I don't want to be That Girl
This is a difficult post for me to write. When I started coding a year and a half ago, I have to admit that I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I knew that software development was a cognitively intensive field, which is what initially drew me to it, but I didn’t know that it would be the community that would make me grow to have a truly vested, emotional interest in increasing diversity in this field.
I’ve been involved with organising codebar for the last year or so. At first, I think I became involved with codebar because I was feeling bored and untethered, just starting out in an entirely new career field. I’m someone who draws energy from being involved in thirty different things at the same time – ask anyone that I went to university with! When I started helping out with codebar, I admit I didn’t really think that diversity in tech was such a huge issue, particularly in London. In my limited experience at the time, I felt that the London tech scene was pretty great. People came from all over Europe thanks to open borders, and I never had the sense that there was a hyper-masculine, “tech bro” culture in the UK. I knew that some of my friends who are women who work in tech in the US had mixed experiences with their first forays into tech, and I was grateful that I wasn’t dealing with overt misogyny and sexism in my work experiences and job-hunting processes.
I was wrong to think that the tech industry in London was somehow unique or insulated from the same underlying attitudes and assumptions that my friends stateside experienced.
From inflammatory emails and tweets directed to the official codebar accounts to awkward questions about “cultural fit” asked during job interviews to off-hand remarks made by colleagues that were gendered in ways that they didn’t realise, I’ve learnt firsthand over my first year working professionally in tech that my outward gender has defined or influenced a LOT of my interactions, and probably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I finally got around to watching “Debugging the Gender Gap”, a documentary about the lack of diversity in tech and what companies and individuals can do about it. A huge thank you to Jo for organising the screening, part of Achieving Diversity in Tech, a new initiative at Ticketmaster UK.
Julie Ann Horvath’s comments in the film really struck a chord with me. I’m not going to comment too much on her specific experiences at Github, but one thing that really resonated with me was that she, like SO MANY other women including myself, initially resisted saying anything about the sexist treatment she was subjected to because she didn’t want to be a whistleblower. She didn’t want to be “that girl”.
I brought this up during the Q&A that followed the film, and it turned out that a lot of women in the audience felt the same way at least once. There have been multiple times when I’ve been in a situation where one or more men made a comment or joke that I didn’t “get”, or would ask me questions that made me an unwilling representative of all women – things that I knew I was either excluded or singled out for on the basis of being female. In almost all circumstances, I felt slightly irked but never annoyed enough to raise a formal complaint or even call somebody out in the moment. After all, I also didn’t want to be “that girl”.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? From what I understand, comments like these qualify as “microaggressions”. Most people probably don’t even realise when they’ve made a gendered comment. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I especially don’t like to alienate people that I know I’ll be working with everyday, so for those two reasons it’s going to take a very, very overt transgression to get me to actually say something direct. On further reflection, I think girls are more likely to think this way, because women are socialised to constantly think about the room that we take up and what we can do to please the people around us better.
I studied economics in university, so every now and again I like to try to analyse problems using rational choice theory. In simplified terms, rational choice models assume that people make choices that promote their self-interest while minimizing self-harm. I think it can help explain why a lot of unintentionally harmful bias happens in the workplace, but nobody – including those experiencing it – is speaking up about it.
In economics, the concept of diminishing marginal costs and returns is used to explain equilibrium behaviours – why supply and demand settle at a a seemingly-arbitrary price point. It also holds true for individual decision-making. These are the diagrams where many economics students start to draw the parallels between macroeconomics and microeconomics. If you are making £100K a year, it’s less painful for you to lose £100 than it is for someone who only makes £25K a year because the marginal cost is different.
In professional environments, political capital is distributed unequally across employees. Some people come in with more (maybe they were friends with the CTO from a previous role) and some people come in with less (maybe they’re an untested junior developer and this is their first role). You can use political capital for lots of things – advocating for communal benefits such as conference budgets or hack days, getting your friend a recommendation to work at your company, or gunning for a promotion or pay rise for yourself. I think it’s a pretty safe assumption to say that both male and female employees would prefer to dedicate most of their political capital towards career advancement whenever possible. A key difference is that most straight-cisgender-male engineers will never have to expend any political capital to push for fair treatment in the workplace or to get their bosses to notice subconscious biases.
Even in an ideal world where a male and female junior-level employee begin with the same amount of political credit, a woman in that position may have to consider the impact to her career advancement odds if she “spends” some of that capital on things like pointing out sexism in the workplace and trying to address it. The marginal cost is higher, so we’re pretty meaningfully deterred from making noise when we don’t think that the gamble will pay off in our favor. Maybe there’s a world in which a woman calls out unfair treatment and everything gets better, but we have too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary – Julie Ann Horvath, Adria Richards, Gamergate, the list goes on and on. Privilege means not having to weigh these calculations.
I’m not really sure where this leaves me. I guess that’s why I was so hesitant to blog about this for such a long time. I think, at the least, it leaves me with a great deal of cognitive dissonance: I want to think that I’m someone who takes action; on the other hand, there are a lot of things preventing me from being outspoken about the whole range of biased treatment, from microaggressions all the way up to overt discrimination. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next, but I think that being honest and candid is a step in the right direction.