This week is my 15 year anniversary of joining Google. Emi Nietfeld recently wrote a nuanced op-ed in The New York Times about her experience as a software engineer at Google, from joyful beginnings to being harassed by a coworker and the miserable aftermath of her speaking out about it. She talks about being in love with Google when she first joined, and that love being slowly drained away by her bad experience. I have been thinking about her story since she published it, and it provoked some of my own reflections that I am sharing here. (This is a copy of a post on my personal blog.)
I have been lucky to not experience sexual harassment myself, but it happened all around me during my career in consulting, retail and tech. Over the years I learnt to recognise the signals and gained the confidence to speak out about it: to others on the team, to HR, and sometimes talking with the harasser directly. Showing the victim that we believe them and that they are not alone is perhaps as important as having a due process to deal with the harasser.
I did experience plenty of sexism. Two incidents that happened twenty years apart I remember vividly because they felt like a betrayal. In both cases I was completely taken by surprise.
1/ The time I got a bad performance review in my first job in consulting.
There was one female (me) and one male analyst on the team. I was sent out to interview traders on the bank’s trading floor about their job, so we could figure out how to reduce costs. The male analyst did the spreadsheet work. At the performance review, my work was dismissed as ‘soft’, whereas my male colleague was rewarded for doing ‘great analysis’. I was furious, felt dejected and nearly quit. My mentor, a senior partner and elder statesman at the firm, talked me into staying. (Side note: Your mentor does not need to look like you.)
Two months later, the partner who had signed off on the bad review pulled me into his office because the firm had just landed its first internet strategy project. It was 1997, and he didn’t know what ‘the internet’ was or how it worked. I explained it to him, and he asked me to join the project team. I got a great review on that project. Afterwards I was only staffed on internet strategy projects (no more boring cost cutting!), and eventually left the firm to join an ecommerce startup in 1999. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t quit in 1997.
2/ The time I was told to dress more like an executive.
In an anonymous 360 review, a colleague commented that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I should dress more like an executive. The person suggested I dress like Ruth Porat, the CFO of Alphabet. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I admire Ruth deeply, and she has joked about how all the women in her generation wore suits with big shoulder pads to dress the part when she started her career on Wall Street. But this wasn’t banking in 1987. This was X, the moonshot factory in 2017, where most of my male peers wore t-shirts and flip flops, and our boss Astro Teller glided around on rollerblades. I chose to ignore the advice.
When my VOGUE article came out, I felt vindicated. It proved beyond a doubt that I was capable of dressing like an executive — with a little help from a VOGUE stylist, make-up and hair artist. During the cover shoot (one of my most fun days at the office ever), the photographer caught Astro photobombing into the shot on his rollerblades. The playful picture made it into the magazine with a tongue-in-cheek caption: X CEO Astro Teller took the VOGUE Business premise “Women in the foreground” literally and photo-bombed himself cheerfully into the background. I had a print framed and gave it to Astro as a present. He proudly displayed it outside his office. Whenever I walked past it, I smiled as I remembered that 360 review.
Photo: Rainer Hosch
Emi Niedfeld’s story felt sadly familiar, echoing Susan Fowler’s post about her experience at Uber and many #MeToo stories in tech and elsewhere over the years. Yet, I believe that we’re making progress as an industry and as a company. At X, we have a thriving community of Women of X who support each other; women like Diana Skaar who recently shared about her experience as an Asian woman in tech. We have strong allies, starting from the top with X CEO Astro Teller and COO Tom Tweddell. Astro and Tom have made equity, inclusion and diversity a company priority and champion the work that was started by Gina Rudan and is now led by Rachel Williams. Gina and Rachel are incredible leaders whose creativity and persistence drives change every day.
Love is a competitive advantage.
What really depressed me about Emi’s piece is her conclusion that she can’t fall in love with a company anymore. I recognised myself in her description of being so in love with the company when I first joined Google London in 2006. It felt like a family, not like a company: working hard and having dinner in the office, amazingly fun offsites, a shared mission and purpose. As Emi points out, it was also all-consuming and sometimes hard to detach. I struggled to let it be just a job, not my life. I learnt to draw boundaries, for example starting my work day at 10am so I could have time with my baby son in the morning, since I spent most evenings in the office on video calls with California.
During my career I have fallen in and out of love with most of my jobs. Sometimes the love lasted only a few months, but often I had a few good years. I was still in love when eToys went bankrupt and died in 2001. When the love withers, it’s time to move on, as with any relationship. You don’t have to leave immediately: in a recent podcast on how to rethink bad decisions Adam Grant interviews Janice Burch who made herself a 1 year exit plan to leave the company she didn’t thrive in.
I haven’t given up on love, quite the contrary. My friend Stephen DeBerry often talks about love being a competitive advantage. It might feel out of place to use the word love in a corporate environment; at worst it conjures up associations with harassment. What Stephen is talking about is having meaning and joy in one’s work, and connection with others. Studies have shown that supportive work environments reduce workers’ stress and even mortality. Google’s Project Aristotle research found that psychological safety, a concept first described by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, is the most important predictor of team effectiveness. Psychological safety is reciprocal. Brené Brown’s research shows that having the courage to show up vulnerably encourages others to do the same. Serving others often leads to our own success, as Adam Grant argues in his book Give and Take.
We spend more waking hours with our colleagues than with our families. I always want to spend this time doing something I love. I want to be with people I love and feel connected to, in my personal life and in my work life. If I don’t love what I do and the people I work with, why am I doing it at all? How can it possibly be my highest and best use?
Ruth Porat asked me this when I came to her for career advice once: “What’s your highest and best use?” What is it that only I can do, and where will I have the biggest impact? The phrase has stuck with me ever since. I ask myself frequently, and I ask the women whom I mentor and sponsor. I didn’t end up dressing like Ruth - although these days she is seen in a puffer vest more often than in a pinstripe jacket -, but I did take her career advice.
we should love ourselves
so fiercely that when others see us
they know exactly
how it should be done.
— Rudy Francisco