After writing the last post about my mentor Geri Larkin and watching the PBS documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” I started to think about my own past and how my journey led me to this place with this business.
I won’t go all the way back to childhood, just back to college and my decision to pursue a degree in Computer Science. One friend, Pat Draper, was instrumental in that decision. He had Sherpa’ed me through challenging terrain and was often my confidante regarding my frustration. Pat introduced me to my initial role model, Grace Hopper, and then many other female programmers. I think he realized the terrain would be rough, but he was always there for me.
Once I began taking programming classes outside of Lyman Briggs (a college within the college at Michigan State University), I hit my first bump in the road in the computer lab. Time spent using the computer terminals was limited, and the mother of all rules was this: “No saving a terminal for yourself or someone else with coats and backpacks.”
One day, I was working late in the lab and had to leave to go to the bathroom. The lab was EMPTY save myself. I left and came back to find a professor sitting at my computer. My backpack and jacket were thrown on the floor.
Needless to say, it took me a few moments to take in the situation and then ask him, “What happened? Why is all my stuff on the floor and why are you using my computer?” He just pointed at the sign and said, “You can’t save a computer.” I replied, “But there are all these computers available, I just had to go the bathroom, why would you do that?” His exact words to me were this, “I can’t help if you women take so long in the bathroom!” He never turned to look at me. He never apologized. I left the computer lab crying. Welcome to computer science.
I wish I could tell you that this was my only experience of sexism I faced at MSU. But I would be lying. Although many of my peers were supportive, many faculty were not. Without going into all the details, I will tell you this: I was specifically told that computer science was not a field for women, and I didn’t belong. Needless to say, I was thrilled when MSU finally hired a female faculty member, Dr. Betty Cheng! Between Dr. Cheng and my friend, Yolanda who was working on her Master’s in Computer Science, I was able to voice my concerns and keep my spirits up in the face of constant belittling.
Unfortunately, sexism followed me into the working world. Here is one of my ‘favorite’ stories. One employer had a dress code: Women must wear suits with skirts and nylons. Heels were acceptable, but not too high. Here’s the problem: There were times I had to crawl underneath desks to configure wiring, network desktops, connect printers, etc. Very hard to do in heels and a skirt and maintain your dignity. So I wore pants. Guess what happened? I was reprimanded and told to wear a skirt. When I explained why I needed to wear pants, a meeting was called to discuss the dress code. The solution? If a woman needed to wear pants, she had to change into a matching skirt before coming into the office. As long as I purchased a three-piece (jacket, pants and skirt) ensemble, I was following the code.
You’ve heard the statistic: For every dollar a man makes, a woman is paid 78-cents to do the same job. I experienced this first-hand in another job when I discovered a newly hired male colleague was being paid about $10K more. Of course I confronted the higher-ups. Their response? “You shouldn’t know these things. The person who told you could be fired. But we won’t, as long as you keep your mouth shut.” So, I did.
Then I thought I had landed my dream job. Touted as an extremely progressive company, this organization had even won an award for having a female-friendly workplace. And for a while, it was a great place to work — until I got married. At team meetings, the department leader would ask me when I was getting pregnant, or if I were performing my “wifely duties.” Of course I was shocked and embarrassed, but laughed it off, until a co-worker told me his behavior wasn’t acceptable. So, in private, I asked him to please stop the comments. His response: “Oh, you’re one of those girls, you can’t take it!” and the teasing and inappropriate questions only increased. As a last resort, I made an appointment with the new head of HR, who just happened to be a woman.
I scheduled the meeting and made my mental list of what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk with her, woman-to-woman, and share my experiences in the workplace. I wanted some guidance as to what I should do. And I was positive she would reprimand the department leader and make him stop his offensive behavior. I was nearly at my wit’s end. I was excited. I was nervous. But I was certain she could set things right. And I’ll never forget what she said: “Ashima, I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, but you’re in a man’s world and you have to get used to little comments like this from time to time.”
I was speechless and stunned. I left her office with little breath and a heavy heart. I cried. Had dinner with a friend. We held hands and cried. We cried for all the women in the workplace past, current and future who had — or will — experience such blatant sexism.
There’s a saying: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And after watching “Makers” and recalling these past experiences, I realized that collectively, they made me who I am today. My determination to prove the naysayers wrong has made me a strong person and better programmer and a stellar business owner. But I couldn’t have done it without Pat, (along with Rich, Mike, Donna, Paula and more people than I can name in one blog post.) I cannot thank them enough for their unwavering support.
I am doubtful that sexism will end but I am hopeful that the “makers” of tomorrow will continue to fight for equality for everyone, man or woman. And if ever I encounter the unacceptable behaviors I recounted in this blog, I will do everything in my power to make it right.