Conversations #83: Women Who Code Celebrates Pride Month
SH: I am non-binary and I use they, them pronouns. As a non-binary person coming to terms with my identity and sexuality on top of everything has been quite a unique experience. I was born and raised in the south. Conversations about identity and sexuality were not really brought up. It wasn't talked about. I constantly question my identity without even acknowledging that there is a vocabulary for this feeling. It wasn't until I left college that I finally found myself in a safer environment where people felt free to discuss openly identities and sexuality without the fear of judgment and bullying. Despite this safe space, it took me years to come out and I didn't really have the courage to come out as non-binary right away. My sister was the first person I actually shared this with. Eventually, I came out to my friends, and my family, and then on my Instagram story.
SG: Women Who Code has been a community that has really helped me throughout my whole professional life. I joined a while ago as a participant and then a volunteer, and I was really seeking community in tech. I felt the same when I went to a Women Who Code event as I do when I am around fellow queer people. I feel like we have this shared understanding and a shared experience that is, I guess, in the minority or something that a lot of people don't really face day to day. With Women Who Code, it's being underrepresented in the industry and being a queer person, it's being underrepresented and maybe underappreciated or under-respected, by a lot of people in at least our perspectives are all US-based here, but globally. I definitely see the parallels between being part of Women Who Code and also being part of a larger queer community as being really important to me and my identity.
LH: The aspect of the community is incredibly important to me. I am someone who came to terms with my sexuality later in my life. I had to come out to myself first and had to process that before I felt like I could come out to anyone else. For years I didn't have the terminology. I didn't know that bisexuality was a thing. I was constantly feeling confused and conflicted until I became an adult. Not only the community but also representation is incredibly important and has been really pivotal for me as a queer person. I remember seeing Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn 99 coming out as bisexual on TV, and I cried. That was actually a really pivotal moment for me when I said I actually have those same feelings. I think I'm bisexual too. Community is very important to me and finding my people is one of the reasons I recently relocated to a bigger city. I'm from the Midwest in a relatively small town, so I'm now in a bigger city, where the queer community is really thriving. Also, that representation has been really pivotal for me and seeing people that look like me on TV and in executive leadership roles, et cetera.
SH: When discussing personal experience, it also brings up the conversation and sometimes that argument that there should be this separation of work life and personal life. I think that can sometimes be difficult as a queer person, especially when it's either you're coming into a new job or you're coming out publicly. Coming from one job where it was not a safe environment into a place like Women Who Code was so simple. A notification from the Monday Board in my inbox where it was just like what the Monday Board was called and it was my onboarding, and it said, Samantha Healey, They/Them." I was like, "Oh my God, those are my pronouns. Wow, this is new.” I wasn't able to come out at my last job.
How would you describe the overall work culture when it comes to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and the importance of having a safe and supported work environment for queer individuals, especially for a new team member who could be coming from a previous job that wasn't quite safe, where they weren't quite out yet?
SG: That highlights the power of technology to make really small changes, like including pronouns. I know Slack has a similar feature where you can include your pronouns in your profile. It takes the representation of someone who has that as something that's important to them to make that happen within tech. Someone at Slack or someone at Monday was making sure that that feature existed because it was important to them. Working in organizations where I did not feel fully comfortable discussing my sexuality for a number of reasons, I do think that it's unrealistic to expect people to keep their lives fully outside of work. We spend so much time at work. There has been pressure, pre-pandemic, to socialize with your co-workers after work or on the weekends at times. Any time the conversation of family would come up at work, or any time someone was getting engaged or getting married, these really big moments, and also everyday things that other people on the team might be going through, it really feels like being left out when you are so different from everyone else.
I was a product manager at the time, and I remember being on a team where no one that I knew of was an out queer person. There were a lot of conversations around taking your kids to baseball practice, and having a stay-at-home mom and wife. I felt very separate from these extremely heteronormative ideals that everyone else at my company was doing. I felt separated being the only woman, the only person under 30 at the time, the only person who was queer, and just having very little in common with my co-workers. At Women Who Code, I feel like we can share some really fun moments with each other and we can talk about TV shows, like the fact that Liz brought up Rosa Diaz. I love Brooklyn 99, and I remember that moment being really powerful. When I joined Women Who Code, I remember Joey Rosenberg was hiring me and was my manager when I first joined. I remember being on the phone making arrangements to come in for onboarding. In the background, there was some noise and she's like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, my wife is in the background," and I got off the phone and I told my then girlfriend how excited I was that my new boss had a wife. I was like, "This is great."
LH: At my previous job, I never talked about my sexuality at work. There was very much a boy’s culture kind of feeling. When we had to start working from home, I was thinking about my home office, and I had a huge bisexual pride flag in my office at home. I remember thinking, I have to take this down. I have to take down these pieces that exist in my own home that represent who I am as a person. I had to take these down because I don't know if that's going to be okay at work. I felt my personal space was being invaded, and I was having to take down these pieces of myself. I didn't even really know at the time that it was possible to be in an inclusive work environment. I had seen companies putting forth a lot of rainbow washing especially during pride. Companies talk about how inclusive they are and their policies but then you look at their executive team, you look at their team page and everyone looks the same and has the same kind of bio and background, et cetera. I didn't really know what it would mean to join an inclusive company. When I joined Women Who Code and when Joey mentioned her wife I also got off the phone and just ran to my husband and I was like, “This is incredible. I think this is like a whole new journey for me. I think this is going to change everything for me,” and it has. I think it's really kind of impossible to bring your best performance if you can't be your whole self.
SH: This was my first job right out of college. I was also just recently out publicly to more than my immediate friends and family. I remember stepping foot into this office. I had my own office, I had my own desk, and I was so excited. I remember wanting to add a signature to my email and I was going to put “they, them" next to my name. I was so excited. I remember also speaking to Joey in my interview and they asked me for my pronouns. I was like, wow this is so new. At first, I almost just said, she, her because I was so stuck being this person. With everything going on in the South, being non-binary, trans, or queer, in general, it's not safe. I remember just being there and then just seeing them and them telling me who they were and I was like, "This is safe, this is okay." And I was like, "I use they, them pronouns." I was really excited. I called my sister and I was like, "I really want to work here." I've grown into a better artist through my digital design because I feel more comfortable with talking to people and having conversations where I'm not hiding who I truly am.
Shauna, as someone who works in the C-suite, how can workplaces better support individuals using their pronouns and creating an inclusive environment for all employees?
SG: There are features that are baked into technology that we already use. We have things like Slack and Monday and include pronouns in emails. I know of well-intentioned companies that have had the idea to make that mandatory but there are still people, regardless of how inclusive the company thinks they are, who are not ready to do that. Making it mandatory might have the opposite of the intended effect. I do think it's really crucial for startups to prioritize an employee handbook. It sounds extremely basic, but is often the very last thing a new tech company will do is hire someone who prioritizes people. A culture of inclusion can be common for a tech company to be several years old before they've put a lot of thought into the day-to-day treatment and culture and code of conduct for their team. It's usually when something bad happens or when a lawsuit emerges that prompts them to do this. Working with organizations that have inclusion at the core is really important for startups. Even if they aren't ready to come up with their own employee handbook and be really open about having inclusive culture, they kind of need to learn what that is first.
We work with a lot of partners who've adopted a similar code of conduct to the one that we have which states that we're an inclusive environment and we don't tolerate harassment. I think it's really important when we onboard volunteers, for example, at Women Who Code we let them know to never ask anyone why they're at an event. I think it's really common for people to come to a Women Who Code event in person and they might ask someone who doesn't appear to be a woman, whatever that means, why are you here? That's something that we have backtracked and made sure volunteers know. It doesn't matter why anyone is here because we're open and inclusive and anyone can join. It's really important to not only create those policies but also implement them and check on them throughout the months and years that follow.
SH: I am curious to hear your experiences and if you've experienced any tokenism or microaggression, especially as a bisexual person. When you talk about your partner, how do you educate others in your work environment?
SG: I had moved to a new city because my girlfriend had started a grad school program. I looked for jobs and was pretty open when I was applying for these jobs. I had moved from New York to Boston to move in with her, and I had started a new job. I had referred to her when talking to my team about my girlfriend. I was talking about her all the time. We had a company party, and one of the engineers that I worked with, it took him that long for it to click. Girlfriend didn't mean my best friend that I was obsessed with and talked about all the time. I just remember that moment being really stark that there were no other queer people on our team. There were very few other women on our team. There was very little racial diversity on our team and I immediately started looking for a new job. It didn't feel like the type of thing that I had the power to change. I had come from a really progressive company in New York where I felt more comfortable being out and also had the authority to make a change. I did not have that at this company and I didn't feel comfortable for the short year that I was there. It is a microaggression, it's not something that he had intended and I think it's something that he felt embarrassed about, but it's also something that made me feel deeply uncomfortable when it happened.
LH: It's a weird experience being a bisexual woman. I am married to a man and I think pretty much everyone I've ever met, minus the people that know I'm bisexual, would immediately assume that I'm straight. There's that idea of a straight-passing relationship, which I don't know if I completely agree with. As far as work goes, Women Who Code is the first time I've felt comfortable talking about my sexuality openly at work. In the past when I mentioned my husband, everyone just assumes that I'm straight and in those places where I didn't feel safe, I allowed them to. That was a privilege, I was privileged to be able to do that, to feel like if I'm not safe, this protects me. It feels really horrible to say, but unfortunately, that is a privilege. I haven't experienced many microaggressions in the workplace because I've hidden myself for most of my work career. Now that I'm at Women Who Code, I can tell you I haven't experienced anything like that. It's been a really great organization to work with. As far as, when I mention my husband anymore, I mentioned him as my partner. The more the years go on, the more sure of myself I've become, and the more sure of my sexuality I've become. I am scared that if I say husband, someone's not going to believe that I'm queer. I really avoid the term husband and I say partner instead because I want people to know that I'm still queer, like I'm still in here. My relationship doesn't validate or invalidate my sexuality and I'm still bisexual.
SH: Do you have any pro tips or advice that you would give to LGBTQIA+ individuals navigating their careers or maybe stepping into a new company in terms of creating an inclusive and accepting work environment?
SG: Like sexuality, coming out is also a spectrum. You don't have to be all or nothing when it comes to who you decide to trust at your new workplace or your new school or whatever your next step is. I know that even though I am extremely proud of my relationship and my identity, there are still times because we're a global organization, I feel less comfortable speaking with people in a part of the world that I know does not necessarily respect my identity. It doesn't feel great to hide that or to withhold that information, but an example would be traveling abroad and working in India and having many questions about why at the time I was an unmarried woman without a husband and children. I just laughed that off and didn't really elaborate on my very valid reasons for that not being the case or how that's an assumption that I am not really comfortable with. I would say it's okay to navigate at your own pace and you don't need to be a representative of the entire LGBTQIA+ community every time you have a meeting with someone or you interact with anyone. I know that especially in the US we are such a fractured country that has different legislation happening at the state level. The three of us are from all different parts of this country. Unfortunately, there are no state-level anti-discrimination laws for sexual and gender identity in at least 10 or 12 states. There's also a lot of anti-trans legislation that makes people feel really uncomfortable being themselves, even if it is something that is not impacting them. It's a topic of conversation that your coworkers or people might be having and you get to learn what some opinions are that impact you. It might make you deeply uncomfortable to learn that some people might uphold book banning or might uphold gender-affirming care for young children. It's a really interesting time to navigate as someone who might feel really strongly or really attached to a community that is deeply hurting.
LH: In the process of writing our Pride blog for Women Who Code, I saw a number, it was over 400 anti-LGBTQ plus legislation in 2023 just this year. That is terrifying for so many people in this community. My pro tip would be to take care of yourself, take care of your mental health, take lots of deep breaths, and check in with yourself, if you are in a position where you're transitioning to a different career or a new place of work, you don't have to come out to everyone at work. You can come out to a few trusted people at work or nobody at all, it's whatever your level of comfort is. No one should be pushed to come out or feel tokenized. Keep tabs on how you're feeling, keep tabs on your mental health, and know that you have the power to control who you do and don't come out to in the workplace.