughts, but I’m not really interested in being a part of their (largely) broken narratives. I’d rather build my own. I may write some long-form posts or just sprinkle a bunch of stream of consciousness on here. I haven’t decided yet, but stay posted because I’m not staying quiet over this.
Today is at least the fourth or fifth time in the last few months I have felt the need to send a reply to someone associated with a startup in Pittsburgh. I figured that was frequently enough that it was time to write a blog post, so I could start pointing people to that.
Dear Pittsburgh Startup,
I am glad to hear you are looking for developers to help with building product XYZ. I appreciate you reaching out to me/a group I organize/a mailing list I’m on/etc. for help.
Unfortunately, your email did not include useful information to help me determine what you are looking for or what you have to offer to a potential candidate. I was also unable to find this information when looking at your company’s website or searching for information about your company. It would be helpful if you provided the following information: what skill level you are looking for, the technologies you use, the elevator pitch for your business/product, employee benefits, and why someone should want to work for you. If you cannot pay much and are hoping to compensate employees via equity, you especially need to do a good job of explaining your business proposition.
One other note is that I have never heard of you or your company. You might have better luck finding talent if you were more actively involved in the local tech community. Good luck with your search!
The above is a rough approximation of the email I usually send in response to these requests. It is my best attempt to be polite and somewhat helpful. I do have some slightly harsher, but perhaps equally helpful, thoughts on this.
In the current market, businesses are competing over good technical talent. You often need to sell the developers on talking to you, not the other way around. When you send a recruitment email with the bare minimum of information (particularly if you are the CEO, CTO, or some other high-ranking employee at your company), it reflects poorly on both you and your business. Imagine your reaction if you received an email from a prospective employee that read “Give me a job!” instead of a thoughtful explanation of why they would be a valuable addition to your team.
I want the Pittsburgh tech community to thrive. I want to see startups succeed here. When you are just starting out (and arguably even if you aren’t), finding smart and dedicated individuals for your team can be critical. Put a little more effort into it. Try a little harder. I know you have it in you.
Here are my sketchnotes from CodeMash 2013. These are the ones I was happy enough with to share. A lot of the code-heavy talks were not really conducive to sketchnoting.
I wish more conferences had some table space. These definitely don’t come out as well when I’m trying to draw on my downward sloping legs (damn my tiny legs!).
Straight Up Design by Jen Myers
Getting Good: How to Integrate Novice Developers by Elise Worthy & Steve Klabnik
"Users Are Losers." "They'll Like Whatever We Make." and Other Fallacies by Carol Smith
CodeMash Keynote - Geek Leaks by Neal Ford
Note: I strongly recommend watching Lindsey and Steve’s Anti-Oppression 101 talk before reading my post if you’re not familiar with the topic. It will give you a much better background for what I have to say. This is not a 101 post, and I am not going to rehash the content of their talk here.
There was a diversity-focused open space at Codemash this year. It got pretty heated near the end, and I had a lot of feelings about it. I am sharing some of them for many of the same reasons I spoke up at the open space. I care about this topic and not in a theoretical sense. This issue is very real for myself and many others on a daily basis.
The title of the open space was “How can we get people to shut up about diversity?” The intent was essentially “how can we improve diversity to such a degree that we don’t have to talk about it any more” – a laudable, but perhaps overly ambitious goal. A lot of different thoughts and perspectives came up during the lengthy discussion. I am going to focus on those that I think are worth analyzing further.
One of the topics that came up was whether we should have minority-only spaces in the tech community. People who were for them (myself included) were largely on the side of them existing alongside, but not as a replacement for, other spaces. Basically, they serve the purpose of providing a safe space for a group of people with similar backgrounds to discuss their experiences. Those who were against such spaces felt they were exclusionary and voiced concerns that those in the majority would have difficulty learning about the plight of minorities if they were not given access.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a space that serves both the purpose of fostering a safe space for minorities to have discussions and educating the majority about the situation. What followed later in the open space was a prime example of why these safe spaces are still necessary.
A major issue that came up during the discussion was harassment. Harassment can mean a lot of different things to different people – for the sake of this discussion, my rough definition is “unwanted and/or unacceptable interactions that make someone uncomfortable and diminish their enjoyment of an event.”
One of the women in attendance at the open space had the courage to share such an experience that she had at the conference. She mentioned that the experience made her uncomfortable and was upset enough that she considered leaving early. I am not going to speak to the details of her situation out of respect for her privacy and because they are not terribly relevant. What is worth evaluating is the discussion that followed.
The conversation took a turn towards how should we handle harassment at our events. During this discussion, a fairly well-known member of the programming community joined the open space. This person, who had not participated in the first half of the open space, quickly took over and steered the conversation. He stated that if put in a similar situation, he would stand up for himself and tell the harasser to leave him alone. Not only did he state that he would do this, but he also felt this was the responsibility of any person being harassed.
At this point, I felt it was relevant to explain that a white male prominent in the programming community is not being put in the same situation as a woman attending the conference. The privilege and power differentials are completely different, and it is bullshit to act like they are the same. I was then yelled at by another man in attendance for “making assumptions” about the speaker. At the time, I apologized to move things along and avoid derailing the conversation, but I find this deeply problematic. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, pointing out someone’s privilege in a situation is not an insult.
It’s privilege that says it’s the victim’s responsibility to make a harasser go away, and that the situation will turn out well if they try to do so. What may be reasonably easy and safe for one person may not be for another. Women are often socialized differently than men to handle conflict, and the harassment they receive does not always take the same form. If you want to get an idea of what women often deal with, try reading @EverydaySexism. It isn’t exaggeration. This is the daily lived experience for many women. The situation is not the same, and claiming so is misguided in the best of cases and harmful in the worst.
The conversation continued on the track of it being the harassed person’s responsibility to stop harassment. The woman who shared her experience looked increasingly upset as this continued. I don’t blame her. This conversation essentially said it was her fault that the harassment continued. That it was her job to stop it. This is often referred to as victim blaming. It is very problematic in a variety of ways including: upsetting the victim, shifting blame from the actual responsible party (hint: it’s the person doing the harassing), and decreasing the likelihood of someone coming forward to report harassment in the future.
There were also some discussions about the pros and cons of having an anti-harassment policy. Roughly the same people who expected the person being harassed to resolve the situation also stated that these policies will not empower the harassed to stop the situation or report what happened. That is a pretty big assumption, especially considering the type of people most likely to be harassed are largely the ones who have been asking for the policies in the first place.
My frustration here stems from the same place as my frustration with the victim blaming. It was people speculating about the experiences of others and dictating how those people should feel about and handle those experiences. We all do this from time to time. I’m guilty too. However, it is especially troubling when the point of the conversation is to make said people feel more comfortable attending our events.
Barrier to Entry
One of the women in attendance pointed out that putting the onus on victims, particularly women, to handle problems may lead to them not attending conferences in the future. The response to this from some was essentially “good, then they shouldn’t attend.” I suppose that is one way to make people shut up about diversity – just stop including them unless they have the fortitude to actively fight off harassment.
I found it really interesting that the women in the conversation, particularly those speaking up, were largely the strong, outspoken type (I think a few even self-labeled as “assholes”). I include myself in this group. We’re great at calling out bullshit. I love people like that. They are awesome, but not all of us start out that way and other types of people are awesome too.
Many of us had to grow a thick skin to be a part of this community. That unspoken thick-skinned requirement is likely part of the reason minorities don’t attend these events. Studies show issues like this are part of the reason minorities leave tech mid-career and don’t come back. The barrier to entry is too high. If you want to make diversity such a nonissue that we don’t talk about it any more, stop calling for the maintenance of that barrier.
If you want us to shut up about diversity, you have to do more than tell us to shut up about it. You have to do more than tell us it’s our responsibility to handle the situation. A lot of us are already trying really hard. We run groups and teach classes and mentor and encourage new speakers and even sometimes help advertise your events. We’re trying to do all these positive things to improve the situation, but you have to help too. Helping isn’t telling us that our experiences and perspectives are invalid. Helping isn’t shouting us down. Helping isn’t victim blaming. Helping isn’t denying us safe spaces where we can likely avoid being shouted down or victim blamed.
So what can you do? I recommend reading Ashe’s post “So you want to put on a diverse, inclusive conference.” She covers this topic really well. There’s also a bunch of other great posts out there. I recommend reaching out to real live people who fit into the demographics you are interested in. Ask us for help!
One last recommendation: shake things up a little bit and make room for new people (minority or not). Some of the old guard is pushing hard for more of the same. The saying goes that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Want us to shut up about diversity? Try something new.
A lot of the discussions at the open space were good and productive. This post is largely about the second half of the discussion.
Much love to those who were helping fight the good fight in this discussion. Allies are very much a thing we need. <3
I want my tech to be more intersectional. I wish this discussion could have been inclusive of more demographics.
I got upset about the madness surrounding the BritRuby debacle today and decided to channel a few minutes of my anger into answering a question. Should technology be intersectional?
Note: I regularly receive emails (and occasionally in-person interactions) from tech recruiters and am sick of sending polite replies or explaining what I am looking for over and over again. I compiled this list as required reading for recruiters who want to contact me to save some of my time (and potentially theirs – although you could argue this list is pretty long). This is a first draft, and I will continually change this as I think is needed.
So you are looking to fill a position for a programmer/developer/coder/engineer/etc. and you would like to talk to me about it. Like many software engineers, I am already pretty happy at my current job. If you want me to even consider leaving, you need to provide me something above and beyond my current situation.
Below is a breakdown of what I generally like in a job. A job that has roughly 100 points or more would be of interest to me and you should probably contact me. If you have a very low or negative score, please do not contact me. Include your score breakdown when contacting me if you want to get my attention.
- Are you located in the east end of the city? (+20)
- Is the commute from Squirrel Hill to your business 15 minutes or less? (+5)
- If you are more than 15 minutes away, do you have a telecommuting policy that would allow me to work from home at least 50% of the time? (+1)
- If you are outside of Pittsburgh, do you have a good process for handling remote employees? (+1)
- Did you answer “no” to all of the above questions? (-1000 – do not contact me)
- Do you use Ruby on Rails? (+20)
- If you use a different technology stack for web application development, do you have a good justification for doing so? (+1)
- Do you use a Microsoft-related technology for most web application development (e.g. .Net)? (-1000, do not contact me)
- What is your score on the Joel Test? (+ your score)
- Do you use a preprocessor (e.g. SASS) for your CSS? (+1 if you do; -20 if you do not)
- Do your employees get Macs if they want them? (+1 if you do; -20 if you do not)
Tech Community & Professional Development
- Is your company supportive of the local technology community (e.g. donations of money, space, or materials)? (+5)
- Is your company active in the local technology community (e.g. attending, presenting, and/or organizing events)? (+5)
- Do you support your employees doing open source development? (+1 if you do; -10 if you do not)
- Would you be willing to give me dedicated work time to focus on professional and community development (e.g. working on Girl Develop IT Pittsburgh, preparing to speak at conferences, learning about new technologies, practicing my skills on open source development)? (+10 for each dedicated day you would give me on a monthly basis)
- Will you support me attending tech conferences? (+5 for each conference you will pay for in a given year)
- How many hours do your engineers usually work during a normal week? (+10 if <=40; 0 if <= 45; -1 for each hour over 45)
- How much travel is required for the job? (+1 if <= 10%; -5 if <= 20%; -10 if <= 30%; -1000 if > 30%)
- Do you have somewhat flexible work hours? (+5)
- Do you have a diverse development team? (+20 if you do; -10 if you do not)
- Are you taking steps to improve the diversity of your hiring practices? (+1 if you think you are; +30 if you can explain them to me and convince me that you care about diversity)
- How much external customer interaction is required for the job? (+1 if <= 15%; 0 if <= 25%; -10 if <= 50%; -50 if > 50%)
- What is your dress code for engineers? (+1 if usually casual; -50 if anything else)
I am going to assume that you offer competitive pay and benefits for the area. You’re wasting your time talking to me if you do not. You will get a lot of respect from me if you offer me something I will be happy with instead of making me play negotiation games with you.