I remember a few years ago when I had a heated argument about a subpar piece of work from a service provider. The man I paid was in his 40s, and he spoke to me in the most patronizing tone, as if I were some silly little girl who did not have the right to question his work, despite the fact that I was paying for it. It's incredibly hard to make me angry, but on that occasion I was furious.
I was also shaken. And confused. I'd started my company straight after graduating from an all-girls school (one of the best in Australia), where women were celebrated. We were told we'd be the leaders of tomorrow, and I believed this whole-heartedly. When I looked around at all the smart, talented, and downright gorgeous young women in my grade, there was no reason not to believe that the future was bright.
Which is why I was so taken aback by this patronizing episode. I'd never perceived myself as being any less capable than a man, so I couldn't understand why someone would treat me like that.
Later on, I had a brogrammer on my team in his mid-thirties who suddenly left. At first, he refused to talk about why he was leaving, and when I did pry it out of him I was astounded. Among the cocktail of reasons (some of which I was at fault for and could easily have been fixed with better communication on both ends) was a feeling of emasculation. Having a 20-year-old chick calling the shots didn't sit well with this guy's ego.
As he was explaining this, he thought he'd let me know that he didn't think I was passionate enough about 99dresses, and he wasn't sure if I was cut out for entrepreneurship. He kept comparing me to other women CEOs (not men, just the women).
After all the shit I'd been through for my startup, this really hurt. Especially coming from someone who I'd previously considered to be a friend.
The hardest part about being an entrepreneur is managing your own headspace. Believing in yourself is tough enough, especially during the hard times, without other people giving you reasons to feel inferior. There is a big difference between constructive criticism, and what was said that day.
These comments reminded me of when I was a 14-year-old in boarding school and was being bullied terribly by another girl. I'd ring my mother up in tears and tell her of the next mean thing she'd done, like invite everyone in our boarding year to her birthday party except me and two other girls. I had never done anything to provoke he—I just didn't understand why I was being singled out.
This girl was rather short. Very short, actually. And at 5'11, I was incredibly tall for my age. My mom said, "Nikki, she is just targeting you because you are tall." I thought this was ridiculous, and I didn't believe my mother. What a stupid reason to be so horrible to another person.
In my final year of high school, with the days of bullying long behind us, I was chatting to this girl and reminiscing. "Why were you so mean to me?" I asked. "Because you were so tall," she said. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with insecurity.
There's no denying that Silicon Valley— a place drenched in startup culture—is a sausagefest. I lived there for 5 months during my time in Y Combinator, and I was one of 7 female founders in our batch of 63 startups.
I totally understand why this is the case — it's just a fact that, statistically speaking, more men are hackers, and hackers meet other hackers at their hacker events and in their hacker courses and make sweet co-founder love to produce startup babies. And because the startup ecosystem revolves around hackers, it essentially revolves around men. How to get more women to become hackers, and thus balance out the ecosystem, is a whole other topic.
However, this does lead to a whole lot of assumptions being made when it comes to women.
Some of them are quite subtle, and most people probably don't realize that they're making them. For example, I had a female on my team doing community management and social media, and she wanted some help from a male developer. She needed to run some queries and wanted the developer to help teach her SQL so she could do them herself. They were queries that she'd need to run over and over again with different nuances and waiting for him to do them every day as the need arose was a massive bottleneck for her workflow and a huge time suck for him. The developer kept saying, "Oh, just tell me what you need and I'll get it for you," but she was quite adamant about being able to do them herself.
He did eventually help teach her (I say help, because she also used Internet resources to teach herself). He seemed surprised at how fast and easily she picked it up, and once he was confident enough in her abilities she could access the database without his supervision. Before long she was doing fairly complex queries by herself. Teaching her to fish, so to speak, was way more efficient than giving her a fish.
Now I know for a fact that this developer is not sexist. He's actually awesome and a great friend of mine. Assumptions are a product of the culture and stereotypes we're exposed to, and they can cloud our judgment if we don't stop to think. Heck, I'm guilty of this just as much as the next person, but at least now I try to bring those subconscious judgments to the conscious surface and question them.
The worst part is that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If men make an assumption that women aren't great at tech, then those men won't help mentor women. Women will then start believing they aren't great at tech or feel alienated from the community. As a result, there will be no women in tech, which just perpetuates the stereotype and the cycle.
Last year, soon after I'd moved into a co-working space, I was working on yet another Saturday afternoon. A fellow founder in the space — a male, early forties — started chatting with me. He'd just started working on his own startup, and had a question.
"I see you in here every day working late, and on the weekends. I'm building out my own team and was just wondering how he keeps you motivated to work so hard?"
"What do you mean?" I asked. I was thoroughly confused. "Its my own startup. Of course I'm motivated."
"Ohhh," his voiced trailed off. "I just thought… well, I just assumed he was the founder." The guy pointed at Marcin's desk. Marcin just happened to be the only male on the team who worked in that office.
I didn't know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of the assumption or be offended by it. I did a combination of both and called him out on it because it was so damn patronizing.
If you want to get in my bad books, the easiest way is to patronize me.
I'm no stranger to the media. Ever since I started 99dresses I've been strung up as a poster child by the Australian press. There were many more deserving entrepreneurs, I thought, but being young and female in a male-dominated industry seemed to have a certain appeal.
A few years ago I was on the front page of one of the biggest newspapers in Australia, above the fold (which is apparently a huge deal in PR land). A large photo of my smiling face was accompanied by an article about Aussies moving to Silicon Valley.
I'd actually initially declined the interview because I was over in the U.S. and didn't want a lot of Aussie media attention—it did nothing but exacerbate my impostor syndrome. The reporter circled back and begged me to participate because he couldn't get it on the front page unless they had a photo of a female—a request that I assume came from his editor. After realizing the benefits that the article would have in trying to obtain my O1 U.S. visa, I agreed.
I'm honestly grateful for the press opportunities I get for being female, but I sometimes wonder whether any reporter would care about me and my startup if I was the opposite sex.
Most interviews start out the same ("How did you come up with the idea," "What does 99dresses do," etc) and most also end the same ("So what's it like being a female in tech?").
I hate that question. Hate it. Why?
Because no matter how I answer, the media twists my words into whatever they think will get clicks or sell magazines. It becomes impossible to portray any kind of opinion on "women in tech" without it being distorted to fit their own agenda.
Take the aftermath of my article "My startup failed, and this is what it feels like," which went viral with over 250K views in 48 hours. It was translated into several languages and splashed all across the Australian media. I was humbled by the response and keen for it to spread so it could help other entrepreneurs going through a tough time.
It was just a raw, honest blog post about failure that I wrote the day my startup died. I very clearly stated that the company's failure was my responsibility and mine alone. It was not a post about sexism, though I did allude to a few sexist instances when I was trying to raise money.
I continued approaching investors without luck. I'd be invited to cocktail parties full of VCs where I'd don my painful sky-high heels because I'd split tested heels vs. flats, and for some reason a 5'11" woman in 7-inch heels commands more talking time and attention from investors than one in the comfy flat booties I wear to work. Apparently height gives you presence. Once or twice, I'd have an investor asking if I knew what an angel was, or if I also modelled because of my height, or some other unintentionally patronizing comment that I doubt any guy would be subjected to. I learned to take it all in my high-heeled stride.
These sexist instances happened once or twice and were by no means debilitating. The reason my startup failed was a combination of poor decisions on my behalf and some bad luck and timing. Not sexism.
Soon after, a prominent mainstream business site came calling. They wanted to do an interview about my article, and despite feeling quite worn out from the whole thing, I agreed.
Turns out, all the reporter wanted to focus on was that one paragraph. She didn't want to talk about failure—she wanted to talk about being a woman in tech. I tried to answer her questions as truthfully as I could.
When the article came out, the headline was appalling. The entire article made me sound like a bitter whinging lady who blamed sexism for my startup's demise. If you'd have read that article without reading my actual blog post, you'd probably write me off as a spoiled little girl throwing a tantrum because I was victimized by men who wouldn't give me money for my silly little fashion business.
I'm not a victim, and portraying me as a bitter victim does nothing but make me, and other women, look weak and stupid. I am not weak and stupid. The worst part was that the article was written by a woman. Shame on her.
The next day I received a call from a TV station who wanted to interview me on the topic of failure. Again, I agreed.
During the pre-interview they talked about what questions they'd be asking. They brought up the women in tech issue, and in particular that article. I gave them my opinion. "The media needs to stop portraying women as whining! It's not constructive at all."
"Yes, yes," the two women on the call chimed in in agreement. "OK, great. Let's talk about that on the show."
I turned up for the interview in Times Square, and once I was all hooked up to the microphone it began.
"So we have Nikki Durkin here, who has worked in the tech industry and her message to women is: Stop whining!"
I nearly facepalmed on air. Seriously? You've got to be kidding me.
As a startup founder, I am very pragmatic. It's a skill I've learned over many years of dealing with things not going to plan. Sure, the cards may be stacked against female founders, but I can usually find a way to turn my gender into a positive thing.
Here's the catch-22 with women who work in tech: If you are running a startup you have probably experienced sexism, but speaking up about sexism isn't always pragmatic. But if we don't shed constructive light on the issue, it perpetuates.
When I was running 99dresses, I had problems coming out of my ears and work up to my eyeballs. If I endured a sexist episode I would brush it off and keep marching. Expending energy on the topic wasn't in the best interest of my startup, even if it was in the best interest of women in general. Does that make me selfish? Maybe. Then again, I never experienced sexism to the extent that some of my friends had (which really bordered on sexual harassment!)
Speaking up is a risk, especially when going through a media channel. If the message comes out wrong it can really hurt your career, and even if it comes out right it might also hurt your career. I applaud any woman who has the guts and inclination to take that risk, including my brave friend Gesche who recently went public with an appalling story (and actually got some constructive media coverage out of it) where she named and shamed the perpetrator.
The only reason I'm writing this article now, and not during my time running 99dresses, is because I no longer have that pragmatic dilemma. I finally have the time to write it, and I can't risk hurting my startup because my startup already failed. What do I have to lose?
Just this afternoon I stumbled on yet another article portraying me as a whiny little girl blaming sexism for my company's failure. You know what? I'm over it.
I'm not a "woman in tech." I'm just in tech.
This piece originally appeared on Medium and was reposted with permission.
Image via Mike Licht/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)