My first tech job was in 2007 at YellowPages.com, which had just been purchased by AT&T.
It was also my first – and worst – experience with unabashed sexism in the workplace.
I had just moved to LA (the land of infinite opportunity) from San Luis Obispo (the land of you’re-lucky-if-you-make-a penny-over-minimum-wage). After having spent over a year not making ends meet at all, I was determined to make use of my hard-earned degree…and also make money. So naturally, I searched “anthropology” in careerbuilder.com (remember that site?)…
YellowPages.com was looking for social scientists like me to help analyze and improve the quality and usability of the site!
Without a clue as to what QA or Usability actually were, I somehow managed to convince them I was right for the job.
The team was perfectly diverse. There were nine people on the team, four of whom were women. Two of the women were from India and two of us were white Americans. Of the five men, two were white, one was Asian American, and two were Middle Eastern. Basically, we were so diverse you could have found a stock photo of us under “diversity in the office”.
But less business attire and more Portos.
Due to my lack of experience in the tech industry, I was naturally brought in at the lowest position and pay – which was still far better than any of my previous salaries. I was thrilled to be paid and have a job that could lead to a career, so I busted my ass to learn quickly and prove myself. Most of my peers had years of experience in tech and they were all incredibly supportive in getting me up to speed. Just a couple short months into my job, I was rewarded with a title promotion and a pay increase…or so I was told.
Now, before I get into some of the more uncomfortable details, I need to back up a little and explain my relationship with my boss. Let’s call him “Fred”. Fred and I never really saw eye-to-eye. He often talked down to me. At first, I just assumed it was because I was one of the least experienced people on the team, so I brushed it off and worked harder. But then Fred started making some really odd comments about how he could tell I was going to the gym and that I looked much prettier. I tried to brush that off, as well. As an army brat and an anthropologist I was very willing to chalk it up to cultural differences.
“Do you not hear that what you’re asking is stupid? Stop being stupid.”
As the months wore on, it became clear that Fred talked down to one other team member – even worse than he talked to me. It was the one other white girl on the team. He would say to her, in front of the team, “Do you not hear that what you’re asking is stupid? Stop being stupid.” It was not said in a joking manner; it was not lighthearted. It was mean.
At one point, she and I had a very awkward conversation about the issue. Neither of us actually said the words “sexist” or “racist”. I don’t think either of us were willing to believe that could be true. Instead, we chalked it up to our one other commonality: we were the only social scientists on the team. Everyone else came from a QA background, just like our boss. I told myself that Fred refused to understand the value our disciplines could bring to the field and he was choosing to value traditional QA more because he was familiar with it.
I moved on, but I did not brush it off. I worked harder.
Fred’s strange, wavering attitude towards me persisted. One day he’d make it clear to me that I was intellectually below him, and the next day he’d shower me with borderline inappropriate compliments. But when the culmination of my hard work resulted in a raise and promotion, I was certain I had been mistaken about my boss. Maybe he was just socially awkward? After all, I wouldn’t have been rewarded for my work if he didn’t think I earned it.
My pay raise came through and I was ecstatic. It meant I was able to move from a really shady apartment in Van Nuys to a cute little bungalow-style row house in Sherman Oaks. (For those you who have never lived in LA, you’ll just have to take me at my word that it was a big deal.)
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never told you you’d get a promotion. You got more money, why aren’t you happy with that?”
While logging PTO in ADP about a month later, I noticed my title change was never processed.
I asked my boss about it. His response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never said you’d get a promotion. You got more money, why aren’t you happy with that?” I tried to explain that I was very happy with the money, but that the title change mattered to my very young career. He continued to deny a promotion was ever promised.
Two things happened to me in that moment. First, I learned the very valuable lesson of keeping a paper trail for anything relating to pay and title. Second, I lit up at the injustice of it all, with a vehemence only achievable by someone young and naive who still believes that if you’re right, you’ll win.
Without the printed evidence of my promotion, I needed to find some way to prove I wasn’t making it up. I asked my coworkers who were in the room when my promotion was announced what they remembered. They all remembered both a raise and a promotion. A few of the more experienced guys clearly saw where this was heading and they advised me to be careful or to drop it entirely – it was not going to end well for me.
But I was young, angry and wronged – so their discouragement, while meant to protect me, only fueled my rage.
Next, I went to my boss’s boss – let’s name him George – who had also been in the meeting where my promotion was announced. In fact, he had announced it. George was utterly baffled as he had signed off on both – all Fred had needed to do was submit the paperwork. He reached out to HR who claimed they never received it.
Foolishly, I marched back to my boss and demanded that he submit the paperwork. I also informed him that although he had forgotten my promotion, it was okay because everyone else – including his boss – remembered.
Obviously, the way I approached him was 100% wrong. Career suicide, really. But hell, I was young and hindsight can’t change my misstep. Not surprisingly, he just glared at me and said. “No. Now go away. I have more important things to deal with than your stupid title.”
I glared back. I watched his expression change from outrage to worry as he realized I was not going to let it go.
Seething, I went back to my desk. From the moment I sat back down, Fred began sending me horribly inappropriate messages. “You look really nice today – very sexy.” “I like it when you wear that shirt. You should always wear low cut.” It went on and on.
I met with George later that day and unloaded everything. Naturally, he was horrified.
The events that followed happened very quickly.
First, George became my champion for equality. He assured me he’d get my promotion back on track and help me with the process of filing the other issues through the appropriate channels.
Next, HR told George that they couldn’t give me the title change because they had “already used their allotted number of title changes available for the fiscal year”. Again, my lack of experience prevented me from interpreting that piece of non-information as an indicator that shit was about to go down.
Shit went down.
The next day, the company went through a round of layoffs, including half my team.
Yep, I was let go. But Fred still had a job.
Suddenly the focus changed from finding justice to finding new employment. Even George, my champion, let go of the sexual discrimination and harassment issues as he needed to help several employees look for new work. My team encouraged me to focus on myself first and find a new job rather than push the issue.
This is where hindsight is a real bitch. If I could do it over again, I would have pursued the formal filing with HR – not to save my job, but to let the company know exactly who they were employing and prevent something similar from happening to another woman.
But that’s not what I did. I took my team’s advice. I turned away from the uncomfortable, futile situation determined to find greener pastures elsewhere.
Which I did.