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: