“What’s it like where you work?” a close friend I consider my little sister asks me. We’re sitting cross-legged on the small gray sectional in my living room, chatting over plates of overcooked penne and green tea. She’s a sophomore in college, about to begin her first internship at a venture capitalist firm in the tech-filled dystopia of the Bay Area.
“Well,” I begin slowly, unsure of where to start. The memories tumble over one another until I land on the one that best seems to summarize how I feel. “There are a lot of men.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley early last year with a degree in chemical biology, I was at a loss for my next step. I was a loud, opinionated 22-year-old with a penchant for leaving the country to deal with my problems. I’d studied a subject I didn’t want to work in, was reluctant about pursuing journalism in a city so lacking in editorial outlets, and didn’t yet feel ready to leave the Bay. So, the question loomed: What should I do with my life?
And, like many lost, young souls trying to make their way amid the skyrocketing rent of the Bay, I made a difficult, morally ambiguous choice: I got a job working as a writer in tech.
I pushed through the radical beliefs I’d acquired at Berkeley and found ways to justify the fact that I was contributing to an industry responsible for intense gentrification.
I pushed through the radical beliefs I’d acquired at Berkeley and found ways to justify the fact that I was contributing to an industry responsible for intense gentrification, displacing local communities struggling to survive in the spaces they’ve lived their whole lives. I ignored the silent, nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me that my Southeast-Asian community was being decimated as I benefited from this unjust system. I prepared myself to feel out of place, alone and wholly misunderstood in the workplace.
And I spent my first years out of college writing at some of the biggest tech companies in the world.
When I started, some of my preconceived stereotypes — like the excessive number of men and their overwhelming sense of privilege — were instantly confirmed. But other things came as a surprise to me. Being one of the rare women of color in meetings, for instance, made allies easy to find.
In my first month, I met a handful of strong and talented women of color who gave me a sense of community. During my first project, a brilliant Latina writer took me under her wing after we spotted each other across the room at a meeting. Sensing my isolation in the workplace, she told me we should get lunch, and I immediately felt more comfortable. She gave me pep talks when I was ignored in meetings, pointed me to other women and men who would help me grow, and infused me with hope in moments I got frustrated with the primarily white population of my department.
Being one of the rare women of color in meetings made allies easy to find.
Through mentorship like hers, and the kinship I felt with other allies I met along the way, my workspace transformed from something I dreaded to a place I looked forward to going to every day. I met so many women — and men — from all kinds of identities dedicated to contributing to a young woman of color’s success. And, to this day, I’m still stunned about that.
The less fantastic parts, however, really were difficult to weather. Practically every day that passed, older, married men stared at my body. Meetings were dominated by white males droning on and on, often talking over their female counterparts or ignoring them altogether. White women sometimes seemed to feel like they were competing against you, rather than working with you. Older co-workers would chalk up my success to the fact that I was young — “It’s because she’s from another generation” was a phrase I heard often, one that felt like it was used to belittle my work.
Worse yet was when people assumed I was their guru for all things “young and woke,” turning to me for insight on everything from how to decode popular memes to explaining the meaning of SoundCloud rap and identity politics in the Bay. I went through a whole etymology of the word “lit” when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the word in late June. And I’ve spent lunches trying to explain how gender is a social construct to people who don’t understand non-binary gender identity.
Not everyone treated me this way. But these were themes that repeated time and again in the white, corporate tech spaces in which I worked. So, despite these companies’ attempts to foster a liberal and inclusive culture, I often endured the strange experience of being surrounded by people who seemed to share my ideals, but would always fall a little short of truly understanding me.
Yet in spite of all my unexpected encounters in the workplace, I think that what I was most unprepared for was the guilt I’d feel about supporting tech in a place where communities of color are being so rapidly displaced. As more and more people move to the Bay to work in tech, rent and cost of living continues to skyrocket — making it even harder for the people who don’t work in tech to stay. I’m never prepared for the shame I feel passing an old Chinese woman picking up recycling on Market Street, or seeing the rundown abodes many Chinese and Southeast Asian communities call home in East Oakland. And as hard as I try to give back to these communities — to my communities — I often feel like it’s not enough.
“So, what are you going to do?” my figurative little sister asks after a couple of hours of back and forth. I take a deep inhale, coming up for air after the intense conversation.
I’m still navigating what it means to reconcile my professional pursuits with my values and passions. But, for now, the best that I can do is encourage young women — like my figurative little sister — to hold onto their sense of self, no matter how much their environment tries to change that.