Few people are brave enough to write about how gender plays into their day to day work environment. I wrote this piece earlier this year. I didn’t post because I was nervous that it might reflect badly on my coworkers – who were all extremely supportive.
This week I decided to post it, because we need to be able to discuss diversity issues without fear. In this anecdote, no one did anything wrong. This is about how it feels to be the “different” person – even when everyone tries to be inclusive.
At Kickstarter, the Product (Engineering + Product + Design) team at Kickstarter hangs out in Campfire – a group chatroom – during the day. One of our uses for Campfire is announcing lunch plans.
When I started work I didn’t want to eat alone, so I wandered out with the people who talked about lunch in Campfire. There was some variation, but there were a few core people who went out to grab lunch most days. That wasn’t surprising – everyone has habits. But as it was, those people were mostly new dads.
That’s also not surprising. At Kickstarter, most of the employees are young. In particular, we had a lot of new parents! When I started, many of the people on the Engineering team were dads. So much so that as a company, we joked around about “the dads.” Dads was definitely part of the culture, and a nice part of the culture at that.
On top of that, they were happy for me to come to lunch with them. No one ever tried to exclude me. The opposite: I was actively included. Once I went to lunch more, people would drop by my desk, invite me, include me.
But over time, a nagging feeling built up. I wasn’t a dad. I wasn’t even a mom! I’m not even married. Plus, I was a PM instead of an Engineer. I also don’t know much about pop culture or sports, so it’s always a bit harder to find common topics to discuss with me.
I wondered what they’d talked about before I started joining them for lunch. Was I ruining the conversation? I was afraid that the dads just wanted to talk about dad-stuff, and I was in the way. They were being so nice, but maybe didn’t really want me there? None of them ever said anything like that, but I kept feeling it.
It wasn’t just one thing that made me feel like I was imposing. Wasn’t just being a non-parent. Wasn’t just being a woman. Wasn’t just being a PM. It’s just that all the differences added up, and I felt “different” from the rest of the group.
Over time, it got me down. Some days I’d just avoid going to lunch so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Sometimes days would stretch into weeks. It sucks to eat alone though. Plus, I felt less connected to the team. I liked going to lunch. I just didn’t like feeling like I was the different one.
One day, I mentioned my worry to a work friend, who also happened to be a dad. He pointed out each of our other coworkers who aren’t dads, but sometimes go to lunch. He understood my fear, but was happy to tell me “if you go, you’re part of lunch! the lunch conversation comes out of who is there. it’s not that you’re ruining it. go, and have whatever conversation you want.”
I want to make it clear: he wasn’t trying to dismiss my feelings. He was trying to reassure me that I was a valued part of the team (and lunch) even if I wasn’t part of the dads. It was helpful.
I went to lunch more again. Sometimes I still felt bad, but at least I could try to remind myself that a Dad had told me it was okay. I had weeks where I wouldn’t go, and weeks where I’d go. But, almost every day I still considered if I should go to lunch – and if I’d be imposing by doing.
That’s what being different does. It makes you aware of your actions, and that you might be imposing. It’s so minor, but it adds up. There’s no reason I should have wasted five minutes of every day analyzing that lunch choice. If lunch had always been a mix of lots of types of people (old, young, parents, not parents, whatever) I wouldn’t have thought twice. I doubt any of my coworkers did.
When you don’t have a diverse team, there will be that nagging sensation for the few people who are different. It’s more likely those people will leave, or continue to feel out of place. I can’t imagine my coworkers being any nicer than they were, and I couldn’t tell you anything that they could have done better. But even with all their support, I still had the nagging feeling of not belonging.
That’s the thing about diversity: we can talk about lots of ways to help make better environments, but the only real way to completely fix it is to hire a diverse team.