Life and Times of a Tech Feminist Killjoy: The Cuts Leave Scars


In my last post, I talked briefly about how healing isn't quite as simple as people might think. I want to elaborate on that. If you are new to the series, I recommend starting at the beginning.

Even the tiniest little things add up to something big --- sometimes it’s really death by 1000 paper cuts. [...] That no matter how tough I get, how thick my skin, the paper cuts still hurt.
-- from My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts

The paper cuts metaphor is less apt when it comes to healing. Paper cuts, while painful, are usually thin and shallow. They are unlikely to leave scars. The same cannot be said for the injuries that accumulate while working in the tech industry.

Over time, the accumulated trauma does real and often long-lasting damage. The thousands of cuts make you more sensitive than you want to be. Even when healed, they leave you covered in scar tissue. The thicker skin you were obligated to grow becomes a painful callus. You become the working wounded, staggering through your career.

You hope you can push yourself hard enough to still keep up. You try to forget that you already had to work harder to get the same respect. You eventually realize this isn't sustainable. Working harder gives you less time to rest. Less time to rest slows recovery. Slower recovery means continuing to push yourself to keep up. It becomes a Sisyphean task.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece that provides a different, perhaps better, metaphor --- the distributed denial of service attack (DDoS).

DDoS attacks are abuse of computer systems until they slow down, stop working, and often eventually fail. Abuse of human beings has a similar impact. People dealing with abuse stop being their best, stop working, and eventually fail.
-- from Abuse as DDoS

This helps explain why healing is so difficult. You don't have time to recover from the first cut before the second follows...and then the third and the fourth and so on. It starts with microaggressions (the paper cuts), but it often doesn't end there. Eventually, you stop needing metaphors because it becomes clear that the situation is physically and psychologically harmful.

The damage doesn't even have to be a direct hit to do harm. It could be directed at people you care about or respect. Sometimes it's enough for it to happen to people who are similar to you. Next time it could be you.

These abuses don’t just harm their immediate targets. It’s terrifying to see people like you being targeted. That maybe you could be next. That you can’t predict how bad it will get. The possibility [...] becomes a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. Someone could cut the thread at any moment.
-- from Abuse as DDoS

The scars are a daily reminder of places, people, and situations that may no longer be safe. As a result, many of us withdraw because of anxiety about safety and the potential for harm. We have to weigh the risks and emotional cost of things that are easy for others. Things they take for granted. Our worlds become smaller and smaller.

After years of pushing yourself and being stretched too thin, you lose the flexibility you once had to bounce back. You snap more easily. The paper cuts are harder to brush off. You are likely to be punished for this. You will be seen simultaneously as too sensitive and too harsh. You are "too easily offended" while also being "too abrasive." You become the tech feminist killjoy even when you don't want to be. Even when all you are trying to do is take care of yourself and make it through the day.

I wish I could say I am the only one who feels this way. That I am being melodramatic with all of the metaphors and references to Greek mythology. Sadly, I am not. This story is common, but not commonly talked about. Tech isn't a place where vulnerability is rewarded, and to talk about this is to make yourself a target. There are no great efforts to fix the culture that causes this. They're too busy pushing the next round of young people into the pipeline. It makes me wonder if they've already written us off as a lost cause.

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."
-- from My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts