Is wanting a truly kind, inclusive place to work too much to ask for in tech?
April 13, 2019
My company’s office has about 30 software engineers, 4 of whom are women. I’m lucky to have two other women on my team. This is my first full-time engineering job, and I’m so excited to finally be here, but I’m starting to realize just how important work environments are. It’s like, I always knew it was a “thing.” I’ve been reading about tech and women in tech and workplace environments and harassment on Twitter and elsewhere for years now, and of course it makes sense that diverse and inclusive work environments are better. But I guess learning it first-hand just feels… eye-opening and a little uncomfortable.
The interactions I’ve had with the men at this office have been fine so far, but I have heard some of them say things that I don’t love. I know they all (probably) have good intentions (well, don’t they all… 🙄), but they say things that reveal how they view women to me (like saying that knowing the difference between pink and fuschia is “a woman’s thing”, or telling a woman to reply to so-and-so in a work chat “because that’s the woman’s job”, or referring to sugary cocktails as “girly drinks” even after being asked not to assign gender to things).
The office has gone out to happy hours a handful of times. After a recent happy hour, a male coworker messaged a female coworker on the company chat app. He was talking about how he was on his way home, how he wished they got to talk more at the happy hour, and how he wanted her to reply… but he did it in nearly ten separate messages, none of which she replied to. And I know that that’s “mild” compared to what it could have been, but it made both me and my friend SUPER uncomfortable and very upset. He was going home to his family and he had the nerve to repeatedly message her. She never replied, and this morning when he came in to work he apologized. So it seems like he knew he crossed boundaries, but all these annoying and uncomfortable things just seemed to happen so fast.
How do you handle things that happen at work that are upsetting to you? How can I respond to these people to make them think of their words/actions and how they affect me, without seeming like I’m being “too sensitive”?
As someone in their first engineering job, I’m super excited to be starting my career in tech, but I also can’t help but wonder if it’s going to get better, if there are places to work where I can feel truly comfortable around everyone, and if there’s much hope for tech going forward. I know I want to work at other companies eventually, but maybe I have it pretty good here and I shouldn’t leave because it could be much worse. I know there are good people who care about making this industry as kind and inclusive as it can be, but being only six months in and feeling already kind of nervous about a seemingly awesome workplace is making me question how long I can be strong.
— Too Sensitive?
Dear Too Sensitive?,
Oh, I’m sending you so many good thoughts right now. I wish I could snap my fingers or wave a wand and poof, your workplace would be full of wonder and kindness and gentleness. 💖
First things first—no, I do not think you are being too sensitive about your coworkers’ behavior.
Sometimes we pick up on patterns and subtleties before we can fully articulate why they’re upsetting to us—but that doesn’t mean we’re overreacting. When you start to feel a “bad vibe” about someone, try to list out the specific things they do that upset you. If that list seems like a bunch of petty grievances, I encourage you to sit with those feelings for just a moment longer and ask yourself, “Why does that behavior make me so uncomfortable?” It’s possible that you have a serious and reasonable concern with the pattern of interactions even if each individual encounter doesn’t seem all that significant.
It sounds like you’ve already started trying to talk to your coworkers in the moment about things that bother you (like calling cocktails “girly drinks”) but that it’s not necessarily effecting lasting change. If you have a good rapport with them or work closely with them, the next step is to have a more intentional conversation.
I’d recommend saying something like:
Hey, I’ve noticed that you multiple times now, you’ve called parts of our job “women’s work.” It makes me really uncomfortable when you call out things like emotional labor or note-taking as being feminine or imply that it’s something men don’t have to do. The more you say that the more I feel like you don’t respect me as a peer. I hope that’s not true, and I would really appreciate it if you could stop using that kind of language.
You should also check out the archives of the Ask a Manager blog, one of my favorite columns. Alison Green has a lot of really wonderful insight about how to talk to your coworkers that might be helpful here1.
As for the coworker who messaged your friend after the happy hour—that’s creepy behavior and not okay. I’m glad that he apologized after the fact, but it doesn’t mean you or your friend have to trust him moving forward.
I was out with some coworkers shortly after starting a previous job when one of them began receiving similar messages through a work chat app from a well-respected colleague—the kind of messages that ask if you’re available without ever using direct language, that are flirty without being outright. She shut them down and he didn’t bother her again, but I never lost that impression of him as someone untrustworthy, who was fine with pushing boundaries with women. I still have a sour taste in my mouth when I think of him. So it goes.
As for what to do now—I don’t really know. I think the best you can do is to support your friend and avoid that dude moving forwards. If he pushes boundaries again with you directly, you might consider telling your manager that you aren’t comfortable working with him or talking to HR. But I’ve also heard horror stories of going to HR. Ultimately, it depends on the culture and values of your workplace.
Bad shit can happen anywhere but good workplaces have systems and values in place to catch it early and respond quickly and appropriately when it happens.
We all mess up at times—it’s the natural consequence of being steeped in a society that was built on sexism, racism, white supremacy, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and more. What matters is that you’re actively listening to marginalized people, doing the work to avoid harming them in the first place, and sincerely apologizing and changing your behavior when you do wrong by someone.
You are never going to find a workplace where nothing uncomfortable or awkward or upsetting ever happens. But you can find a workplace where people are kind and willing to hear your perspective and genuinely care about making space for you. They might not use the most eloquent language or be able to discuss systematic oppression and the intersection of marginalized identities with you. They might say the wrong things or make the wrong jokes sometimes and not know something you thought was obvious. But if they are willing to listen and learn, you can work with that!
Sometimes you’ll be able to find an entire company that feels safe and welcoming to you—especially if it’s a smaller one. Other times, you’ll find pockets in a larger company, usually teams with an especially wonderful manager that intentionally sets an inclusive tone. They do exist! They are out there! I know because I have found them.
In the course of your career, you’ll probably go through different seasons and have different priorities, and that’s okay. Sometimes you may decide that what you need the most is a team where you feel really safe and welcome, and you’re willing to do work that’s less thrilling to you or commute further to find that space. Other times, you may want to pursue a dream role or a specific company that’s doing fascinating things and are willing to walk into space that feels less comfortable to do that work.
In an ideal world, you’d always find a job that meets every item on your checklist perfectly. But if that’s not a possibility, be aware of what is really important to you right now and acknowledge the trade-offs you’re making. Give yourself the space to change your mind later, and to know that sometimes life happens and it reshuffles your needs under your feet.
You’re only six months in. This is such an exciting time! You have an entire career ahead of you. I hope that career gets to be in tech for as long as you want it to be and that you feel supported in this industry—but this is not the only place where you can do good, and you don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.
Your adventure is just getting started. I hope it’s a grand one, filled with kindness and goodness and brilliance. 🚀
I did a quick search of “sexism” in the archives, and here are a few relevant articles:
- how to speak up when women in your office are called “girls”
- I reported my sexist team to HR — and now they’re doing a much bigger investigation than I wanted
- male coworkers think I won’t return to work after my pregnancy — and won’t shut up about it