“Practically every day that passed, older, married men stared at my body.
Meetings were dominated by white males droning on and on, often talking
over their female counterparts or ignoring them altogether. White women
sometimes seemed to feel like they were competing against you, rather
than working with you.”
Eda Yu, “What It’s Really Like To Be A Young Woman Of Color In Tech”

June  |   July   |   August   |   September   |   October

Amy Yang is a third-year student from Shanghai who recently changed her major from computer science to creative writing. She spends her time reading, writing, and worrying about her employability.


Of the dozen interns starting that day, I was the only woman. I had looked through the list of forty interns a day ago, and counted out the ones who might be female. They had to exist; “Melissa” was clearly a female name, right? But none of them were in sight.

In the “Welcome to Relativity” onboarding session, the recruiter, the only other female in the room, listed out the rules and expectations in cheerful efficiency. Log your hours on Workday. Swipe your badge when you enter the office. “Um, this next one maybe just applies to Amy…”

I looked up, alarmed. Was she suggesting that I’m particularly prone to breaking a rule? How could she tell just by looking at me? What rule would a nice Asian girl with glasses break?

“The dress code is casual, but nothing too… uh… Skirts to fingertips, okay? Basically Catholic School rules.” I didn’t know anything about Catholic Schools because I grew up in a socialist country promoting atheism, but I thought I understood what she meant: do not distract men with your thighs. I resented the recruiter a little for singling me out as a female, but I supposed she was just delivering information that was part of her job.

As we moved through the onboarding sessions, more men came in and told us about the company’s technology, security, and other things I stopped paying attention to. What I did notice, and kept noticing, was the fact that I was the only woman in the room. It wasn’t supposed to be a surprise—everyone knew that there was an Underrepresentation of Females in Tech and that was Bad. I’ve been told many times about the Value of Diversity and Female Empowerment and how to Fight Impostor Syndrome. However, at my university my closest friends were all brilliant female computer science majors. Even the software development student group I am part of had a slight majority of Asian women on its leadership team. There are no women in tech? What are you talking about? But after moving through room after room of male engineers, I found myself thinking: they weren’t kidding. It was odd to be in such a drastic minority: you are valuable, but also powerless.

On my desk there were three screens: my laptop, a regular monitor, and the widest monitor I had ever seen. It had a slight curve, like one of those fancy televisions. I spent almost an hour finding a desktop wallpaper. It must not be too elaborate because that would distract me from my work. It must not be too flowery because that would look unprofessional. I ended up with this macro photograph of oil bubbles in water against a dark blue background. Any passersby could not make conclusions about me based on this wallpaper. Then I remembered that I was paid to be here and stopped looking at photos of bubbles.

The office had an open plan; there were no dividers separating desks into cubicles. This was supposed to encourage communication, but who needs the human faculty of speech when you have Slack? My mentor, David, messaged me on Slack to tell me he “forwarded team meetings to me.” I looked up. He sat right there, to my left. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I didn’t know if I was supposed to ask using Slack or my vocal cords. David continued to stare at his screen, seemingly engrossed in the Important Work he was doing. The messages felt secretive, like passing notes during class instead of talking out loud, except the classified texts were thoroughly mundane. But I played along. I was not one to break customs.

Aside from direct messages, Slack also had an abundance of channels (somewhat like group chats), from corporate communications channels like #relativian-news to employee-made channels like #foxnews (which featured photos of foxes). People hated it when someone types “@channel” in the #general channel, because it notified everyone in your company of your message. But everyone willingly turned on notifications for the #leftovers channel, because they want to find out when food is left over from events, and try to grab it before everyone else. In my first week approximately nine different people told me about #leftovers looking as if they were telling me the best secret I would ever hear. I tried to look thrilled.

David took me out to lunch, as per mentor-mentee custom. He had a nervous air, and avoided eye contact while he talked. Occasionally, he looked me in the eye, then glanced away quickly. I wondered if this was his natural state, or if he was just nervous around women, as some male computer science majors in my college were.

I tried to make small talk. I didn’t know what real adults talked about, so I just brought up one of my pressing concerns: food. In my two years of college, I had been on the mandatory meal plan and ate in the dining halls along with everyone else. Procuring and preparing edible substances seemed to be a responsibility real adults knew about, so I asked David: Do you usually bring lunch from home? Or do you eat out?

David said he usually meal-prepped with his girlfriend, and occasionally ate out. I chewed over this information. It was probably a good thing that he had a girlfriend. It eliminated the possibility of my mentor being interested in me. It wasn’t that unwanted attention from the opposite sex was a problem I faced very often; I was just under the impression that I was subjected to this risk just by being young and female and in the tech industry.

I was comforted by the presence of an older female engineer on my team, sitting diagonally across from me in my aisle. Her name was Karen, and she seemed friendly. Later, I found out that her job wasn’t engineering, but checking the functionality of new features built by the engineers. And she wasn’t on my team; she was a “shared resource” between the three teams that made up my vertical (which were completely male save two interns). Are women so rare at Relativity that they must be shared like this?

The rest of my team included a tall white man named James and a short tanned Filipino named Leo. When they walked together the contrast was cartoonish. We also had an apprentice, a Pakistani man who joined the team a week before I did. It seemed like the standard mix of geeky men and immigrants of this industry. James, with his quirky humor and unconventional lines of thought, and Leo, with his witty bantering and collection of anime figurines on his desk, reminded me of the guys in my quiz bowl team in high school. In fact, the whole set-up felt a little like high school: I commuted to a place, spent eight hours there with the same people, and then commuted home.


David told me I will spend my first four weeks on an API project. Every intern or new hire on my vertical did such a project. I could make whatever app I wanted to, but I had to build it on the Relativity platform. Past examples included a game engine, a Game of Thrones character guide, and a knock-off reddit site. This other intern was making a game of chess. The scope scared me. I could not see what these applications had in common. I did not know what I could or could not do.

I started browsing documentation about the different technologies I must incorporate into my project. The descriptions were so abstract and obscure; I found myself reading and rereading each page without gaining any understanding. The documentation made references to concepts I had never heard of. I felt ill-prepared for this internship. If I was stumped by the onboarding project, how could I handle the rest of the internship?

I thought about what app I would attempt to make. I browsed other people’s projects for inspiration. Leo made “Relativity Game Engine” because “on those long days where contract attorneys spend most of their day coding documents, they might want to take a break for a few minutes” and play multiplayer games amongst themselves. James’s app, “Please Don’t Sue Me, Reddit,” is designed to increase Relativity’s “distraction potential.” “Pictures of cats would soon flood Relativity developer’s screens,” he predicted. I felt better knowing that people didn’t take their apps too seriously, and by viewing how other people constructed their projects I began to see how the Relativity platform worked.

I tried to think of app ideas that catered to female users, because the other apps, referencing video games and Reddit, reflected the male majority. Nothing came to mind, probably because most apps in the world were made by men. I googled “apps for women.” The top results were period trackers. What if I made a period tracker in Relativity? I found the idea outrageous in the most hilarious way. Would the male engineers find it as funny as I did? I imagined myself presenting Relativity Period Tracker to a roomful of men and Karen. The men would be very uncomfortable. I would also be uncomfortable.


My friend and fellow intern Ethan asked me if I were friends with Melissa, one of the other female interns, who existed after all. Then he asked if I could find out if she is single. She had long dark hair and thin elegant limbs, and spoke softly with a slight Eastern European accent. I could see why men would be attracted to her.

“Did you check Facebook yet?” I asked as I typed her name into the search bar. “In a relationship,” her profile read. We looked through the public photos, one of which showed her in a bikini wrapping her arms around her significant other. I quit the app, feeling like I had seen something I shouldn’t have.

“I’m sorry,” I told Ethan.

“It’s okay,” he said. He talked about how he was looking for a relationship, and his lack of options currently. “You know the other intern Victoria? I thought she’s cute, but it turns out she’s twenty-six.”

I laughed. At college we were used to everyone else being in the same age, the same stage of life. At work we could make no such assumptions. Then it occurred to me that if Ethan was considering female interns in his search for love, he would’ve looked at me as an option, because there were so few of us (I have not seen more than five in the same room). I wondered why he didn’t think I was a good option—was it that I’m not cool enough? Am I not cool enough because I am too Chinese? I had not been in a relationship in four years, and the insecurities were piling up.

Then, I realized that out of the thirty or so male interns, there was probably a good handful who were single and would rather not be. And if they considered the women around them, I wouldn’t be far down on the very short list. This scared me, the idea that so many men might have been evaluating me as a potential romantic interest. I’m just here for software engineering, goddamnit.

The truth was, I couldn’t help noticing the attractiveness of the people around me, either. A set of fluttering eyelashes. A well-built torso. A face I didn’t want to look away from. I recognized that it was not love, just attraction. It wasn’t that I really wanted to date any of these people; it was just an animal instinct to look, and appreciate.

And I wondered if I was being looked at. On the days I wore flats they clicked loudly as I walked across tiled floor. When I wore a skirt I was the only one showing so much leg. In high school, my mother would sometimes comment on my choice of clothes when I was wearing something too “revealing” (in standards much more conservative than typical American dress). Those comments were coming back to me, and I wished that I was free from the male gaze of my imagination.


I was getting used to the rhythm of things. “Things” referred to the software development life cycle and the various meetings it entailed. Every morning there was standup, where everyone shared their progress on their tasks. Every Friday there was Weekly Review, where every team listed their highlights and lowlights. Every two weeks there were Planning and Workshop meetings, where my teammates planned and investigated the tasks the team would work on in the next two weeks.

One day, I caught a cold. I kept going to work, because it felt like what I was supposed to do, but one day my head felt so heavy that I went home.

I came back to work on a Friday. “What were the lowlights of the week?” David asked at Weekly Review. No one said anything.

“I got sick,” I said. My team chuckled. “And I was sad because I couldn’t work on my API Project.” I mimed tears rolling down my cheek.

“Oh no! You couldn’t write those event handlers!” David said.

“You couldn’t extend the platform!” Leo said. We all laughed.


For a while, I ate lunch with the other interns on the rooftop of the building. Often they talked about standard male-engineer subjects: video games, computer hardware, sports. I couldn’t think of anything interesting to contribute, and when I did say something, they didn’t find it very interesting, either. Mostly I just listened attentively, hoping that one day I would finally figure out how to talk to such men.

At some point I realized that I had a better option: eating with James and Leo and their friends. I waited for them to come back from getting takeout, and sat with them in the cafeteria. I brought my own lunch, usually something stereotypically Chinese like stir-fry or fried rice. Their conversations delighted me; I laughed so hard that I forgot to eat.

We also goofed off in work hours. When David was off in a meeting, James, Leo and I started talking about IKEA. I told them about going to IKEA in Shanghai as a child for the soft-serve ice cream that costed only 1 RMB (which was like a sixth of a dollar).

“Team outing?” said Leo. Our team was due for an outing, and we entertained the most unconventional of ideas. “Yes! To Shanghai!” said James. Fourteen-hour flights being an undesirable means of transportation, we eventually came to be satisfied with the idea of the local IKEA in Schaumberg, Illinois.

When David came back to his desk, he read the note on his desk: “We want to go to IKEA for our team outing and we would like you to drive us.”

“IKEA?” he shook his head in amusement. He had come to terms with the fact that his team was a bunch of weirdos and there was nothing he could do about it.


Every Monday and Wednesday The Fruit Guys made deliveries to each pantry on the four corners of the office. Bananas were in abundance. Scarcer were nectarines, plums, and exotic fruits like jujubes. I had learned to dash to the pantry when I see Facilities roll by with their cart. I showed James and Karen the jujubes, the crispy Chinese dates of my childhood. James placed one between the two Lego androids on his desk. “They’re on a date,” he says.

I grabbed James’s third Lego android and Leo’s android plushie and placed them beside the couple. “Now it’s a double date.”

I showed James a flyer advertising a photo contest: “Grab your favorite fruits and take a team photo. Share with us on social media @fruitguys for a chance to win FREE SNACKS.” James posted it on the team’s Slack channel, and reacted with the emojis for :banana:, :apple:, :grape:, :melon:, :pear:, :tangerine:, and :large_blue_circle:. He had used :large_blue_circle: because I depleted the supply of the blueberries on the seventh floor, but Slack lacked a blueberry emoji.

:large_blue_circle: is not a fruit, silly,” Leo said.

I replied, “Well, the other ones aren’t fruit either—”

“Then what are they?”

“Icons!” I said, stating the obvious.

Taken by surprise, James and Leo laughed so hard that they panted for air. This perplexed me, but then again, James constantly made me laugh by saying things that were absolutely normal to him, like describing how he brush his hair in the morning. 

“It’s like the ‘this is not a pipe’ painting,” I told them. They thought this was another joke. “What? What is not a pipe?” they gasped between bouts of laughter.

I pulled up an image of the Magritte and showed them. Neither of them had seen it before.


A new engineer was joining my team, someone named Lan. My manager passed around a welcome card for us to sign. “Is it a he or a she?” I asked him, scrutinizing the ambiguous name. I prayed for another Chinese girl.

“A he, I think,” he replied.

Okay, so we were expecting another boy. But when Lan came, he didn’t seem like the typical male engineer. He wore his waist-long hair down his back in a ponytail, which swung left and right as he walked. When we wondered aloud when he will be done with his training, Karen whispered urgently, “it’s she!”

“But I thought our manager said…”

Her pronouns are on her Slack status!” I looked her up, and sure enough, it said she/her/hers/herself along with a cat-like emoji. So we did get another Chinese girl after all.

Having grown up in a place where there was no display of queerness whatsoever, it took a few days to get used to her, the sight of her, the idea of her being female. I had not even realized that Chinese trans women existed—most of the Asians I knew had relatively traditional concepts of gender. A few days after Lan joined our team, new signs appeared on bathroom doors. “This bathroom may be used by anyone who identifies as female” read the women’s side. I wondered if the signs were installed because she asked HR which bathroom she could use.

Once I got to know Lan, I realized that she didn’t seem bothered by the fact that she was the only trans woman around here. On some days she wore a khaki skirt, and I was happy because I was no longer the only one showing so much leg. I wondered if I had been overly self-conscious about my femininity. What did I have to complain about—Lan had to deal with the same things, in addition to being born with a body she doesn’t identify with.


David told us that James wasn’t coming to work one Monday. “His apartment, uh, had a fire.”

We stared at him with incredulity, but it wasn’t a joke. I slacked James saying I was sorry about what happened to his apartment. “I want to hear about how the fire happened when you get to the office,” I told him.

“Lemme get you a picture of how it happened,” he replied. How could he have a picture? Was he the one who set the fire? Or would he just send a picture of a generic flammable substance? Instead, there appeared:

Being chemically illiterate, it took me a while to figure out that it was literally how fire works: the combustion of a hydrocarbon that yields carbon dioxide and water (ashes and smoke). I admired his capacity for humor in the face of disaster. Perhaps this was how engineers come to terms with dramatic life changes: explain it with chemical reactions.

James lost basically everything: his furniture, his five computer monitors, his IKEA shark plushie that always sat at the dining table with a plate and cutlery in front of it. In a meeting that went longer than my attention span, I doodled a shark in an underwater coffin. “R.I.P.” I wrote. I passed James the note, which he stuck to the bottom edge of one of his three work monitors.

“Looks like we actually have a reason to go to IKEA now,” I said.


At lunch, I started telling my teammates about a Korean art film I’d seen. I noticed an unfamiliar face. This dark-haired man sat down next to James, in a lull of the conversation he started talking to me. Was I an intern? Where did I go to university? That’s in Evanston, right? He was moving there next month. As we spoke we looked into each other’s eyes for a little longer than necessary. His irises were dark brown like mine, but his eyelashes were long and thick, the kind Asian girls aspired to with their sets of falsies. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me.

 I asked James about this man, Eli, because they seemed to be friends. I deduced this because James had received fruits on his desk from a mysterious stranger, who turned out to be Eli. James had in turn placed these fruits anonymously on my desk. “Thank you for the second banana,” I messaged Eli on Slack, when I found out the original source of the anonymous fruits.

James’s opinion of Eli wasn’t overwhelmingly positive—it seemed that there was friction in their friendship, but he had trouble articulating what exactly he didn’t like about Eli. “It’s impossible to put into words what a person is like,” he said. The conversation troubled me—by this time I was close friends with James, and if he didn’t approve of someone, I wasn’t sure if that person would be a great romantic candidate. But the attraction was undeniable.

I saw Eli at lunch again the next day, and again on the third. Like in some teenage romance novel, he was all I could think about. I couldn’t repress the smile on my face whenever I read his Slack messages. When Leo asked what I was so happy about, I lied that I was looking forward to going home and cooking with my friend.

I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to talk about my romantic life at work. These engineers weren’t the type to share their feelings or share gossip from their lives. But the excitement and anxiety were tearing me apart, and it felt dishonest to hide something so significant in my life from my close friends, even if they were my coworkers. The next morning, I broke the news: Eli had asked me to go birdwatching with him, and I was pretty sure it would be a date.

“Oh.” James paused, taking it in. “Like I said, there are things I don’t like about Eli, but you’ll just have to experience them for yourself.”

“Good luck,” Leo said, smirking a little.


I had dev tasks to work on, but instead I applied my mind to the problem of the century: What to Wear on the First Date. My friend suggested that I wear a nice dress, but I was afraid that I would be seen as an incompetent birdwatcher. At the most professional level, birders wore camouflage suits to blend in with the foliage. At the very least, one wore inconspicuous dark clothing. Nevertheless, I picked out a flowery sundress, because on this occasion looking attractive had a higher priority than making sure birds didn’t see me.

An hour before he came to pick me up, Eli texted telling me to wear long sleeves and pants. Oh God, he’s a serious birder, I thought. I put away the sundress. I scoured my closet for attractive birdwatching-appropriate clothes, which didn’t exist. Should I wear jeans? Jeans go better with this shirt, but what serious birder wears jeans? I had washed my black pants earlier that day, so I used a hair-dryer to expedite the drying. Eli had arrived. I went down to meet him in a grey shirt and pants that were 90% dry. And lo and behold, there was Eli, in a white button-down shirt and jeans.

He gave me a hug, which I didn’t expect. He smelled like cologne. He was leading me to his car. I panicked. This was a real date. Eli was an adult. This was how real adults date. What had I gotten myself into?

Eli started driving and we were quiet. “How old are you?” he finally asked.

“Twenty—how old are you?”

“Twenty-five.” I had guessed this was his age from his college graduation year on LinkedIn. Now it was a real fact—I was on a date with a twenty-five year old. “Have you ever dated anyone this much younger than you?” I asked him.

“No. Have you ever dated anyone this much older than you?”



The next Monday, I scooted my office chair over and dutifully started narrating the date to James and Leo. “I guess it was all right… Sometimes I felt like I was being interviewed, when he asked me questions about what I liked to do and what it was like to grow up in China. Like it wasn’t bad; it was just a bit awkward, and sometimes, I found myself thinking that I could do better. But I did sort of agree to a second date, so I guess that’s happening.”

When I updated Karen about what was going on, she said, “You know, for a while I thought you and James were dating, but then you started dating Eli so…”

“James and I? But we work on the same team!” I was under the impression that inter-team-romance was forbidden.

“But you’re an intern!”

“Stop delegitimizing my position as an intern!” I said, laughing to show that I wasn’t actually offended. Karen tried to rectify her comment, saying that it probably just looked that way because of where she sat.

This concerned me a little. I worried that I was being overly friendly to James. What if everyone around us thought we were dating?

I told Leo about my conversation with Karen. “Did you ever think James and I were dating?”

“No,” he replied. And I let it go.


We made the pilgrimage to IKEA the Saturday after James found a new apartment. I had looked forward to this for a long time, but I found it hard to be present when I was preoccupied with thoughts of Eli. Lan, Leo, and James rode in one car, while I rode with Sarah and Derrick, James’s other friends from Relativity.

“How are you doing?” Derrick asked Sarah.

“I’m not doing that well… emotionally.”

“Are you sick? Didn’t you take a day off last week?”

“No, not that… I’m lovesick, Derrick.” He didn’t seem to get it. “I’m heartbroken.”

I had previously met Sarah at board games night, where she was cheerfully explaining a submarine game and promising that everyone would drown except for her. It disturbed me to see her so distraught. She told us how she fell in love with someone she met in her second week at Relativity, and the resulting relationship that didn’t work out. She had to go to work each day knowing that the man she loves but could not be with was working on the other side of the office. “Don’t ever fucking fall in love,” she repeated for the fifth time. “Especially not with someone from work.” I congratulated myself for not being in love with Eli.

At IKEA we helped James pick out furniture for his new apartment. We sat on all the office chairs. We leaned back onto soft beds. We went to the stuffed animal section and tossed around the huge blue shark plushies, siblings of the one that perished in James’s apartment. Leo and I each bought one, and James bought two.

Before we left, we each got the $1 soft serve ate it on the walk to James’s car, which we claimed was the whole point of the trip. He had parked in the spot furthest away from the exit, to make some point that was lost on me. We sang annoying pop songs on the way to James’s new place. We briefly played hide and seek in the two-bedroom apartment, then helped James assemble a TV stand and an office chair.


“What can I do to make life better for women in tech?” Eli asked me when we went out for dinner after work. Some mysterious force had lifted the awkwardness from our conversation, and I was starting to enjoy his company.

Being a woman in tech was something I thought a lot about, but I struggled to come up with a constructive response. I thought about the times I’ve seen him at work. “Don’t hit on female interns” seemed to be a good piece of general advice, except I was actually glad that he had hit on me. I felt like I betrayed all female interns in engineering. I thought about the other men I worked with, but I had no complaints. I could not imagine better teammates. Perhaps I could tell him to consider things from a woman’s perspective more often. But how would he do that? He had never been a woman before.

The issue with the gender ratio problem was that no one goes out of their way to make women feel uncomfortable/ignored/miserable at work, but just by being their natural selves and following the rules of socialization they’ve followed their whole life men can often make women feel uncomfortable/ignored/miserable. What was I supposed to say? Reconsider everything in your life?

In the end, I told him that I couldn’t think of a good response at the moment, and I’ll let him know when I come up with one.

“So you’ll start an asynchronous process and tell me when it completes?” he asked.

“Yes,” I giggled. I had just learned about JavaScript promises at work.

After dinner, Eli told me that a week before we met he had seen me eating lunch with James’s team, and thought to himself, “That’s a really cute intern!” That was what made him approach our table at lunch. And when he found out that James had been passing on his fruits to me, Eli had placed another banana on James’s desk hoping I would receive it. It worked—it was what prompted me to start a Slack conversation. In my head I pictured Eli setting up a mousetrap, using a banana as bait instead of cheese. I had walked right into it.

I was flattered that Eli noticed me from afar. I had never considered myself stunning, but it felt good to know that I was pretty enough to attract men. But then, I wondered if all the men at work saw me and thought “cute intern” not “future software engineer.” I wondered if I would be taken less seriously if they knew I started dating a full-time employee.


The summer was ending. I didn’t want to go back to school. I wanted everything to go on forever: the pranks, the bantering, the unceasing laughter coming from our corner of the office.

I shadowed the UX (User Experience) team out of an interest in design, and realized this line of work might suit me better. I liked coding, but I was not passionate about it, and through my internship I felt like I had finished making a point about how I had what it takes to become a software engineer. Now let’s figure out what I actually wanted to do.

I requested to come back to Relativity in the fall as a part-time UX design intern. I talked to my manager. I talked to the recruiter. I talked to the head of UX. This internship position didn’t exist, but a week later, the recruiter told me they worked everything out.

On my last day, I gathered my friends, teammates, and Eli to eat hot pot in Chinatown. Eli wasn’t very close with the people who went, so I spent most of the time keeping him entertained. Afterwards, James, Eli and I got on the Red Line together. James was quieter than his usual self. He was going on vacation the next week, and as we drew near to his stop, Eli wished him a good time at Yosemite. He barely acknowledged Eli.

“Hey, really, have a good time. You’ll love it there.” Eli tried again. Was I witnessing an example of their miscommunication?


“Bye!” I waved. Waving half-heartedly, James got off the train.

Eli reached for my hand, and I leaned my head on his shoulder for the rest of the train ride. We got off in Evanston, went to his apartment, and fucked. This activity was still new to me. I could not have foreseen that my first time would be with a Chicago-born Russian-Jewish software engineer who was five years older than me.

The next morning, I checked my phone and found out that I was booted out of the company Slack workspace. I lost my only means of communicating with Leo, Lan, and Karen. Just like that—I was severed cleanly from the people I had spent the past three months with. Even though I was returning to the company in a month, it hurt a little. I asked James for their numbers, but I didn’t end up texting them.


Before returning to Relativity, I attended a conference for women in computing in Orlando, Florida. The million companies at the career fair were doling out piles of swag to garner the favor of the top female tech talent of the nation. The most common were stickers, featuring messages in kitschy fonts like “this woman CAN” and “We need women like Y O U.” Was this an effective way to address the underrepresentation of women in tech?

I shared a hotel room with three friends, who were all female Chinese computer science majors. It was like a four-night slumber party: we watched movies, worked on assignments, and talked about our futures. I hadn’t spent so much time with women in a while, and it was a different kind of wonderful.

I saw Eli when I returned to Evanston. He told me he invited James and Derrick to his apartment for a housewarming party while I was gone. I felt a little left out. I didn’t think these Chicago-dwellers would be willing to come up to Evanston, but now that I learned they made the trek behind my back, I wanted them to visit me, too.


On my first day back, a UX designer picked me up in the lobby and gave me a tour, introducing me to all the designers on the team. As we rounded the corner to my former aisle, I quickened my pace, because I couldn’t wait to see—Karen! James!

“You’re back!” Karen gave me a big hug. “Here’s your book! I loved it!” We had lent each other our favorite novels.

I turned to James. “Hello,” he said, without a trace of a smile on his face. Why wasn’t he happy to see me? Was he in the middle of Something Important?

“How are you?” I asked warmly.

“I am… well.”

I looked at the half-empty aisle. I knew David had left the company, and a new team lead was sitting at my former desk. Many things had changed when I was gone, but I was in denial of them until they were in front of my face. “Where are Lan and Leo?”

“They’re at a conference until the end of the week.”

A new laptop was sitting on my new desk, but I could not log into my email, Slack, or any of the software I needed for work because my accounts were messed up in the re-hiring process. When I needed to ask someone a question, I had to walk all the way over to their desk and speak to them. It was quaint and mildly annoying. I made several physical trips to IT until they fixed the issue, and I felt like a legitimate human again.


Since Lan and Leo weren’t around, I slacked James about coming to Evanston to make dinner. He asked who else is coming.

Eli, of course, because he lives in Evanston. Who else would he like me to invite?

He said he would hang out with me or Eli, but not both at the same time.

I laughed. Was he worried about third-wheeling? My roommate would probably be there. I pulled up the design software on my other monitor as he took his time to reply.

I glanced back when Slack makes its signature knocking sound. “Eh I don’t know how to put this other than to be blunt – I like you—” I felt the emotions well up before I even comprehended his words. What was he talking about? Was he saying what I think he’s saying? I closed the design software and started reading from the beginning again:

 “Eh I don’t know how to put this other than to be blunt – I like you and could never tell you that because we worked literally on the same team, and now you’re with Eli + that bothers me. Nothing I can do about it + nothing I expect you to do about it, but that makes hanging out when both you and Eli are in the room awkward.”

“Maybe I’ll get used to it, idk,” he added, “but I’m not there yet.”

It was thrilling. It was awful. It was validating to know that someone close by secretly harbored feelings for you. It was terrible to learn that you had been making his life miserable. I loved James, not in the romantic sense, but it didn’t make it any less real. I didn’t know what I had been putting him through. I hated myself more and more as I recalled each time I talked about Eli in front of James. For the first time in my life, I wished that I was a boy. Then James wouldn’t have been attracted to me and I wouldn’t be dating his friend and I wouldn’t have hurt him unknowingly. Then we could continue hanging out at lunch and playing board games after work.

I came into the internship expecting to learn something about being female in the tech industry. But the best moments of my internship were when I was so close with my coworkers that I didn’t need to think about being female. Perhaps what I learned was that my identity was inescapable. Even if I was unaware of it, other people still reacted to me, socially and biologically, as they reacted to females. And sometimes my identity got in the way of my goals, like befriending coworkers without romantic complications.

I kept my distance from James, but I also missed him. I missed scooting over my office chair and having long-winded discussions about the most trivial things in full earnest. I missed the crazy impressions he puts on, of chickens and K-pop stars. I missed passing notes during meetings, or coming back to my desk to find a strange object like a green fluffy android. I missed how he explained JavaScript concepts to me with illustrations on my note pad. I missed the terrible puns and the unexpected comments that elicited uncontrollable laughter from everyone around him. I missed the enthusiasm he brought to everything.

This essay reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.