On women in tech, and why this all matters.

I was a theatre geek in high school. I was a musician first, which transitioned nicely into musical theatre, and then I settled down with a local theatre company that gave me opportunities for straight dramatic roles. I have never been satisfied with only knowing one side of the process, so I spent a few years working in technical theatre as well. I’ve never had an ear for sound, but lighting appealed to me immensely. Being a good lighting designer requires an artistic vision, an understanding of space and the people who will fill it, but executing that vision requires a strong technical knowledge base as well. I moved on from theatre over a decade ago, but I still regularly pull out things I learned then to apply to the motion design work I do now.

My usual partner in crime – who wore the hat of producer, director, technical producer, and lighting director over the course of our time together – was a year older than myself, considerably taller, bigger and stronger. He and I raced all over town for years, carefully constructing a deathtrap Jenga game of light fixtures filling every square inch of my 1990 Mercury Sable. We’d walk into dark spaces we had memorized from previous collisions with knees and elbows, taking longer than you’d imagine to realize we hadn’t actually turned on a light yet. We moved heavy things from place to place, always inevitably choosing the wrong one first and having to do it all over again. I was small, but I was fast, and I didn’t mind sweating a lot.

Our usual work day involved me hanging heavy pieces of equipment above my head while he shouted orders from the lighting booth. We were both happiest this way – he had about 50 pounds on me at the time, a number that becomes extremely important when you’re teetering atop a 1970s cherry picker two stories above a stage. (My mother once walked in to bring us lunch, saw that I had tangled my legs up in the bars of the cherry picker so that I could make myself an inch or two taller, and promptly walked back out. She called ahead of time from there on out whenever she knew I was having a lighting day.)

Our roles were unspoken, him and I. I was smaller and loved heights; he had the vision and needed to watch what was happening from afar and wanted as little to do with being 30 feet above a stage as possible. I ended up with most of the bruises and there’s a particularly great story about slicing my entire right hand open when I was unscrewing a fixture in the dark and didn’t realize I was running my fingers over a piece of jagged metal over and over and over. But it only made sense for us to do things that way. And after all of that respect for my strength and ability, at least once per production, I’d be asked by someone I barely knew if I needed a big, strong man to come do the real lifting for me.

 

My first college internship interview was a disaster. I was 19 years old, only a few short quarters into my design education. I was too young to afford real business attire, so I hustled together my most professional ensemble, prepared my portfolio, and went to downtown Cincinnati to meet with an agency that appeared to do great work. After making me wait 25 minutes past the scheduled time, I was pulled into a room with a creative director whose first question to me was “So, what is digital design, anyway?” The question struck me off guard, since this company had approached my digital design internship head and asked for qualified candidates.

He asked me two more questions after that and didn’t bother looking at my portfolio. He took me around the office so I could see the space and meet all of his colleagues, confirming that the only woman employed there was the one sitting at the reception desk. I got in my car, called my internship advisor, told her that I just had the worst interview of my life, and went home. A female classmate of mine shared the same experience with me the next morning in line for coffee. I wasn’t angry until I spoke to one of my male classmates the next day who had an hour-long interview where they joked around the whole time and gave constructive criticism on his portfolio. He got the job the next day.

 

When I was 21 years old, a few short weeks away from getting married, my digital design class required me to work on an animatic telling a personal story. I chose to focus on the stress of the wedding process, for a couple of reasons. One, it was a story with which I was intimately familiar by that point. Two, my entire home was covered in wedding bullshit, which meant I had infinite props for 4 a.m. “it’d be great if I had just one more shot” photo shoots.

If I hadn’t been so young and so stressed, maybe I would have seen the inherent problem there – I was already pushed to my brink, and I was choosing to submit my personal story for critique to a room of seventeen men, one female classmate (one of my bridesmaids, incidentally), and a female professor known for ripping ideas to shreds. My then-fiance and I had a particularly impressive fight one night, stress-fueled and loud and dishonest, and there was nothing I wanted less than to finish the rough draft of that animation. Grades are grades, and I was paying about $7000 per ten-week quarter as an out-of-state student, so I did it anyway. It was hastily completed, largely unsuccessful, but I had trapped myself into a corner.

My professor tore it apart, and she was probably right to do so. It was when she got repetitive and continued to make me feel like the worst third-year designer alive that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I tried repeatedly to get myself out of that conversation, because there was nothing more to get out of that feedback loop. The way it all happened is lost to time, but I realized I was going to break, and I was choking back tears. Her barrage of criticism continued even though everyone in the room realized that it had gone too far, and I walked out of the class. Seventeen men, my colleagues and my competition for limited internships, watched a woman twenty years my senior call “There’s no crying in design” after me, as if I didn’t know that already. (Verbatim. Real story.)

 

The above stories are just a small snippet of the ridiculous things people have said to me throughout my lifetime about my gender and my ability to perform in my field as a result of it. Overall, I am privileged to have led a life filled with emotional support. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family, and we struggled my entire life. I took on my own student loans, and aside from a couple hundred dollars here and there from my parents when they could afford it, have supported myself since the day I turned 18. My parents and grandparents recognized my independence and headstrong nature at a young age and would never have dreamed of telling me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. They did not blink when I moved across the country to pursue whatever it was I wanted at the time, nor when I did it again, nor when I did it a couple more times after that. The suggestion that I cannot do something because I am a woman is not one that I’ve heard out of the mouths of anyone who professes to care about me, and I am grateful for that.

My mother lives with a woman and her soon-to-be fifteen year old daughter. She’s a talented violinist and loves to draw; the fact that she still runs to her room whenever I’m in town to show me her latest creation is one of the greatest joys in my life. She is smart and thoughtful and kind and I have an awful lot of faith in the person she’s going to grow up to be. I’ve known her for over seven years now and she’s changed her life plans as many times as you’d imagine. I’m not sure what she wants to be these days, but (despite having a mother who went back to school to begin a career in IT later in life) I imagine she won’t end up taking a career in tech.

If she did, on paper I’d be a pretty good advisor for her. I’m fourteen years her senior. I live in San Francisco and work in tech. I’ve been my own boss for five and a half years. There have been ups and downs, but overall my career has been wildly successful. By the age of 28 I’ve worked hard and have enough to be proud of, even though I’m not the CEO of my own startup. I like creating things much more than I like having meetings, and I’ve chosen to make my career move a little slower so I could develop the skills I was never all that good at.

The real problem is that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’d tell a young girl who wants to get into tech today. I genuinely believe that if you want something and you work hard, you can have it. As a person with six figures worth of student debt to get this career, I know it’s not easy. It’s hard to understand the world when you’re 18 years old and it’s even harder, at 18 years old, to know that.

I have worked with two female creative directors over the course of my career. Two. Total. (And they were spectacular.) I have worked with thousands of people in my lifetime with hundreds of clients and companies, and I have worked with two women in high-level positions of power in my industry. I have never been in a meeting with a female developer. I’m not the only female designer I know, thankfully, which occasionally gives me hope that the industry is changing and balancing a little. If the female designers I know that are at my level stay in the industry, in theory I’ll be seeing quite a few female directors ten years from now. I hope that theory is right.

I have worked with brilliant, thoughtful male creative directors. Men who understand people, who listen patiently and think for a second before they respond, who are empathic and produce beautiful work and care about the people who produce it with them. I have seen many successful projects completed by teams that did not have women on them whatsoever. So why is it important?

Perspective is everything, and some things can only be understood as we live them. I can’t tell you why there should be more women in “tech”, as a whole, because there are too many branches of tech that my life hasn’t crossed. For me to pretend like I understand everything about tech circles I don’t participate in would be exactly as harmful as men pretending they know everything about a female audience. I don’t believe that gender balance on a team is more important than (or cancels out) the need for any other sort of diversity. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Why do we need that sort of diversity? Because two dudes stood up at TechCrunch to give a presentation on their new app Titstare. Because a highly-compensated CTO’s poor finger got tired blocking everyone who had the nerve to mention that maybe women are underrepresented in this industry. Because the Texas legislature decided it was okay to confiscate tampons, and the NFL wants to make sure you display them as you wind through a male-dominated crowd at a game. Because smart young women are being turned away from tech because of asshole 16-year-old kids in their programming classes, and male teachers sit there doing nothing to stop it. By letting the industry be bad and unappealing now, we are not laying groundwork for the industry to get better. Why would a young woman want to get into this industry? The only advice I can give a young woman right now is that you have to want it and you have to fight, and I know in my heart that isn’t the same advice I’d give a young man.

The reason we need diversity in this industry is that we are making things for a variety of people. Women are buying your products, subscribing to your services. You can hire a market research firm to tell you what women want, or you can save yourself a few bucks over time and hire a couple of ’em yourself to see how your organization changes. If there’s another reason for all-male teams than “because it’s way more convenient to tell dick jokes when everyone in the room has one”, I would love to hear it.

And if your reason is “because there are no qualified women out there”, hell, you might be right. The talent pool is smaller. I would have a very hard time not hiring a highly qualified man because I was waiting for a highly qualified woman to come along. I bristled on a kickoff call a few months ago when a female account director confided in me how happy she was to find a woman to work with because things just go so much easier when it’s all women, you know? The problem exists on both sides. If you genuinely feel that way – that you’d hire a woman if there were any out there worth hiring – just try to be conscious of why you can’t find any. If you can’t find qualified female employees and you know a woman who might be interested in tech, maybe take five minutes and have a chat with her about why our industry is so great. That we create things, that we can help people, that we’re all working hard to make each other better. (And if you say all that, I’d really appreciate it if you meant it.) That is the advice I want to give to young women.

If all goes to plan, I’ve likely got about forty more years in this industry. I have reason to doubt that we’ll ever see a 50-50 gender split. But I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a little closer.

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