Friday, June 10, 2016

the most alienating thing that ever happened to me, as a female engineer

Recently I had dinner with a colleague Raf from my old job on Microsoft Flight Simulator.  I told him how I felt that Microsoft had a less diverse culture than Google.  He asked why.  I told him one story in particular.


For two months before shipping Flight Simulator, we'd stay late every evening.  Management would bring in dinner, and the team would watch television while eating together.  My team always wanted to watch baseball.  Every evening, without fail, there would be baseball on the television.

Once, I asked if we could watch "Friends" instead.  This was met with incredulity and laughter.

A few weeks later, as a joke, my colleague Mike changed the television show to Friends, and then took out the batteries from the remote control.  He placed the empty remote on the conference room table near the door.

Our coworker Steve walked in, saw Friends on the television, and immediately grabbed the remote to change the channel.  He jabbed the remote with increasing fervor, walking up many steps until he was nearly touching the television.  He pointed the remote with outstretched arm, looking puzzled as the screen continued to show Friends.

As Steve was looking confused, Mike laughed so hard that he fell to his knees on the floor.

Steve finally turned over the remote, saw the missing batteries, chuckled, and put the remote back on the table.  Moments later, Todd walked in and immediately grabbed the remote to change the channel.

Now both Steve and Mike were laughing.

This repeated several times.  Mike laughed harder with every subsequent person that fell for the prank.  Eventually he was red in the face and could hardly straighten up from how hard he had laughed.

I think this may have been the most alienating event that occurred during my time at Microsoft.  If I had walked in, and baseball was showing on the television, it would be completely unthinkable for me to grab the remote and change it to Friends.  If I had done that, the outcry would've been thundering.  People would question my social skills.  They would tell me that I lack social etiquette.   And yet every person who walked in that night felt completely at ease to change the channel without clarifying.  They didn't bother to ask, "Oh, are we watching a different show tonight?"  They assumed that of course it's natural that they should change it to their show.

There were many other little things like this.  Morale events were always go-kart racing.  When we got new T-shirts, there were never women's sizes.  I remember being amazed and gratified my first week at Google in 2003, when they handed out blogger.com T-shirts at TGIF and there were women's sizes.

When I was having dinner a couple days ago with Raf, he asked me, "When this happened and you felt out of place, did you ever question whether you really liked engineering?  Did you ever feel like 'Wow, maybe engineering isn't the right line of work for me'?"

Me: "No.  I had such a good time writing code at Caltech, and programming as a kid.  I knew I loved it.  That was never in doubt.  I just didn't know if I'd ever find a company where I felt at ease."

Raf: "Do you think that if it were a different woman who went through what you did, she might have concluded that she's not meant for engineering?"

Me: "..."

...

More overt things happened too.  My official work mentor offered me a ride in his fancy sports car, and then reached over and buckled my seat belt for me, touching me a lot in the process.  A manager told me I need to be more assertive, and then later when I was more assertive, that now I was too confrontational (issues that magically disappeared when I got a new manager).  In a way, the overt problems were easier for me to discount.  I could tell myself that one person was being an asshole, but most of the team were probably not assholes.  It was harder to tell myself that when the whole room was laughing at the ridiculous notion that maybe my preference could be given equal treatment to theirs for one day.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

I guess experiences differ. I had a similar experience to yours except it was in Google. Google does seem to have a more sympathetic culture (some would say touchy feely) on the surface but the underlying sincerity of it was frankly quite doubtful to me. In the end, both Microsoft and Google are chock full of male geeks so I wouldn't generalize and say one is more diverse/tolerant than the other. imho.

Anonymous said...

Friends? Really? I say this as a woman. Come on!

Anonymous said...

If a male professional crochet kniteer were to join a knitting company made of 97% crochet knitters who are women, do you think he would insist on talking about football while everyone else is talking about babies, showers, and relationships? I don't think it's discrimination. It's just the numbers and reality, and culture. If the culture of a work place is everyone wearing t shirts, would you insist on wearing a suit? There is nothing sinister about this. It is what it is. Until there are more female engineers, it will be a male culture.

Anonymous said...

Insofar as the male colleague touching you, the older you probably would have called him out on it. "Steve, thank you. I would like us both to get out of the car." Once you are both out of the car you say, "Steve, thank you. But I can buckle the seatbelt. I also don't enjoy your touching me and getting into my personal space. It's making me uncomfortable and it's not welcomed. Please stop." Sexual harassment happens both ways, female school teachers are having sex w under aged student. Male coaches are abusing male students. There is no tolerance for this. It should be addressed at every place no matter if there are more men vs women or vice versa, imho.

Anonymous said...

How about also stop perpetuating this stereotype of male geeks by the companies, I'm so tired of people stereotyping male engineers as geeks, awkward, introvert, insensitive, plain rude. How about injecting somebody etiquette class, communication training, attention to hygiene and class, etc. Companies would do great if they could breed a new generation of employees: we have top notch engineers who are also top notch people's people. How's that for a revolution and social innovation? Hoodies are so yesterday. How about breaking through the mode, and have socially amazing engineers?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, thought provoking, Niniane.

jenngregerson said...

Thanks for posting this. I think cultures are changing, but it's these persistent seemingly small things that women too often have to face.

Anonymous said...

One plausible explanation for the baseball phenomenon is that it could have been the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the greatest regular season team in modern history. That would be totally excusable.

just warning ya said...

Somebody just shared this post on Hacker News. Based on past behavior from the majority of its users I think you can look forward to being called a "feminazi" and being doxxed. You will definitely have a new "most alienating experience in tech" in your near future. Nobody on Hacker News is sexist and they are very good at understanding the difficulties of people who ain't exactly like them. They will call you every name in the book just to prove that.

Anonymous said...

Oh does this post hit incredibly close to home. Thanks for sharing. Every time I see a post like this it helps keep me motivated to keep going.

Anonymous said...

I question your social skills after reading this blog entry.

YikeS

Anonymous said...

$EVERY_NAME_IN_THE_BOOK. cool story by the way.

Anonymous said...

The most alienating (strange, to be precise) thing on this blog - how one could switch from working on Microsoft Flight Sim to Google ads???? :)

DannyL said...

Wtf?

Anonymous said...

I had a similar one at Spotify, we went to a team dinner at a burlesque bingo night where we had to draw numbers from a wire bra basket

Anonymous said...

oh dear, the very empathetic and understanding guys at Hacker News have linked to your blog. expect them to not even try to understand

João said...

This is a people problem, not exclusive to engineers. Most people are assholes. I would never think of coming to a place where there are people doing something (I.e. Watching tv) and disrupt them without asking and I am an engineer. Maybe it's cultural too, I don't see discrimination where in my workplace. I am sorry this happens to people.

Dan Hanly said...

What makes you think that your baseball story is about being female?
I don't play or watch any sports, I hate them. I, as a male engineer, would have been in an identical situation!
This is nothing to do with gender.

I obviously can't speak for your other experiences that you detailed in your closing paragraphs, but the baseball story is not gender related. You use that as your "one story in particular" that stands out about diversity in the workplace, but I believe your assumptions about it are completely unfounded.

Anonymous said...

The real reason it would be awkward to change the tv to another channel is NOT because you are a woman but rather that it is against the crowd's preferences and you would be selfishly exerting your own on the crowd.

Aside from that, you could make an argument that there is a systemic and self-perpetuating problem of the alienation of women from technology. In solving that, one has to ensure that people's are not being encroached upon. Dictating everyone watch what you would like to watch just because you are a woman is exactly such a thing.

You may feel alienated by this act and then conclude that anything that makes you feel alienated and has a logical link to you being a female is working against the systemic problem. However, this would be a result of you not considering the sum total of everyone's happiness. This would portray you as a female version of a the stereotypical male geek who has no awareness of how they make people around them feel.

Where the change has to be made is on the systemic level where more women are hired into technical positions, one-to-one conscious/subconscious discrimination of women is brought into light, and greater education opportunities for women. Then when more women are in technology, net happiness can be maximized by switching the channel to Friends. Complaining of the above prematurely is not an intelligent argument.

Anonymous said...

Top tip; NEVER read the HN comments on something. It's a bizarre mix of aspergic-spectrum and Ayn Rand lovers with an unhealthy dose of STEM master race syndrome and an adherence to simplistic principle over the evidence of one's own senses that wouldn't be out of place as a Soviet Union Lysenko conference.

Anonymous said...

To see how sexist the author is, look at this link: http://ofb.net/~niniane/people.html

To the commenter above, If you can't even lay out a logical argument and only resort to ad hominem, how do you feel qualified to speak about any pertinent issue like gender issues.

If you always trust your own subjective experience of the world without examination of what it means in a greater context, how are you superior to anyone who actually takes the time to formulate their opinions instead of acting on instinct like an animal does?

Anonymous said...

> Top tip; NEVER read the HN comments on something. It's a bizarre mix of aspergic-spectrum and Ayn Rand lovers with an unhealthy dose of STEM master race syndrome and an adherence to simplistic principle over the evidence of one's own senses that wouldn't be out of place as a Soviet Union Lysenko conference.

I read HN and I have never felt so exalted. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a young man, I worked in an environment of married with children adults. They conversations were always the same: about their children, what they did, how to care them, etc. I had to talk with them about those topics to avoid being excluded, relating my experiences as a child and how my parents cared for me.

If you expect a group of people to drastically change themselves to adapt to your own habits, you are doing it wrong.

Anonymous said...

"If you expect a group of people to drastically change themselves to adapt to your own habits, you are doing it wrong."

If you expect people to ask before changing the channel in a shared TV viewing area where other people are engaged in watching TV, you're doing it right.

Anonymous said...

"If you expect people to ask before changing the channel in a shared TV viewing area where other people are engaged in watching TV, you're doing it right."

Yes, agreed.
However, shaming male co-workers for it under the guise of gender equality is unintelligent.

Anonymous said...

Instead of thinking about it as an alienating thing, you should have asked "what's so funny about changing the channel?" maybe there were reasons to be that funny in that context that you weren't aware of.

Unknown said...

That behavior would have also occurred if you were male. Sure, they're being immature, but not sexist. I think it's pretty lame to play the gender card here, and it discredits actual sexism. Maybe you're just not used to being an outsider.

Anonymous said...

...and how pray tell will there be more female engineers? How pay tell did we get into the culture of wearing t-shirts at work? 'Culture' as you call it is not some magical hive mind presence that takes hold of everyone joining the company. It is something that evolves, even it is one person at a time.

Anonymous said...

People are people - so they will do what whatever they want to do and say whatever they want to say - regardless of what the company wants!

You should have felt free to do what you wanted. Including changing the channel or not going in the car, or telling them they are wrong, etc.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is neither a brain dead sports fan nor and a trash tv sitcom zombie, this post is doubly depressing.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like this wasn't necessarily a sexist culture, but just an unsupportive one. I'd rather watch Friends too, and I can totally imagine myself, as a male, in the exact same situation.

Anonymous said...

Are you a perpetual victim? Because it seems that the slightest of perceived slights will turn into a big over blown drama scene or production. Perhaps it is you and not them that is the issue....