Better, Stronger, Faster, and Still a Failure - My Life in the Tech Industry as a Woman

To survive in our field, women today are taught to be tougher, develop better coping skills, and ultimately, learn to just deal with “situations” and move on. I’m still learning how to be this perfect version of a woman in the tech industry; ignoring the assholes, not reacting to the misogynistic and entitled behavior of my peers and superiors, while still managing to learn and advance without any detriment to my career. In the end, that’s what all of this comes down to isn’t it? Don’t react - don’t respond - just take what you’re given, be happy, and hope that you’re allowed to advance and be taken seriously.

This piece is not meant to be a call to war for women (well, maybe a little bit) but it’s meant instead to provide some perspective. It’s meant to tell the story of someone who, over the course of 20 years, recognized how broken the tech culture is and how this impacts not just our careers and opportunities, but how it twists our ability to appropriately respond, to our own detriment.

I'm still learning, and while I can do better, I can at least tell you what not to do.

Telnet and Penises, a Match Made in Hell

Almost 20 years ago, I was working on porting Kerberos to SSH. I did this at the now defunct Verio. We were still using ‘telnet’ for administrative functions. It was going against every fiber of who I was so I spent almost a year working with a tiger team to internally port the work. While they were fine with me testing it, working on it, and contributing code to the project, my leader wouldn’t deploy it. This is after months of everything I was doing being torn a part and having to prove my testing results beyond a shadow of a doubt. It wasn’t until a year later, after a security event, that they deployed my release. My then boss was the one who deployed it under his name; my name was never mentioned on or in relation to the release. While it was frustrating to feel ownership and accomplishment being stripped away, I was quietly thankful I no longer had to telnet to another server.

Throughout this period of time, my boss began exposing himself to me and multiple other women. Push back on my code, fine, but I didn’t come to work to see you naked. I reported him that first time and the company retaliated the very next day. I was written up for being 20 minutes late to my salary position job. I called my mother, crying, to tell her that I had been written up and told her everything that had happened. My mother’s sage advice was to just shut up and do my job. They weren’t paying me to make friends or have a party and I wasn’t there to care about who likes me or who is being mean. Given the generational difference I can appreciate her point of view. She was a working single mom from the age of Mad Men; a world where women should just be quiet and be thankful they have a job. 20 years ago, not only was the tech industry newer but so was having so many women in it. Her perspective is that I should be happy just to play a part and I took this advice to heart, to my long-term detriment.

My manager at Verio exposed himself to me for three more years. I raised it to HR twice during that time but since I was unable to produce evidence, they refused to take action. None of the other women he exposed himself to were willing to corroborate my story with HR, as they were concerned with retaliation themselves. After three years of harassment and my departure, one of the women couldn’t take it anymore and (omg) came forward with photographic evidence of his exposure. This then empowered the other women to come forward, finally resulting in his firing.

During this time, not only did I deal with my manager’s sexual harassment, but also the continued push back on my work. I had grown tired of constantly having to prove myself only to have my work either ripped apart or ripped from me, with the recognition going to my male peers or managers. I was tired of doing the same or better work than my peers and yet feeling like basic respect was a foreign concept that didn’t apply to me. My response to all of this was avoidance. I became a technical project manager, a job that did nothing to advance my software and UNIX engineering skills that I strongly wanted to grow. It was a job I knew I could easily do - I would get to keep my salary and would no longer get sexually harassed, disrespected, and questioned at every turn.

I had a chance to move to Virginia to work and I took it immediately. I expected that I would be able to enjoy my day again, even if it meant I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I was wrong, but let’s move on.

You’re the Impostor? No, I’m the Impostor!

It would take me 50 blog posts to cover my career of dealing with male dominance and harassment. My response, learned through those first experiences 20 years ago and cultivated through an industry-wide culture of acceptance and dismissal, was always the same. Shut up and do your work. Deal with it, or change; after all, they let you show up.

I struggled with Impostor Syndrome constantly which stopped me from developing and working with computers all together. It became too exhausting to keep up technically while fighting constant harassment and belittling. I found myself trying to keep my passion for technology under control; when no one takes you seriously or they steal what innovative work you are able to accomplish, there’s only so much you can take. When you are made to feel like you aren’t good enough, smart enough, or are incapable, battling depression is often the result. There were no other women on my team for support which remains mostly true today, unfortunately. In our industry, struggling with these issues often means struggling alone.

Ultimately, I never recognized that my response to these situations was actually hurting me. Teaching yourself to control your passion in life (i.e. technology) just to make it through the day without crying in frustration or wanting to break something is pretty messed up. I taught myself many coping skills; I was a professional at acting dumb to disarm men. If I acted like I simply didn’t understand something, I didn’t have to argue with them about who was right. In the event that I was the one who was wrong, the hell that is mansplaining is a sour pill I wouldn’t have to take if I just pretended I didn’t understand the issue to begin with. Taking blame is another coping skill I developed well; for use particularly during decision making time. What an amazing way to get a group to move forward; I take the blame and add a dash of self-defeating words and BAM - winning! Except, I couldn’t figure out why I was never getting recognized for my hard work or why I wasn’t respected. hmm. On a much bigger scale, it wasn’t just others limiting my career growth, it was me. I had stopped pushing myself as an engineer and focused more on leadership. I’d begun to believe that I was lesser than or that I wouldn’t be given certain opportunities so there was no point in fighting for them. I was becoming my own limiter.

I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore

In recent years, I have again struggled with a leader who undermined my leadership and questioned my every move. He was a bully. Now there won’t be any sensational explosive story here; at the end of the day, this person was one of the best and worst people I have ever worked with. The point is, this person wasn’t going anywhere and, unfortunately, neither was his onslaught of micro-aggressions. After going into that space again of “What am I even doing here with these people, I don’t belong here” self-doubt parade, I decided I wasn’t going to just deal with it anymore. I changed direction and went into another role. Sound familiar? The only thing that ended up happening was me sinking into depression and a deep sea of self-doubt. To save us paragraphs of details, I came out of it.

Once again, I would have to face the same type of aggression from this leader but this time something amazing happened - I was supported. Upper management apologized and told me that it was going to be addressed. Oh Sunny Day! I was so happy. I thanked them for taking action. I felt empowered, I felt…compelled to push and innovate again. I felt…safe. Safety enables people to accelerate productivity and creativity. I was ready. I felt awake and energized to contribute. I no longer felt like I was just in a corner, but that I could “lean in”. I never got an apology from this leader, but that was ok because I had support…until it happened again.

There was a change in upper management and, for whatever reason, they decided that supporting me wasn’t the winning ticket. Rather than resolving the aggressive behavior of my leader, I was told this person was just “having a bad day” and that people can have those. Was I even aware what he was building? I just lost it. I spoke up and said “NO. I will NEVER accept aptitude over attitude. Never.” Whether I had a job lined up or not, was I going to tolerate this? I was already not providing impact and losing passion; further more, I deserved better. So I quit.

A Culture of Aptitude over Attitude

In a sea of engineers and innovators, really good ones are few and far between. Tech companies have developed their own coping mechanisms to deal with this situation - buy the aptitude and hope that you can coach that person into a better attitude. Think about what a company is telling its people by doing this. They may as well say “we don’t value our people, we value our products.”

In trying to voice my concern regarding the aggressive leader mentioned earlier, I got the same responses that I’ve been hearing for 20 years. Let’s list them out and see if they sound familiar to you.

  1. “I talked with his reports, they love working for him” (or, “no one else has complained”)
  2. “The common denominator is you”
  3. “He’s under a lot of stress” (and these are the amazing reasons why)
  4. “Well lets find some work for you where you don’t have to talk to him”

Own Your Response - Don’t be Afraid to be Amazing

Susan Fowler’s blog post about being a Female Engineer at Uber changed me. It stirred up so much; I finally felt like it truly wasn’t just me living with this behavior. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I cried. I felt so much compassion for her and for myself. It shook me to my core. Her story is not mine and it’s not any more or less than my own. What it did do was take me out of this downward spiral of self-doubt and Impostor Syndrome and empower me to only accept the best behavior from people and companies. Aptitude over attitude my ass!

Susan Fowler got a similar response from Uber’s HR department that many of us have received; “its not us its you.” We as women have to start writing about this. We have to write about what we are experiencing and make these issues public. We have to continue to push back against this culture of “just accept it.” Taking the risk of telling your story helps grow awareness of the work that still needs to be done. It also helps others know that they aren’t alone, that this isn’t acceptable behavior, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to let others or ourselves, through our responses, impact our career growth and passion for the field.

Engineering Safety is a passion of mine. It is only recently that I truly understand why it’s my passion. Engineering Safety involves preventing and/or breaking a cycle of mistrust. Removing the negative assumptions and self protective behavior that managers use to block an employee is critical. When we observe aggressive and often confusing behavior, we typically find it starts in fear based cultures. Cycles of mistrust start from poor communication, negative assumptions, low safety, and lack of shared understanding. I have spent so much time ensuring teams understand Engineering Safety, Excellence and Culture. But it was from the perspective of how it is for someone else or the team. Never for myself. So my commitment to myself is:

  1. Never tolerate, mask, or own someone else’s shitty behavior.
  2. Never settle; a company with a culture that promotes aptitude over attitude is not where my story will be written.
  3. Do what you love and don’t be afraid to fail. Only I can choose my response to the failure.
  4. Whatever creative work you do, own it. Don’t let anyone else.

— Jennifer Basalone