Some thoughts on “You Got This Because You’re A Girl”
I want to send a huge thank you to Shreya Shankar, a CS student at Stanford, for putting together a really well-written blog post about one of the ways in which being a woman in tech is a strange and sometimes isolating experience. In this article, Shreya talks about the complex feelings associated with being hired into a diversity program. There’s the resentment and blame cast on you by your male peers. The feelings of self-doubt about your qualifications. A little guilt, maybe you aren’t even sure about your level of passion for engineering. The annoying voice that creeps into your head when you introduce yourself as an engineer – the one that says “they are looking at you right now and casting you as the token diversity hire who doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Shreya, I felt all of this and more when I was an engineering student. After my sophomore year in 1994, I applied for an internship at AT&T. It was a diversity program specifically geared toward women and minorities in tech. I spent the summer writing Unix shell scripts to run the system backups, and plugging tapes into drives to test the backup system. AT&T, at the time, ran a really good summer program. We attended lunch talks with speakers who talked about everything from negotiations between men and women to AT&T’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community. We went on outings to theme parks and restaurants to get to know each other better. It was the first time I’d ever worked with such a diverse group of young people and I learned so much beyond the technical skills. My older co-workers said they liked the backup scripts I wrote and would continue to use them. I thought it was a successful summer.
The following year, I applied for, and got, a second internship with Hewlett-Packard. I was over the moon excited, because I’d get to move to Colorado for the internship and HP was going to pay me a moving allowance. HP’s program wasn’t exclusive to women and minorities, but diverse hires were a priority and we all knew it. I was going to write a configuration utility for some test and measurement equipment. It would be a great adventure working for a really cool company and I was stoked.
I ran into one of my friends on campus one spring day before the end of the semester – and I’ll never forget the conversation we had. I asked him about his plans for the summer and he said he would probably be going back home to work for his dad because he didn’t get an internship. I said Oh. He had already heard about my opportunity through mutual friends. He had no cheerful words for me. He pointed out that he had a 4.0 grade point average, and I only had a 3.6 and we were both involved in a lot of activities and then he practically spit out the words when he said “And I don’t have a summer internship and the only reason you have one and I don’t is BECAUSE YOU’RE A GIRL.”
It stung! It stung then and those words stayed with me and they STILL sting. We’ve stayed in touch from time to time and I’ve never brought up that conversation again. He did get a nice job at a big tech company later and has done well for himself, so whatever happened that summer didn’t ruin his life. I assume he was upset and angry and it made him feel better to bring me down a notch. I’m sure he was resentful that a student he perceived as less qualified got an internship he wanted. That awkward moment was terrible and I don’t even remember how I ended the conversation. I knew at that moment he was angry and I just wanted to get away.
And Shreya, and any other women out there who have had those moments, I want to give you some perspective as someone who did end up in a good career as an engineer and somewhat successfully finished that gauntlet. (I did change careers after a decade; I’m now a schoolteacher. I have no regrets about either career.)
- You can really enjoy being an engineer if you work for a good company with a good support system and culture. In my careers at AT&T and Hewlett Packard in the 1990’s, they did a lot of things right. The leadership was committed to making the workplace welcoming for everyone. They held lunch talks and events geared toward bringing out diverse voices and problem-solving together. They created a culture that welcomed different, even opposing, perspectives. They had employee groups that helped you network with other people with the same background. They believed in listening. Watch for this when you apply for, and accept, a job. Ask questions of your interviewer about the company’s support of diversity. If you get a chance to shadow an employee for a day or take an internship, do it and keep your antenna up. Don’t be afraid to change course even after you’ve accepted a job. There’s no reason to work for a company that makes you feel like you’re not respected or heard. There are plenty of good workplaces out there.
- People who seem less qualified on paper get opportunities over “more qualified” people ALL THE TIME. Sometimes it’s because the people interviewing perceive a good fit in something that’s harder to measure. The new hire has a great temperament. The new hire has networked well and has a contact that can vouch for them. The new hire has a skill in an area the company really wants. If this new hire is a white man, nobody will ever complain that they’re less qualified and they only got hired as a token diversity hire. Resentment comes out differently when the new hire is a woman or minority, and it’s an uncomfortable truth. You don’t have to do anything to justify your presence to others who didn’t get the job. You have a great opportunity – just try your best to hold the door open for those who follow you.
- Understand that companies hire for a “good cultural fit” all the time. When you got hired, the company made a decision that your skills and grades were what they were looking for, and your background and perspective is something they value and they wanted you on board. You’re a good cultural fit. You’re going to make that workplace even better by being part of it.
- Seek out mentors who are like you, even if they don’t work in the same company. Talk to them often. It helps if your mentors are in leadership positions – the section manager or vice-president won’t mind one bit if you invite her out to coffee just to talk about how work is going and how you like it, or you want to pick her brain about what it’s like to have a leadership role at a tech company. You might need an advocate later on, so try not to be shy about reaching out to other women. We need each other. I have had some very good mentors who were male as well, but I *needed* my female mentors when I had those moments of insecurity or self doubt. I would not have stayed in tech without them.
- You’re going to be subjected to sexism or racism from time to time. This is a fact of working in an environment in which you stand out as different. It’s going to happen. If you have plenty of good experiences to fall back on, it builds up your resilient core and the negative experiences don’t bother you as much – but they do happen. This is where having female mentors is so helpful. Process it with them. It’ll give you good perspective. You’ll start to know when to stand up firmly for yourself and when to just let it go and pick your battles.
- You’re also going to have experiences in which you just aren’t sure of yourself, in which your co-workers aren’t being explicitly sexist, but since you come from different cultures, neither is sure how to act around the other. Lunches, happy hours, golf outings, video game competitions, going to the gym – or work-related gatherings like a debugging session or breakfast meeting or an impromptu teleconference – you might feel like you’re not welcome, and it’s very likely that you are totally welcome, but the men didn’t think to explicitly invite you because they didn’t realize you felt you needed an invitation. Anytime you stand out as different, you tend to sit back and wait for an invitation. Try not to sit back. Ask “I’d love to attend. Mind if I join you?” Go, make an appearance and use it as an opportunity for everyone to learn.
Lastly, this is an awkward topic to bring up, but I have some pretty good evidence that during my time as an engineer, I was gradually paid less than less-experienced, male coworkers. I only have a couple of pieces of data and a lot of suspicions. But understand a merit-based pay system is not really merit-based. Everybody in your leadership chain has some discretion, and individual discretion is biased in ways we don’t always see. It would be very reasonable to track down more information in whatever way makes sense for the company you’re in. I never rocked the boat, but I look back and know I should have used the guidance of my female mentors to help me navigate the pay system better.
You matter. The career you’re entering is a good one, full of interesting opportunities, cool problems to solve, people who are smart and creative and fun, and a global workforce and customer base that is very diverse and that your skills will impact positively. It has its challenges but it’s very worthwhile. If you enjoy creative problem-solving, you will like engineering even with its issues. It’s a great field. I look back with awe at how I got to be part of technologies that changed the world without even realizing it at the time. Engineers make history!
Reach out to me or other women engineers anytime. We have your back!!