When I participated in the #shecoded campaign last year, I did not want to recount my story in a fashion of a heroic journey. I took that space to reflect on what my personal perseverance toolkit included. I liked that format because it allowed me to create new rules of the game. They were straightforward:
- actively oppose injustice,
- stand up for yourself and for others,
- learn to brag about your achievements,
- don't overapologize,
- maintain work-life balance.
At the time I thought about these points as simply a process for "debugging" impostor syndrome out of my head and sexism out of my direct environment. I did not know how much impact these intentions would have on me in the next 12 months.
tl;dr this post got lengthy so long story short, I found three sources of energy:
Last year, I had a pleasure to participate in a workshop by McKensie Mack on boundaries where they laid out how we should be investing emotionally in people and not companies:
"Be transformational with people and transactional with institutions"
-- Desiree Adaway on boundary work
Stating my boundaries, giving feedback, talking about my achievements, communicating obstacles, negotiating terms and even being unapologetic about my eight hours of sleep every night has become much easier. I have always come across as direct and assertive but inside, any of these situations would take a heavy toll on me and result in a burning feeling of guilt afterwards. Now I feel okay before, during and after majority of difficult conversations and tough moments. I wouldn't say I no longer have any feelings about them but I am much more confident because I know what I expect from a workplace, a community, a job, a colleague and from myself.
Thanks to that, I was able to just recently tell my most wonderful manager that I wanted to change jobs, not be sneaky about it and not surprise her with a sudden resignation notice. I don't think I would have been so comfortable with such a conversation a year ago, and of course the fact that this conversation happened was also in part of what an amazing manager she is. But, I was really proud of how that went and how I carried myself through the subsequent job search.
I realized that just as much as sexism and tech-bro energy drain me, fluffiness, kindness and honesty make me feel grounded, safe and courageous. A year ago, the stressful stuff would consume a lot of my energy during and after work and I felt like I was shrinking inside myself just to get by. This is a very sad and pitiful way to be. I realized that by letting this stuff get to me, I was giving it much more power that it deserved and instead, I decided to nurture little pockets of fluffiness and kindness.
So, for instance, I doubled down on supporting kind practices in the cohorts I lead and on creating more moments when folks could genuinely connect with each other. I started a newsletter for kind folks in tech to build a community nurturing kindness in tech. I co-created a feminist tech collective that offers free dev support to NGOs and has been run in a non-hierarchical collaborative manner. And finally, I realized that I am the happiest when I write Ruby, Ruby on Rails (or React for the same reasons), which I elaborated on in this blog post.
When I joined tech, I was mostly exposed to competitive, patriarchal and toxic cultures and I tried to get by. That doesn't mean that I'd shy away from giving feedback or trying to debug/fight/feedback what was broken but just that the energy it took from me would leave me emotionally deflated. I would find myself in a constant defensive state and that's not a feeling you want to sustain. I remembered my friend once telling me that choosing to not respond is also a way to resist toxicity because of the emotional labor otherwise required.
As soon I rejected that fight mode, I would react from the place of empathy and kindness and see that these issues no longer felt personal and I had more energy to engage folks in conversations on problematic behaviors. I also noticed that if there are a few fluffy folks in a cohort or a team, the bullies just don't have space to be obnoxious. These two findings are something I will think more about in the next 12 months.
I noticed that I was brought up in a way that I always feel pressure to lead the conversation, to entertain and to just fill up the space with words. If there was silence after a question during the meeting, I had to answer just to not make it awkward for the person who runs the meeting. Or, that if something is wrong, I should speak up. This past year, I have been rethinking my relationship to words.
While I can be very talkative and I genuinely love getting to know people on a deeper level, talking for the sake of filling the silence drains me and stresses me out. I can't do small talk. Culturally I have not been equipped to deal with shallow exchanges. Ask me how I am and I will tell you about the disturbing thing I read, about the pain in my back because I slept in a funny way or about how the anxiety creeps up on me when I think about the pandemic and my grandma. For the longest time I felt inadequate to function in an American corporate setting. That is until I realized that I can just be my straightforward self and not do the small talk. It actually has been much simpler than I anticipated. I just don't. And people mostly don't see to make much of it.
Similarly, I don't have to (and shouldn't) be always the one person who answers a question. Silence is great for the team — we need time to process the question or to "rehearse" the answer before we speak (if you've ever dealt with impostor syndrome, you know what I mean). Silence gives us time to get ready to participate. It gives space for the marginalized folks to join in. So, while I still think that women should be heard in meetings, I don't assume that I need to always be the first one to voice my opinion because I am comfortable with being the extrovert in meetings and I am a white woman. This new approach helped me run my lessons better and introduced more calm in how I lead and take part in meetings.
Lastly, there are many ways to speak out and act against injustice. I learned that I work better with allies in helping them find ways to be active than confronting toxic folks myself about sexism. I would give feedback but I no longer try to call out every sexist joke in real-time. That being said, I now allocate this energy mostly to being an ally and speaking out against other forms of toxicity and injustice. Most importantly, I'm calm about it and no longer lose sleep.
As horrible as these past 12 months have been health-wise and family-wise for me, they have been tremendous for building up silent strength for when the world gets better. Meanwhile, I'm grateful to everyone who has been on this journey with me, even if they were an internet kind stranger.