It’s well-documented that it’s difficult to be a woman or minority in Silicon Valley. A recent survey of more than 200 women called “The Elephant in the Valley” found myriad problems, ranging from women being asked to do lower-level tasks (47%) and feeling excluded from important social gatherings because of their gender (66%).
Niketa Kumar doesn’t work in the technology field, but she does make a living by helping those who struggle to fit into a predominantly white, privileged, and male-dominated tech culture. She’s a San Francisco-based therapist who works almost exclusively with those who identify with an underrepresented status and are in tech startups or larger companies.
In recent years, many of these companies have invested millions of dollars into making their internal cultures and hiring practices more inclusive. But the diversity numbers still aren’t budging, and many women are still experiencing sexism in the workplace. Kumar, who agreed to speak with me on the condition that she would not reveal any of her clients or their tech firms, isn’t surprised.
“My clients are sharing today that while a lot of work is being done about diversity, it isn’t really being followed up with meaningful action,” she says. Another issue that is rarely discussed in the press, she adds, is the emotional toll faced by those who feel as if they’re on the margins and the lack of mental health support at startups.
Kumar says that in addition to women and minorities in tech, she also counsels men who struggle to fit in with tech culture, particularly those who who grew up poor and/or were the first in their family to go to college. “The feelings I hear a lot across the board are a lack of belonging . . . that they’re putting on a mask, or that others don’t understand them,” Kumar says.
At a corporate-sponsored women’s group that was intended to be well-meaning, one client of Kumar’s was asked to speak “on behalf” of her ethnic group. Such initiatives are intended to promote inclusion, says Kumar, but fail to deliver.
Others have experienced racism that is delivered like a compliment: “One client was told by colleagues that she was articulate for a black person.” The women she works with have also expressed that they’re regularly talked over at meetings or excluded from speaking at all (research has shown that women are interrupted more than men across industries).
“Some companies are struggling with the small microaggressions, or ‘paper cuts’,” says Kumar. “Over time, all the nicks start to add up.”
Kumar and many other Bay Area therapists treating tech workers have clients that struggle with serious issues like depression and anxiety, a problem that is typically discussed in the media after a high-profile suicide.
Some of the “worrying and overanalyzing” that many of her clients experience day-to-day stems from the thinly veiled sexism and racism, says Kumar. “You have to think through comments a lot, because you wonder what was meant by it,” she says. “Did I get this negative performance review, in part because I’m female and Latina?”
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Kumar thinks about this issue a lot, and has some practical initiatives in mind that could help. One of her suggestions is a stronger human resources infrastructure, which can address complaints in a timely manner. Some of her clients have gone to HR, only to be told that they should “deal with it” or receive placid sentiments like “I see how that’s a problem” with little or no follow-through. Those sentiments are in line with a complaint registered by Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, who described “giving up on HR” after it failed to take action against sexist employees who were perceived internally as superstars.
Another suggestion from Kumar is for companies to encourage workplace activities that don’t involve drinking alcohol, like bar crawls. Some religions forbid or discourage drinking, and many employees have families at home. Such activities can promote bonding among young, untethered employees while alienating those who are older or have a lot going on outside of work.
Leadership coaching is another option. Kumar hears from both male and female clients that the internal tech culture frowns upon sharing such feelings as being overwhelmed or overworked. Many of her clients are engaged in a lot of “self-monitoring” of their behavior to avoid seeming vulnerable, which can be exhausting. “A lot of people feel that they have to put this face on at work,” she says.
Shortly after I initially spoke with Kumar, she received an invitation from Facebook to come in to their offices and discuss their mental health strategy. That seemed to her like a promising sign. “I think a lot of people truly don’t know how their colleagues feel,” she says. “I do believe that there’s a way to build empathy.”