Driven Out By Sexist Co-workers And Denied A Job For Negotiating: Life As A Working Woman

"Leaning in" doesn't work -- holding hands does.

Mar 20, 2014 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

I was talking to a friend whom we'll call Clyde the other day about his job with a fairly well-known tech company based in San Francisco and their general lack of cluefulness when it comes to marginalized people in the workplace. As he put it, as a cis white male, he has it pretty good -- but then when he makes suggestions like adding a gender-neutral bathroom, HR responds with "I didn't know we had a transgender on staff." 

The tech industry is booming again in the Bay Area, and a lot of things about it haven't changed, including the brogrammer culture and the general lack of inclusion at tech companies, from the boards to the founders on down to the day-to-day workers. Case in point exploded over this weekend, when engineer Julie Ann Horvath talked to Techcrunch about her decision to leave Github

Her description of the conditions at Github is nightmarish, including things like being threatened by the wife of one of the founders, being harassed by another employee, and feeling pressured to participate in the boys' club atmosphere of the company. 

Horvath said that she felt she was being treated differently internally simply due to her gender and not the quality of her work. She calls her colleagues' response to her own work and the work of other female GitHub employees a "serious problem." Despite GitHub hiring more female developers, Horvath said she struggled to feel welcome.

The situation at many other tech companies across the Bay (and beyond) is the same, with women programmers, engineers, and other personnel having to work twice as hard for half the recognition, and feeling hemmed in by the masculine culture that dominates in their workplaces. Speaking out about harassment and abuse gets you punished; and ends in things like snide comments about you when you finally leave the company you wanted to stay and start a real career with, as happened to Horvath. 

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Github's offices. 

Photo: Dave Fayram/Flickr.

While Github says its investigating the discrimination claims, who knows what will come of it. A better working environment for women at the company? Perhaps, or, more likely, the formation of a "diversity committee" to lend lip service to the idea that Github cares about women. 

One thing Clyde pointed out in his discussion of his employer and others is that their lack of inclusionary culture doesn't just hurt people in the workplace. It also sends a signal to jobseekers who don't even bother to apply to companies like his, fearing a frosty reception or concerned about abuse in the workplace. Github's meltdown over Horvath, now that she's gone public, signals a warning to any women considering applying for jobs at the company. 

At the same time, I'm following the story of "W," a woman who tried to negotiate with Nazareth College when she was offered a job, only to have the job offer rescinded. She was only following the script that people are encouraged to follow when getting a job: to view the offer as an opening negotiation, and to ask for more. While you might not get everything you ask for, you could get some of it. Accepting the initial offer, some people say, is like leaving money on the table. 

Yet, W was roundly dismissed when she asked for better terms. Not only that, she was excoriated by the academic community, which belittled and mocked her for daring to think that she deserved better terms and working conditions. She was dragged through the mud by everyone from bloggers to esteemed academic publications, as though she was clearly naive to even consider negotiating for a job (particularly, some academics said, when others are going begging for work). 

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Cheryl Sandberg demonstrates her leaning skills. 

Photo: Thomas Williams/Crossroads Foundation, Flickr.

This is the era of "lean in" feminism, whatever that is supposed to mean, and yet women are punished for doing just that. Whether they're resisting everyday sexism in the workplace (if you think Horvath is the only woman engineer at a tech company being hounded simply for being a woman, think again) or trying to follow the guidelines set for job seekers (negotiate, and don't settle for unacceptable terms), they're being told that they are unreasonable. 

Women have been told repeatedly in recent years by fellow women working in finance and industry that they need to speak up in job negotiations, that one of the reasons women are underpaid is because they leave money on the table, that they need to resist sexism in the workplace. However, they're not getting the support they need to follow through on the advice; you can't do either of these things if the cost might be your job.

When people talk about "lean in" feminism and how to get more equality for women in the workplace from the perspective of personal responsibility -- women need to try harder, to work more -- they're ignoring external factors that aren't in the control of individual women. 

Those factors are instead in the control of society and the culture of the companies and people that make hiring and firing decisions. Clyde's advocacy for minorities at his company is intended to make it safer for them to come to work every day, and, ultimately, to help his company develop an inclusive environment that appeals to bright job applicants who could bring something new and dynamic to the workplace. Similarly, other people of all genders are teaming up in their workplaces to push for better conditions. 

But pressure from the outside is necessary, too. Users and shareholders need to be applying pressure, and challenging companies on their anti-harassment policies, hiring practices, employee demographics, and more. "Leaning in" doesn't work -- holding hands does. 

Take a look at the tech products and services you might use every day. Ask yourself not just who sits on their boards or whether they have a "diversity working group," but what kind of wages and working conditions they offer to their employees. How their job openings are listed, and where. Whether their working environments encourage disabled employees (on a recent visit to Google, for example, I noticed that accessibility was seamlessly integrated everywhere I went, and, predictably, I encountered lots of wheelchair users on the campus), or provide a safe working environment for people of color, or offer resources for pregnant employees and those with young children (like maternity leave, flex scheduling, or childcare). 

Looking solely at metrics like the representation of women, or people of color, or queer people, or disabled people, or any other marginalized group, on the boards of companies provides an imperfect picture. The question isn't just who is in charge, but how companies operate on a functional daily level.

If a company's board looks like the Rainbow Coalition, that doesn't mean women aren't sexually harassed in the cafeteria, or that racial slurs aren't casually used in meetings, and that kind of toxic corporate culture ruins people, and spreads through the industry.