…because some thoughts are worth remembering
There are hundreds of “meetups”, events, conferences and workshops every week on a variety of topics in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I go to startup or tech meetups, the room is filled with a younger white male crowd. When I signed up to go to a Girl Geek Dinner, I wasn’t sure what to expect, except for engaging conversation with other women in tech, because this event sells out in minutes and there is even a year’s wait list for industry sponsors to host the gathering.
When the formal portion of the program began at the Palo Alto branch of Tableau Software, a visualization software company, I had already enjoyed meeting a few students, several folks older than I am, and listened to concerns they seemed to have recently learned how to articulate, but, for better or worse, ones I was way too familiar with. Among the 4 panelists from Tableau was a man, staring back at a sea of Girl Geeks in the packed room, who wanted to be here because he felt passionately about the cause, and his development team is almost half female!
When the dreaded obligatory question about life-work balance was asked, I applauded the panelist who pointed out why this question seems to surface only at women’s events, and is posed only to female panelists. I’m glad the audience encouraged the male panelist to answer. (His answer? 1. Be explicit about your priorities and communicate them to your team. 2. Be consistent about your end time. If you set your schedule to leave work at 5pm, leave at 5pm even if one day, you can stay til 6pm.)
While this exchange was going on, I realized what was different about this room, other than men being replaced with women. It was the diversity among the women I saw that struck me. Many with foreign accents, different shades of skin tone, and of all ages, who represented startups as well as established companies.
“Making it” as a woman in a discipline dominated by men is, indeed, more challenging than in a discipline that is more gender equal. So I wondered if being different from the usual white male youth that dominates the startup arena in another dimension besides being female actually helped thrive in this field, rather than being an additional penalty or a handicap.
Here’s my reasoning:
In my experience, being an immigrant, I already know that the norm in my new country isn’t optimized for people like me. So I know implicitly that things can get more difficult for me, or things may feel unfair. In short, it’s not meant to be easy. I’ve learned to wear this disadvantage not as a victim but as a badge of honor as an immigrant, because it justifies me being here. If I wanted things to be easy, I could have stayed “with my own people”. I took a different road. I had a strong drive that comes from self-competition. If I was going to feel or be mediocre, I could have done that “back home”. The struggle for excellence, whether I thought the game was rigged or not, fueled me in a way that one’s identity is shaped by one’s experience.
Maybe I built a thick skin, maybe I honed a skill set necessary to dismiss the nay sayers (“You are never going to be as good as the native speakers.” or “Oh I thought Japanese are good test takers.”) or maybe I didn’t spend as much time trying to control what other people thought and how they treated me and focused my energy on making it regardless of the environment.
Could it be that these women who shared that evening with me came from a similar mental space I did? I’m not sure. All I know is that the questions these women were posing, they didn’t sound like victims wanting to file complaints, but driven to find answers, learn the tools to lean into the world that was created without them in mind, and to help reinvent that world.
It was a privilege to be part of all of it, and I look forward to finding ways to frame the right questions, continue to lean in, while reshaping the community in a way that I can leave it better than I found it.
Photo: Troll sculpture under a bridge in Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, where the HQ of Tableau Software is.