Without Scars: Domestic Violence, Abuse and the Tech Pipeline

I look around and I see my friends building technologies that make life easier for abusers. I am overwhelmingly sad thinking of all the people whose lives have been made orders of magnitude more hellish carrying ever-connected computers on their bodies.

by Anonymous Author on September 17th, 2015

I am, unfortunately, a proof-of-concept of the American Dream. I’m a Latina from a low-income household in a low-income Latino neighborhood. I tested into an elite high school, received a scholarship to a fancy top university, majored in computer science, and went on to work at top tech companies. With a little hard work, anyone can get through the system, right?

I resent being made this example. I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate to have gotten this far. But it hasn’t been without scars.

When I was in high school, I was in an abusive relationship. It crept up on me slowly, as these things tend to. The first time I realized something was truly, terribly wrong was during a standardized test. We were filling out the forms and he didn’t know his social security number, and I did. He asked me why I knew mine, and I mentioned that I’d had to write it down over and over again on working papers for an upcoming summer job. It turned out that wasn’t okay. As the girl, it wasn’t right for me to get a job before him. I spent the rest of the day completely devastated, knowing something was terribly wrong but not knowing how to even formulate the problem to myself.

A computer science class we took together, a systems programming course, turned into daily punishments for paying attention in class, turned into handjobs under the table in class, turned into an order not to sign up for the next course in the sequence and eventually the end of my attendance in the class altogether. I’ll never forget the first day I didn’t go to that class, just standing outside the class crying.

A woman sitting and facing snow-covered trees, pictured through a 4-pane window.

Photo CC-BY Christian Scheja, filtered.

My own aspirations for college clashed with his ideas of what a girl should and shouldn’t do, and what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I applied to colleges secretly. I stopped being allowed to turn in homework or pay attention in my math and science classes. A secret compartment in my backpack got through his backpack checks and I changed seats in my classes so I couldn’t be seen through the windows. At some point I was even criticized for typing well; a girl should never have that kind of mastery over a computer.

Throughout this domestic abuse, I was facing a lot of racism at school. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend the school, but I was also up against a toxic environment. From the get-go, I received comments on how I’d clearly gotten in by mistake or by getting lucky guessing randomly on the admissions tests. My peers made it clear to me that they did not like someone like me in the honors math classes, even though I kept up better than a lot of them. Students would often insult each other on every dimension – “hard working” meant you weren’t naturally smart, and “naturally smart” meant you weren’t hard working. My own background meant I was repeatedly put down because I didn’t “have to work as hard” – either “your parents didn’t care as much” or “colleges will be easy on you” – and the baseline assumption was that people like me weren’t smart. The devastation and entitlement against affirmative action ran strong in the student body years before they would ever even apply to colleges. I eventually found my own way by finding computer science and generally being excellent, but the entire experience was overwhelming and could have easily broken me down before I even started along that path.

In college, I was introduced to the tech industry, and with it the industry’s version of sexism. From the first week of school, I saw big-name tech companies hanging out in the academic buildings, offering food and massages. During that first week of school, I was also told by the other students that I was not there on my own merits, and watched as the women in the program were commoditized as things to date and have sex with.

We took demoralizing weeder classes and got through them by developing unhealthy relationships with the TAs. We talked about boyfriends writing code for their girlfriends, and gossipped about the girls who dropped out of the program. As a sophomore I dropped all my computer science classes after I got called “weird,” but the next semester continued in the major. Even though I had to prove my right to even be in the program over and over again, I didn’t leave because it was the path of least resistance. It was hard enough to be in this school without the shame of not making it, and there wasn’t any other program I could see myself in.

I eventually found a way to survive: I worked to build communities around making and entrepreneurship, something that my program was severely lacking. It was exciting and made me feel alive, and it used all of me. The price I paid was that I was no longer thought of as a technical person. I was often seen as merely an organizer, while I watched my male counterparts receive only more hacker cred for the same work.

As we began to seek internships, for some reason, when women got interviews it was “because they were a girl,” but the men never got interviews “because they were boys.” Still, my internships had all been much better than my school years, so I was excited to go out into the world.

A misty path through a lush green wood.

Photo CC-BY Manu Praba, filtered.

So I moved to the Bay Area and joined the ranks of the insular techie. I already come to the table as someone others don’t expect to succeed in this industry. Even my personality is at odds with what an engineer is expected to be — I’m a loud, extroverted and highly social person. When I was searching for my first job, I had trouble receiving offers until I downplayed my non-technical accomplishments and interests and reformulated my resume and persona to be more of what an engineer is expected to be. I stopped including my leadership work on my resume or in my interviews. I stopped answering questions like “What do you do in your spare time?” with answers that didn’t indicate I dreamed in code. I learned, once again, that people like me aren’t supposed to be engineers, just like my peers have always told me, just like my abuser told me.

Around me, I saw people “killing it” and “crushing it” and “disrupting,” completely oblivious to the world around them which they were killing and crushing and disrupting and suffocating. I missed work because my bus was being protested, and cried when I saw exactly how little the tech industry cared about the world it’s claiming to save. It was hard to believe I’d survived high school and college for this.

I look around and I see my friends building technologies that make life easier for abusers. Forget the obvious location-broadcasting — even Spotify broadcasting what songs someone is listening to without them realizing it could be information easily used by an abuser. Really, any information is good enough, and as time goes on more and more information is more easily disseminated with less clear privacy settings. I am both grateful for the advent of smartphones and overwhelmingly sad thinking of all the people whose lives have been made orders of magnitude more hellish carrying ever-connected computers on their bodies.

Public work and profiles such as Github and Twitter make my skin crawl. It was extremely hard for me to even have public profiles that said I studied computer science, knowing my ex might be angry, might try to contact me, might retaliate, or worse. But it’s expected as a part of making it in this industry, so I’ve moved forward and become a Google-able person. Maybe not everyone has the privilege of “nothing to hide.”

A magnifying glass held up to a light source.

Photo CC-BY John Lemieux, filtered. 

I find myself drifting further away from even wanting to tackle technical problems. It cuts all too deeply when I hear about how “girls” just can’t hack it at systems programming. From my high school boyfriend, to the TAs at college, to the TAs-now-turned industry professionals, the idea that this work is off-limits to women is pervasive. I am acutely aware of how women are pointed towards front-end work and driven away from lower level work, in ways that are both more subtle and more extreme than what I experienced, and it makes me sick and confused.  

On top of all of this, I’m expected to be a role model, but for all the good things that have happened to me, the bad things are part of the same system, and it is difficult for me to recommend playing the game. The idea that people like me shouldn’t be doing things like this is the same idea, whether it’s a schoolmate talking behind my back, an interviewer that doesn’t think I’m a cultural fit, or an abuser. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s implicit bias or overt, self-aware prejudice because it is all grating away at me.

Sometimes I think about leaving the field. Maybe I won’t have to make that choice. As I become more dissatisfied and less interested in playing the part carved out for me, the irony of the tech industry becomes more frustrating. I watch corporations pay lip service to diversity and say diverse voices are assets, while not overhauling their hiring, while not listening to these diverse voices they pretend to understand are valuable. The hacker way is to not care what other people think, to shun popularity and social norms – and yet so much of this system is based on peers referring each other and coloring in the lines.

It has become increasingly difficult for me to understand my place in the world when so many have reinforced the lessons that my high school boyfriend taught me so long ago. I love building things and empowering others and using my brain to solve puzzles, but that is not enough.

I’m so young, and I’m so tired.