Disclaimer: Due to the nature of the content, many of our guest bloggers wish to remain anonymous. Thus, we have allowed them to share personal stories without revealing their identities. Many of them are at the pinnacle of their careers and would like to share freely, without the worry of potential backlash from employers, colleagues, or clients.
One day, I walked in on the founder of the company I was working for, doing lines of cocaine. That was a bit of a shock.
I sat down with a good friend of mine, who happens to be a high-profile tech executive, and boy, did she give me the skinny! She’s been in tech and worked in The Valley well before it became ‘Northern California’s Hollywood,’ where internet hopefuls flock to make it big. She told me she stumbled into tech due to an open opportunity at a family business, which is where she got her start. A few years into working for the family business, she was presented with an opportunity to work for an up-and-comer virtual reality startup. As fate would have it, she accepted this offer, which launched her very notable career.
Q: How was it working in The Valley before many people even knew what it was?
A: It was new and exciting, and I was eager to work hard and earn my stripes. However, almost immediately, I experienced sexual harrassment for the first time in my career at the virtual reality startup. I worked for the CFO directly, and he was a married man, but that did not stop him from continuously touching me inappropriately. I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept my mouth shut, although he made my skin crawl. These were the days of “work hard, play hard.” I definitely knew about nonchalant drug use and casual sex, which became the norm within many valley startups. Cocaine and marijuana use was very popular back then, and most of my colleagues didn’t feel the need to hide it. The drug use and casual sex didn’t usually happen in the office itself, at least not at the companies I worked for. But colleagues spoke, and even bragged, about the raging parties and raucous off-site business meetings.
I really began to notice the inequality for women, especially when I would present them with the offer letters. The benefits and compensation offers were dramatically different from the equally qualified male counterparts. Most shocking to me was the childcare reimbursement offered to men. Oddly enough, this incentive was never offered to a single female during my entire time with this company.
Q: Whoa, you said casual sex and cocaine was the norm. Can you tell me more?
A: Back then, drugs and alcohol were everywhere, and the majority would partake. One day, I walked in on the founder of the company I was working for, doing lines of cocaine. That was a bit of a shock. I kept my cool, but ended up joining in after I had a few drinks with him. We were young and working long hours, so daily happy hours along with after-work parties were standard. That’s how many of us bonded, and the drugs and alcohol fueled the casual sex. Realistically, from my experience, almost everyone working in The Valley in the early days was partying and hooking up with one another — it was a huge part of the culture.
(**Wow, this was quite a shocker to hear, considering this friend of mine doesn’t even touch alcohol now.)
Q: How did women interact in the workplace back then?
A: It was a really tough time for women in tech. I was bullied and accused of sleeping my way to the top, which was not the case. Oftentimes, the results of my work were disregarded and women would undermine my achievements. Woman-on-woman bullying was happening everywhere because this was a predominantly male industry at that time. Unfortunately, women did not support each other, which created a very cut-throat, dog-eat-dog atmosphere. We were all trying to prove ourselves, while competing for the few, paltry executive-level positions, which weren’t typically offered to women at the time. I learned early on that I could not trust anyone and needed to play the game in order to survive in this industry.
Q: When did you first notice the inequality in the workplace?
A: When I was working for a startup which I co-founded, I hired the leadership team, and helped secure the first few rounds of financing. There were two other male co-founders. One of them was quite the hothead. He worked in tech in the early years as well, and he had an off-putting, elitist personality. He would get angry almost daily and didn’t hesitate to yell at anyone in his nearby radius. Not only did he yell at other employees, but he would say very offensive obscenities, and make threats on top of it. Many of the employees were terrified of him, including me.
One day I began to notice that I was suddenly not included in important business meetings, even though I organized a majority of the them. I also heard through the grapevine that the hothead co-founder began to take all of the credit for my efforts. He knew he didn’t complete the work, which is why, I believe, he started having the meetings without me there. He was then able to skew the facts without getting questioned. His volatile behavior eventually got so pervasive that HR became involved after yet another combustive moment. HR’s solution to his anger and outbursts was to send him to an all-expenses-paid anger management course — I think this was done to create a defense in the event they were sued. HR alleged his “disruptive” behavior was a result of stress from the job, so he needed some time to “sort things out.”
In my twenty plus years of experience, I have never seen a woman behave like this and still have a job the next day! In fact, right around the same time the hothead was offered anger management courses, HR terminated a female colleague who they claim was emotional, unstable, and unpredictable. The only thing I witnessed her do was speak up against the two male co-founders during a few meetings. The climate became so stressful that I eventually left and moved on to another startup.
Q: Any advice for women looking to break into or who are already working in the tech industry today?
A: I believe it is a good idea for women to stick together and consider joining women’s empowerment groups. I would also suggest separating work and play, unlike how the culture was years ago. Your reputation is everything, and the tech industry is relatively small. I would keep things extremely professional and avoid any of the stuff I did, including fraternizing, (over) drinking, or using drugs with colleagues. It’s not worth it, especially not now, when there are many qualified women vying for your position at any given time, and the pervasiveness of social media, camera phones, and our highly litigious environment.
All things considered, there have been many more women who have paved the road and made a successful careers in senior positions in tech. Which, in turn, has created more acceptance and job opportunities for other women. All in all, I wouldn’t change a thing. My journey was exciting, fun, frustrating, empowering, and very insightful. Most importantly, I met some fantastic friends and colleagues along the way and I cherish the relationships I have built.