I’m 36 years old, and I’ve had three careers. I’ve served for six years in the U.S. Army, I’ve worked for four years as a Ph.D. candidate/Masters student studying microbiology and immunology, and most recently, I’ve worked for three years in the tech as a product manager.
Compared to my life in the military and in science, my experience working as a woman in tech has been the worst experience in my multifaceted working life.
Every time I say this to anyone, whether they are in tech or outside of the field, the reaction is always the same. “Wow. Seriously? It’s that bad? Compared to your experience in the military? I thought being in tech would at least be better than working in the military.”
This reaction shows 1) the relative ignorance and misperception about the military experience, and 2) the lack of understanding surrounding the experience of women working in any male dominated field.
I’ve had the great luck to have a variety of work experiences, each one building on the last, and each informing my current work in the field of tech, where I’ve worked both as a product support tech and now as a senior product manager.
“When I thought about what I wanted to do after science, my natural interest and curiosity pointed me in the direction of tech…”
I transitioned into the tech world after finishing my masters degree in microbiology, and taking a hiatus for a year and a half to raise my two younger children. When I thought about what I wanted to do after science, my natural interest and curiosity pointed me in the direction of tech, specifically with the goal to use my ability to solve complex problems that I had honed as a scientist and apply that knowledge of problem solving from a first principles perspective to the problems tech companies are looking to figure out every day.
Getting a job in tech was tough. Even with a masters degree, 10 years of work experience in the military and science, I still had to convince employers that I could handle an entry level tech support position. Interviewers asked if I could “handle the fast pace environment,” or “learn quickly and do undirected work on my own,” and “respond to the criticism that we don’t think you are technical enough.” I noted the irony when the cousin of the CEO who was a kid fresh out of college, got hired with no tech experience whatsoever.
Even though my experience in tech hasn’t been as bad as some other women, my three years in this field still have been so much worse than my time in science and as an enlisted person in the military, and this is something that I naively wasn’t expecting.
Look, I’ve been through basic training, I’ve been sexually harassed in the military, and I’ve been through four years of an intense, brutal Ph.D. program, where I reached the stage of all but dissertation (ABD), and ended up getting my Masters so that I could deal with the post-partum depression that creeped up after I had my second child.
So when I made the career change into tech, I went in thinking my experiences would be better than my previous careers, as this was a field that was all about disrupting the status quo, about exploring new ideas, and finding ways to use technology to change the world. Boy, was I wrong.
“Look, I’ve been through basic training, I’ve been sexually harassed in the military, and I’ve been through four years of an intense, brutal Ph.D. program…”
When I started experiencing resistance to my ideas shortly after I was hired at the first tech company, and experienced those low level microaggressions that add up over time, I thought it was my fault, and put the blame of not fitting in, or being too different than the rest of the team, on myself. I actually thought that maybe I wasn’t technical enough, or maybe I was too old, or out of touch to start a new career at a startup (which is b.s.).
Unfortunately, this is an all too common mistake most underrepresented minorities and women in tech make. We internalize the resistance we receive and we start to believe that we are the problem, and that we are the only people that are experiencing something like this (this is also the mindset that far too many abuse victims have — something I’m also intimately familiar with).
My first year in tech, I worked 70 hour weeks, worked from 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., went home, took care of the kids, opened the computer again after dinner, studied hard to learn what I didn’t know (I even studied for the CompTIA Security+ certification and passed), and proved to that company that I was worthy of being there.
My work paid off — I was promoted in six months after starting, to the position of product analyst, and then lobbied hard for the position of product manager five months later (With another pay increase — Lesson #100: write down all of your accomplishments from the first day you start at any new job. Use this list to lobby for a pay raise. Pro-tip: always have receipts). I was one person managing four product lines, and ended up hiring a product analyst to join my team.
But all this work and dedication wasn’t enough. My voice wasn’t heard, and it was drowned out by louder white male voices. I was told I was too aggressive, that I needed to be nicer to people on the team, whilst an engineer that literally yelled at people, well, he was absolutely fine.
Listen, I want tech to get better, I really do. This is why I joined the organizing team for Ela Conf, a conference and community dedicated to empowering more marginalized genders to be leaders in tech, so that women can have that safe space that we need to realize that we are not alone in this struggle. We are here to help build a safe, supportive community so that you can find the strength to stay on that battlefield like Wonder Woman and fight to stay in tech.
“Listen, I want tech to get better, I really do. This is why I joined the organizing team for Ela Conf…”
In my honest opinion, things won’t get better until a confluence of events merge together to create changes in workplace policy, which is unlikely to happen any time soon. Maybe the tech labor union (Tech Workers Coalition) could pick up this battle instead of focusing their efforts on resisting the current administration.
We are however, starting to see a small wave of change, which has been brought on by more and more women speaking out about their experiences of working in tech (non-disparagement agreements be damned). Tech companies will no longer be able to stand behind the “We’re not as bad as Uber, or that VC guy” line, as every company can do better. That is the mindset we need to have in order to make this better for the next generation.
It is depressing that I have to tell girls and girls of color especially (in the volunteer work I do) that if they really are interested in STEM, then they better prepare mentally to get slammed with resistance to the idea of them existing and prospering in this field. Because that is what we’re dealing with.
“What we’re telling the next generation, by choosing not to take serious action in this fight is that we don’t care enough about you to fix this problem right now before it gets worse…”
What we’re telling the next generation, by choosing not to take serious action in this fight is that we don’t care enough about you to fix this problem right now before it gets worse, and more women drop out of the field. Also, telling girls that they should stay in STEM, whilst not addressing the concerns of women already working in the field is horseshit (looking at you IBM).
So….to start making things better, I wrote down a list of 10 ways we can improve the experience of women and underrepresented minorities in tech, based off my experience working in two other white male dominated fields, the military (Army), and science. I’ll be posting them in separate posts and hope that this can add to the conversation that we so desperately need to sustain.
The failure in tech to value diverse experiences is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the position we are in today, where each new day brings a new report of a brave soul speaking truth to power and shining a light on their experience. It is why I felt compelled to write. We can, and we must, do better.
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This post was originally shared on Arti’s Blog. Arti Walker-Peddakolta is a senior product manager, activist, microbiologist, and U.S. Army veteran. Arti advocates for the empowerment of women and underrepresented groups in STEM, and is a co-organizer of Ela Conf. Arti is also a leader with Veterans for American Ideals, a non-partisan group of military veterans that speaks out against anti-Muslim rhetoric, and advocates for refugee and immigrant rights. Find her on Twitter at @ajpeddakotla.