WWCode Conversations: Halloween Unmasking – Revealing Your Authentic Self
Manda Frederick, Program Communications Manager, Kimberly Jacobs, Senior Communications Manager, Grecia Castaldi, Director of Community, Liz Harney, Email Automation Specialist, and Samantha Healy, Digital Designer, all at Women Who Code, sit down for a special Halloween conversation. Instead of spooky tales, they are exploring a different kind of mask, the ones we wear every day to navigate the world around us. They discuss various aspects of masking, including why it's prevalent among women and non-binary persons in the workplace.
MF: Happy Halloween. We're asking everyone to consider how systemic factors often compel women and non-binary persons to wear different masks in professional settings. From code switching to navigating issues related to disabilities, how socializing tendencies like introversion or extroversion. We'll also discuss how masking affects our sense of identity, touching on issues of race, gender and sexuality. Our guests will share their personal experiences and offer tips on how to unmask and empower yourself.
Can each of you share your own experience with masking?
KJ: Masking has become very layered for me. As a Black woman, I'm not masking that I'm Black, you can see that, but aspects of cultural things and how I spoke. I wanted to come across professionally, whatever that means, and even look a certain way. For a long time, I wore my hair straight instead of curly and wore very office type things. As I've gotten older, one thing that I realized is that I was masking socially, too. I'm not as social as I came across and it was really burning me out because networking is such a big part of your professional career and building relationships. It was always hard for me to maintain those relationships because I was socially burnt out and awkward. Eventually I found out I have ADHD, which also helped me to understand my social awkwardness and fatigue. I felt burnt out at work and did not know how to communicate that. I was pushing through because you have to be excellent.
GC: I am from Mexico. I live in Mexico and my first language is Spanish, but it's very common for us Mexicans and Latin Americans to work with American colleagues, for American companies or clients. We are always expected to mask our accent, our English accent, and only the ones with the best English skills can sometimes get those opportunities to work for American companies. I tried to be like that for a while, trying to improve my accent, trying not to make any mistakes. I realized that that was causing me a lot of stress. We can be ourselves, we can talk more about who we are and where we are from. That's part of my story.
LH: I'm someone that lives with a generalized anxiety disorder. I also identify as bisexual. Being bisexual has its privileges because there's this idea of being in a straight passing relationship. My partner is a cisgender heterosexual man and so a lot of times when people see me, they don't assume I'm bisexual and that's actually sometimes a good thing. Sometimes it is really painful. I struggle between wanting to mask and wanting to unmask my bisexuality. I struggle with even more so is my anxiety disorder. I've been struggling with it my whole life, and then sometimes I have anxiety induced depression that I suffer with as well. It has been a cycle throughout my life of having high anxiety moving into a depressive state and then kind of coming out of it and starting all over again. As you can imagine, that really affects someone in their career. I've been in workplaces in the past where I've had to mask more, where I've had to smile and physically wear a mask on my face and then I go back to my office and decompress. That's one of the benefits of working in a remote job, I can just turn my camera off if I need to. Masking is something that has really affected my life, especially when it comes to those two pieces of my identity.
MF: When I was around 27, I got Lyme disease. I was undiagnosed for about 10 months. By the time that I was treated, I had a lot of damage to my joints. I was a really healthy person before that, but by 27, I had pretty advanced arthritis in my joints. I've had this chronic pain condition. I look fine. I don't look like a person who's sitting on a Zoom call suffering.
SH: I'm pretty recent in my coming out story. It's been about three years since I've publicly come out as non-binary. I wouldn't say that I'm fully out, I mask my identity a lot. I live in the south and being a queer person in the south isn't quite safe. At one of my past jobs I was in the early stage of my coming out journey. I had come out publicly to my friends and family. There was some talk in the office that made me feel unsafe to come out. I was young, it was my first real job and I needed the money. I masked who I was. Also, like Liz, I have struggled with generalized anxiety my whole life. That was because I was masking who I truly was. I've masked in public by not correcting people using the incorrect pronouns. I was not entirely sure what would happen if I did. I definitely mask out of safety.
MF: Were there any specific moments where you realized you were masking in that moment? How did that feel and how did you navigate it?
LH: A couple years ago, before I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, before I started medication for it, that really helped me, I was having panic attacks during my lunch hour, at work. I was in a physical working location at that point. I would wake up some mornings and my anxiety would just be really, really high, not for any particular reason. That's one of the things about general anxiety disorder, there doesn't have to be a reason, sometimes you just wake up that way. There would be times that lunchtime would come and I would close my door and say, I'm going to watch this video or take this call. I would close my door and I would lay on the floor and cry. I would be in a panic. At that same workplace at the time, everyone talked openly about their relationships. You want to share those parts of yourself at work and connect with people. People find connection in all those different ways. When people would talk about their relationships or even their dating history, I felt really scared to share mine. That's when I realized as well that being a bisexual woman, I would mask every time someone would bring up their relationship. Still to this day, I have those moments where someone will bring up their relationship and I pause. I'm not really sure what's okay to say and what's not okay to say.
KJ: I experienced burnout a couple of times before Covid happened. Before working at Women Who Code, by trade, I'm a journalist. I was doing a lot of freelance writing, or at least trying to. I would just keep having to take a step back. That happened a few times where I kept needing to fall off the face of the Earth and not keep in contact with people. As 2020 came and I was trying to get back into my journalism and freelance writing and add more news outlets that I was writing for, there was this continuous blocker. Covid happened and I was so excited to be home alone and have nothing to do. That is when I really was like, "Oh, okay, it's something a little bit deeper here." Once I was diagnosed with ADHD, I feel like that was like the final dot connector for me to really understand my whole life of feeling like an oddball, but trying to fit in. That was the final thing to help me understand myself a lot better and how and why I've been masking. I'm not going to act like I don't still mask, but I know when I'm masking, I'm more aware of it and I know when to take a step back and I don't feel bad about it.
SH: One of the first things that brought my attention to what I was actually doing was something super simple. At one of my first jobs outside of college, I got my own work email and I was so excited to have it because I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was like, "Oh, I can make a signature." It took me like, I want to say 10 or more times to press save. I wanted my email signature to have they/them. I thought that maybe if I had that it would be an easier way to tell people, but no one actually read them because I would email all these people, but then I would see them and they wouldn't use the right pronouns. I took it off. As time went on, I was starting to let people misgender me and it started to take a huge toll on my mental health. It took a few people to be like, "Samantha, this isn't normal." I actually had to look in the mirror, like an actual physical mirror and be like, "You've worked so hard for how many years to come out? For me to go back?" I didn't realize until really late into my career that I was like, "I actually don't think I should be here." I shouldn't be working in a place that isn't safe."
MF: One of my small intentional masks, which ended up being lifelong at this point was when I was a first generation college student and then I'm the first person in my family to also get a master's degree. I moved 2000 miles away from my small town. I'm sitting in my first graduate program and the professor there, actually two, but one specifically would always make fun of my Midwest accent. I was trying to figure out academia and I learned really quickly that my Midwest accent, which is very thick, but this is not my natural speaking voice, is like a poor person's accent. I wanted to pass in academia, so I scrubbed it. When I was 22, I changed my speaking voice and I kind of forgot about it. I went through life having changed the way that I speak. During the pandemic, I was watching a lot of Antiques Roadshow with my best friend. I was staying with her for a few months in Seattle and they did an episode in the Midwest. I was just repeating the stuff that the people in the Midwest were saying. My best friend, since I was 24 turned and she's like, "Why are you talking like that?" I was like, Oh, did you not know this is my natural speaking voice? She had no idea. I just put the mask on so long ago. I forgot, I've just been passing like this.
We've been talking about putting on a mask for safety reasons, but we have to take some ownership over the fact that we are also writing stories about other people and how they're going to receive us. We're assuming and we're doing this because we're trying to keep ourselves safe so it's totally normal. Maybe it's not your job to educate people, but if you're interested in the relationship, you could take that time for sure. I'm more comfortable sharing with my manager or my colleagues that I have been having a pain day. I can still do it, I'm just going to be a little slower today. For me, one thing that's been helpful is feeling safe, which that's a testament to the people around me.
What are some ways that you've started on your journey to unmasking?
KJ: One thing is self-compassion. Sometimes I can cut people off in excitement. I try to write things down so I don't forget them. When it's my turn I can say it. Sometimes I just tell people I have ADHD, I'm overstimulated or it takes me a little longer to get things done because I get easily distracted and I just lean into it. I do take medicine for ADHD. I was very much against it for about a year. Then I saw that other Black women were taking medicine for their ADHD and it helped me feel empowered to try it. It has helped a lot, but there are just certain things that come with having ADHD that don't go away. I'm trying to focus on what you're saying but in that focusing I'm telling myself to focus. I'm not afraid to say, “hey I didn't catch that, can you repeat that” or “sorry did I cut you off or I might go on a tangent, please just let me know when to stop.” I’m also open to feedback. I do block off certain weekends where I don't really go out and I don't feel bad about it. The last thing that's been extremely helpful for my mental health and focus has been working out. High intensity workout has done wonders for me and also a lot of journaling and just getting those thoughts out.
LH: One thing I've done is I've sought out therapy. I've been in therapy for over five years now. I also take medication for my generalized anxiety disorder. I know in some cases this is a privilege to have access to therapy, medications and health care. Something that's really helped me too is recognizing my triggers, knowing what's going to trigger me and respecting that. If your trigger is giving a presentation, sometimes you have to do those things for work. Recognizing that yes it's a trigger but having a plan for it. How are you going to prepare and support yourself after that? Also I think having a community is extremely powerful. The last one is to respect your needs and ask for them.
MF: I also agree with figuring out what you need and asking for it. I had a big moment for me and my masking journey. Two Fridays ago, I was in a lot of pain for about a week. I get massages. I work out every day for my mobility. After about a week of the pain, your brain is just like, I can't live like this. I requested to have Friday off on Thursday, I put in the note as a request for a pain day. I'd never done that before. I've never given myself a workday to be in pain. It feels big to be able to just sort of lean into what you need and ask for it.
SH: One of the major things that I did that helped my journey was to quit that job. When I found Women Who Code, the first thing that they asked me was what were my pronouns? I wasn't afraid to tell them. Since starting at Women Who Code, I've been able to be myself. I've noticed that I've become more confident in myself, that I'm not afraid to correct people. It's not to the point where I'd like it to be yet, but in smaller groups I've been able to say my pronouns are they/them. Most of the time I've had pretty positive outcomes and they're, oh, I'm sorry. I've definitely found myself in a job that respects me. It is so important to find a place where you belong. That definitely helps lift the mask.
GC: I am very grateful to work for a very safe and open space now. I can be myself. I can share more about myself. People get interested. They start asking questions about my language and about my country. I also work with many volunteers from different parts of the world. I try to share more about myself and I see that they are responding. They are also sharing about where they are from, more about them, more about their languages or culture. You also help create an open space for everyone.