Allies, put your career where your mouth is.
There is no fire under any tech company’s ass to change their ways. Over the past few years, we’ve seen every major tech company release a statement about their abysmal numbers, their token efforts to improve, and how much they value diversity and inclusion at their companies. It’s been a feel-good hug fest where everyone gets an A for effort.
Yet from the same companies, we see all this talk of not lowering the bar, tolerating of abusive behavior from their employees, and unwillingness to hire from the existing pipeline. How could this behavior be so pervasive when tech companies claim to be so concerned about diversity and inclusion?
When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.
At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.
Back in December, I wrote an article for Model View Culture. You can find it here. I’m proud of it because it’s my first paid article ever and it deals with a topic that had bothered me about the tech industry and women’s advocacy efforts in general. Enjoy!
Update: Because MVC is no longer publishing, I have re-printed my article here for posterity. Continue reading
I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.
So you organized an outreach event or program for a marginalized group that you care about and you’re really excited about doing your part to improve diversity in your field. You’re all pumped about your work, but then you start receiving negative comments that accuse you of being sexist/racist/etc. for putting so much focus on your chosen minority group rather than providing resources for the whole group. In my case, this usually takes the form of complaints about sexism and inequality in the outreach programs that I organize for women in tech — why aren’t there similar scholarships and conferences for men? Why aren’t there men’s-only tech events?
I don’t know when it became uncool to be sincere. I used to think it was a problem with kids these days, but it seems to occur among people of all ages. I have a hard time defining the exact attitude that I’m so bothered by, but it’s… it’s the embarrassment and shame that is somehow associated with hard work, sincerity, and failing at something you tried so hard for.
In an ideal world, you would be perfectly prepared for technical interviews before having to go through them and you would know exactly what to say. For most people (myself included), however, that first interview is a complete mystery — you have no idea what to say or do or expect. I wanted to compile my personal list of preparation reminders so that I have a semi-permanent reference for people who ask me for advice!
The trivialization of women’s interests throughout history and what we can learn for the future
In the 1920s, flight attending was a predominately male profession. Passengers were fearful of this new mode of transportation; having an all white, male staff reassured them of the safety of commercial airlines. These men were perceived as capable, competent members of the crew, right alongside the pilot in importance. It was only after World War II, when women took over the job as men left for war, that flight attendants lost their respect, instead becoming sexualized and trivialized.
One of my favorite outreach activities at Stanford is being a Project Motivation panelist for ethnic/socioeconomic minority high school students. As a panelist, I talk about what it was like for me to go to a low performing high school, what they can do to get into a good college, and what doubts I had about going to a competitive university. Participating in these types of panels requires a different form of empathy and understanding that isn’t as necessary in regular college admissions panels.
There is a particular moment that keeps ringing in my mind when I think about college admissions and the way we talk to minority students.
I was answering the usual questions students tend to want to hear about: my high school preparation, financial aid, and leaving my hometown. One student asked about how to set himself apart from other students in his personal statement.
Another panelist gave the spiel everyone has heard at least once in their lives: just follow your passions, find something you’re truly dedicated to, start a charity, build something cool, etc. He glowed as he talked about making movies with his friends, then going on to do film studies at Stanford.
I could feel the tension building behind each student’s eyes.
In my natural state, I am a sloth. Setting aside basic human needs, I would nearly always choose curling up in a warm bed over having to deal with the outside world. The outside world is loud and unpredictable and kind of smells weird. My bed is soft and warm and comfortable.
On my way home from work, I was thinking about why I bother to do anything. Sure, I enjoy things like learning and eating tasty food, but school is stressful and buying food requires interacting with people. Why do I get so worked up over my grades and other little things when none of it will really matter, anyway? I could be okay with living a life of minimal effort. I could avoid anything that requires exertion.
I reached the stairwell of my apartment building. It was pretty dark out, but I could still see the steps. I only had to walk up two flights of stairs. I mindlessly wondered whether I should turn the light on for such a short distance.
Why do I ever choose anything but bed?
What’s the point of turning on the light when it’ll take less than a minute to get inside? It might disturb my neighbors. It stays on for a set amount of time, so it’ll stay on after I get inside. I don’t like the dark, but I can get upstairs just the same either way. It’s a waste of electricity. It seems like a bother for such a short distance. The end result won’t change and it’s really the most insignificant thing in the world. It doesn’t matter.
Why do I do anything?
I turned on the light.