My “Feminist” Tech Workplace Was So Not Feminist

The surprising ways misogyny reared its ugly (and often invisible) head.

Zulie Rane
9 min readMar 26, 2019
Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

Fresh out of college, at my first job, I thought I’d made it into the only female-positive technological workspace in existence. I’d read the horror stories of what it was like to be a woman in tech and I was prepared to do battle. But when I arrived, I found no resistance.

There were women in leadership positions. Women in technological positions. Women driving innovation, change, experimentation. I mean, sure, all the developers were male, and most of the leadership roles were male. But there were a few women! In visible positions of power!

And now, I was one of them. I was a fabled Woman In Tech.

Admittedly, I was in a support role (as the only woman out of five support employees). But still: there I was, working in tech while female, and not being harassed, beleaguered, mistrusted, mansplained to, or undermined.

And for the first few months, it really seemed like that was it. It was a dream, where my opinions were respected and my colleagues believed in me. I was thrilled to be seen as an authority by my field, trusted to demonstrate to important clients.

Alas, it was not to last.

The first instance was innocuous enough.

“You’re so funny and cute.”

I’d just created my support profile, which meant for the first time when I answered a customer question, they could see my actual name rather than a generic “Support Team” signature.

And that was the response to the very first named ticket I answered.

“You’re so funny and cute.”

I showed it to my coworkers, expecting them to find it as annoying and demeaning as I did. But I was disappointed — they found it laughable. They told me it would undoubtedly be an advantage, that customers would go easier on me.

“Plus, you are pretty cute,” said one coworker, pointing out I’d included a smiley in my answer. I said I’d included smileys in previous answers, and that other men included smileys in theirs, too. His response? Well then, it was clearly a coincidence. Nothing important.

The message was obvious: get used to it, it isn’t serious, and, if anything, be grateful for the special treatment.

Then it got a little more insidious.

While I worked there, I became good friends with the only other woman in our office area — an intern, but still a Woman In Tech like me. Her name was Hannah.

She started before me, and she showed me all the ropes — where the tea was, which bathroom to avoid, which men were creepy. It’s no exaggeration to say she was one of my closest friends at work — we chatted all the time, hung out outside of work, and got to know each other really well.

There were two reactions to this.

The first was shock. I was told, multiple times by multiple people, that when the news was announced that there would be another woman working there, people expected me and Hannah to hate each other. Like be enemies.

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

People (men) thought there could Only Be One Woman In Tech. There was no doubt in their minds that we would be thirsting for the monopoly on male attention, and when we banded together instead, there was surprise, and not a little disappointment.

“I was so shocked when you both became such good friends.”

Why did they expect us to compete? The only other woman in my immediate area, and they expected us to be fighting for the men to like us best? Why could they not conceive that we’d get along as friends?

The ones who didn’t expect us to fight, once they saw how well we got along, expected us to be very good friends. There were insinuations about how much we liked each other, joking requests that we kiss, hug, touch. I was asked if our periods had synched up yet, and others wanted to know if we’d ever seen each other naked.

I laughed it off (because that was the only response that was really available to me). I felt a little more excluded.

Rumors plagued the senior (female) leadership.

Then, as I got more situated in the company, the rumors began to hit my ears.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

They were scandalous, contradictory, and hypocritical. The men around me gossiped constantly about how one of our managers (Felicity) was an ice queen, a lesbian who hated men. In the same breath, they revealed to me that she had slept with another manager, causing him to break up with his wife, with whom he had two beautiful children.

One of the women was allegedly drunk all the time, which was the only possible explanation for her messy hair and unkempt clothing. The other woman was a gossip queen, good only for keeping up with the best rumors around town. But you couldn’t joke around with her, because she was stuck up and frigid.

I tried to understand how and why these women were being targeted like this. Obviously, they were unpopular. Clearly, they’d done something to deserve it. I searched for some kind of meaning in the patterns that were emerging, desperate that it be anything other than the incredibly apparent truth:

They were simply women in tech. This was their lot. There was no escape.

Finally, the rumors hit me.

While at the company as support staff, I took a stint in Product Testing in order to better understand the product we were selling. It meant I worked away from my usual desk, with other testers and developers. I was excited. I was good at it. I had an eye for spotting small issues that flew under the radar of the testers looking for big mistakes.

I was unafraid to ask for help, and I was openly grateful when I received it.

“They only help you because you’re a girl.”

Another recent addition to the support team also did some time in Product Testing. He was sullen, argumentative, uncommunicative. It came as no surprise (to me) that people in that team liked me more when I came along.

But it surprised others.

I started hearing comments about how I’d flirted with the men in order to get them to like me.

Photo by @Matthew_T_Rader on Unsplash

I saw imitations of how I allegedly fluttered my eyelashes and waved my fingers. I watched as it was suggested that I’d unbuttoned my top by one button, to get some attention. I heard jokes about how I’d probably sleep with them if that’s what it took to get them to like me.

When I kicked up a fuss, people said it was obviously true and that I was bothered they’d spotted it. When I laughed and let it slide, it kept happening. I brought it up with my assigned mentor, who told me that I should keep my head down and keep working hard.

To them, it was inconceivable that my positive attitude, obvious talent, or even tendency to talk to people instead of grunting at them could possibly explain why I was more successful in this tiny role change.

It was a toxic environment. I got out.

I can’t stress enough how horrifying it was to discover that my mecca, my feminist oasis which would allow me to be a Woman In Tech, was actually a thinly-veiled cesspit of misogyny. But what was more horrifying was that I didn’t immediately start looking for a way out. Instead, I started looking for a way to fit in.

I wish I’d stood up more for the other women. I wish they’d stood up more for me. We were struggling in isolation, each believing that the only way we’d be accepted was alone.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Our talent was overlooked, our ideas mocked, our lives made gossip-fodder. Our concerns were ignored, minimized, and pushed under the carpet. The serious accusations that harmed our careers and standing within the company were treated like jokes.

But I didn’t see it like that.

At that point, my head was still deeply underwater. I couldn’t — didn’t want to — believe that a tech company with such progressive attitudes and women in leadership roles could be as misogynistic as I felt it was.

Instead I felt like it had to be me. I was only seeing the negative, making a big deal about small things. I was being oversensitive — so like a girl — and if I couldn't make it here, in the most feminist of tech companies, I wouldn’t be able to make it anywhere.

So when I was suddenly and surprisingly made redundant along with 20% of the company, I was devastated.

I was sad because I’d finally started to fit in. I’d started making the raunchy jokes, drinking beer, gossiping about Felicity and laughing it off when someone suggested Hannah and I make out while on a night out.

I felt like I was on the cusp of becoming accepted for myself, when I was actually on the cusp of completely giving up and giving in. Getting kicked out of the boys club was the best thing that happened to me — not that I saw it like that.

Distance helped me see it for what it was.

Now, looking back, the outright discrimination was appalling. But worse was that I had stopped seeing it. In my drive to become accepted, I’d begun to overlook it.

When I started telling my friends about getting laid off, people tried commiserate with me, saying it was all for the best, and that I was lucky to be out of it. At first, I resisted. I felt like I hadn’t been good enough for the company, that they’d got rid of me because I was expendable and low-quality. I’d never be one of the men in charge.

But then I started remembering how I’d protested at first. I remembered how weird it’d seemed, that they tried to pit Hannah and me against each other. How the gossip-mill only seemed to affect women. How I was patronised, belittled, demeaned. And I remembered that it’s not oversensitive to stand up for yourself in meetings, to demand to be taken seriously.

Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

It’s possible there isn’t a single well-balanced feminist company in existence, not yet anyway. But now I’m prepared to step up and do the work. I know the warning signs and I listen to the alarm bells. I am ready to put in the effort so that one day, there will be a workplace that is feminist in more than just company recruitment memos, but in theory and practice.

Where I work now is not perfect by any means. Like any company — and especially one in technology — there are moments that ring alarm bells. For one, all the people in charge are white men. All the developers are white men. My role, though it has a great deal to do with our technology, is often put down by male clients. And I can’t risk offending them.

But I can recognize it. I can work to make it better, for myself and for the other women who work there. I’ve seen it be far worse, after all, and that gives me the strength to speak up now.