My experiences in tech: Adventures outside the workplace

date2013-03-24
4 min read

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?