This piece was originally published on Model View Culture in 2014.
All names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of those I worked with. Despite my experience, I still respect everyone involved and commend my former boss for his initially supportive attitude.
When I graduated from college and took my first full-time job, I had no idea why culture or diversity mattered in the workplace.
All I wanted to do was design.
About nine months into my tenure, I was offered a better job at a reputable financial company. Not only would I get to design and code products that would reach millions of people, but the pay was also almost four times what I had been making. I felt very special and incredibly confident. If this company wanted me, I knew I had talent. I jumped on the opportunity and was proud to become a Product Designer.
My new boss was very aware of women’s issues in tech. He was incredibly proud to have hired three female designers who could code. He sent us to as many conferences and meetups as the company could afford, and often forwarded his email threads with conference organizers where he challenged their all-male speaker rosters.
I felt empowered. I was honored to be part of such a diverse, forward-thinking team. With an all-female, Black (me), Latina (Laura), and White (Sandy) lineup, we were the face of diversity in tech – at a financial company, no less.
I really enjoyed my first few months on the job. My boss was friendly and encouraging. He pushed us to propose talks at conferences and share our thoughts as often as possible with other designers. He introduced us to thought leaders on Twitter and in real life. We were constantly pushed to contribute to the design community and challenge the status quo.
I wanted my first contribution to the team to be a support network that would allow Laura, Sandy and I to feel comfortable talking about issues that affected us. I assured Laura and Sandy that they could talk to me about anything and tried to be as friendly as possible.
However, I started to notice a change in dynamics after a few months. Our boss began to make deprecating jokes about other people in our company. Conversations we had with developers and project managers became fodder for inside jokes. Happy hours became a weekly event. Sometimes they’d happen twice a week. I felt pressure to be complicit in the mean jokes and drinking in order to be liked and respected. It reminded me of being in high school, and like a high school kid might, I began to write in a diary to chronicle my worries.
As an only child who was an awkward, nerdy gamer, observing and listening to others came naturally to me. As a Product Designer, part of my job was to notice body language and conversational tone. After several happy hours and team lunches, I noticed a pattern. My boss was more interested in conversation with Sandy than me.
I understood that – after all, as White people born outside of New York City, they probably had more in common culturally. I did not expect his friendliness toward her to turn into favoritism.
I wrote in my diary:
A lot of the times my boss has preferential treatment for Sandy. It’s not her fault. She hasn’t done anything.
This afternoon we went to a bar near work and my boss and his friend were fawning over Sandy and chatting her up. It’s really annoying because we’re coworkers and he does nothing but give her special treatment. Even from the beginning he always asked her more questions and showed more interest in her than me and Laura. Like seriously what did I do? Nothing. Fuck this.
Months passed and I began to feel more isolated. My boss appeared to be less friendly and communicative with me, which caused me to fear that I was in danger of losing my job or the chance to be promoted in the future. I started to tone down my personality in order to gain approval from my boss and Sandy.
No more talking about games. No more talking about cartoons. No more quotes from random internet memes. I tried to put on a Californian accent and talk about the latest episode of Girls. I quoted TV shows and pop songs. I tried to be funny and drink more. But nothing worked.
My boss and Sandy kept becoming more friendly. Laura was becoming friends with Sandy, too. And I was still a reject.
My boyfriend noticed how different I am around my coworkers. I notice too, and I’m trying to fix it. I think it’s working. I just get so nervous and afraid that no one cares about what I say. But that can’t be true! I’ve got so many good things to say.
I tried to convince myself that becoming someone else at work was normal; this denial made me hate myself. I began to begrudge every morning I came into the office. I tried to focus on my work, but the fear that I was being ostracized often creeped into my mind and affected my productivity. Every interaction felt forced, so I stopped talking unless I was directly addressed. I drowned out everything around me by listening to music.
In an attempt to erase my feelings of rejection, I left the team chat. My only solace was in the nights each week when we went to happy hour and I was too drunk to care about diluting my personality.
I’m so tired of feeling like I’m doing something wrong every time I speak.
We began to hire more people as the workload increased. During several interviews I lied through my teeth about being happy at the company. Our team soon expanded to include two of Sandy’s friends from college, Jane and Eli, as well as Jessica, a young, talented lady of color who left college in order to gain real-world experience. I decided to be friendly with the hope that the new additions to our team were kind people.
My self esteem needs rebuilding.
The number of team offsites, or trips, began to increase with the number of employees. Each trip’s attendees depended on whether or not they were involved with the project that required travel. My boss found a way to require Sandy’s attendance for almost every trip. I started to feel very suspicious of their relationship, which made me feel equally paranoid.
The first night of every trip included a blowout with ridiculous amounts spent on drinks and food. The night often ended with cigar smoking. I always abstained from smoking, but Sandy was down for anything. My boss loved it. As a former tomboy, I knew exactly what this meant: Sandy was one of the guys and I was not.
The next morning of every trip went exactly the same: everyone was too fucked up to work. Gatorade was breakfast (and, depending on how bad the hangover was, lunch). Crazy stories of the night before were passed around. Jokes were had about hangovers. One time I was so hung over, I almost threw up on another coworker while she was talking to me.
Things are so much funnier when you’re poisoned.
A Boy’s Club That Allows Women
I wrote in my diary more:
Everything was great until he started caring more about partying than building out a proper team.
I really don’t like how fast the team turned into a core group and a bunch of stragglers.
In addition to the fatiguing offsite adventures, my boss and Sandy were becoming more abusive as time went on. They pulled pranks on people who they saw as weak. They began to insult Jessica when she wasn’t there. After proving her worth by coming to almost every happy hour, Laura became part of the insider circle. My boss began to leave me on “autopilot” instead of mentoring me. He assigned two additional people to Sandy’s project while I was left to work on a project of a similar size by myself. I began to heavily resent him:
Fuck this stupid job. Sure I can handle all this pressure. But I will become very angry in response.
He’s not a leader anymore, and I need to work at a place where I’m learning and feeling positive.
Jane, Jessica, and Eli began to notice the change in dynamics. I began to feel validated, to think I wasn’t just being paranoid. Every time my boss and Sandy left work or arrived together, we noticed. Every time they went on a trip together, we noticed. Every scalding joke that I had previously accepted as normal was no longer acceptable. Every prank I had witnessed suddenly felt more sinister.
I wasn’t crazy. I was working at a Boys’ Club that allowed women.
Get me out of this place. On good terms. Please.
With the help of my other spurned coworkers, I regained confidence in myself and began to look for a new job. I occasionally allowed my bitter feelings toward my current job to spill into an interview. A recruiter at one company once asked why I was leaving, so I mentioned that the culture at my job was incredibly negative and I wanted a more positive workplace.
He asked what I had done to change things.
I was speechless. I always felt powerless at work, so I’d never thought about being able to change things. Maybe my suffering was my fault. I decided to never talk about my workplace during an interview again.
I’m looking harder than ever for my way out. I’m applying to the big & little companies, as well as tweaking my resume. I AM DONE.
Jessica, who also began to look for a new job after 3 months, became my support system. We felt the same deadening pain as young women of color in an abusive workplace. Finally having someone to vent about things without fear of repercussion made me feel a lot happier. With a more positive attitude, I was able to find a job in two months. My last two weeks at the company were the happiest days at work in a long time. Jessica also found a new position and we decided to have a team celebration since my boss and Sandy were on yet another trip.
Fuck the people who get us down.
I spent almost two years becoming someone I couldn’t recognize. By the time I left the company, I was a beaten-down, scarred person who was afraid to be herself in front of others.
My recent experience has taught me that every workplace doesn’t have to be like this. Employers, you have the power to create a safe environment for people of all kinds.
Bullying doesn’t stop when people graduate from high school. Workplace bullying is a serious, pervasive problem that can cause lasting emotional damage. Victims of bullying often become less productive due to the mentally taxing experience of being ostracized by others. Alcoholism only multiplies the issue by creating negative situations that allow people to embarrass themselves and others.
I challenge you to create a place that doesn’t rely on alcohol or negative jokes to build camaraderie. If you can’t think of a way to create a friendly environment without those two ingredients, ask members of your team what they enjoy doing and create events around those activities. There are many ways to bond without hurting others.
Even the most positive advocates can fail to be good leaders without a culture shift. You can’t have a diverse workplace if employees are afraid to show their true personalities. And The Boys’ Club doesn’t disband just because you hire women.
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A digital product designer's story of failure, self-empowerment, and redemption. Over the span of two years, Catt Small experienced the highs and lows of product development—all on the same team. She will share ways to improve your persuasion skills, create a better working relationship with your peers, conduct more holistic research, and ultimately create and release a better product.
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