Posted on | October 11, 2016 | 2 Comments
This year Ada Lovelace Day coincides with National Coming Out Day in the US. These are two occasions that mean a lot to me as a queer woman in tech. To mark the moment, I am reposting below a short piece that I wrote on an internal company blog a few months ago.
I started composing this text on the night that the Orlando massacre unfolded. As part of my role on Intel’s Out and Ally Leadership Council, I had been asked to tell my story of moving from a Gender Studies Professor to a Principal Engineer. I wrote most of this without knowing what was happening on the other side of the country. Today, sharing this content further afield, I want others to know that solidarity comes from standing up for your public.
I grew up at the bottom of the world – an island off an island off an island (Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia. Next stop: Antarctica).
It was about four years ago that I was asked to apply for a job at Intel. I was enjoying sabbatical leave from my position as a Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at The University of Sydney, Australia. It was a great gig: smart students, inspiring colleagues, and tenure. On top of all that, I lived in Sydney – a beautiful city, and Australia’s home of gay pride.
If anything, my job was too good. Despite having studied at the same campus during my PhD, the privileged sandstone surroundings cut off from the city made me uncomfortable. I taught students whose inherited wealth was hard to comprehend given my isolated background. A lot of students enrolled in my class because it was called ‘Intimacy, Love and Friendship.’ It was the perfect filler for anyone needing something fun to complete their course requirements.
In the first lecture every year I made it clear that I didn’t hold the secrets to finding love or making friends – on the contrary, given where I came from. By sticking around for 12 weeks they would learn how our culture talks about these things. My lectures explained what scholars call ‘the love plot’: the story we learn from a very young age so that we will be prepared – so that we think we ‘know’ – when we are falling in love. The love plot is a way of describing how, of the infinite number of ways we could live our lives, so many of us choose to arrange ourselves and our families in much the same format.
When I grew up in Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997. In high school and college, I was scared to show affection towards girls I liked in case I embarrassed the person. A small town like Hobart creates worries about reputation. I felt constantly watched by people whose long memories would judge me for being inappropriate. My mother was a teacher at the same Catholic school I attended, which made me especially claustrophobic. These are some of the reasons I escaped to Sydney for graduate school. Leaving home, I was relieved of the sense of intimate surveillance, although I still wasn’t brave enough to do everything I imagined.
I haven’t talked about this personal history at Intel. My first years here were so strange and confusing that it seemed crazy to add even more to my outsider status. But I changed careers because I wanted the challenge of applying my knowledge about gender and culture in a place where this expertise is not obviously valued. Outside of Silicon Valley, technology companies are notorious for their lack of diversity. We have a pledge to change this in our company because the numbers reflect a disconnect between the architects, designers and consumers of our products.
As a researcher, my expertise is studying work. In the Client Computing Group, I drive research on the future of enterprise. It took a while to get here, but now I’ve found a place to apply my knowledge of technology, people and organizational change to the business that gets us paid.
There are many ways to talk about diversity. At Intel, we use the term ‘under-represented minority’ (URM) because it is the language preferred in the industry. But there are other experiences that matter to inclusion in addition to the metrics we are obliged to count by U.S. law. Perhaps these experiences are clearer to me as someone who has moved from a professional environment in which most of my immediate colleagues are gay to one in which those few who are often feel obliged to hide their identity. It is shocking that an employee of a U.S. technology company might consider their sexuality to be an obstacle to career success. Since joining Intel’s Out and Ally Leadership Council, I’ve started to notice that the few queer colleagues I’ve met are leaving, either by choice or circumstance. Writing this blog is a belated way I want them to know that they aren’t alone; that there are more of us here than might be obvious.
The philosopher that inspired the field of Gender Studies is the French historian Michel Foucault. His work demonstrated how modern Western institutions created categories of behavior to identify and regulate people. He wrote about psychiatry, medicine, schools and prisons in this way; he also wrote a three volume History of Sexuality. Knowing this history means I’m not a fan of categories. If I identify as queer it is because this term draws attention to the pressure our culture places on people to define themselves according to sex. Being queer isn’t a shared creed, and it doesn’t mean the same thing as being gay, lesbian, bi or trans*. Each of these categories has its own unique history of struggle.
What all of these groups have in common is the need to identify as different from the norm because the friendships and intimacies we desire don’t attract official sanction. For this, in ways that are sometimes subtle and at other times explicit, we suffer punishment. To me, being queer means living according to the principle that the objects of your affections need not be limited by gender or number. People and cultures get in all kinds of trouble for treating love and intimacy as a scarce resource, as if there is a cap on how much can go around. To be queer means believing that there are more stories of being in and out of love than the ones we inherit from institutions – from our parents, schools, religion or Disney. It means believing that multiple ways of living and loving are not only needed but should be celebrated.
This is how being queer relates to my life at Intel. It’s not my employer’s business who I care about, have sex with, find attractive or otherwise. But when certain kinds of lives generate more rewards than others, when certain friendship and lifestyle preferences translate to approved benefits and support, when certain patterns of intimacy seem to flourish in an organization at the expense of others – there is something at stake in all of us noticing.
I still don’t profess to hold the secrets to love, or inclusion for that matter. But I believe that education and respect are crucial for understanding. I write these observations to help spread knowledge of our differences and in solidarity with all those in our LGBTQ community who are hurting right now. I hope that this Pride Month inspires Intel employees to embrace and join our efforts to build a workplace that is more tolerant, curious, supportive and loving.