Being too proud to quit saved me
The experience I’m writing about is my first one of its kind. This was my first internship, as well as my first technical job. I’ve worked as a nanny, researcher, waitress, and an office assistant, but this was my first time doing CS in a professional environment outside of school. I’m only 21, and I still have a lot to learn. This is simply my experience that I wanted to share — largely for anyone in a position similar to my own.
I wrote this is for anyone who ever felt like they wouldn’t succeed in their career because of their gender, ethnicity, race, religion, or sexual orientation. This is also for anyone who ever made someone feel like they are less capable because of who they are. This is insight, maybe a wakeup call, and hopefully a source of hope.
In an effort to help you to understand my point of view and the expectations I had going into the summer, here’s some background info on me. I’m from a very small coastal town in Northern CA, the oldest of three girls, and the daughter of a kick-ass artist. I’ve always been into my academics, I was a nerd who also had a fun and well-rounded childhood. The farther I got into high school the more motivated I became, I was going to get out of my tiny town and make something of myself, I was going to earn enough scholarships to allow me to go to the school I wanted. That was that, I decided it and I wouldn’t accept any other fate.
Unlike most people I loved math and English equally. When it came time to start thinking about college I constantly went back and forth between being an English major and a math major. My SAT tutor and math teacher both suggested I consider engineering and specifically computer science. My response was along the lines of “I’ve never coded in my life and have no desire to do so?” I didn’t want to sit in a dark dungeon all day drinking Red Bull and forgetting about the outside world. Fortunately, they persuaded me to research the major — not the stereotypes of it. I realized it was a good possibility, it was mathematical, but also creative. Rarely are stereotypes ever as true as we perceive them to be and this most definitely applies to the stereotypes that surround CS. So I decided to say fuck it and for once in my life do something that was unplanned. I ended up picking Loyola Marymount University to spend the next four years of my life at. LMU has had such a positive impact on my life, and I will be forever grateful for the scholarships and amazing people in my life who made it possible for me to attend an incredible, but ridiculously expensive university. I’ve truly fallen in love with LMU. I love the people I’ve met, I love my friends, I love the service organization I’m a part of, I love the CS department, I love my professors, I love my on-campus job, I love the area, I really love it all. CS kicks my ass but I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
Now backtrack a bit to that time at the end of high school when everyone — literally everyone — asks you what you’re doing with your life after graduation. I knew that CS was a male dominated field, but I was very naive about the reactions I would get from people when I told them that CS was the major I had decided on. People looked at me like I was insane. Part of it was genuine surprise because I had never shown an interest in the discipline, but there was also a lot of “are you sure you want to do that?” Originally my answer was always a hard yes, with a side of annoyance because no one else I was with was ever asked if they were sure about their major of choice. After enough times of being asked if I was sure, I started to second guess if I was. I had always been solid in the academic department. No one ever talked down to me about anything school-related. Like any human being, especially any woman, I knew what it felt like to be talked down to. I could spot a condescending comment, but I had rarely ever encountered them in an academic setting. School was where I had always been most confident. Once I began hearing everyone’s reactions to my future major I suddenly wasn’t so confident anymore. Some people were confused, others were just like “Why? That sounds terrible”, and other people made snide remarks about me being money-hungry. I wasn’t, I was truly interested in the field, but what the hell is wrong with wanting to be successful anyway? It’s a hallmark of masculinity that we praise men for, ”ambition” is what we call it for them, and I had it. The overwhelming responses I got most often were along the lines of “Do you know that CS is only men?” or my personal favorite, “Oh nice choice! All the boys are going to looooove having you around, you’ll get lots of help from them.” 18 year old me wanted to scream “FUCK YOU!” to everyone, ”GUYS I HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED YET — HOW CAN YOU ALREADY ASSUME I’LL NEED A TON OF HELP?” Unsurprisingly, the anxiety began to set in. Everyone was looking at me like I was either stupid, naive and in for a huge shock, money hungry (and not in the good “male” way), or doomed to fail. It was a real confidence booster. The reactions were shitty, but overall they made me more determined to prove everyone wrong. The responses that really got me — the ones that scared and influenced me the most — were the people who acted like I’d be an object for the socially deprived men (the ones kept in a dungeon all day) to look at, to fight over, to stare at, and to have their ego’s boosted by when I inevitably sucked and needed their help. That not only reduced me to a meaningless object existing purely for the enjoyment of others, but it made me feel like I was actually going to suck and there was nothing I could do to avoid it. So many people said it to me. Women, men, parents, teachers, coaches, fucking everyone was already expecting that I would fail, and I would be lucky to receive help from the men in the room. God forbid other women would be there to help me, and even more unfathomable was the thought that I’d be able to get by without a ton of help.
So here I was, the summer between high school graduation and college, scared shitless. I remember so vividly buying my new laptop a few weeks before I moved in to college. I went to the Apple store and got to chatting with one of the store’s representative who was helping me decide which laptop to buy. I told him I was going to be a CS major and he asked me which languages I knew. “English and a little bit of Spanish!” I responded. The second the words left my mouth I realized my mistake and felt so stupid. He laughed at me, “Good luck with that major, you’re going to need it” he said. I tried to hide the fact that my eyes had teared up and kicked myself once again for choosing CS.
Thank God I was too proud to ever chicken out and switch majors before starting school. I will always be grateful that the only thing I was more scared of than failing and proving all these assholes right, was quitting before I even tried. To be clear, these people aren’t really assholes, they’re family friends and people I grew up with, people I love and respect, they are just also products of a society that really sucks sometimes.
Fast forward a bit into my third year of college. I have amazing roommates and friends at LMU. There are very few girls in my major, like very few but nonetheless I love my department. I had no prior experience with programming but was still doing well, learning a ton, and was overall a happy person. It was obviously challenging, more challenging than high school had ever been. Of course I needed help, we all did, but there was no shame in it because it was mutual. My male classmates got help from TAs and professors, just like I did. The biggest downside? Every time I needed help I had to ask for it from the males in the room, because that’s all there was. It was a sense of complete inadequacy-one that’s truly hard to describe. I felt like I was letting down the entire female population, and it was a slap in the face and a reminder of everyone who had ever made me feel doomed to this.
One day I was in class and decided to go on Facebook (sorry Professor). Another girl in CS had shared the article written by the female engineer at Uber (if you haven’t read it you should). I decided to read it. Unfortunately, I was already having a shit day. Needless to say, this didn’t help. I don’t know if my reaction was worsened because I was already in a bad mood but that article really affected me; I wondered is this going to be my life? Uber wasn’t some traditional corporate company, it was Uber for crying out loud. They aren’t traditional or old, I don’t think of a bunch of sexist white men sitting around a board room when I think of Uber — I thought of forward-thinkers at a startup that changed the world of transportation. Obviously it was naive of me to assume they were progressives, but I did anyway and it didn’t go well when my image of the company was shattered. I felt like my future was shattered. Then I did something really really stupid, I read the Facebook comments. WHY? Why on earth did I think that was a good move? The darkest parts of humanity lie in Facebook comments. These ones were no exception, they were awful in every way. Comments ranged from “We need to see if it is really sexism or feminist delusion. It is very commonplace to whine about sexism and call everything sexist in the Bay Area. So I am very skeptical of this story.” to even more lost hope with comments like “Nothing to do with Uber. It’s what is faced by women and minorities all the time.” and the loss of hope continued with “Thank you for sharing this. Unfortunately I’m going through the same issues with an all-male management at Apple within the iTunes organization.” and then there were real gems like “Wtf? Bitter much?” or the century-old “lol calm down” which happens to be one of my personal favorites. It reiterated that sexism isn’t company-specific, it happens everywhere. Good. Great. Awesome. Can’t wait for the rest of my life!
People were angered that she was complaining about sexism at a company whose sole function was an unethical one (in their opinion). But Susan Fowler’s article wasn’t trying to argue that Uber is the world’s most ethical company, it had nothing to do with Uber’s product — it could have been any company — the issue at hand was her treatment, and that point seemed to be brutally missed (there were many empowering and great comments as well — the shitty ones just outweighed them). After having read the article and the super heart whelming and empowering reactions to it I was feeling pretty hopeless. That feeling of doom I felt the summer before college was coming back and I was mentally preparing myself for a career of sexism, being talked down to, ignored in meetings, having the credit for a job I did given to a man, being underestimated, and hitting the glass ceiling hard. There was also the fun possibility of losing my job after sticking up for myself for one of the above offenses.
At this point in time I already had secured a summer internship, I was incredibly relieved to be done with applications and interviews, and I was truly excited to spend my summer working for a tech startup, Honey, which seemed amazing. The interview process was still fresh in my mind though, the amount of phone interviews with men who asked me “so what made you a woman want to go into this field?” They never explicitly asked why a woman would choose this life for herself but they always asked the question in five different ways because my original answer didn’t satisfy their curiosity. I’m willing to bet money that they didn’t ask my male competition that question in five different ways, fishing for a story that didn’t exist about how I grew up building planes with my engineer dad or some shit — I didn’t, my dad wasn’t an engineer, I was never exposed to that, I just grew up and picked a major like every other fucking kid. People didn’t expect me to be brave, they didn’t expect me to jump into a male-dominated field with no prior experience and no family members to show me the way. As Reshma Saujani says in her incredible TED talk, we teach women to be perfect, and men to be brave. Women are taught to never put themselves in situations where they can fail, where they would be seen as imperfect. Men on the other hand are taught to be brave, to try hard, and get back up when they fail. The expectations of me to do something I knew I could be great at, instead of trying something new, pushing myself, probably sucking, and learning from it, were not out of the ordinary. Society doesn’t allow women to fail, because it expects perfection. To be a good woman you need to be perfect at whatever it is you do, so you better damn well do something you know you can be perfect at. It would have been impossible for me to be perfect at computer science, 100% impossible. It’s also impossible for men, but society is fine with that. It expects them to fuck up, and most importantly it expects — it demands — that they continue to try until they improve and make something of themselves. News flash, that’s bullshit. Why would you encourage 52% of the world’s population to just stick to what they’re good at? Doesn’t exactly scream innovation…
Back to my internal crisis. I felt like I was doomed, for my future career, but at present time, for my upcoming internship. I was beyond nervous. I was so terrified they were going to think I was dumb. I have tons of insecurities, but my brain is not usually one of them. Nonetheless, here I was, absolutely terrified that they were going to think I was unintelligent and instantly regret hiring me. Logically I was completely aware that they knew what my intelligence and experience levels were. Six people had interviewed me and it was clear that I had strengths and weaknesses. They hired me despite those weaknesses. It wasn’t even one of those interviews where afterward I was like “fuck yea I fooled them”, I hadn’t seen the questions they asked me beforehand online. It was an honest interview and I believe they truly got a good feel for my knowledge base. Regardless that rationale went out the window when I read that uber article, and other articles like it. My insecurities for simply being born a woman were back and I felt like I was going to be inadequate, disappointing to the company, and a letdown to every female engineer worldwide. I don’t know if all women in STEM feel like this, but when I mess up, I feel like I’m ruining all possibility for future women to be given a chance by the men in the room. It’s a lot of fucking pressure, and I’m guessing that when a man does something wrong he doesn’t feel like he let down every other man trying to get ahead in the world.
So my first day arrived. Then my second. Then my third…
I’ve never been happier to be wrong. In all things computer science I had always felt the gender thing. At Honey, I never once did. Seriously never. Ever. I just got to be a person. For the first time since senior of high school, I was just a person. I wasn’t a female intern, I was just an intern. IT WAS AMAZING. Like fucking great. There were plenty of women, well above industry average (which is amazing) but they didn’t purposefully pair me with a woman to make me more comfortable. No I don’t hate women, I love them, my point is that they didn’t do anything special to make me feel comfortable, because they looked at me like a person — not a female one — just a normal one who just needed to be treated with respect to feel comfortable.
I know this will sound ridiculous to some people but it truly was great. They assessed my abilities, taught me so much, cared that I was enjoying the work I was given. They ensured that I was learning, and didn’t care that I was a woman. It was beyond my wildest dreams, not just because of the woman thing but also just as an internship, it was great. I was floored. Honey is a truly fantastic company. The experience I had there gave me hope for my entire future. It made me excited to make the commute into Downtown Los Angeles everyday (this is a big deal people), it was the first time in my life that I said to myself “I made the right decision. I chose the right major”. I loved what I was doing, and it actually mattered to them. I was making stuff for their website that users would actually see. On top of it all, I finally felt confident in my abilities. I wasn’t a shitty engineering intern.
I felt smart, I felt capable, I felt appreciated, and I didn’t feel like the odd one out in the room. I got to get past the stereotypes and fears I felt about my field, and truly fall in love with it, just the pure work that it involved-everything else was stripped away.
I’ve been used to catcalling and various forms of sexual harassment since I was very young, that’s just a consequence of being a woman who walks outside. I’ve had to brush off countless sexist remarks, being called names by strangers- men who had zero right to call me ‘sweetheart’, ignore assholes who called me a bitch when I ignored their advances and catcalls. I don’t feel bad for myself, every woman goes through this. I describe it only to paint the picture that I’ve seen all kinds of harassment, the kind that happens in the street, the kind that goes on in bars, and the kind that goes on in professional settings. The professional kind did not happen here. People were nice, not overly nice, not creepy nice, just nice. Overall good human beings. I wasn’t a female. I was a human. I cannot stress enough how amazing that is. I wish I could do the issue justice with words-give it a description it deserves. I truly don’t know how. All I know is that here I didn’t feel the gender ‘thing’. No one thought I was less capable at my job because of my gender. No one thought I was biologically unfit to be an engineer.
It was so much more than I could have ever asked for. Hope is a beautiful thing, but the absence of it, the loss of hope, is soul-crushing. Honey gave me my hope back.
As a straight white female I am awarded many more opportunities than those who do not fit into society’s “boxes”. My aim moving forward is to use the privilege I was born with to give a voice to people who are not given a platform. Within the mainstream media we only hear about minorities in the context of a single (usually negative) narrative that society has given them. Their truth is not shown. In order to make society better, to work towards equality, people need to understand what life is like outside the realm of privilege. So, if you have a platform, use it. To simply be an ally to those whom society does not value is another mark of privilege, the survivors of discrimination and harassment are never awarded the choice of getting to be just an ally. An ally chooses when they want to show up to fight. A direct recipient of bigotry does not have this luxury. Be more than an ally. The glass ceiling will not be broken when only white women are awarded the respect they deserve. The ceiling will be shattered when people of all genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations are all given the opportunity to join the c-suites of the world.
I write this to try and give other young women hope. I want them to know that not every tech company-or company period-is sexist. Not every workplace will remind you on a daily basis that women are valued below men. There are places that exist where you get to just be a person. One who is respected, valued, and left alone to do the job she is there to do.
I write this to wake everyone up, to remind them to treat all people-all people-with respect.
I write this to inspire all people to believe in themselves and demand better treatment.
I write this to give men some insight into a woman’s experience.
I also write this to thank Honey. Thank you for letting me be a human. Thank you for letting me be an intern. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for giving me my hope back. Thank you for showing me that it is possible to be a woman in this field and be happy. Thank you for allowing me to love computer science. Thank you.
The only intern who’s ever been so happy to be just an intern 🙂