Women in Tech and the 2016 US election

Note: This piece was originally drafted in March 2017, but for some reason I never got around to publishing it. If Kamala Harris does become the Democratic candidate this year, everything I wrote back then will be even more true – and worse with the racism that will accompany it.

The US election was taking a toll on women even before its hideous denouement last November.

The constant, blatant misogyny against Hillary expressed by both left and right was exhausting. We could see ourselves in her: working harder, being more prepared, having done all her homework (and everyone else’s) yet being judged on her hair, her makeup, her clothing. Being told she was too shrill, too combative, too much like someone’s mother. Not nice enough.

Some women were attacked directly and personally by Gamer Gaters turned Bernie Bros (perhaps many of them Russian agents or bots), driving some off of social media, some out of public discourse altogether. It was a scary time to be a woman expressing opinions.

Some women chose not to engage publicly at all, only revealing themselves as Hillary supporters near the end, when it seemed safer to do so. There were many “coming out” stories like this in private Facebook forums, where we tried to give each other strength.

Yet it wasn’t enough. The atmosphere was so saturated with sexism and other forms of hate that we could barely breathe. “Lock her up!” “Emails!” “Crooked Hillary.” So many people were so willing to believe evil of her. Willing to believe anything except that she was a brilliant, qualified human being who would run the country well.

For women in tech, 2016 featured the usual, endless drumbeat of stories about women being harassed and discriminated against in our field. Of tech companies promising to do better on diversity, some putting millions into “building the pipeline” and training their staff about unconscious bias. Yet, year on year, diversity numbers weren’t budging.

Meanwhile, our own experiences in tech, and more brave women telling their stories publicly, informed us that nothing had really changed. Men who harass and discriminate still get only slaps on the wrist. They still get away with promoting their male buddies over more-qualified women on their teams. The women end up leaving those teams, or companies, or tech altogether.

For me, personally, it’s been very hard. I really should be looking for a new job, but the psychological barriers are enormous. Back around October, I needed to write a description for a job I might possibly do at a famous company. I’d had half a dozen informal conversations with them already, everything looked great, everyone seemed to like me – there were no negatives. I knew what I needed to write down and email to them to keep the process moving. But I couldn’t get started. I was paralyzed with self-doubt. Is my experience actually good for anything? What is it I do exactly, and how can I explain it? Who cares about me? All this company apparently cared about was young engineers (whom they pictured as white or Asian men in jeans and t-shirts).

In the back of my mind was the thought: If Hillary – said by so many to be the most qualified person ever to run for president – gets attacked so viciously just for running, what chance do I have? My only value to society is as a body (not even that now – I’m too old!), a wife, a cook, and a caretaker of others (at home and at work). 

I did eventually get the job description written (with considerable encouragement from Brendan) and sent it off. The company posted an opening for a splendid job which suited me to a T. As they finally told me a few weeks after the election, someone else got that job. I was of course deeply disappointed.

I’ll never know for sure why. Sexism? Ageism? An internal candidate got preference? They simply found someone they liked better than me? But I worried that I said something “wrong” in all those chats and interviews. Or I looked wrong (my breasts are too big, since chemo I can’t wear makeup), dressed wrong, fidgeted too much, laughed too loud… who knows? 

Postscript, July 2024: The famous company was Facebook. About a year later I got a job at Amazon instead.

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