My experiences in tech: Once upon an internship

date2013-03-24
3 min read

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…