By: May Lee

Born and raised in Asia, May Lee* spent the last 7 years in the USA working in the (male-dominated) tech industry. She strongly believes that all the free food, massages and other ridiculous perks of Silicon Valley, can never take the place of a collaborative work environment that is welcoming towards women.

You walk into a meeting to be told by a man that you’ve not prepared or laid out the agenda. Untrue. The agenda was always published in the calendar invite – he’s just not bothered to read it.

You’re driving a discussion during the meeting but are constantly interrupted by a man who immediately changes the topic. He wasn’t listening in the first place.

You bring a damn good idea to the table, only to be ignored or dismissed. You’re just background noise. Later, a man brings up the exact same idea – he gets lauded for his ingenuity and creativity.

I wonder, how many women working in a male-dominant team relate to these?

Discrimination often doesn’t happen as big grandious gestures. They are small and easily pass by unnoticed. It’s hard to pinpoint.
You think to yourself, “Am I being too sensitive? No one else seems to recognize this is a problem.”

So I started the way most polite Asian women would. I bit my tongue, bent over backwards, and let words roll off my back.

Over time, as I got comfortable with other women in the company, I began to share these experiences with them. It turns out, I was not alone. I confided in a senior level woman who validated everything I felt.

With that, I gradually learnt to stand up for myself. Even when it meant having uncomfortable conversations at all levels.

I confronted men who took credit for my ideas in meetings. Sometimes, their response would be adequate, a mixture of disbelief (that I was standing up for myself) and embarrassment (that I was calling them out). Other times, they feigned innocence, insisting that I was overthinking or that I had misunderstood them.

More often than I should, I questioned myself afterwards. Am I being overly emotional and sensitive? How could I have framed my discussion better? Did I just imagine these things? What could I have done better?

Even being self-assured that I was doing the right thing takes energy.

Eventually it all takes a toll – being on high alert all the time, calling out misbehaving men (ranging from early-in-their-career engineers, to very senior level folks) in a public setting, and setting the tone that I would not take bullshit from anyone. After a while, you’re known either as a bitch or a fool. There is very little in between.

I’d like to brag that I stayed on to push for change. That the company evolved to be so much better than when I first started. Truth is, after giving direct feedback, escalating issues to the managers (who themselves were problematic), submitting anonymous feedback to the leaders of the company… I decided I’d had enough and left the company soon after.

I recently came across this quote on a friend’s Facebook newsfeed: “Contrary to popular opinion, quitting is for winners. Knowing when to quit, change direction, leave a toxic situation, demand more from life, give up on something that isn’t working and move on, is a very important skill that people who win at life all seem to have. But don’t quit because it’s hard. Quit because it sucks.”

That deeply resonates. I didn’t quit my job because it was hard. I quit because it sucked.

Looking back, I have no regrets with how I navigated the situation. In fact, I think I fared much better than if I had faced this 5 years ago.
On reflection, these factors helped me make that much needed decision to leave:

  • Found a role model to look up to – Fortunately while at my first startup workplace, I had a strong and assertive female manager. She ended up being my role model and helped to shape my views on my own self-worth.
  • Created allyships to validate my initial concerns – I desperately needed to know if I was imagining things. Having female allies to commiserate and validate my concerns was a huge relief. And hey, there’s a strength you muster when you realize that you’re not the only one facing a problem.
  • Established a set of personal values – I was a late bloomer and didn’t really have a strong set of principles and values until late in my career. Now I know that I am not willing to be treated lesser just because I look different or have a different background.
  • Built the confidence to say no – For me, confidence came with experience. I was lucky enough to have a female role model who helped me realise it’s okay to say Hell No.
  • Knew when to throw in the towel – Finally, when I tried my best and concluded that things would not change, it was time to responsibly and respectfully get out of there.

It’s tough for a woman to navigate her way in male-dominant workplaces.
On the one hand, you want to be a team player, roll up your sleeves to do what it takes for the company to succeed. On the other hand, you don’t want to be a pushover and you certainly don’t want to compromise on your values.

I realize now how lucky I was to have a female role model. For most young women early in their career — how could they learn what acceptable and non-acceptable behavior was if they didn’t have any role models to look up to?

If you’re going through what I did, I hope you know you’re not alone and definitely not crazy for the way you feel! And hey, it’s okay to say Hell No.

*To protect the writer’s workplace privacy, a pseudonym is used at her request.