What’s Hard About Being “The First” or “The Only” in Tech? All of This.

Being the only woman on a team (or at a company) – especially when belonging to additional marginalized groups – is harmful to one’s career, mental wellbeing, and physical safety (McKinsey & Co, 2019).

Lately, I’ve noticed these statistics aren’t “clicking” for my clients: well-meaning mostly white, mostly male leaders. And, since the swell of interest this Summer, I’ve noticed diversity efforts and gender inclusion initiatives stalling out a bit.

To help reinvigorate the work of inclusion in tech, I surveyed and then hosted two open sessions on “Surviving Tech” for those who are often “the first” or “the only” or “somehow different” in terms of any under-represented identities.

My collaborator and I asked these 120 multi-racial, multi-gendered techies, “what’s hard about being “the first” / “the only” in tech?”

Their answers were crushing, unsurprising, and motivating. Their reflections spoke to six main ways tech is failing women and non-binary people, techies of Color, queer/trans folks, and especially those of us who belong to more than one marginalized community:

Hostility and culture issues

  • “All day it’s offensive humor in earshot; and I get called out for eavesdropping or being “over-sensitive” when I say anything”
  • “Even nice people are just not aware about what’s not cool anymore. Words that just shouldn’t fly today and racist emojis from white people.”
  • “When I was hired, the guys played “tricks” on me, denying me access from systems I needed to use for my job.”
  • “I didn’t have a title for 1.7 years and so they made me do all this grunt work…and then they told me I wasn’t ready for the raise or new title.” 
  • “You’d be amazed at the level of straight up sexual harassment in tech even after #metoo”
  • “Bullying and rudeness”
  • “Interruptions all the time’
  • “Everything’s just supposedly a “joke” to the engineers but it’s frankly racist and unkind to the gay community”
  • “Working in startups without HR depts to curb unfair behavior”

Getting overlooked

  • “Being given projects that don’t challenge me”
  • “Getting obviously underpaid”
  • “Being left out of the important meetings”
  • “Not being taken seriously on my team”
  • “I’m so demoralized by seeing Cis white men with inflated titles compared to their skills get promoted above me: a seasoned person” 
  • “Promotion / climb up ladder / job searching – as Black and female”
  • “Being given the ‘girly’ tasks – like keeping the team organized (I’m an engineer).
  • “Getting told I’m not ready for promotion, but then getting asked to train someone (a rescind college grad white male) much more junior for the role – ‘because he had promise’.”
  • “I wonder if there’s something wrong with me: in my last job I was in a much higher role. Here, they said “you’re not there yet” but when I asked what it would take: silence.”

“Being under-estimated is really taking a toll on me.”

  • “Major self-doubt and self criticism from seeing no one like me.”
  • “I take three times as long as my colleagues to make sure it’s perfect on the first try (I’m getting burned out).”
  • “Being an “only” – especially in leadership is rough.”
  • “I feel called to allyship for everyone who’s not a CIS straight white man.”
  • “I do lots of second-guessing myself.”
  • “I’m very impacted by the thoughts and words of people I don’t respect who keep bringing me down.”
  • “I guess I’m giving up: I don’t market my skills and accomplishments as well as I should.“

“It’s lonely as hell.”

  • “I get talked over, ignored, repeated, or disrespected in ways I’m certain my colleagues don’t even understand.” 
  • “I crave finding like-minded folks excited about new tech but from a similar class and background.”
  • “I’m the first non-binary tech cofounder in my company and in my social group.”
  • “I’m the first woman on the engineering side – they’re always making a thing out of my gender; it’s a lot of pressure.”
  • “I feel like I’m the crazy one.” 
  • “I’m so damn lonely.“

It’s hard to “be myself”.

  • “It’s hard to figure out “authenticity” and “vulnerability” in a super-homogenous tech (bro) culture, so I just shut myself down.”
  • “Not sure how cool it is to be “out” as a progressive – in my leadership role.”
  • “Everyone seems cool, but I’m not 100% ready to “come out” there; it’s weird because I’m “out” everywhere else.”
  • “There’s shame in being new to tech”
  • “I’m tired of working in spaces where I can not be in my wholeness.”
  • “I don’t even feel like myself anymore in this culture.”

I’m not sure how to make change (without repercussions)

  • “Advocating for inclusion without being “that person”.”
  • “Knowing when to stand up for myself (and when to let it lie).”
  • “I want to learn how to care for, and create space for people who have been marginalized and ensure that as many people as I can, are embraced and exposed to their full potential in a respectful and comfortable way.”
  • “The battle and balance of hiring more diverse candidates.”
  • “Exhaustion.” 
  • “When to stay quiet and survive and when to push back.”
  • “I want to help breakdown stereotypes and bring more Diversity & Inclusion within tech.”

Being marginalized in tech – especially as an “only” – can cause slowed career growth, loneliness, burnout, role confusion, self-doubt, lack of critical thought partnership, and a feeling of being torn about “speaking up” to make it better. 

My hope in sharing these quotations is that the words of these individuals will re-awaken all of us to the need for real change in companies.

Emily Meghan Morrow Howe

Emily Meghan Morrow Howe

Femily (aka Emily Meghan Morrow Howe) is Silicon Valley's Gender/Equity Advisor. She is a management consultant and public speaker on gender in tech and other male-majority industries. She often speaks on and writes about how "good guys" can be great allies as well as allyship across all diversities.

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