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Cover image for The incredible weight of being a trans woman in tech

The incredible weight of being a trans woman in tech

Penelope Phippen
Once described as "a very charming nightmare."
・6 min read

Content warnings for bullying, abuse, trans-misogyny, the general state of horibbleness in tech. If any of these things are squicky for you, I absolutely won't blame you if you want to skip this one.

I missed writing a #shecoded this year, but it's trans day of visibility, and I have a tradition of posting posts about the intersection of being transgender and my life in technology here on dev.to. So, let's get into it.

First, a tiny amount of personal news. I've switched from identifying strictly as a trans woman, to identifying as demifemme. I use she or they pronouns now. Hearing a mix is nice, but if it's hard for you, 'she' is fine. It's also mostly correct to still think of me as a woman. To dig into it just a smidge, to me, demifemme means that I mostly identify as feminine, but gender is more complicated than that, and I find woman just a little bit reductive. With that, let's dive in!

Being socialised as male left me with a deep hurt

I am a survivor of my upbringing. I don't blame my parents, or my teachers, or those around me when I grew up, as such. This is a wider societal problem. I remember, so clearly, kids in my secondary school bullying me for being "girly". As if the worst possible thing that a young boy could be is effeminate. Obviously, young kids being actively and repeatedly horrible to another kid isn't acceptable, but looking back, I find it so fascinating that the direction from which this abuse came was, in at least part, gendered. I see it now as if society itself was rejecting me.

So, something happened within me that I can only describe as my brain protecting itself. A persona who was a man/male came forward. It was as if the person I actually am was buried, behind this full shield of a completely different person. That person grew throughout my adolescence and was the me many of you will have known throughout the majority of my life. He wasn't, however, a full person. It was more like a half person, as a shield, burying and protecting the little girl within. She couldn't take any more of the hurt, and so he came to the defense. This hurt, so much. Imagine fully burying who you actually are in order to make life bearable. That's what I did from around the time I was an adolescent, until I was 28. Society made it so hard to not conform in this way that I literally psychologically buried myself as a person, in order to be able to survive.

Eventually though, it became clear, that I couldn't take any more of this. That continuing to live as this shell of a person was hurting me too much. It took a long time for me to realise what was going on. For the little girl within to break through and claim that this was my body, and that I wanted to be who I am. To understand that all the pain and suffering so far had been a form of protection that I actually did not want. That it was time for him to rest, and for me to take over. When I finally realised that it was time to say goodbye to the man who had been protecting me for all these years, I cried a great deal. It was like letting go of an old friend. There is a sense in which I still miss him to this day.

Folks who don't understand trans issues talk about being socialized as male as a 'bad thing'. As if it's the fault of the trans person. In fact, I think of it as an abuse I bore and grew up with, that I survived, and am working to undo within myself.

Ok, that's super touching, what does this have to do with tech?

Our industry looks a certain way. If you're in any sense underrepresented, you will have been in that important meeting where it's 3-11 cis white men, and then, just you.

I've been on the other side of this. Before I transitioned, I was in that group. The large amorphous blob of dudes that makes up our industry. And boy, did I act like it. Before I transitioned, I was most definitely bathing in the toxic masculinity that makes up the tech industry. See, for me, that was all I really knew what to do, emulate. Not actually being a man meant that when I thought I was one, all I could really do is copy what other cis men do, but not having the best basis for it, it was a warped copy. I was loud, I was brash, I would definitely cut in when others were talking if I thought they were wrong, and here's the thing: it was effective.

There's something present today in the culture of tech that is indescribable, a code of how we act and how we discuss that is implicit in who's in the room. The set of things that we say and do to affect change, build alignment, and discuss technical decisions. This code, this way of interacting, it's borne from the fact that much of the time, it's just cis men talking to cis men, with no diverse voices in the room to change the pattern of conversation. De facto, when working with folks from this set, it feels so much like you have to engage with them in the way they speak, or you won't be heard.

When I speak to cis women about this, they also detect that it's there. They know that there's a way the dudes are talking that they can't quite replicate. They tell me that when they try, they're often given the kind of gendered feedback that so many of us are used to receiving "She's aggressive", "She's loud", "She needs to be less assertive". It's like as much as they're doing it, it's not quite perceived as native, and some force pushes back against them. But there's something inherently twisted in this, which is that women feel the need to replicate this in the first place.

This brings me back to myself, and my lived experience. One thing that's different between me, and a cis woman, is that I can replicate dudespeak natively. I did so for a decade before I transitioned, because it was all I knew how to do. I do so in a way where it's clear to me that they perceive it as native. I feel a deep need to do this in order to be effective at my job. However, every time I do this it hurts me so deeply. It puts me back in the place of abuse, of literally subsuming my personality to protect myself, of pretending to be a man to get the job done. I don't really make a conscious choice about this. The behaviour is so deeply ingrained it happens almost automatically. I try not to use dudespeak to get the job done, but it drags me back in every. single. time. This is a byproduct of the environment. It's like there's an implicit statement widely in tech (this doesn't just happen at work, this happens in almost every tech environment I'm in) that because it's predominantly cis men, you have to emulate them to be successful.

And so, this brings me back to the weight of being a trans woman in tech. I have a choice between either being less effective at my job or inducing gender dysphoria at almost every large complex decision point. Because I'm senior, and because there aren't so many trans ladies in tech, I feel a need to well represent the group, and so I am repeatedly taking the tradeoff that hurts me, but makes me effective. Until such time as tech looks less monocultural, I'll have to continue to do this. I'll have to continue to hurt myself. Nobody can see this happening because it's an internal decision I am making, so on this trans day of visibility, I'd just like you to pause and think about how you can make the industry more comfortable for trans women and other trans and non-binary folks, by making the spaces around you more diverse and inclusive.

Discussion (11)

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graciegregory profile image
Gracie Gregory (she/her)

Thank you for sharing these words here, @penelope_zone . It feels like an incredible privilege to read a bit of your personal account as a trans woman in tech.

I'm definitely taking some time to pause today to think about what's needed from me, as a cis-woman, to make this industry more comfortable for trans and non-binary people. ❤️

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Kira McLean • Edited

Thanks for sharing your experience. You put words to a feeling that I'm sure is familiar to many. I can totally relate to having to choose between being effective at your job and being true to yourself. It breaks my heart that this where we are as an industry. I hope we it changes.

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dylanoshima profile image
Dylan

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with the matter. I was wondering what are some things "dudes" can do in their day to day to make things more accommodating? I understand there's the need for some general awareness of not interrupting and giving others the chance to speak. Would asking someone who is not speaking for their thoughts a good idea? Is it heavily case by case? Smaller meeting sizes so that there isn't as much of a gender dominance?

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

This code, this way of interacting, it's borne from the fact that much of the time, it's just cis men talking to cis men, with no diverse voices in the room to change the pattern of conversation.

And it all maps up to how we build interfaces and collect data. "Tech" is "tech" as we know it because of the culture. Computer science is basically a specialized social science or applied anthropology.

Thank you for your voice.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him)

Really appreciate you sharing this super thoughtful article, Penelope!

I can only imagine how hurtful it is to feel stuck between being true to yourself and being able to communicate effectively at your job. That's a choice no one should have to make.

I'm hopeful that the tech community will be more proactive in changing our tone from "dudespeak" where white cis-males dominate the conversation to "everyonespeak" where folks think more empathetically about sharing the conversation with all and actively encourage diverse voices to join in.

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Cassidy Scheffer (she/her)

Wow wow wow. I finally got around to reading this. TBH I was avoiding it because it would be so close to home, but this describes the burnout I feel every Saturday morning so clearly. I hadn't made the connection between choosing to be less effective at my job and making dysphoria inherit to the work I do. Uff...Thank you for this!

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son1112 profile image
Anderson Reinkordt

Wow, thank you Penelope!

"Not actually being a man meant that when I thought I was one, all I could really do is copy what other cis men do, but not having the best basis for it, it was a warped copy."

I feel that really likely describes what so many male-assigned people are doing in our culture. And that actually gives me something I've been looking for, a way to empathize with toxic masculinity that I have all of my life. So many are just doing that. How many times have I had my "man card" taken away? Too many to count. For my life, I fought it and never wanted to be a part of it. I really appreciate you sharing these parts of your life and the depth of your self-reflection. They are truly helpful and opening for me.

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rubywritescode profile image
ruby | they/them

thank you for this! you so succinctly expressed that very specific kind of coded language in cis man world that i've been trying to untangle in my own team.

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maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O

Deep thanks to you for sharing your story. ❤️ As a (somewhat) cis-passing woman, I’ve always been critical of the tech world’s existence in and as a product of the dominant, “gender-sexuality order”. I find tech “bro-culture” deeply harmful to already marginalized voices and people within the tech industry.This is heart-breaking, and I can’t imagine how much more it must feel to you. I’m definitely going to think about how I can use my academic background in gender and sexuality, equity, and health to make tech spaces more equitable, safe, welcoming, and validating ❤️❤️❤️

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Phong Duong

Thank you for sharing your story. It is really inspiring.

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Stephanie David

Hello Penelope. Thank you for sharing your experience being a trans woman in tech. I'm a cis woman who came to IT as a third career. And I certainly understand how difficult it is to be a woman - indeed an older woman - in tech. I have had friendships/non-friendships with only two trans women, and I'm not going to generalize. My observation: as "men" they progressed very well in their careers - one was a Java developer, who looked down on anyone who were in lesser tech positions - I was a mere front-end developer. She never let in different ideas from minions like myself. I was jealous, I guess, as she got as far as she did because she had a male tech experience, a wife who did the domestic stuff allowing him/her time to code, 2 loving daughters, a big house in a trendy location, and a grossly huge salary. I was pleased to see the back of her when she left the organisation, but my career nose-dived, largely due to the influence she had on the decision makers. It's only thanks to my union and some serious grievances that I recovered and can retire this year with a fairly decent final-salary-based pension. All the best, Stephanie