Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Invisible - Experiences of a Woman in Tech
Reading time: about 6 minutes
This blog post is very personal and sharing it makes me very vulnerable. So please, respect that. And please, just please don't come and tell me it's all my fault or that I have imagined it all. Because I haven't.
Throughout my career, I've felt invisible. It's these small things - My man colleague being asked about a feature, even though I'm leading its development, or someone forgetting to add my team of one into their slide deck where every other team in the company is included. Or when the men in the room constantly speak over me. Or when it's known that I'm the most knowledgeable person on a certain topic, and still a man specifically asking another man in the group to answer his advanced questions on that topic.
As an isolated incident, it's not that bad - I can understand that communication hasn't worked as it should have, and someone didn't know I was responsible or that my team even existed. Or that a man just happened to ask another man this time.
But when it happens regularly from multiple people, pretty much in every workplace I've ever worked in tech, it hurts. It hurts like hell. I feel like I'm invisible, like I or my work doesn't matter. I feel like I'm fighting against something intangible I cannot win because it's too powerful.
Sometimes, after a long week full of these occasions, which have left me feeling invisible, I can't do anything else but cry because I'm so freaking exhausted. I feel so powerless.
And what happens if I try to speak up? Well, I'm that angry woman - or just dismissed or forgotten. Or I get greeted with, "Well that person clearly didn't mean it that way." Maybe what hurts the most is when someone says (repeatedly) that they're going to do something about it, but they never do anything.
Of course, this doesn't happen from everyone or in every instance, but it has happened regularly enough for me to notice it. I remember my first job in tech and how some people treated me like I didn't know anything and that I never would. At the time, I assumed that that's how it is, but reflecting on those encounters has made me understand that it wasn't me; it was them.
I remember being dismissed, not listened to, and sometimes completely ignored in the jobs following the first. I've been left out of a meeting invite as the only woman in the group. I also remember being called too aggressive and too angry.
And I'm not the only one. Women and other minorities in tech face these same experiences all over the world. And there is a word for it: Microaggressions.
Many of the things I've described above are microaggressions. Kevin Nadal, who is a professor in psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, defines microaggressions:
Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.
The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware of them.
(Source: Andrew Limbong: Microaggressions are a big deal: How to talk them out and when to walk away)
Jennifer Y. Kim and Alyson Meister have researched microaggressions women face in STEM workplaces. In the article, they first define what microaggressions are and how they can be classified. Let's have a closer look.
Microaggressions can be classified into three types, ranging in levels of subtlety:
The first one, microassault, explicitly demeans women, like, by calling them a "bitch". Microinsults, on the other hand, are more subtle comments or behaviors - such as when a manager calls only man employees to the meeting. In this case, the subtle message is that man's work is more valuable.
The third one, microinvalidation, is comments or behaviors negating women's experiences with gender discrimination. Examples include things like gaslighting ("Sexism is a thing of a past!") and invalidating the lived experience of women. (Source: Jennifer Y. Kim & Alyson Meister: Microaggressions, Interrupted: The Experience and Effects of Gender Microaggressions for Women in STEM)
Further, they write about problems these microaggressions cause for women in STEM. Problems include threats to woman's identity, as they're subtly challenging their legitimacy as leaders, a burden by the difficulty of decoding microaggressions, and the effects on one's (mental) health - burnout is real.
For the research, they interviewed 39 women leaders in STEM in North America with various backgrounds. From the material, they found five types of microaggressions:
- Devaluation of technical competence
- Devaluation of physical presence
- Denial of one's reality
- Pathologizing one's character
- Pathologizing one's gender
The other theme they were researching was the meaning of allyship. Let's talk about that in the next section.
The Meaning of Allyship
Kim and Meister found in their research that the intervention from allies was essential in keeping women from leaving STEM fields. I couldn't agree more. Reading the research paper, I could also put some feelings into words and understand why an ally stepping up has felt so great.
Usually, allies are defined as someone from the dominant group. In the case of gender and tech, by that definition, allies are often men. It's imperative that members of the dominant group help with the efforts to bring more equality, as the non-dominant group alone can't change the status quo.
However, in their study, Kim and Meister defined allies and ally interventions more broadly, including, e.g., more senior women stepping up in the events of microaggressions. And that's how I mean allyship in this blog post - something anyone can and, depending on the situation (e.g., assuming it's safe), should do.
The types of interventions from allies Kim and Meister found fell into two categories: domain-related and person-related. The first, domain-related, was about acknowledging one's technical skills (e.g., vouching publicly for a woman's technical skills after someone had doubted or minimized them). The second one, person-related, was about acknowledging the microaggressions women face and validating the experiences of women.
From my experience, the interventions of allies have often helped me understand and handle the situation and reframe it in my mind. I've recognized that I wasn't imagining the problem: someone else has noticed it too. And further, as Kim and Meister write, it has interrupted the internalization process - otherwise, I would have internalized the thoughts about me not being competent enough, of me not belonging in tech.
This is the call to action to anyone who can: When you see these microaggressions happening, step up and talk about it - especially if you are a leader or in a more senior position.
Microaggressions suck. As isolated incidents, they're small things, but when they happen repeatedly, they build this colossal load which can eventually lead to health problems and women and other minorities leaving tech. So we need to do better.
Think about your work environment. What could you do to prevent microaggressions from happening?
- Andrew Limbong: Microaggressions are a big deal: How to talk them out and when to walk away
- Jennifer Y. Kim & Alyson Meister: Microaggressions, Interrupted: The Experience and Effects of Gender Microaggressions for Women in STEM