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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What it Was Actually Like to Be the Only Woman at My Company

woman working with men
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Lindsay Grizzard remembers the first time she discussed menstruation with her co-workers. It was about a year into her last job, as a front-end developer and designer with a small tech company of around 11 employees, of whom she was the only woman.

“I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but I said the word ‘period’ in an offhand, not-even-talking-about-myself way, and it was just like all the air got sucked out of the room for a second. And then we moved on. I remember going home that night and talking to my friend: ‘So my company acknowledged the existence of periods today, and we all survived.’”

This work culture was a stark difference from Hackbright Academy, the all-women coding bootcamp where Grizzard had trained before joining the tech startup, where she worked for around two years until taking a new job last summer.

Recent estimates by the NCWIT suggest that women hold only around one in four computing jobs in the U.S., and it’s even worse among women of color, who represent single-digit percentages in the field. That means the overwhelming majority of women in tech are likely to find themselves on teams dominated by men.

Frustratingly familiar issues like the gender pay gap and more recent efforts, including the growing movement to curb sexual harassment, are characteristic of this underrepresentation.

But every woman who finds herself alone among male co-workers has a different experience—with some ups, some downs, and more than a few iffy incidents in between. Here’s what Grizzard’s was like, in her own words (condensed and lightly edited for clarity):

Interviewing as the First Woman

On my first call with them [as a job candidate], they mentioned how I would be really “leading the charge as the woman on the team,” and they were “so excited to have a woman”—and mentioned my gender like 10 times in that first kickoff call, which was definitely a red flag. But as a junior developer I was like, “Please just give me a job.” It felt like misguided enthusiasm, like their hearts were in the right place.

So at the time I thought, “That was a little weird, but okay, at least they’re trying.” And it was kind of nice that they addressed the elephant in the room quickly: “Yes, you’re going to be the only female here, and that’s okay, and we acknowledge that, and we’re being intentional about it.”

But funnily, my gender didn’t really ever come up again until a few months before I left the company. It was so upfront, but then it did kind of become gender-blind after that, which was a little confusing. The person I talked to in the beginning was open to talking about [the gender imbalance], but everyone else at the company seemed really afraid to address it or just didn’t want to.

Fitting In (Up to a Point)

After I started working there I became “one of the guys,” so to speak, which entailed just talking about video games and movies and Dungeons and Dragons—which I can do because I’m a nerd–but those were the only conversations they ever had. That was my biggest takeaway from working there: that I could only expose about half of my personality.

But the gender-blindness at first was really nice. After a while it became kind of annoying, but it was nice to just be able to focus on my job. I was never, ever hit on—and I’ve had that at other companies; no one ever made any weird jokes about my body or sexualized me at all.

I remember there was this turning point when everyone started becoming more comfortable with me, after about six months of working there. There was one guy whose wife worked at Sephora, and makeup came up somehow at the lunch table, and I was like, “Oh yeah, they have good lipstick there.”

And one of the guys started telling me about different types of lipstick, and how actually this one was better and actually he knows about lipstick. I remember looking at him like, you don’t wear lipstick; your wife is a designer at Sephora, but I don’t think that gives you a lot of life experience with lipstick. It was just one of those conversations where I thought, “This is what mansplaining feels like—okay, right.”

It got a little awkward, and luckily a few other people noticed, but no one stepped in—everyone kind of bit their tongue. When we switched topics, everyone jumped in enthusiastically to change the conversation back to video games.

Signs of Bias Few Others Can See

This is how it is working as a woman on an all-male team: You can never put your finger on exactly whether it’s the gender thing or whether it’s just a personal thing or whatever. [For example,] my tech lead would only ever Slack me.

It was really hard to get him to come sit down next to me and help me, which is a really common thing to do in coding. But he would do that with everyone else. At first I didn’t really notice it, but after six months, it was like every time, even if I would ask him to come pair-program with me for a little while, it would be like pulling teeth. And we sat maybe five feet apart.

Another funny thing was that anytime anyone else came into the office—like anyone’s wife or girlfriend—the first thing they would say is, “Oh look! This is the one female!” Which was interesting because [that acknowledgment] was coming mostly from women.

I never took offense to it, but it would call it out for a second and the whole room [would flinch, then let out a sigh of relief] like, “Are we okay? Okay, we can keep going.”

Another junior developer and I used to get lunch together. He was kind of my ally at work, and he also sensed the general weirdness at work; he did notice the lipstick conversation because that one was just so blatant and out there. But it’s kind of difficult to talk to male co-workers about this stuff, even if they are your really good friend, because they’re just like, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think that’s a thing…maybe.”

Lessons Learned

I really think the tipping point is women in leadership. If I had anyone at a higher rank who was female that I could’ve talked to about some of this stuff, it would’ve been much less of a problem.

At my new company, I have so many women leaders I can talk to, and it makes such a big difference. And, it’s also important to just talk about [gender dynamics] in general! That’s why I’m okay with doing this interview.

I work at Gusto now, which is a fintech company. Their engineering team’s [gender ratio is] not 50/50 perfect, but it’s something they recognize and have a team working on it. They actually put effort into their diversity and inclusion programs, which I really like.

But the biggest thing I noticed was that I was interviewed by all but one woman, out of I think 12 different people I talked to. That was huge to me.

This article was originally published on Fast Company. It has been adapted here with permission. You can find more tips on starting your career in Fast Company’s newsletter, Hit The Ground Running.