On Being a Woman Who Quit Her Job in Silicon Valley

It's not easy to quit your job for the reason "I need me time." It's even harder as a woman to pull that initial trigger, and to internalize society's reactions to an unemployed woman versus an unemployed man. This is the sister article to my previous post, What I've Done in a Year Since Quitting my Job, focusing on gender bias experiences I've had since quitting my job.

Preface: It's really hard to talk about women's issues

I've walked around for the better part of a year with pieces of this post floating in my head. The positive feedback I got from my last blog post propelled me to write. So here I sit, literally, with nervous fingers.

It's hard. Because talking about women's equality, women's differences, women's feelings, is awkward, when it shouldn't be. Because talking about it makes it seem like you're weak or whining. Because it's not overt or black-and-white, but hard to put a finger on. Because there's women who have it so much worse than you, who are single working moms or are physically abused, and you don't feel right complaining. Because phrases like "you're so sensitive" and "you take things so personally" are too common.

In addition, with the current attention to diversity and equality, it's a subject that's tip-toed around for fear of being misinterpreted and sued. That makes it harder to address fully head-on.

This is the first in a series of articles I'm writing about women's equality. These gender biases are issues that I've experienced directly from my friends in the very liberal, women's-rights-leading Silicon Valley. It's real, here, not an abstracted women's rights movement. Even my most most well-meaning and conscientious friends, male and female, have biases. Overt gender discrimination is just a crust; underneath, there's a steaming volcano of subtle biases that everyone, by nature of living in today's society, is inclined toward.

It's my strong belief that in order to change society in favor of true gender equality, we need to fix subtle biases. Our next generation is soaking up these biases and the best gift we can give them is leading by example.

I write to start conversation. To men, this is food for thought and action, a constructive assessment, not a reproach. To women, I write to empower you to be more vocal. It's only after talking with other women myself that I've had the fortitude to write after years. Change starts with conversation.

1. I wasn't prepared for society's reaction to my unemployment

A man who doesn't work is successful.

A woman who doesn't work, who has kids, is a stay-at-home mom.

A woman who doesn't work, who doesn't have kids, is being supported.

When Jeremy and I were buying a car, the dealer asked what our occupations were for the credit application. I said I wasn't working right now. His response was "I'll put down Housewife." Me: "No, I'm unemployed." And so I made sure that the application said Unemployed, because whatever unemployed implied, even if that was fired or "let go," that was better than being labeled Housewife. It was a knife to the stomach, diminishing all my years of hard work.

When Jeremy and I were on our 3 month roadtrip, people would be curious how we managed to travel for so long. I'd say I'm not working, and often their next question was "What does your husband do?" Not, "cool" or "what did you do?" Turn the situation around: if someone asks a man what he does for work, and he responds that he's not working, what's the probability that the very next words to him will be "what does your wife do?"

Society doesn't yet know where to place a woman who doesn't work. This led to:

2. I'm always on defense when asked what I do

My answer to "what do you do for work?" morphed into a lengthy "I'm taking a year off, but I worked at Google for 8 years as an Engineering Program Manager, most of those years on Android."

I'm taking a year off --> A lie. I've known it'd be at least a year, but it warded off further questions about my plans.

I worked at Google for 8 years --> To prove I actually hecked it out, rather than working at Google like a short-lived candle flame.

as an Engineering Program Manager --> Just in case you didn't understand, I'm an Engineer, not working in a more common female role like Marketing or HR (noting that I have respect for those roles, but others don't.)

most of those years on Android --> I'm not BS-ing you and I worked on a legitimate and successful project.

This language, spewing accomplishments without being directly asked, isn't me. There's a part of me that shrivels in guilt when I say it: a quality that I value about myself is confident humbleness, and I've let someone else (or society) change that.

One of the biggest differences studied between genders, and a large factor of the professional gender gap, is that women don't self-promote nearly as much as men. I can attest that it's really hard to brag. It's the same story with other women I've talked to about career: we have an innate drive to take self-pride in work, and are fulfilled by knowing that internally, without drive to publicly announce accomplishments. In fact, just writing this section down for the world to read is awkward.

3. I shied away from talking about anything "domestic," even if it was my hobby

I sew and quilt. Yes, that's using a sewing machine to make the thing on your bed or couch that you curl under. I had 2 people (men, and friends, nonetheless) react to conversations about my sewing with "that's so domestic."

Those comments shouldn't evoke any strong emotions, yet it has such a negative connotation. That points to something wrong with society's view. And I let it get to me. I'm a successful engineer, I'm a physically strong rock climber, I've been doing a lot of DIY house projects etc. Domestic? Nah, not me. But society views arts like sewing and cooking as very domestic female jobs when in the context of the home, and we have different views in the professional context--we don't think twice about a male tailor or male chef.

To change society, I've got to be more vocal about my hobby. Quilting isn't something done by your grandmother with various floral fabrics anymore. Quilting is an awesome hobby--there's a ton of geometry, trigonometry, color theory, hand-eye coordination, technique. The women who design quilts blow me away. Do a Pinterest search on modern quilts. And the number of men in the quilting world is like women in rock climbing 20 years ago (sad, but a positive direction).

sampling of modern quilts

Modern quilting:
a: Traditional quilting blocks are reinterpreted
b: Imperfect seams (gasp!) are the design
c: Color theory is a strong design element
d: Free motion quilting, especially in negative space, is a focal point

4. I'm still stunned by how much workplace psychology traps you

It's fascinating how workplace culture warps your motivation and emotions. There's a camaraderie, especially on fast-paced and difficult projects, spawning from stressful and/or long hours. The ones who've worked the longest on a team are the "old ones," embodiments of statues in a Hall of the Gods, the revered ones who've made it.

Leaving that culture rips a piece of you out with it.

At first I felt like I was dodging with a much-needed escape, failing to "make it" with the rest, toppling off a pedestal that I worked so hard to earn. When you're one of the few women on a team, that feeling is multiplied. Before I quit, I moved off one of these teams to a more normal one, and I actually had people gibe, "So you're going to semi-retirement on XX team?"

Years later, a coworker told me that I was the one female he knew to survive that team the longest. Ironic accomplishment?

5. I feel like I'm failing to be a strong female role model

With all the attention to women's rights, to girls in STEM, I want to be a shining example of how a woman has "made it" in Silicon Valley. To be perfectly fair, I AM one of those examples: I'm very successful in my career, I have the means to take time off, I have self-awareness and motivation to know when I need to recharge (which is a much-needed trait in Silicon Valley).

If you're a woman in tech, it's very difficult to push this aside after being the minority who made it--10% of my Electrical Engineering class was female, and 19% of Google's tech staff is female. You've always been the one to make it, and the one to be successful. To put that aside in favor of other priorities is very difficult.

This point hit home when I read this article, "Things I wish I knew before I became a stay-at-home mom," where the author wanted to set an example for her kids that women and men are equals in the professional work. The article has a startling number of parallels to professional unemployment without having kids. I'm still working through this one and don't have an answer or method for dealing with it.

6. I fear the ease of re-entry into the workplace, with the question of stay-at-home mom looming

How long is too long to be out of work without damaging your chances to re-enter (especially tech, which changes so quickly), or to re-enter with the same earning potential?

I know that I'm not ready to go back to work yet. Jeremy and I want to start a family soon. I haven't worked with a single mom who has a full-time tech job who has an enviable work-life balance. I also think there's a fallacy of part-time tech work--tech just moves too fast and demands too much at all hours.

Does that mean I'll be a stay-at-home mom? If so, how many consecutive years will that be without professional work? Will I then be able to get back into an equivalent-paying career as before? Will I instead then end up being dependent on someone financially? That possible loss of independence, when you've worked so hard to buck the trend and have been successful, is scary.

I'd love to talk with you if you have experience here. I'm rather lost.

7. Corporate culture doesn't reward women's innate strengths as equally

Being out of the workplace has given me the time and ability to evaluate my strengths. Many of my greater strengths, and those which I believe are more innate to women, like collaboration, empathy, intuition, and taking quiet pride in completing excellent work, aren't as widely valued in today's workplace. Is there overt gender bias? No. But the skills society values and promotes in the professional context tend toward certain personas.

When I get back to work, I'll be much more conscious of my innate strengths and push to be rewarded for those rather than falling into the typical white male mold of a "successful" leader. As always, I have more thoughts on this coming.

8. The number of women in #vanlife, traveling and exploring, is drastically increasing

The greener pasture: In just the couple years that we've been roadtripping, I've seen a sharp increase in single women who acquire or build their own travelmobile like ours and are fully living on the road. It's not uncommon to find a group of girls at a climbing crag.

These women are financially independent, traveling for extended periods of time, often more than a year. Some are making their living on the road, working remotely by consulting, often in tech. It's really incredible to talk to them--I don't think I would've been ready to do that solo in my 20s. It's truly inspiring.

My Words of Wisdom

For those thinking of taking time off, especially women:

To not need work is an achievement.

To have self-awareness that you need space from your career, to make a plan for it and to act on it, is empowering.

Many don't have the self-awareness to know when they need a break, or to know how much of a curmudgeon they are to work with or to be with at home. It's not an emotionally easy path to give yourself the space from your career to evaluate yourself, but there's great reward in every step of learning about yourself. If you have a tendency toward self-pride that's holding you back from taking time off of your career, have the awareness to put it in context.

Read Lean In (both men and women). It's an excellent book that's like a personal light into your psyche. It was downright scary how much of me, my tendencies, were addressed, and that realization is power.

And for everyone, to really address gender issues, we need to have an open conversation space without fear of backlash. Women can't judge men for being insensitive or oblivious, but they need to be more vocal. Men shouldn't shy away from conversations for fear of being misinterpreted, but they need to be more cognizant of subtle biases. And so forth. Should be easy, right?

Let's talk. Just please don't be awkward.