Twenty years ago, I got my first real internship. I had already been working as a private tutor, giving lessons in French, History, Geography, Accounting, and Economics. I’d made good money and had learned to get organized to maximize the fee I was charging, in comparison to the time I spent preparing lessons and correcting homework. But it was at age 17 that my tech-focused high-school selected me to represent them as an intern at a prestigious insurance company. You may be shocked at the requirements that were explained to me before the first day.
Because I was still a high-school student and only working part-time as an intern, I was considered the lowest of the low. I was actually told that the dress-code required me to wear a mini-skirt. I would be sitting behind a desk, learning the trade from insurance agents, but for some reason, my skirt needed to be short. When I arrived at the company, I noticed that the older the female employees got, the longer their skirts could be. The only females that were allowed to wear pants, even in the middle of winter, were managers, director level or above. I didn’t protest, my parents didn’t protest, my school didn’t protest. This was South America in the 1990s, and it was just a “cultural” thing.
Within a week, I was asked to help update the database for the upcoming company elections and invited to work from the Executive floor! I was selected from the pool of interns because I was fluent in English and could understand the software, which hadn’t been localized into Spanish. It was me, an older lady, and a bunch of guys. Nothing weird happened, but for some reason, I was still expected to wear my mini-skirt.
A decade later, I had graduated from university and moved to Silicon Valley. In college, I had been Business student of the year, Marketing teaching assistant, and writing mentor to other students. I managed to land a highly sought-after high-tech job during the .com bust. I had a lot going for me, and boy, did I look cute in a woman-specific design v-neck polo shirt! The invitations kept flowing for me to represent different teams at industry events. Of course, the main reason I got invited was that I could converse with customers and partners in English, Spanish, French, even a little bit of broken Portuguese and Italian. I understood the technology and could translate it into business terms.
Still, I was aware that I was significantly younger than the people around me, male and female. I boldly decided to find a way to work from home full-time. I purposely didn’t share video in web conferences. I made participants focus on my voice (which I worked on making sound deeper and older) and my words (which made good business sense). I hid behind my grown-up voice until my face aged a little.
Woman in Tech
So, twenty years into my business career, I find myself shouldering the burden of actually making a change.
Dear beautiful ladies of all ages:
Let’s put an end to all the “cultural” things.
You don’t owe anyone anything because they sat through your presentation, shared your article, or bought your product.
You don’t have to be a little girl in a mini-skirt to feel taken advantage of. If your brain and your body are beautiful, then wear them proudly, but do it for you! If anyone is making you feel uncomfortable, let me know. I’m here for you, and I won’t ask for anything in return.
Photo credit: Jin Thai / Soffie Hicks / Lisa Van den Acker