Being the Impossible in Silicon Valley | Vol. 3 / No. 11.5

"Too aggressive" | Photo: Keith Ellwood, CC BY 2.0
A woman “leaning in” (as seen by men) | Photo: Keith Ellwood, CC BY 2.0

Basically 99% of being a woman consists of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choices. If you have sex, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude. If you don’t want kids you’re selfish. If you do want kids, you’re also selfish. If you work, you’re abandoning your family. If you don’t work, you’re not supporting your family. If you don’t wear makeup, you’re a hideous beast. If you do wear makeup, you’re playing into beauty norms. And if you don’t take charge at work, you’re weak and ineffective. If you do take charge, you’re an aggressive ball-buster. (Another word for that list of phrases I hate.)

A recent study of over 200 women in the tech field (most of them from the San Francisco area) revealed some really depressing things about the double standards, bias, and downright sexism in their area of expertise. All of the women had at least ten years of experience in their field, which in this case, translated into “have put up with this ridiculousness for a long time.” As you might expect, the women were expected to be maternal both not mothers, sexy but not sexual, and assertive yet not loud.

Three quarters (75%) of the women surveyed were asked about their spouses, children, or families in general when they were being interviewed, which makes me really want to know how many men are asked about their kids when talking about their abilities with computers. Yet despite being asked about their family in the interviews, many women felt as if they could not talk about, or even care for, their families. Two fifths (40%) of women felt that they had to speak less about their families in order to be taken seriously in their job, and over half (52%) of the women who took maternity leave shortened their leave because they felt that taking the full amount would harm their careers. So women are supposed to have families, disclose information about them in their interviews, and then… act like they don’t have them, or need time off from work so their bodies can recover from carrying a child around inside of them for months. ‘Kay.

Things got really creepy/depressing when the survey turned to cases of sexual harassment. Three fifths (60%) of the women surveyed reported receiving unwanted sexual advances, with nearly two thirds (65%) of those women reporting that the advance had come from a superior. Apparently abusing the power that you hold over someone is super sexy in the tech field. Three fifths (60%) of the women who reported their sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the actions that resulted from their report. An additional third (30%) said they did nothing in response to their harassment, because they were worried it would negatively affect their careers. Because life isn’t fair, and reporting harassment is more likely to get you in trouble than it is to get your harasser in trouble.

Some of the most interesting data from the survey was not in the large (and expected) areas of sexism, such as discrimination against motherhood and sexual harassment, but rather in how the women described sexism affecting them in their daily lives and common interactions with their peers. At even the most basic level, women felt as if they were not being given their fair share of time and attention—nearly nine in ten (88%) said that they had either clients or colleagues ask their male peers something that would have more appropriately been addressed to them. Because things apparently make more sense when a man with no relation to the topic explains them. Things just sound so confusing when ladies say them. More than four out of five women (84%) said that they had people fail to even make eye contact with them, despite making eye contact with their male peers. Looking someone in the eye when you’re speaking with them, or even breathing in their vicinity, is literally the least that you can do to acknowledge another person as a sentient human being. And the icing on the cake is that 84% of women reported being told that they were too aggressive, and over half of that 84% had been told on multiple occasions that they were too aggressive. Unless any of these women straight-up bit, choked, or screamed at anyone, I seriously doubt that they were being too aggressive. And even if some of the women did that, it does not explain 84% of them being called too aggressive. There’s only so much shouting that can be going on.

This statistic, in a nutshell, explains why Sheryl Sandberg’s whole “lean in” philosophy is not going to be very helpful for most women until we experience a larger cultural shift. Sure, some women, like Sandberg, find success when they embrace ambition, assert their own skills and value, and speak their minds. That is truly great, and I wish that more women could find not only success but also acceptance that way. But many women are not celebrated for their ambition or drive. Instead, like the women in this survey, they’re told that they are being too aggressive. Women are supposed to be the ones performing unpaid emotional labor—smiling when we don’t feel like it, being chipper in order to raise the spirits of our coworkers, remembering birthdays and baking cakes for said birthdays, listening to the woes of our peers, etc. And if your smile starts to crack, God help you, because the first time you snap or roll your eyes or demand to get the same amount of respect and free time as your male peers, you are being aggressive. You’re not being a team player. You’re being mean. Your good will is supposed to be an endless fountain, and if it ever runs dry, or you ever sacrifice some emotional labor in favor of pursuing your actual ambitions, you are being selfish or even cruel. You’re essentially performing womanhood wrong, and that makes you unfit for the workplace.

Women becoming more comfortable asserting themselves and displaying their ambition is an important step towards workplace equality. But in order for that to actually lead to anything like success, men and women have to become accepting of that ambition and assertiveness. Either ambition and aggression need to stop getting confused with one another, or aggression has to stop being a bad thing only when applied to women. Otherwise we’re going to continue to have a culture full of women who are encouraged to put on tiny skirts and chant “Be aggressive, B-E aggressive!” but who aren’t actually supposed to be aggressive themselves.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not calling out serious double standards in the workforce, she studies gender in popular culture.