Politics of Gender in Design/Tech (Part I)

I thought I might be able tquickcam1o cover this subject regarding my experience from 2003-2013 but, no. It will have to be broken into parts, starting in 1993. The subject of gender in the tech field is horrible, complicated and fucking endless.

This post will be from my start of work after school, in 1992 and proceed to the end of my work in London, 2008. Part one of two parts.

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I arrived in San Francisco in late May, 1992, after graduating art school in Chicago. There was a recession underway and I’d heard of Ivy league post-grads driving cabs in the city. Thus, fresh from art school, I had low expectations. Although, at the same time, it was very clear from my parents, I had to earn my own living straight away. I got a free road trip to SF from Chicago and a thousand dollars to get settled. The rest was up to me.

I went to SF to work in the design realm of technology, whatever that meant at the time. I looked around, got involved in some orgs, and finally in ’93 got my first gig and commuted from the city to downtown San Jose.

This was at a systems integration firm. A startup of 5, maybe 6 guys who were partners at KPMG’s consulting arm on the East Coast. I mention this because, it was not only a seminal job in my career, but also because I was the only woman on staff apart from the receptionist.

It didn’t matter. I was treated with immense respect and worked alongside some of the best, brightest technologists I ever have met. I learned so much in such a relatively short period of time. It couldn’t have given me a better foundation in tech. This job gave me the thorough understanding of software, UX, client/server apps and ultimately the potential of the Internet. I am forever grateful.

quickcam2It was in this context, along with my earlier visions of working in tech, that it didn’t matter where you came from, what you did, how much experience you had: ideas are ideas. The egalitarian aspect was paramount and I experienced that, firsthand in a nearly all male firm. Even in compensation, I was awarded equally through quarterly profit sharing.

Moreover, I came out to the firm, bringing my partner to the Christmas dinner, amongst otherwise conservative, albeit smart and open, men. Even though it was still the Bay Area, some of these folks were weekly churchgoers who had never encountered a bisexual woman. They treated me with the utmost respect. The respect was too good to last, but I wouldn’t know that for many years.

I worked at different firms after this from 1996-2001 and was entrenched in the commercialization of the Internet. I encountered assholes, for sure, but never along the gender lines I’d experience in the mid ‘00s and early teens of the new century.

From what I could see, once money was really involved, and poured into the mainstreaming of tech, so came the gold-digging assholes. Doing anything to get ahead, including for design, if only for ego’s sake, bringing more conventional politics with it.

This was true for the late 1990s, but luckily I was insulated by a couple great firms which shared my ethics. I wouldn’t experience bad gender politics until 2003 at Yahoo!, and at subsequent firms, in the Bay Area, and abroad.

quickcam3My first experience of gender discrimination was at Yahoo! It was astonishing. I had grown up in an environment which promoted both gender and ethnic equality. I was among the first, of four, girls who were allowed to play in the boys’ Little League in our community. I didn’t even know that it was a big deal until much later.

Gender differences did not apply, and my mother was proactive in making this known. I thought nothing of gender dynamics except with regards to sexuality. Everyday dynamics and opportunities never really entered my consciousness until, again, much later, as an adult. Simply because of the environment in which I was raised.

Also, in art school. Even in the boys’ club of painters in the art world, it was never a thing in school. I never once felt my gender had any influence on how I was treated or understood.

So, for me, any gender discrimination was entirely new. Not until the pattern was apparent in my own life, through my work, would I come to recognise it as such.

Fast forward to 2004-2008.

Sunnyvale, 2004

Yahoo! 2004, I referred to earlier, in the previous post, ‘The Accident’. It was really my first experience of a man, my boss, actively trying to sabotage my work, my relationships and my job.  It was crushing after having been leading a large project for several months prior. Worse, it was clear I needed a couple days off and was not allowed to take any. Just to tighten the thumb screws a little more.

I learned my boss’ intolerable behaviour was also experienced by another woman, another lead on our extended team. HR failed me at every level. I could only move on and leave the project I lead successfully for months over countless hours and weekends. And finally leave the firm out of anger, frustration, and exhaustion.

SF, 2006

After Yahoo! I consulted independently for a couple years. But I wanted to return to a collaborative environment. I hated being alone all the time, working from home. I joined a new startup consulting firm headquartered in NY with a brand new footprint in San Francisco. The main guys, 2 of the 3, were colleagues from a previous firm we worked at in the city.

I built the SF team and worked across coasts for several months, managing both design teams, without any problem. As soon we had a disagreement about approaching a client regarding strategy I was ushered out the door. I was strong and vocal with my opinions and felt their view on the subject was not well-informed.

These people, the founder and GM, I knew from a previous firm we all worked at and they courted me for the gig. Still, because of our disagreement they somehow found it necessary to watch me pack up my shit and, literally, be ushered out the door. Why? What the fuck would I do? Steal the ‘free’ drinks from the fridge? Would they have had such an extreme reaction to disagreement if I were a guy? I think not.

London, 2008

Stocks Kill ChristmasI’ve already alluded to the difficulties of the fall of 2008, because of the start of the global financial crisis. Undoubtedly I will return to this period again and again because it is the crux and iconic period which pushed us out of the UK at the time. And,therefore, on our unintended European odyssey.

In mid-September, we arrived in London about a week before the global financial crisis began. As it turns out, the firm I worked for was looking for and about to close on critical investment. The crisis killed that deal. Leadership and even ownership of the firm ruptured as a consequence.

During this time I was heads-down, focused on the final phase of our London-based client, the project which I had begun earlier in the year. Meanwhile I’d help the firm as best I could, providing information on the client and overall London scene during the period.

As it turns out a close friend had some feedback during this time. This friend had gone to university with a ‘previous’ owner of the firm. Someone of influence, based in NY and whom I had only met once in passing had said to a mutual friend that “Jennifer is difficult to work with.”

First, this person and I never worked together. In fact, he resides in NY, while I worked in SF and London for this firm, never NY. What’s that opinion based on? Hearsay?

I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years and led many a team. I can feel confident most people would never say I’m difficult to work with. If anything it would be the opposite. She’ s too nice would more likely be the complaint.

Thus I can only imagine the ‘she’s difficult to work with’ is the equivalent of women speaking their minds, with their own opinions.

If that’s the case,Stocks Kill Christmas yes, I am very much that. I have decades of experience and a strong foundation in the arts and technology. Yes, I have an opinion and won’t be silenced because of politics. I’d never even considered that until now, as I pointed out earlier.

I’m in good company with Jennifer Lawrence (yes, Jlaw!). As she said last year in Lena Dunham’s Lenny:

“A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”

I think it’s the same as “Jennifer is difficult to work with.” That was London in the fall of 2008. Ownership and leadership at the firm was changing hands at the beginning of the crisis. Just as our container of belongings was floating somewhere in the Atlantic.

Moreover, in this ambiguous period, the new owners directed the London studio on how to cost out a new project for the client I had been working with for 9 months. I knew and said, their demand of x GBP wouldn’t come close, and the new work would be lost. My words, ignored and the studio lost the gig.

It was further reason for me to seek something else. There were no clients on the horizon due to the financial crisis, and the new owners would not believe the key person with the existing long term client, which was me.

The inability to hear my voice, the naming of me as ‘difficult’, and rumours that the studio might close, sent me looking for a new gig very quickly. We had a household on a freighter coming our way, from the US, and our world was blasting apart, before our very eyes.

***
Black & White photos of me, playing around at work with the first commercial QuickCam, 1995.

“Stocks Kill Christmas” photos I took outside of a (vandalized) sock store, Spitalfields, London, fall 2008.

 

4 thoughts on “Politics of Gender in Design/Tech (Part I)

  • Reply Carl White October 22, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Another great blog, Jennifer. Keep ’em coming! xxx

    • Reply jennifer October 23, 2016 at 9:11 am

      Will do. Thank you, Carl! xoxo

  • Reply Mike October 27, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    When I think about my two daughters and the professional environment into which they’ll be entering, I’m sometimes wracked with fear. And anger. The same goes when I hear my wife talk about the people she encounters at work.

    I’m heartened that I live in a place where there is more open-mindedness than not, but we still have a LONG way to go.

    I’m so sorry to hear that you had to endure these work environments, but love that you are sharing them. I hope there are many more people who are reading these and – hopefully – gaining more of an understanding. And empathy.

  • Reply jennifer October 29, 2016 at 6:01 am

    It’s horrible. While I encountered a perfect storm which led me to such a state, I’m certain the stuff I continuously faced was a factor.

    It’s systemic and complicated but I hope for your girls, and all girls, it does get better.

    Many thanks for your support, Mike.

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