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What It Was Like for a Woman to Become an Engineer in the ’80s

New era, same problems

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The past few weeks have been a low point for Silicon Valley in women’s seemingly never-ending quest to make tech companies inclusive. After former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a harrowing account of the sexual harassment she faced as a woman at the company, a rush of familiar conversations corroborating her experience flooded the industry.

Frustration over this routine was best expressed by one anonymous, clearly exhausted voice from leaked audio of a meeting between Uber’s female engineers and CEO Travis Kalanick, held shortly after Fowler’s account went public: “I think for years in tech we’ve been saying if there’s a systemic problem there, and saying where’s the data to suggest a systemic problem there?” the woman said. “We have the data, we have the anecdotes, we have it happening in our own backyard. When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here and stop using hypotheticals?”

Whoever that engineer is, she made a great point. No matter the ebb and flow of scandalous stories, sexism in tech is as ingrained into Bay Area history as the development of the personal computer. The shortcomings that Fowler and others have exposed over the years are practically industry traditions.

It’s for this reason that, as this scandal has played out in the news, I have thought often of my mother. She moved to the Bay Area in 1982, where she worked for two and a half years as an electrical engineer at the semiconductor company AMD. Most of my life, she has adhered to the philosophy that her gender helped her get her start in tech. “It’s only been to my advantage that I’ve been the only woman,” she told me when I called to ask about it. But before the Fowler scandal, I had never asked why she left the job. Or how over three decades of working in Silicon Valley, the gender imbalance she experienced in her education and workplace seems to have barely changed.

To place my mother’s experience into the context of what’s happening now, it’s helpful to know her backstory. She grew up in a middle-class family in the suburbs of Chicago, and when it came time to consider who she wanted to be, she drew inspiration from a 1972 AT&T ad. It featured 20-year-old Alana MacFarlane — one of the company’s first female phone installers — smiling from ear to ear while leaning in a harness atop a telephone pole. My mom thought it looked fun.

Despite trepidation from my grandfather, she began taking math and science courses at the local community college to pursue the job. Because she was always the only woman in the room, she opted to sit in the front of the class. “That way I didn’t have to see everybody behind me, to know that I was the only girl,” she told me. The coursework turned out to be too easy. After she aced one too many exams, her male professor took her aside and encouraged her to get an engineering degree. Shortly after, my mom applied to transfer to the University of Illinois to do just that.

In Champaign-Urbana in 1979, she remained the only woman in her engineering classes. And it was in one of them that she met my dad. After they graduated and got engaged, my father was offered a job at AMD in Sunnyvale, California. He piqued his interviewer’s interest by offhandedly mentioning that his wife was also an engineer. The equal opportunity legislation of Jimmy Carter’s presidency had been on the minds of many employers. And even at the dawn of Reaganism, California was among several state governments that passed laws to help shrink the wage gap between men and women in the workplace. AMD was likely eager to scoop up whatever female engineers it could find, and so my mom was quickly hired alongside him.

But despite the efforts California was making to address gender discrimination, my mother remained out of place. She was once again the sole woman in her environment — but this time on a young team of male engineers. “They just basically sat me down at a desk, told me what to do, and that was that.” This was far before smartphones and laptops helped companies like Google and Facebook spread the ethos of a college-campus-esque work environment that blended a person’s work and personal life. There was no Slack equivalent a man could use to covertly proposition female coworkers. And if her colleagues held rowdy happy hours, she didn’t know about them. The only offensive remark she recalled was when a colleague joked that her biking to work while pregnant could be a new method for abortion.

My mother left AMD so she could raise my newborn brother (and have me; hi). What I never knew was that, after seven years of caring for us at home, she had tried and failed to go back to her career as an engineer. “They wanted somebody who was in touch,” she said. “I did not do my homework, which was network and stay connected to the industry.” After being rejected from job after job, my father — who by then had become a patent attorney — began teaching her the basics of patent law. She took to it and has since forged a long and successful career in the Bay Area in the field.

It’s not a sad ending. But even though my mom loves where she ended up, she can also imagine a scenario where things went differently — one that allowed her to envision her success in engineering, rather than her limitations. “There was nobody in my area of work who was a female leader or manager,” she said. “During that small window of time, there was nobody mentoring me, nobody even showing me the direction of what my life could take. Without that, there was no reason to think that I could do it.”

In the unfortunate canon of “sexism in tech” horror stories, my mother’s career path isn’t outrageous or unique. There are plenty of women who — though rarely recognized in Silicon Valley’s history — were much more notable trailblazers in the field of technology. But her experience is important because of how she remembers it. Despite her longtime insistence that her gender had helped her professional life, her ability to succeed in nearly every step of her early career was dictated by the rules of the male-dominated culture that surrounded her. She may have benefited from men who were encouraging — and certainly from the fact that she was white — but her trajectory was cut short by work structures that made no room for motherhood or female mentorship. Those disadvantages barely registered. “At the time my belief system of the places of men and women were probably potentially in line with theirs,” she said. My mom did not set out to be a feminist, or a martyr for her gender. It’s not her style to place blame on anyone for what happened. She was just good at math and science and wanted to be an engineer until a male-dominated industry said she couldn’t be one anymore.

A lot has changed since then, but the onus placed on women to recognize, document, and share their workplace horror stories has not. Without individuals like Ellen Pao, Julie Ann Horvath, or Fowler, the tech industry might have even been able to pass itself off as progressive by now. But becoming poster women for a cause was never their endgame, and it was inarguably disruptive to their personal lives. (Even Fowler, who could’ve filed a suit against Uber but didn’t, has had to lawyer up because the company is now using her name in emails to customers and investigating her experience.) Like that anonymous female Uber engineer said to Kalanick in the aforementioned leaked recording, change won’t take place until companies — specifically sprawling, fast-growing startups like Uber — recognize that sexism is a default occurrence in any profession where one gender historically has more power than another. It’s naive to assume everything is working as intended until a lawsuit or Medium post says otherwise. Because, for every woman brave enough to put her name behind her story, there are likely hundreds of others who are driven out of the industry for much more mundane — but nevertheless systematically sexist — reasons. My mother is just one example.