“Must’ve been easier, since you’re a girl.”
Certainly, fragments of my identity have advantaged me more than others, especially in the still overwhelmingly male tech industry. But unlike my gender, the underlying, unspoken privilege that has made my professional progression “easier” is far more complex.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 21 years. Last summer, I worked at a software company a couple blocks away from my private high school, which administered a haughty bring-your-own-device policy and introduced me to computer science in the 10th grade. Securely entering as a freshman electrical engineering and computer sciences major with a preexisting network of hundreds of UC Berkeley students that I grew up with in the South Bay, I always had a connection (or seven) that I could reach out to. And never, not for a moment, have I been around individuals who didn’t esteem my aspirational career in software. It was an especially validating direction in the eyes of my parents, who both started their careers as engineers.
At the same time, I’ve dealt with the alienating feeling of being the singular female in ample computer science and electrical engineering discussions, of questioning the validity of my achievements because my peers perpetuate stereotypes like “girls get easier interviews.” And it’s ostracizing and wrong. But when a manual of what to do and when to do it is conferred upon you because of where you’re from and who you are, when you have a friend at nearly every company you’ve ever imagined working at, and when the career you seek to pursue is a low-risk venture right in your backyard, for me, the inconveniences of being a woman have truthfully paled in comparison.
So this insinuation — that a gender identity in itself is the conduit through which individuals in tech unfairly garner an advantage in acquiring opportunities — is perfunctory at best. It conflates me, a Bay Area native with more vested advantages than discomforts, with women from truly underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds, as parity.
Yes. I’ve abhorred situations where I was the only woman in the room. I detested it so much that my bitterness for long was a hedge against involvement. But over the years, I’ve recognized that my appearance is perhaps the only outlier in this tech community that overwhelmingly represents individuals like me, and that I have a privilege and responsibility to play my position and enable the entry of those whose ideologies, ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds differ.
Last semester, I was invited to a dinner with a startup CEO as the leader of a UC Berkeley partner team. All my fervor instantly dissipated when I saw the all-male white and Asian attendee list. It was the exact same group of folks I’ve interacted with at every startup talk, dinner, event — the same pockets of a select few tech and business clubs at UC Berkeley. I refused to go, and wrote a strongly worded email to the organizers, who asked me why I didn’t “just invite more girls” the same day of the event. Because apparently, if I, the token diversity for the event wasn’t in attendance, the optics would be unideal.
But identity is not single-faceted, so diversity is not a face. It’s not just a cosmetic add-on (that apparently companies like Dropbox aren’t even hitting the mark on). And it’s certainly not an operational quota to fulfill by sheer membership. It’s about integration. It’s about partnership. And it’s about espousing an undoubted sense of belonging in those who were previously underrepresented in such an environment and inspiring confidence that their computational future is bright. Because when it comes to negotiating salaries and endeavoring for promotions, recognizing your market value and confronting well define your pay ceiling and career trajectory, so having it ingrained that you are a demographic data point for diversity who should feel “lucky to be here” doesn’t quite aid advancement.
There’s definitely more tech companies could do — or in many cases, not do. Google has faced several gender-discrimination lawsuits for hiring women at lower levels than their male counterparts with an equivalent amount of experience. Square proudly publicizes their “referral bonus” program, in which they offer thousands of dollars to their employees who specifically bring in underrepresented minority talent. Diversity panels are often the responsibility of “diverse” employees to curate and independently manage.
Reviewing my own experiences, I can’t recall a time when I’ve worked directly with anyone at a tech company with a physical disability. I’ve never been on a tech team with a Black or Hispanic or openly LGBTQ+-identifying individual. I’ve never worked with a veteran, or anyone over the age of 60, or anyone from the Midwest or South. It’s up to us to reimagine what a truly diverse team, company and industry in tech look like. When is the last time you disagreed with someone you worked with? When is the last time you learned about a different culture from a peer in your class or workplace?
Privilege cultivates comfort; whether it was at the expense of others’ discomfort should be at the forefront of our minds.
For me, it has indeed been “easier”; what about you?
Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].