I know you’re tired of hearing about that Google manifesto. Me too. I’ve read the memo. I’ve read Yonatan Zunger’s angry response and profoundly disagree with his opinion that the act of publishing it was “incredibly stupid and harmful”. I’ve read Megan McArdle’s essay and relate with her feeling of isolation as I’m often the only woman in an environment dominated by men. I’ve watched Damore’s interview and was struck by his sincerity and calmness even when the reporter was pushing him into corner.
Throughout the entire process, I was deeply conflicted. As a woman in tech, I understand precisely what everyone is talking about. However, as a woman in tech who has experienced sexism to the point of accepting it as background noise, I have the feeling that we’ve been only addressing one side of the story. It’s the side where women are victims. I’m here to tell the story of how I, as a woman in tech, benefited from sexism and that men can be victims too.
In Feburary 2015, I applied to be Section Leader, a position similar to Teaching Assistant, for the series of introductory courses into Computer Science (CS) at Stanford University. It was a coveted position as it’s a huge boost for your resume and many tech companies have exclusive outreach programs for section leaders. I didn’t think I’d be accepted. I had just started taking CS class a quarter ago. I was pretty shy and had a very strong accent since I’d only been in the US for a few months. I applied together a few friends, all male, mostly smarter, and much more confident than I was. But I was accepted, while all of my friends weren’t. I just thought that it was because I prepped a lot for the interviews and my preparation paid off.
As I got more involved in the section leading community, I started noticing a pattern. My female friends, like I did, seemed to have better luck with getting into section leading. Still, I didn’t think much of it, until I volunteered to help out with the interviews myself.
There were three interviewers for that day, and I was the only female. The first candidate, a male, wasn’t very good, so we all agreed that it was a reject. The second candidate, also a male, was pretty good but kind of nervous, so we agreed that he’d make a good section leader with more training, so “weak hire”. The third candidate, a female, didn’t seem to know the problem she was teaching very well and even offered wrong explanation. When we discussed her case, we all agreed on her shortcomings. But when we put down the scores, I noticed that my fellow interviewers gave her good scores with the recommendation “weak hire”.
“Wait, do you guys think her performance is comparable to that of the previous guy?”
“No, I think the previous guy was better,” they both said.
“But you gave her the same scores you gave the other guy.”
“Oh, did we?”
They checked back their scores for the previous guy and, after some hesitation, lowered the scores they gave the female candidate.
I’m not suggesting that my fellow interviewers were sexist. They weren’t even aware of their inconsistent judgment until I pointed it out. But this incident made me think that subconsciously, people are using another scale to judge women’s ability in tech. Nobody says it out loud because that’s no longer socially acceptable, but I couldn’t help but hearing it in my head: “She’s good for a woman. Even though she doesn’t do as well as that guy, she still gets the same scores because she’s in the women’s league.” I can’t help but thinking that I wouldn’t have been accepted into section leading if I weren’t a girl. And I feel bad for my guy friends who would have made excellent section leaders.
That wasn’t the only occasion in which I felt like my gender might have something to do with my opportunities in tech. I’ve had a guy asking me to join his startup because it looks good to have a female co-founder. I’ve had the feeling that a company wants to hire me just because they want to diversify their office, like one day the all-dude team would look around and say: “What’s up with all this testostorone? We need a girl in here.” In school, I keep having guys asking me to join their projects because they thought I was cute. They didn’t say it at that time, but after we’d spent some time together they asked me out.
Sexism isn’t making it harder for women to enter tech. From my personal experiences, sexism makes it even easier for women to enter tech. I understand that my experiences don’t generalize to that of other women. It’s possible that women are always judged differently. Sometimes it’s positive – people judge women on a more generous scale. Sometimes it’s negative – as people’ve talked about it at length. We need to be careful when encouraging affirmative action in tech to ensure it doesn’t reinforce the philosophy of treating women differently. Lowering your hiring standards for women can give people like me the lingering self doubt that maybe I wasn’t good enough. Worse, it gives many men reasons to believe that their female colleagues aren’t as good as them, and act accordingly.
What we need to do is to make it easier for women to stay in tech. Even though I’m already in tech and love what I do, I sometimes have the feeling Megan McArdle had, the feeling that maybe I don’t belong here. I don’t like those 48 hour coding hackathons without sleep or shower. They are useless and detrimental to health. I don’t like a typical tech hangout, with beers, playing pool, and occasional jerking off jokes. I don’t like feeling like a piece of furniture to add to the company’s diversity. I don’t like my male teammates to think that I got to where they are only because I’m female. I don’t like the representation of female engineers on TV, always nerdy, unattractive, and without much of a social life.
I don’t know how we can make it more fun to women in tech. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg problem, that we need to make tech friendlier to women to have more women in tech, but we also need more women in tech to make tech friendlier to women. Until we reach that point, there will be different opinions. There will be women upset because of the sexist treatment they receive, but there will also be men who are upset. There will be people with different points of view and different ideas of solutions. We should hear them out instead of shutting them down, the way Google fired James Damore or the Internet collectively shamed him.