“But you don’t look like…”

When I announced I was going to HBS last Spring, one of the common reactions was, “wow, the old boy’s club?” or “so.. you’re trying to find a place more sexist than tech?” I think this was particularly prevalent because of an article that came out at the time.

Transitioning to HBS was anything but easy. I was an introvert in a very social environment, and I was technical in a place where many things are high level. Many things were extremely hard for me. But at least one thing was finally easy, and that was my gender. The HBS classroom is 42% women.

Since I’m sure someone will ask: HBS has things to fix on this front, but it feels light-years ahead of tech. There was one thing in particular that stood out.

When I talk with people in technology, it’s frequently assumed that I don’t belong. People ask me “are you a recruiter?” with alarming frequency. People will ask me if I’m at a technical event because my boyfriend is. It’s not uncommon for someone to say “but you don’t look like an engineer” or give me the look that says exactly the same thing. I haven’t been mistaken for a janitor, but nearly half of black and Latina women in science have.

It was a delight that this didn’t ever happen at HBS. At HBS, a common first question is “what section are you in?” — assuming you are a student. No one ever asks me “are you a partner?”

People don’t assume what job you did before, either. You cannot, and do not, look “like a consultant” or “like a banker” or “like an engineer.” Instead, they’ll ask “what do you do?”

This was a delight, and it should not have been. It’s basic courtesy to not assume you know someone’s job based on how they look. Just as someone does not look like a banker or a consultant, they also do not look like an engineer or a recruiter.

There is nothing wrong with being a recruiter. There is something very wrong with assuming someone is a recruiter just because they’re 5’4” and have long brown hair. If you stop and think for even one minute, it’s absurd to presume to know someone’s job based on their appearance.

People try to play this down and say “it’s a compliment!”
It seems like not that big of a deal.

At points in my writings about technology, I have worried about being “too sensitive.” At points, I have wondered if micro-aggressions really matter. I have wondered if it was like this everywhere, and there was no specific problem.

But I have now been elsewhere, and this is not a compliment. It is a big deal. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s rude.

These small insinuations and questions betray huge assumptions. That the only women working in technology are non-technical. That there aren’t women in technology at all.

Each time you’re asked these small questions, you’re forced to be an ambassador: correcting the assumption, proving we belong, proving you know what you’re talking about. You no longer get to speak for yourself because you have to speak for the group.

It is exhausting to have to deal with this over and over: striking the right balance of being polite, while explaining the asker has been impolite. Trying to save the next person from the same experience. Trying to change the perception, one person at a time. Even when only one person in an event with fifty asks the question — you know that someone else is thinking the same thing. It reminds you that you’re constantly being judged in a way you didn’t sign up for, and that others see you as not “belonging.”

All because of stupid questions. Rather than having women deal with this, we should all learn:

1) Don’t be presumptuous. If you want to know what someone does, say “what do you do?”
2) For extra credit, follow up with Paul Ford’s handy primer on being polite.

At HBS my opinion still had connotations: “technical” and “startup” and “blunt” — but that’s because those things are me, and they are the things I choose to represent.

I hope that someday women in technology are granted the same relief that I had this year. I hope that some day I comment and the first things people think are “consumer product management” and “artistic process” and even “MBA.” That people will judge those categories instead of my gender.

Until then the “old boy’s club” will feel more inclusive. Watching what questions we ask will be a start.