Career WISE women in computer science

After the Toxicity the Toxicity Remains

Credit: MaxPixel

Every so often, the conversation about leaving tech resurfaces, and things I wrote in ~2014 get referenced.

I wrote a lot about leaving tech around then.

I thought a lot about leaving in tech in 2014. And 2013. And in 2015, I thought a lot about what it had meant to be willing to leave, and whether I had really left. When those posts resurface I feel like I should have some kind of follow up, some way to tie it all together, some list of lessons learned to pass on, but I don’t.

I thought – and wrote – a lot about leaving because I worked in a toxic environment that did some truly terrifying things to my mental health that I prefer not to think too much about. I thought a lot about leaving, because how do you not think about leaving when some dude bullies you for a year and then calls you a “c***” and nothing happens and oh yeah he still works there even now, and when HR use the fact that you were sexually assaulted to gaslight you.

My initial reaction was not to leave. My initial reaction was to internalise it and believe I had “deserved” it in some way. Because I wasn’t perfect, and being continually undermined and second guessed only made me less so. I laughed about how complaints about my code reviews made the first page of the orange website, but the truth is, my code reviews were pretty harsh – after all, I gave the kind of code reviews that had been given to me. I honed my ability to tear apart the ideas of others because that’s what was done to mine. Being continually told that whatever I was doing was somehow less impactful than whatever the dude next to me was doing left me hyper aware of “impact” and liable to make a case that the dude was doing something “not impactful” too.

Being called a “c***” was far less damaging than everything else. Because I knew that was inappropriate. Everything else was was much easier to internalise.

It’s weird to see that writing from 2014 surface – as I write this, five of the most popular posts on my blog are from that period – because I remember (how would one forget?), but I don’t connect with it anymore. It’s weird, because I see the ways in which I believed – and believe – that the industry needs to change, but know, now, the work I had to do to change myself, too.

Toxic work environments do something to us, and in healthy environments coping mechanisms become harmful. If we don’t know what has been done to us, we can’t fix it. If we don’t know what our coping mechanisms are, we can’t unlearn them. It is truly unfair that we have to cope not just with systematic inequity and abuse, but then deconstruct all of it and heal ourselves, too… but no-one else will do this work for us. They can’t.

The first shift is the actual job, for which white women make ~78c on the dollar (WoC, of course, even less). The second shift is the emotional labour to “improve diversity”. The third shift, then, is to heal and tend to ourselves. Because otherwise, we will let the bullshit that gets pushed on us in the first shift, become true.

We’ll take less impactful projects because our confidence is ground down by being told our work is not impactful. We will be kind of a jerk because people continually being jerks to us will normalise that behaviour. We will “focus too much on diversity” because it’s the only time we feel not threatened but actually – maybe, momentarily – appreciated. We will become paranoid and on-edge, because the one recourse we have – HR – will tell us that we are not safe, and actually, we never were.

Increasingly, I see the second shift as a distraction and displacement activity. A “feel good” offering that promises little more than one day, maybe, cis-white-women will be able to fail up the way cis-white-men do. I’m not here for that. I’m here for creating environments where broader spectrums of people can be successful – but the hard conversations that might lead to that remain unsaid and the hard work required goes undone.

It’s hard for me, four years on, to come back to this, because the truth is very little has changed. I’m still here not because things are different, but because I was financially privileged enough to step away and because I reached a point where I was more afraid of what staying might do to me than figuring out what it meant to leave. I’m still here because I was willing and able to leave and that gave me space to figure out the way back. It’s hard, because I still hear the same stories everywhere, including similar ones from the same company and because I am both sympathetic to other women making the same mistakes and irritated by their surprise.

Nothing changes if we prioritise the second shift over the third. But maybe nothing changes even if we don’t.

After I had untangled what that environment had done to me, after I had learned to value myself and my expertise, and remembered what it’s like not to feel continually on edge… I took another job in tech, this time on the management track. I started with a team of 6, and within a year (and a job hop) it was a team of 24.

This is in some ways a happy story, right? But the highlights reel of my career would obscure the fact that becoming a manager was not a free choice for me – because I never got to be part of an inclusive environment until I ran one.

Perhaps it’s hard for people who know me now to realise the kind of person I became in that environment, but I know it wasn’t a good one. And I’m reminded of what that environment did to me every time I handle some situation or give a damn in the way I wish anyone had ever given a damn about me. I am reminded in my attitude to D&I, where inclusion is a core part of my job but “diversity” work still feels like a tightrope across a minefield I don’t want to walk at work. I am reminded when certain things trigger existential threat reactions that aren’t relevant now.

And I am reminded, when the things I wrote four years ago get shared again, and other women talk about leaving… and I still don’t know what to say.

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