thoughtwisps One commit at a time


An extract from a long form piece of writing I am working on.

Leila Esfahani had a scarf on her neck to cover a scar from a thyroid surgery she had had a few years ago. When we first met, I didn’t like her. Not one bit. We were at a lunchtime gathering of women in tech at the Company. Out of the 20 people or so that were on the calendar invitation list, only four had come and so we sat awkwardly on chairs in a large empty room and attempted to do some sort of exercise to hone our skills in agile project management. We shuffled the little coloured post-its around the circle and every now and then uttered some buzzword filled sentences.

As these meetings go, the carefully planned exercise eventually disintegrated into a confessional meets group therapy session where agitated voices talked over and over again about being ignored and belittled. I too joined the chorus this time. It had been a bad few weeks up in my department and instead of colour coding post-its I wanted to vent. ‘Being good at what you do doesn’t matter’, I said bitterly and Leila looked at me carefully and shot back ‘So you think you are the best programming language X developer on your team?’. It was a challenge, a question that was meant more as a comeback than a genuine curiosity and even though I did not remotely think this was the case, I replied I am.

I am, I am. And I looked at her. I was conscious of how I appeared. That morning when getting dressed for work, I had made a very unfortunate wardrobe choice. My stomach made a bulge under my shirt and my skirt was a bit too tight. I felt like a girl playing dress up and trying to be a serious woman and I could feel that she saw right through me and laughed inside. I hated her immediately. She seemed the kind of woman who competed with other women just to put them down. As I asserted what I believed to be true about my programming skill compared to the rest of the team, she smiled incredulously and the subject was dropped. We spent a few more minutes doing rounds of tech workplace group therapy and then left for lunch. As we were leaving the room, she, to my surprise, asked if we could have coffee at some point so she could learn more about programming language X.

We went for a coffee not long after that at the nearby Starbucks, where I sipped on a sligtly acrid latte, while she drank some green tea. While we were taking the elevator back to the 20th something-or-other floor of the glass tower, she told me that she did not like the coffee at Starbucks and I immediately felt embarassed, because I had suggested we go there. In this money-hallowed place, my tastes – in clothing, in food, in hobbies (no, I did not play golf on the weekends), in culture and music – always felt too “lower class”. I breathed a sigh of relief as soon as the elevator reached my floor.

She was preparing for a technical interview at a famous hedge fund and so we went for coffee again. This time to a fancy place with a vaguely franco-italian name. The coffee was served in tiny cups and smelled of chocolatey refinement and sophistication. We had coffee once more and after that, in fact, right after the year end performance review, she quietly disappeared.

When I reflected back, I realised that I had in fact met her even before that Agile meeting. We, the women in the tech department, were at one of those “group therapy meets self help meets empowerment” lunches where we sat around in neatly arranged circles and spoke about how to improve our executive presence. There was a lie, right there in the middle of the room, but no one spoke about it, because it was a comfortable lie, a lie that we all bought into gladly, because it removed the process of success and promotion from the murky backrooms filled with managing and executive directors (people who on the whole definitely did not look like us) into our very own, very un-assertive hands.

This lie had looked at the problem in the Company squarely in the face and concluded that the reason our gender had not made any progress up the ladder since the 1980s was because we lacked that mystical “executive presence” which our esteemed cohort of leaders exuded in their crisp suites.

But, it was all going to be ok, our circle leader told us, because now that we had established that we only had ourselves to blame for our predicament, we only needed to fix ourselves and voila, le probleme would be solved! Only follow these five easy steps to erase yourself and become someone else!

First up – always make sure you smile when you are on a videoconferencing call. My ears, if they could, would have done a double take. Leila snorted. No one gives this kind of advice to the male executives, she said. They are taught to acquire a certain gravitas, she said – searching for the right English word. The rest of the circle and the leader looked uncomfortably embarassed and perhaps a bit disgusted – as though someone had just shown them how the little sausages that came with the hors d’oeuvre were really made. The circle leader started making some concilliatory noises and the conversation was quickly shepherded from “smiling” to the topic of “power words” and “power poses”. It seemed that the corporate feminism faux pas was soon forgotten, but in reality, this branded her as a troublemaker – ready to be cast into a special circle of tech corporate hierarchy hell – the neverending perfomance improvement plan.

We saw each other briefly in the elevator after the results of the midterm performance assessment were made public. I told her, I had been placed in the top percentage and it was possible I was getting a promotion by the end of the year (it wasn’t a significant promotion, but for someone who had never been promoted in any sort of tech role before, it would be a big step). She was visibly happy for me, but shortly after giving me a congratulatory hug, she confessed she had had a falling out with her manager and her performance ranking had plummetted. It was expected that she would be “managed out” by the end of the year. She was actively looking for another position – perhaps at the neighbouring Company.

I felt devastated and unnerved. The internal system of the Company had quickly taken revenge on a person who challenged the status quo and the veneers that were put in place. It could just as easily have been me. Of late, I had not spared caution while criticising our choice to recruit from only elite schools. We have hardly any socioeconomic diversity, I had told a managing director during our meeting. And hardly any appetite to fix the problem, I added to myself.

Speaking to Leila on that elevator landing made me realise the nature of the knife’s edge I balanced on. In spite of my outspokeness, I was liked, which had translated into a potential promotion, but it could have just as easily translated into a demotion. On the 7th floor, we parted in front of a large look-at-us-we-are-very-postmodern-and-art-savvy painting. She hugged me and wished me luck. It was the last time we spoke in person.

A year or so later, long after I had left the Company too, I saw her on the street. She was walking, stylish and elegant as always, with a determined stride, into the neighbouring Company. I felt relieved. It looked like she had landed on her feet.