March 14, 2019

My Experience Being a Woman in Tech

Spoiler Alert:  It’s been great.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on bad behavior lately.  In just the past few days, I consumed both Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland. Both horrifically disturbing to watch. Then I started reading Emily Chang’s Brotopia, the tale of boys behaving badly in Silicon Valley. By the end of the weekend, the sum of this content caused me to pause and reflect on how all of these stories relate to my own experiences, if at all. As highlighted in Chang’s book, so much has been written about being a woman in tech over the last few years, primarily with an abundance of negative stories attached to it. This has largely NOT been my experience.

I grew up in a pretty traditional family. My father is a highly educated serial entrepreneur, and my mother worked in the home raising my younger brother and I. Much like many of us experience in our own workplaces, the people my dad worked with became his best friends, and ultimately good family friends over the years.  My first memory in life took place when I was four with one of these friends. My parents had bought their first new home, and my dad recruited a bunch of his colleagues/friends to help with the move. I remember sitting on the floor of my new bedroom, intently watching as my dad’s friend put together my first “big girl bed.”  I remember thinking how mature I felt in that moment, and how kind Tom was to lend a hand in making me feel that way. To me, he was a wonderful family friend who went on continuing supporting me as a started a career. To adults, he was a respected executive. The point is, this man was warm, kind and helpful to me, and didn’t make me feel “less than” because I was a kid.  That became my mental model of what working with men would be like. And over the next several decades, I learned I was largely right.

My first job in a hypergrowth consulting firm was largely run by a well-balanced mixture of men and women. Just out of college, I saw them working together collaboratively, and treating each other with respect. As the company grew larger, a bright young woman came in to play the role of Managing Director, and she raised the bar for all. In other words, my most formative experiences in business started with seeing women celebrated as equals; and the men they worked with believing this was the norm.

When I went on to my two next companies, I joined up and coming startups that are fairly stereotypical of what we often still see at the surface level in tech. Charismatic, talented and visionary CEOs, leadership teams made up of mostly men, and the majority of talent under the age of thirty. And yet, even then, I viewed the fact that I was a woman as a competitive advantage, not a detriment. These men made it easy to feel like, “Sure I might be the only woman in the room, but that just provides me with a unique point of view I can contribute to getting us to a better solution.”

When one enters into these hyper-growth environments, there is no doubt that just about everyone feels some degree of imposter syndrome at some point. Regardless of your skills and experience, you are forced into a world where there often isn’t a clear cut right answer, and you must collaborate and take some disciplined risks to survive and thrive. I consider myself fortunate to have partnered with some exceptional people - both men and women - to build some pretty exceptional companies. And along the way, of course, I dealt with some bad behavior.  I’ve had my a** grabbed on numerous occasions. I’ve been told my work was irrelevant by older men who didn’t understand or value it. I’ve felt left out when the boys go off to football games and didn’t invite me. And yet, I’ve also had a senior woman leader suggest I was moving quickly up the ladder because a male mentor must be giving me “special favors.” I’ve had female peers talk trash because I was able to build successful relationships with executives. In other words, acting like a jerk is genderless. And it’s how we choose to respond to it that’s important.

When I was in college, I interned in a software company. One day, my job was to fetch coffee during a board meeting. Rather than get upset that I was being asked to serve a bunch of men, I took it as an opportunity to ask these board members questions and attempt to connect with them. They didn’t ignore me; rather, they seemed impressed that I was courageous enough to engage. I didn’t view it as being bold or audacious, or “finding my voice.” I just chose to think of it as “these are just people with more experience than me. I can learn from them.”  And when the inevitable bad behavior did happen, like when male colleagues touched me inappropriately, I’ve responded with a simple, “WTF are you doing?” It stopped immediately. And when women talked trash, I didn’t try to convince them otherwise. I just ignored them. Nothing pisses off a bully more than not letting them get to you. I learned it was up to me to take control of the situation, not let the situation take control of me.

I’ve heard it said numerous times over the last year, “It’s a tough time to be a white guy.”  I don’t agree; unless of course you are a white guy who happens to be a total a**. There are people who behave badly just about everywhere - it’s not limited to the Valley, and it’s not limited to men.  And yet, it’s our responsibility not just treat people the way we’d like to be treated, but to not allow others to treat us badly in the first place.  I appreciate not everyone feels like they have the confidence or the voice to speak up, but it’s a critical business skill each of us must learn. “Knock it off” shouldn’t be difficult words for anyone to utter, regardless of the circumstance. I’ve found that when they are in fact spoken, it’s actually quite effective.

Yes, there are toxic environments, and bad people operating within them.  However, it’s been my experience that there are far more people who are working hard to build professional, collaborative and productive relationships. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with men and women during my career who have helped to create that dynamic, as well as been exposed to a handful of jerks. Surviving and thriving comes with holding the bar high with the people I choose to work with (company culture really matters) and speaking up when things aren’t working.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.