What I Learned As The Only Woman On My Team In The Tech Industry

Photographed by Kate Anglestein
Ginny Hogan is an LA-based writer and stand-up comedian. She's a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney's. Forbes recently profiled her as a rising satire star, and she was on this list of top humorists for 2019. She's just published her first book, Toxic Femininity in the Workplace with Morrow Gift, an imprint of HarperCollins. Here she tells the story that inspired her to write the book...
I worked as a data scientist in the tech industry in the US for three years. On two of four teams, I was the only woman (aka the lone voice of reason). During those years, I learned a small amount about mortgages, a medium amount about statistical inference, and an enormous amount about gender politics. Not a day went by without me witnessing a new manifestation of sexism – people are right, Silicon Valley is innovative!
I went to an all-girls school from the age of 5 to the age of 18, so men in general throw me. My first week of college, I was on what we call a co-ed (i.e. mixed) floor, and I saw a boy walk out of the shower in nothing but a towel. I called my mother and told her I thought I was overwhelmed and needed to come home (it didn’t help my anxiety that he was very cute). I became a maths major and was surrounded by men for the first time (how I managed to concentrate on the theorems is beyond me). Still, most of my friends were women, and I didn’t feel too overwhelmed by the culture.
Everything changed when I joined the tech industry. I was around almost all men and, unlike in school, I had to spend the days with them – I couldn’t leave when my classes were over. At times, I’d have one other woman on my team, and we always became close friends (we bonded over the shared experience of being the only two women, but I also think if we hadn’t become friends, our male colleagues would have been uncomfortable). I worked with a few men who were overtly terrible, but I also found that even among men who didn’t behave egregiously, there were still challenges to being the only woman on my team.
It can be difficult to tell during the interview process what a company will be like, so I learned to find people who’d worked there before to ask. Toxic masculinity is often much quieter than the people promulgating it. I was surrounded by aggressive men who yelled on the phone in the middle of cramped office spaces, but their sexist remarks came in at a lower decibel. One man suggested I wasn’t sufficiently interested in the company because I didn’t smile enough. Was he referencing my resting I-work-with-all-men-and-it-wears-me-out face? Another kept describing female candidates as "poor culture fits" but failed to provide any explanation why. Sometimes, it wasn’t subtle at all, like my former coworker who routinely called people "pussies". I had a marvellous time recounting that to the HR director when they finally decided to fire him. I didn’t want to say it out loud, so instead I just said it started with a 'p' and waited for him to guess. None of this would have been obvious during the interview process, though – I can’t really imagine deciding to join a company after watching someone throw a chair.
I learned that I represented all women to many of my male coworkers. I can’t count the number of times someone asked me for advice about texting a woman they’d gone out with (I once suggested a coworker write, "I had a really nice time last night, would you like to go out again?" and his mind was blown. Men are dumb). While I didn’t always dislike becoming friends with my coworkers, the downside was that if I made a mistake, I risked them thinking less of women in general.
I was a data scientist and wrote code most of the day, but I hadn’t been a computer science major in college and there was a lot I didn’t know about the specifics of certain databases and programming languages. I had colleagues who almost seemed to expect it when I made a mistake, and I found that so disheartening. I did work harder than my male coworkers, but I didn’t want to have to. Although this sounds like a joke, I do strongly support women’s right to be as mediocre at their jobs as men are. The tech industry is filled with lazy people who get by because they have a desirable skill set, and I don’t see why women shouldn’t get in on that.
As the only woman on my team, I developed empathy for anyone who feels separate from the rest of their community. Not much in life is actually a zero-sum game, and diversity certainly is not. I was on teams with only one or two people of colour, and some of their complaints bore strong resemblances to mine. A lack of diversity leads to groupthink where everyone is putting forth the same ideas, and it doesn’t matter if that diversity is across gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age or anything else. Companies that are interested in fresh ideas will prioritise hiring diverse candidates.
Tech startups are challenging because the culture asks for complete devotion. I’ve had managers suggest that if I were truly committed to the company’s mission, I wouldn’t care that my male coworker was throwing a chair. Still, workplace sexism is certainly not limited in scope. Sexism permeates every industry and possibly every individual company. As the only woman on my team, I learned a lot about how others perceive you when you’re different and how sexism can manifest in subtle ways. I stopped working in tech in 2017, though, and I’m hopeful. The #MeToo movement hadn’t started when I left, and I have noticed a massive change in the way women are empowered to call out negative experiences. While there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done, I feel optimistic about the future.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series