Self

I Was (Briefly) A Woman In Tech. It Sucked.

Photo: Alexander Suhorucov | Pexels, Prostock-studio | Canva 
Woman shocked at the tech environment

Fresh out of college, I landed my first job as a tech support. I’d read the horror stories of what it was like to be a woman in tech and I was prepared to do battle. But when I arrived, I found no resistance.

There were women in leadership positions. Women in technological positions. Women driving innovation, change, and experimentation. I mean, sure, all the developers were male, and most of the leadership roles were male. But there were a few women In visible positions of power.

Now I had become one of them. I was a Woman In Tech. I thought I’d made it into the only female-positive technological workspace in existence.

Admittedly, I was in a support role, and I was the only woman out of five tech support employees. But still, there I was, working in tech while female, and not being harassed, beleaguered, mistrusted, mansplained to, or undermined. I began to think that perhaps things had started to get a little better for women in tech.

For the first few months, it was a dream. My opinions were respected. My colleagues believed in me. I was an authority in my field, trusted to solve thorny tech issues and demonstrate to important clients. Then I pulled the curtain back a little too far.

Women in tech should get used to “special treatment.”

At first, I shadowed senior support techs. But after a few months on the job, I’d progressed to the point of creating my support profile. For the first time, when I answered a customer question, customers could see my actual name rather than a generic “Support Team” signature.

And this was the response to the very first ticket I answered under my female name.

“You’re so funny and cute.”

I showed it to the rest of the support team, expecting them to find it as annoying and demeaning as I did. But I was disappointed — they found it laughable — or even an advantage. One told me that customers would go easier on me.

“Plus, your answer was pretty cute,” said one coworker, pointing out a smiley emoji I’d included in my reply. Of course, I’d included smileys in previous “Support Team” responses. Other support team members included smileys in theirs, too, on occasion.

His response? Well then, it was a coincidence. Nothing important.

The message was clear. I should get used to it, it wasn’t serious, and, if anything, I should be grateful for the special treatment.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

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Women in tech can never be friends.

While I worked there, I became good friends with the only other woman in our office area — an intern, but still a Woman In Tech like me. Her name was Hannah.

She had started before me, so she showed me all the ropes — where the tea was, which bathroom to avoid, which men were creepy. It’s no exaggeration to say she was one of my closest friends at work — we chatted all the time, hung out outside of work, and got to know each other well.

The main reaction was shock. I was told independently by several people, that when my hiring was announced, people expected that Hannah and I would hate each other on sight.

People (read: men) thought there could Only Be One Woman In Tech. There was no doubt in their minds that we would be thirsting for the monopoly on male attention.

When we became good friends instead, there was a surprise and not a little disappointment.

“I was so shocked when you both became such good friends.”

Why did they expect us to compete? She was the only other woman in my immediate area; to me, our mutual friendship was a natural response.

Once I’d been there long enough and our friendship was accepted as real, I then got to field a whole new series of rude and invasive reactions. I was asked if our periods had synched up yet. One memorable fellow wanted to know if we’d seen each other naked.

I laughed it off (because that was the only response that was available to me). But I felt excluded.

Women in tech only are successful "because they put out."

As I got more situated in the company, the rumors about the other women in the company began to hit my ears.

They were scandalous, contradictory, and hypocritical. The men around me gossiped constantly about how one of our managers was an ice queen, a lesbian who hated men. In the same breath, they revealed to me that she had slept with another manager, causing him to break up with his wife, with whom he had two children.

One of the women was allegedly drunk all the time, which was the only possible explanation for her messy hair and unkempt clothing. The other woman was a gossip queen, good only for keeping up with the best rumors around town. But you couldn’t joke around with her, because she was stuck up and frigid.

I tried to understand why these women were being targeted like this. At first, I believed they’d done something to deserve it. I searched for some kind of meaning in the patterns that were emerging, desperate that it be anything other than the incredibly apparent truth:

They were simply women in tech. This was their lot. There was no escape.

I began to wonder what rumors circulated in the office about Hannah and me.   

   

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Women in tech can’t be successful on their own.

To buff up my skills, I took a short stint in Product Testing to better understand the product we were selling. It meant I worked away from my usual desk, with other testers and developers. I was excited. I was good at it. I had an eye for spotting small issues that flew under the radar of the testers looking for big mistakes.

I was unafraid to ask for help, and I was openly grateful when I received it.

“They only help you because you’re a girl.”

Another recent addition to the support team also did some time in Product Testing. He was sullen, argumentative, and uncommunicative. It came as no surprise to me that people on the testing team liked me more. But it surprised others.

I started hearing comments about how I’d flirted with the men to get them to like me. I saw imitations of how I allegedly fluttered my eyelashes and waved my fingers. I heard jokes about how I’d probably sleep with them if that’s what it took to get them to like me.

When I asked Tim, one of my closest male friends on the team, why this was being said, his theory was that I probably was putting on a flirtatious act and that I should avoid getting defensive about it. “Just laugh and let it slide,” he advised me. “It’ll blow over eventually when you come back to the support team.”

To them, it was inconceivable that my positive attitude, talent, or even tendency to talk to people instead of grunting at them could explain why I was more successful in this tiny role change.

Tech was a toxic environment for me. I got out.

My mecca, the feminist oasis that allowed me to be a Woman In Tech, was a thinly veiled cesspit of misogyny.

But what was more horrifying was that I didn’t immediately start looking for a way out. Instead, I started looking for a way to fit in. For so long I believed that I could be the exception. I could be a 'cool' girl. If only I drank more beer at happy hour, laughed at the sexist jokes, and let rude comments blow over, then I could have a great job and be accepted and respected by the men at my company.

I wish I’d stood up more for the other women. I wish they’d stood up more for me. We were struggling in isolation, each believing that the only way we’d be accepted was alone.

Our talent was overlooked, our ideas mocked, our lives made gossip fodder. Our concerns were ignored, minimized, and pushed under the carpet. The serious accusations that harmed our careers and standing within the company were treated like jokes.

But I didn’t see it like that.

At that point, my head was still deeply underwater. I couldn’t — didn’t want to — believe that a tech company with such progressive attitudes and women in leadership roles could be as misogynistic as I felt it was.

Instead, I felt like it had to be me. I must be making a big deal about small things. I was being oversensitive.

So when I was suddenly and surprisingly made redundant and laid off along with 20% of the company, I was devastated.

I’d finally started to fit in. I’d started making the raunchy jokes, drinking lager, gossiping, and laughing it off when someone suggested Hannah and I make out while on a night out.

I felt like I was on the cusp of becoming accepted for myself when I was actually on the cusp of completely giving up and giving in. Getting kicked out of the Boys Club was the best thing that happened to me — not that I saw it like that.

   

   

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Distance helped me see my worklace it for what it was.

Looking back, outright discrimination was appalling. But worse was that I had stopped seeing it. In my drive to become accepted, I’d begun to overlook it. I’d started competing with the women, thinking I could only be liked if I was "one of the boys."

When I started telling my friends about getting laid off, people tried to commiserate with me, saying it was all for the best, and that I was lucky to be out of it. At first, I resisted. I felt like I hadn’t been good enough for the company, that they’d gotten rid of me because I was expendable and low-quality. I’d never be one of the men in charge.

But then I started remembering how I’d protested at first. I remembered how weird it’d seemed, that they tried to pit Hannah and me against each other. How the gossip mill only seemed to affect women. How I was patronized, belittled, demeaned. And I remembered that it’s not oversensitive to stand up for yourself in meetings, to demand to be taken seriously.

I’ve worked in a few other companies, and of course, I’ve worked for myself for a long time too, now. Nowhere has been perfect. At almost every company where I’ve had a job, or freelanced, some moments ring alarm bells.

But I’m better at recognizing it. I can try to make these places better, for myself and for the other women who work there. I’ve seen it be far worse, after all, and that gives me the strength to speak up now.

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Zulie Rane is a writer, YouTuber, and cat mom. She's been published in YourTango, Business Insider, Medium, and Popsugar among others.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.