IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Career in the Tech Field Made Me Take Feminist Issues More Seriously

I’m used to being the only black person in the room, but in the tech field, I had to get used to being the only woman there, too.
Publish date:
March 5, 2015
sexism, feminism, work politics, worker's rights

I’ve always had a passion for science and technology, and my parents fully supported it. They surrounded me with images and factoids about other black Americans in the science field, like my hero Dr. Mae Jemison and George Washington Carver.

They’d sign me up for science camps during the summer, and even though I was normally the only black person, it helped cement my love for science. I was raised in a dual-income middle class home, where chores were split based off of who had more time instead of what hung between our legs, so my principles felt feminist by default.

My father’s favorite saying whenever I felt inadequate at something at school was “Your brain is just as big as theirs!”

Growing up black in America, I was always made aware that my scientific pursuits went against stereotypes. I always had a witty response to their ignorance, like the time a jealous blonde from AP Physics loudly stated that the only reason I got into a top state school over her was because I was black.

I dryly reminded her that my above-average SAT score got me into the school. I knew how to defend my blackness in a room full of other shades, but it wasn’t until I started at that top state school that I realized my gender could also cause me to be discriminated against.

Up until that point, I saw discrimination against women as a thing of the past, or something that happened in places that didn’t have electricity. The concept that half of the people on earth’s brains weren’t capable of thinking in a technical or strategic manner because of an extra x instead of a y was dumber to me than racism (which is already quite dumb).

Fast forward to my third year of chemical engineering working on a group project in my Thermodynamics class. I was the only woman on my five-person team and I found that I was only being assigned minimal contributions.

At first I assumed it was because I was black, but then I realized that they weren’t treating the black guy in the group that way. That’s when it started to hit me that it was because I was a girl. I chalked it up to their own immaturity, but I began to notice from then on the dwindling number of women in our graduating class and the lack of female professors in the department.

I ended up landing an internship at a Fortune 500 company in its research and development department. No matter where you live on earth, there’s a one out of three chance you have something we make in your house (a mad scientist’s dream).

The company prides itself on its diversity and has the numbers to prove it. I was able to intern in an office environment with a 50/50 split of men and women and multi-cultural teams that represent the U.S. diversity numbers. I ended up staying with the company after graduation, but working in a recently acquired brand in a different state. I knew going in that the environment would be different from my initial internships, but I wasn’t prepared for the stark differences in the work culture.

The old owners of the brand were not as into diversity and it showed. The R&D department had only one woman on its leadership team of seven, no people of color, and had similar trends further down in the ranks.

Once acquired, they started hiring more women and people of color by the truckloads, and it seemed to be causing a lot of tension between old company workers versus new.

In my first weeks, I realized that everyone wasn’t as excited as me about the new faces coming in. During a casual lunch with other recent hires, the conversation turned to college. One guy said, "All the girls in my engineering school slept with their professors to graduate."

Another female engineer and I sat there slack-jawed as another guy joined in agreeing. I finally snapped myself out of it and tried to rationalize what was just said.

“I highly doubt even one person could fuck their way through 135 credits worth of an engineering degree, let alone the whole female population.”

I began to wonder if my coworkers thought that way about the women at their school, how did they think of me?

The incidents didn’t stop there. Throughout the first year, one of the highest-ranking technical men in the building would hold full conversations with me while overtly staring down my blouse. During one happy hour, another lead technologist in my group asked me, “Why are you even here? Why don't you go be a model or something?"

I joked it off by saying I love beer too much to model, plus the steady pay and longer expiration date on my brain compared to my face made science the winner. Still, the comment shocked me. As a person in technology, you pride yourself on your ability to use your brain to innovate. The idea that this highly regarded technical innovator only saw me being able to contribute to society using my body instead of my brain really hurt.

As these incidents started adding up, I started to doubt myself. I stopped speaking up during meetings, afraid I’d come off as dumb. I even started dressing more plainly, thinking that I could somehow “blend in” and they’d forget I was a woman. (At a 36F and a booty to match, it's hilariously impossible). I became super self-conscious about everything I said and did, and my boss started to notice. She mentioned that I was coming off as disengaged and not contributing with new ideas.

Around that point, other managers began to see similar trends among the female new hires, and they decided to act. A group was formed, aimed at the women in technology at the site (pre Lean In). I went to the meetings and began to hear stories similar to mine and sometimes worse. I saw that it wasn’t just me going through this, and that’s when I knew the importance of standing up for not only my blackness, but for my gender as well.

During one session, after hearing how a project team was refusing to schedule meetings around a brilliant female manager’s child care schedule, I told the group I would always make an effort to stick up for them when I could. It was a small gesture, but as an entry-level employee with limited influence, it was at least something. The rest of the group agreed to do the same, and for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel so alone and incapable.

Through them, I was able to find the confidence I needed to prove myself in a technical environment. Four years, one patent application, and a couple million-dollar projects later, things aren’t perfect, but they are definitely getting better. I’ve continued to do what I can to ensure that my work environment is diverse and welcoming to all people.

I’ve inserted myself into the once very white and very male campus recruitment team. I now lead a new hire program that focuses on helping new hires out in their first years through mentors and career guidance.

I know my story isn’t the only one out there for women and minorities in the technical fields. Reading about the dismal diversity numbers at innovation giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook are a huge disappointment, and from my perspective there’s just no excuse. With organizations like SWE, NSBE, and SHPE, all with massive 1,000-plus national conferences with career fairs, there’s a multitude of ways to improve these numbers from the ground up.

I want us to challenge those companies to have a workforce more representative of the consumers they serve. And to anyone out there who is feeling inadequate compared to their peers at work or school, just remember: Your brain is just as big as theirs.