Being the Token Woman

One thing about being a woman in tech: you get accustomed to being the only woman in the room. In a good company, this isn’t a big deal. In a good company, the men in the room include you in the discussion and hear what you say the first time you say it.  Sadly, it’s taken me a while to find a few good companies, and I’m happy to have landed at Indix.

shutterstock_119060521Before I found Indix and my previous startup, however, I had some experiences that were all too typical of a woman in tech. For instance:

  • I used to run IT departments. Once, a vendor technician walked out of my server room and I asked, “What’s the problem?” He looked at me and replied with a sneer, “Are you in the IT department?” My network manager broke in and said, “She’s my BOSS.”
  • My network managers and I used to test vendors by sitting at opposite ends of a conference room table to see who they’d present to. Ones who presented equally or included me had a chance. Those who didn’t, well, didn’t get my company’s business.
  • At my first startup, we ranked people initially on a set of criteria that we believed to be fair… until we realized that all of the men ranked higher than the women, which we knew to be untrue. After a shouting match, we changed the criteria.
  • At a very large tech company, I noticed that I had the classic problem of not being heard until a man repeated my statements—and not because I’m anywhere near quiet. When I left that company to go to a seed stage (all male) startup, I said after a meeting, “Guys, you hear what I say the first time I say it!” Their response was, “Jenn, which time are we supposed to hear it?”

In my 3.5 months at Indix, I’ve noticed that my colleagues hear what I say the first time I say it, and I’m rarely ignored as the only woman in the room. Even better, I’m rarely the only woman in the room; a full third of our Seattle office is female.

That’s not to say that life is perfect. A few weeks ago, I hesitated to take a much-needed bio break from a meeting. I was the only woman in a room full of men, and I was hesitant to let them continue the meeting—even for five minutes—without me. I waited until another woman joined the meeting to take that bio break.

I think that my decades as a woman in tech have shaped this kind of behavior. I hesitated to leave the room because I unconsciously felt that my thoughts would be disregarded if I weren’t in the room to stress them. I hesitated to leave because I didn’t want us to make decisions without a more diverse point of view. But mostly, I hesitated to leave out of habit.

When you’re the only woman in the room, you’re no longer just the individual. You become the Representative of Womankind. You suddenly feel the responsibility to Lean In and be included. Even if you don’t have an opinion about the matter being discussed, you feel immense pressure to insert your Woman’s Point of View.

Maybe not every woman in tech feels these pressures, but I sure do. And it’s an entirely internal pressure. Before that meeting I was afraid to leave, my VP and I had synced on what we needed from a marketing point of view, and I objectively know he would have had my back during a bio break. My opinions would have counted, and I wouldn’t have been left out of the conversation.

It should be interesting to see how working at Indix will change me. When I feel heard, will my stress level go down? If I’m representing just my views instead of feeling like I have to represent my half of the species, will I stop second-guessing myself? Will my creativity rise? Will I find it easier to become a team player? I’m looking forward to seeing my personal evolution in a supportive environment.

Or maybe I’ll just start getting up for bio breaks before they become urgent. That alone would be more than welcome.

  Download the Pervasive Commerce White Paper

2 thoughts on “Being the Token Woman”

  1. Jenn, Thank you for the article. I remember going to a major Cisco conference around 2000 or 2001. In an auditorium of thousands I remember looking around and counting the women I saw. I could use my fingers to keep track. I think I became so used to the behavior you describe that it turned into white noise. I just learned to work around it costing me (and my firms) unnecessary time and focus in the process. Where I most noticed it was working with vendors. That always surprised me for the reason you pointed out. It would often cost them my business, but not because I would punish them. Rather, I would work with other vendors because they actually listened and were able to respond to meet my requirements. It would have been interesting to have kept track over all those years how many total dollars were lost by vendors who where clueless of their biased actions. I’m certain it was in the millions.

    1. Jenn Steele says:

      Hi Athelene! I’ve had so many altercations with tech vendors that it would be impossible to count them, and I know you were in the legal tech industry as a decision maker longer than I was. Do you think the noise is getting better?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *