Awash In a Sea of “Bros:” What It’s Like To Be the Only Woman at Work

(Originally published on LinkedIn on 

At the beginning, there were three of us. Then there were two…and then it was just me. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, of course. The software industry in Silicon Valley is a notoriously male environment.

I’m not about to launch into a whiny diatribe.. I’m just telling it like it is, because a) it’s my experience, b) it’s an unusual situation for most, and c) I have a couple of hours to kill.

My other goal is to share some advice with the hopeful young women who will someday succeed me. I want to save them some time and brainpower they could use to do something more productive, like organizing their Pinterest boards. I’m thoughtful like that.

So, here are my pearls of wisdom:

1) Make sure you know your place in the social order. Knowledge is power. The best strategy is to understand the nature of the beast. (No, I’m not saying men are beasts. It’s an idiom. Don’t be so defensive. Geez.) The most accurate analogy I can come up with is that being the lone woman at work is a bit like being the tagalong little sister of the captain of the football team–you get to go everywhere with the boys, and you’re mostly tolerated, but not always respected. At least not from day one. Which brings us to my next tip…

2) You need street cred. Don’t play up your femininity too much in a technical environment. You want to blend in; be one of the guys. That way they’ll invite you to drink with them after work. Act a little tomboy-ish. Use a lot of four-letter words. Wear clothes that look good enough that the men in the office want you around for happy hour, but not so good that they start flirting with you after they’ve had a few drinks. If you want to make it into the big leagues, match them shot for tequila shot.

3) They WILL ask you to go get the cake and the card for everyone’s birthdays, so be ready. They’ll want you to circulate it in a manila folder, too, and have everyone sign it. Make sure you have prepared an excuse in advance. You can try saying you’re allergic to wheat, so even being in a bakery will give you hives, and merely *touching* a cake box will result in instant anaphylactic shock. They’ll believe you. Guys are like that. As a last resort, tell them you have your period. They’ll immediately turn their attention elsewhere. This approach is not for amateurs. It takes confidence.

4) Don’t try to fake your football knowledge. Men can smell that 100 miles away. Really educate yourself if you want to be part of the conversation. Another option is–like me–to ignore sports conversation altogether, with the exception of delivering the occasional contemptuous sneer. Like the last strategy, though, this is not for beginners. First, you’ll have to build your street cred (see tip #2).

5) Be better than them at Excel. This is a little-known equalizer. Nothing will humble your male colleagues faster than you knowing more functions and formulas in Excel than they do. The female high-tech rock stars I know are so good at Excel that their laptops practically overheat once they get into a groove. (They also all have the amazing skill of being able to sprint in stiletto heels. But that’s a story for another time.)

So there you have it–the product of many years of working in a predominantly male industry. I hope I haven’t offended anyone who doesn’t deserve it. After all, I’m a big fan of men. Again, it’s just my experience and, as I mentioned, I had a few hours to kill.