How Far to Fall

Forcing people to live in fear shows nothing but a cruel disregard of their lives.

by Aurynn Shaw on August 11th, 2014

Hi, I’m aurynn. I write code for a living, and I’m a passionate photographer, spending as much time as I can taking photographs in Lovely New Zealand.

I’m good at writing code. I enjoy playing with languages and I’m deeply interested in graph theory.

I’m also unwelcome in the tech community, and I’m here to explain why I, and others like me, will always be at risk of losing everything if tech culture does not change.

Starting in Dark Places

A steep, rocky cliff at the top of a mountain.

CC-BY Roman Königshofer, filtered.

Like a lot of programmers, I suffer from depression, and I’ve been fighting it off since I was 16. It’s been a huge, endless struggle punctuated with periods of such bleakness that I was on the verge of quitting the world.

It comes and goes, and right now it’s strongly on the “comes” side of the equation, and has been since the beginning of this year. It’s gotten so bad that I have literally been unable to work for the last 2 months, and I had to leave my job in order to recover.

This has been a massive struggle for me, as tech culture glorifies overwork and dedication beyond reason to one’s work, pushing the idea that the more one works the better and more moral one actually is. We complain-brag about our 60-hour-plus work weeks, use words of social inclusion such as “passion” and “dedication”. We’re expected to pursue considerable research and personal projects, as well as find time to contribute to open source.

Our stories and hiring practises show how internalised this is, how we use “culture fit” to exclude those who disagree with or object to the punitive work-life imbalance.

And here is me, all of a sudden having a core piece of that deeply internalised narrative kicked away by my failing health. If I couldn’t work or focus on work, how could I have value?

How could I demonstrate that I belonged?

Culture Misfit

Of course, my first mistake was thinking that I belonged in the first place. As a woman I have been long excluded and disrespected by the tech community, consistently spoken over, reminded of my inferiority to men, and harassed in the workplace.

For men in technology, there’s been a broader movement towards acknowledgement and acceptance of depression, driven by high-profile, heartbreaking suicides. Instead of being able to take advantage of that cultural shift, I felt my depression was just another way in which I was lesser for being a woman in tech, another battle in the constant fight for acceptance and much-begrudged Tech Merit Tokens.

A pile of golden, generic tokens.

Mauquoy Token Company, filtered.

Worse still is that I can’t perform the 40-plus-hour passion and dedication narrative that gets forced on everyone. When I insist that I need to work less, I can only worry that I’ll be seen as more deeply inferior, not a team player, because I just can’t be present.

Also Being Trans

I’ve been a woman for a long time, now. I grew into my womanhood late, starting in my mid 20s and still figuring it out to this day.

When I started the journey to become a woman, the overarching narratives that I was given were that I could never tell anyone about my history, nor admit that I wasn’t as cis as possible. “Go stealth”, I was told. Hide, or you will be vilified and persecuted. To drive home this point, all the stories I was told were of women who lost family, jobs and homes, women who were barely able to survive in a world that hated them.

I was quite reasonably afraid. I wasn’t exposed to stories of women being out as trans and proud of it, I wasn’t able to see stories of being safe or respected. Instead we shared stories of harassment and abuse, and we congratulated each other on our cis passing privileges.

Be stealth, I was told, or lose it all.

Last year I gave that up, and I came out all over my Twitter timeline, and it’s now a prominent part of my public identity. I am trans I cry out! It can work out, and it’s worth fighting for.

Culture Misfit Amplification

Facing the stigma of depression is made worse by facing it while transgender.

I know two women who, in the last 6 months, came out as trans and began transition in their workplaces. Both are very senior developers, women with significant skill and capability. They’re awesome.

Both women lost their jobs within weeks of coming out as trans. In one case a glowing performance review suddenly became “not meeting expectations” when she announced her intent to transition.

I see their lives heavily disrupted by bigotry and hate, women who had considerable privilege and “merit” suddenly stripped of both. I see a world where that bigotry will be targeting me too, and my lack of culture fit from depression will be amplified by my trans status.

“If Only You Didn’t…”

A couple of months ago, I read Nevada by Imogen Binnie, a book about a young trans woman named Maria, living in New York. The story resonated strongly with me, and I read it as the events of her life going completely off the rails as a result of her mental health issues.

Maria has a service-sector job and can barely afford to cover the costs of her transition. She suffers from severe dissociative issues, and can’t afford to seek help. Her life falls completely apart and there is very little she can do to fix it.

For me it was a book of the grinding poverty and desperation that trans lives are routinely subjected to, and it reminded me of just how much privilege I have, and just how far I have to fall when that privilege is snatched away.

These women I know lost their jobs over a single change, for simply coming out as trans. Fighting back in this situation is hard when you suddenly don’t know where your next meal is going to come from and don’t know if you’ll still be able to find a job.

The narrative of desperation and poverty is always forefront in my mind, and no privilege offsets it. They lost their privilege in a single change, and there is nothing they could have done differently.

There is no system I can obey that removes this constant, existential fear.

If I maintain stealth, then it’s a weapon that can always be used against me. If I’m out, then I’m othered and excluded.

If I’m depressed and hide it, I’ll be excluded for not being around and not “being a part of the team.”

If I’m out about my depression, I’m not a part of the ideology of working as much as I can. I’m outside the group, and nothing I can do will bring me in.

Counting the Days

I’m afraid that I’m going to lose everything.

It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, because in the eyes of many I’m not a part of the tech community.

I see others trying to change this state of affairs, and I see how badly they’re treated as a result. They’re endlessly harassed, vilified and harmed.

No matter what I do, I’m afraid that this is my future too. I’m afraid I will be vilified, harassed and tormented, that I will be rejected on the grounds of my womanhood, explicit or not. I will not be a culture fit because I’m a woman, because I’m depressed, because I can’t work to extremes, because I don’t want to program at all hours.

I do not have the belonging privilege granted to white men, and I cannot earn the merit that the system pretends to grant, because I am not of the culture. I am outside it and I always will be, no matter how many Merit Tokens I’ve earned.

This is Bullshit

Mac book with a cup of coffee on the keypad area.

CC-BY Brandon Nguyen, filtered.

This is the world as it stands today. It’s not inclusive or kind or particularly pleasant, but I still really enjoy programming. I enjoy teaching and exploring and thinking about computability. All of this is fun, and I want to be able to share it with others.

Since I left my job I’ve had a couple of interviews, and they have all been accepting and accommodating of my depression, willing to negotiate on hours and my ability to give of myself to my work. Talking about it the first time was utterly terrifying, and I expected to get laughed out of the office.

Instead, I discovered that I have the privilege of being locally well-known and very senior. I can push for terms that enable me to work, because I know that I have other options available to me.

But that’s a privilege granted by others, a privilege that I am all too aware can be ripped away. If I lacked seniority, or I was less well-known, I wouldn’t be able to push for better working conditions or be able to be out about my depression or trans status.

I’d have to be stealth, hiding and hoping that no one found out the truth, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a job at all.

And what about people who aren’t me, who don’t have my seniority, or a network of supportive friends and colleagues?

Do we force them to face those hurdles while hiding so much of themselves, lying to ourselves that it is a fair system? Or admit, finally, that forcing people to live in fear shows nothing but a cruel disregard of their lives and experiences?

When do we admit that this system, this ideal of “merit” is empty and harmful? When we accept that the “just work harder” narrative is a bullshit solution to the problem?