I’ve been debating whether or not I should publish this post for a while now. Maybe it’s naive of me to hope that writing about sexual harassment on the internet can ever not be a losing game, one that may or may not end in death threats, rape threats, and being doxxed. I’d like to think that the space I’ve carved out on the internet for myself, on my own blog, is safe enough. It probably isn’t, but this isn’t an indictment against all men or against the entire tech industry, and I don’t want to carry this story with me anymore. So here goes.
In technical interviews, I tell people that I dropped out of Computer Science as a double major in college because I couldn’t finish a second degree before my financial aid ran out, which is true.
But only mostly true. If I’d really, really wanted to continue studying CS, I could’ve ponied up for summer classes and doubled up on requirements during the school year and only been short one semester of Pell Grants.
But I didn’t want to badly enough.
Putting together this post, which was originally titled “Shit Men in Tech Have Said to Me,” made me remember all over again some of the other reasons why I dropped out of Computer Science.
Yes, it was hard, and yes, I cared too much about how my grades compared to my classmates’, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can now say without fear of appearing oversensitive that it was also just a really hostile learning environment.
Usually, when confronted with something interesting that I’m not immediately good at, my response is to try harder, because it’s fun to get better at something when it’s interesting. When I went through a coding bootcamp a few years ago, it was both unbelievably stressful and one of the most fun things I’d done in years, because I like learning.
But when I was trying to study CS in college, my response was basically to collapse inward, to blame myself for being too stupid to learn the material, too emotional to handle being in the 55th percentile instead of the 95th, too much of a girl to survive the weeder courses without needing special assistance.
At the time, everything that happened just felt normal. The behavior of the boys and men around me was something I was supposed to expect, and tolerate, and rise above, and maybe even laugh at agreeably, if I was cool enough. I always felt like there was an unspoken contract that once I’d proven myself to be good enough, I would be respected, would be seen as a brain to be reckoned with, instead of just a female body.
Writing this down now, pulling these quotes from my diary, telling the stories of these tiny moments to people I work with and respect and who respect me – I am so, so angry for my younger self.
And I feel ashamed.
I did myself a disservice by pretending that the casual sexism I encountered didn’t affect me. It did. It’s fucked up that I was expected to put up with it at all, let alone on top of trying to get grades good enough to keep my merit scholarship.
Of course it started much earlier than college, the subconscious awareness that I was an outsider in the field, the knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to be good at math or interested in computers. But it wasn’t until college that I think it really broke me.
These days the overt advances happen a lot less often. I suppose the biggest part of it is because my coworkers aren’t single and neither am I. Part of it might be because when I go to work I deliberately make myself look less conventionally attractive than I would prefer, out of habit from navigating male-dominated spaces for too long. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve opted to work at companies where nobody creeped me out during my interviews, and I had no such luxury or foresight when choosing professors and classmates in college.
Maybe I’m just not cut out for a career in tech because I don’t love it. But would I have loved it if I hadn’t been hit on and groped and followed home and discredited by my peers and by people in charge of my grades, if I hadn’t learned to routinely ignore my discomfort for the sake of not having my membership to this old boys’ club revoked, if I hadn’t felt like I had to prove myself to a room full of young men who treated me like some precious, sexy anomaly?
My first distinct memory of being sexually harassed is from my freshman year of high school. During PE, a boy named Chris grabbed my boob with his baseball-mitted hand and said, “Look, I have a boob catcher!”
I screamed at him on the football field, where we were playing wiffle ball for some reason probably related to budget cuts. He was taken aback. My friend at the time told me she didn’t see what the big deal was, and that I didn’t need to tell the teacher. Chris said he was just joking. I was so angry my hands were shaking.
This has nothing to do with working in tech. This has everything to do with working in tech.
I came into tech expecting to be treated just like this.
I came into tech anyway because my family needed the money, and I had always loved writing code.
I remember lying on the floor of my moldy college apartment, crying because I had scored only slightly above average on my computer science midterm. My best friend at the time had encouraged me to go into programming for the money if nothing else. After all, he said, even if I wasn’t very good at it, it would be easy for me to find a job – I was a girl.
I wasn’t good enough. I missed questions on tests, I sometimes had trouble understanding the material, I needed to (god forbid) ask for help on projects. I had no idea how many other students went through their courses like I did, perfectly average. Perfectly adequate.
I just knew that I couldn’t have been good enough, and it was a waste of my time and everyone else’s, because how could I be good enough if my professor didn’t think anything was wrong when he saw a CS grad student sitting with me on the quad sliding his hand up my thigh while I kept asking for the time and talking loudly about castrating bulls? Surely, if I were a good enough student, he would’ve thought I was worth saving, would have assumed that I was not That Kind of Girl™.
If I had been good enough, my TA wouldn’t have given me a higher grade than I deserved because he had a crush on me; I would have earned it. And if I’d been good enough, my grader/instructor wouldn’t have had the gall to keep following me home after our mandatory study sessions and asking me to have dinner with him; he would have respected me as a fellow scholar and striven to keep our working relationship in ethical territory.
I wasn’t good enough. I’m still not good enough.
(If I were good enough, my tech lead wouldn’t write out every single git command to execute under the assumption that I don’t know how to git cherry-pick, even though I’ve corrected his use of git rebase multiple times.)
But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point is that I feel guilty for not loving coding enough to be able to see past behavior like this. I feel guilty for being angry about it.
But you know what? I should be angry about it. Look at this shit:
Shit Men in Tech Have Said to Me
WHITE MALE CTO: You don’t wear much makeup, do you, Sam? Not like [female coworker] does. She wears a lot of makeup.
WHITE MALE CTO: I highly recommend speaking at a conference. Being a speaker is like being the pretty girl at a party. People actually want to talk to you… they have interesting things to say…
APPROXIMATELY 20 MEN ON THE ENGINEERING TEAM: (silence, nodding)
EXACTLY 1 WOMAN ON THE ENGINEERING TEAM AKA ME: (silence, on account of being blacked out from rage)
WHITE MALE COWORKER: Hey Sam! Can you please vote on my poll? (messages me a screenshot of a poll he created featuring a grainy zoomed in image of me at my desk that he took from the opposite end of the office)
WHITE MALE INTERVIEWER: They didn’t get you a laptop? Let me get you a laptop.
ME: (standing at a whiteboard) Oh, I’m fine with the whiteboard.
WHITE MALE INTERVIEWER: Let me get you a laptop. Women get intimidated at the whiteboard.
WHITE MALE PROFESSOR: …my mistress, Java. A temptress!
ASIAN MALE COWORKER: Look at Sam with her hair all fancy today.
ME: (with my hair in what Buzzfeed calls a “ballsack bun”) literally what r u talking about
ASIAN MALE T.A.: You don’t party?! You look like you party.
ASIAN MALE T.A.: You look really good today. By the way. Sam.
ME: (turns in math homework two hours before the deadline)
MULTIPLE ASIAN MALE CLASSMATES: You finished the homework already? You finished the homework already?!
ME: Yeah, for some reason I found this week’s homework easier than usual, maybe because it was word problems.
MULTIPLE ASIAN MALE CLASSMATES: Who helped you?
ME: No one!
MULTIPLE ASIAN MALE CLASSMATES: Who helped you?
ME: No one?!
MULTIPLE ASIAN MALE CLASSMATES: Okay, but someone did help you, right?
ASIAN MALE T.A.: (walking next to me as I head to my apartment, despite the fact that he commutes to campus and the BART station is in the opposite direction, for the third time in three weeks) Want to get dinner?
ME: Isn’t it inappropriate that he keeps asking me if I want to get dinner and walking with me toward my apartment even though he takes BART which is in the opposite direction?
ASIAN MALE T.A.: Okay, but he didn’t actually do anything right? You don’t want to get him in trouble, do you?
ME: Can’t you just switch me to a different section?
ASIAN MALE T.A.: There has to be a good reason for it, or else you’ll get him in trouble.
ASIAN MALE T.A.: (as a compliment) You’re such a girl.
ASIAN MALE T.A., WHO WILL TELL ME EIGHT MONTHS LATER THAT HE SPENT THE ENTIRE SEMESTER HARBORING A CRUSH ON ME WHEN I WAS HIS STUDENT: Did you check your final grade yet?
ME: I did… It seems like it’s higher than it should be considering I didn’t do that well on the final…?
ASIAN MALE T.A.: Yeah. Do you like it?
This feels genuinely pathetic to write, but I didn’t fully realize until writing this post that maybe, just maybe – there was a version of myself who was supposed to continue to love coding, who would have taken the fascination and awe I felt the first time I worked through the SICP textbook and run with it, who would have become a happy and successful software engineer getting paid to do something I loved as a child – but my experiences with studying computer science in college were so GODAWFUL that it’s forever put me off something I WAS SUPPOSED TO LOVE.
When I told my partner, a white man who majored in computer science and who now works at a prestigious tech company, about my realization, I started out triumphant at my revelation and angry at my past circumstances, but partway through I ended up sobbing (which is a total Sam move). I’d fully expected him to be dismissive of my story, not because he’s ever been dismissive of any part of my stories, but because it’s what I’ve come to expect. When you keep hearing “It wasn’t that bad, was it?” and “He didn’t actually do anything, though” and “You just need to suck it up” and “Try being less sensitive,” it comes as a shock to hear someone say, “I’m so sorry” and “That makes a lot of sense.”
Yes it does. It sucked, so I left.
The most financially sound thing to do now is to leave the past in the past and fully embrace my current job, for which I am paid to do that thing I was supposed to love.
But you know what?
I CAN’T FUCKING DO IT.
When the CTO goes around saying shit like Being a speaker at a conference is like being the pretty girl at a party; people want to talk to you, and none of your colleagues thinks there is a goddamn thing wrong with it, none of your colleagues speaks up and says, “Hey Boss, did you mean to imply that people at conferences talk to you because they want to fuck you? Because that’s what it’s like when you’re THE ONLY GIRL AT THE PARTY AND NOBODY GIVES A FUCK WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY BECAUSE THEY JUST CARE ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF SEEING YOUR ASS” – when I have to sit there in silent rage because I have learned through experience that nobody cares, not even when you call out the bullshit yourself and ask for help – well, it would be foolish to keep trying to love something that’s made me feel like shit for years.
I gave my two weeks’ notice at work today. I don’t have anything lined up, but I do have enough Fuck You money to tide me over for a few months.
Thus: Fuck you.
The uncertainty of what happens next feels terrible, but not nearly as terrible as watching this withered husk of a person shamble around pretending to be me. I am so ready to stop crying reflexively when I get home at the end of the work day, crying methodically in the shower, and crying in bed at 3AM until my brain is spent enough to let me sleep. I want to be able to put away my college depression survival kit, to stop making desperate lists of things to look forward to, to stop filling my schedule with distractions designed to keep me going for one more godforsaken day.
Maybe this is just regular ol’ burnout, and all I need is a long vacation. Maybe my time off will be a temporary break from tech, just a refreshing palate cleanser until the dense fog enveloping my brain dissipates and I am no longer seething with so much petty hatred that my body feels like a sack of oozing tar. Maybe I’ll be back in a few months, hungry for that fat paycheck again.
Or maybe I won’t.
I’m not quitting my job because I had my feelings hurt by one offhand comment made by one man at one company. That shit is old hat – just one more itchy little papercut on top of the thousands of itchy little papercuts I’ve racked up over the years.
No, I’m quitting because this job has only ever been about exchanging time for money. I’ve gotten what I needed from it, but it cost me more of my mental and physical health than I’d budgeted for, and it’s time to cut my losses.
Maybe, once upon a time, I was supposed to love working in tech.
But I don’t. I just love money, and financial security, and being able to take care of my family.
This has everything to do with working in tech.