The other week I visited a new company I was considering taking a contract from. I was thrilled to get the chance to visit them and meet all their employees.
As I toured their offices, I immediately froze up. I was the only woman in sight. The only one. I had to take a mental step back and realize that I was in a position of power here, considering a contract I didn't have to take, that they respected me and my work otherwise I wouldn't be considered for this task.
For what it's worth, I encounter this situation almost every week. I'm used to being the only woman in the room. It's not uncommon.
But I couldn't help but ask myself again this time-- how on earth did it get that way?
As I learned more about this company, it became really clear. They were a bunch of friends. They wanted to get out of big corporations and make something they loved. The people they took classes with with were mostly men, the people they worked with were mostly men. Their friends were mostly men.
I've had multiple managers tell me I was the only woman they'd ever worked with in their multiple-decades career. I've had many engineers tell me they don't really know any woman graphics programmers as friends.
So you leave a big corporation to work with your friends, and the friends are people you've worked with.
Sitting down to talk to a manager I'd never met before, in a private one on one meeting. He called me cute. Was flirtatious. Asked if I was an intern. Questioned me on basic graphics concepts, doubting I knew what I was talking about. Said my work wasn't up to speed even though he didn't know me, said not to worry and that he'd take care of me. It was one of the most condescending conversations I've ever had. When I mentioned this to others, they said, "Surely not, he's a great guy."
Never being invited to group lunches on my team, feeling excluded. This group was used to women not having their same interests. I wasn't seen as friend material. They could act professionally with me, but socially? With a girl? I felt lonely and excluded. And pretty soon, I was being excluded from professional projects at the company. After all, they want to work with their friends! I was told I must be acting rude, told, "Oh, they're such a great team! So much like a family!"
I've worked with some amazing men in my career. Men who treated me with total respect and lifted me up.
I've also had points in my career when I've often felt excluded, I've been ridiculed, I've been sexually harassed, I've been made to feel stupid, unsafe, like I couldn't fit in, like I couldn't have friends on a team.
And the same men who do that, when in groups of only other men, often aren't found out. They're thought to be "great guys."
When I see no women on your team, I think "Maybe it's because there's something wrong with your team." If you have only men on your team, maybe you don't see those people as people capable of creating these problems.
You know what? A lot of "great people" do commit these issues, because they aren't used to women. A career of rarely interacting with women professionally can make for some bad habits and bad perceptions and bad behavior.
It might feel harmless to just build a company of your friends and totally ignore their backgrounds and identities, but I urge you, step out of your comfort zone and invite someone in who isn't part of your "in group."
In fact, start treating your circles of friends that way too. Work to surround yourself with lots of different perspectives and backgrounds whenever you can.
It'll make everyone better, more intelligent people.
It'll make for better software.
It'll be doing more good for the world.