Breaking Down Gender Discrimination, Keynote at WomenTech Global Awards 2020
Public Speaking

Breaking Down Gender Discrimination, Keynote at WomenTech Global Awards 2020

Tessa Kriesel
Tessa Kriesel

Delivered as a Keynote presentation at WomenTech Global Awards 2020.

It was 2017, I was at the Denver Post delivering a conference presentation on Continuous Integration & Deployment. Which, 6 months before that talk, I had no clue what any of those terms meant. And it turns out that automating your development process is a lot harder than you’d think. But I had compliments and questions and people seeking to chat with me afterwards, and that's the best compliment a speaker can get. I was so proud. I was so happy I mastered something that was very difficult to master.

I was chatting with a lovely woman named Maddy, who was asking a variety of questions and we ended up walking to lunch together. For a bit more context here, I was both speaking and attending the conference on behalf of my previous employer, a startup out of San Francisco.

My male coworker tracked me down in the lunchroom and proceeding to scream at me about leaving our booth presence, in front of the entire cafeteria, where the entire conference was eating lunch. It was probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Not because I was ashamed, but because I was being publicly screamed at by a toxic white dude.

I was new-ish to my role, and very new to this tech community. What were they going to think of me? What were they going to think of him? Oh my gosh what are they going to think of my company? Will they still trust them? Will they trust me?

I tried to get him to at least stop screaming, but it wasn’t working, so I stood up, left my lunch behind, and walked him into where all the sponsor booths were. Only to find the room completely empty. He embarrassed me, he embarrassed himself, for what? To scold me for not being at our booth when no one was even around?!

I wanted to punch him in the face. Oh my gosh, I so badly wanted to punch him in the face.

Have you ever had those moments? You know the ones where if you make the wrong choice in the split second heat of the moment they could easily destroy your career, maybe even your life and everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish? I was in that moment and it felt 100% worth it. But I stayed strong, somehow.

I told him that the way he spoke to me was unacceptable and that he should NEVER do it again. He didn’t listen. He continued to scream at me when my all-male coworkers and manager weren't around and he continued to ridicule me in work that we had to complete together. He continued to harass me at conferences and other in-person events we attended together. He continued to make it near impossible for me to be enjoy & be successful at my job.

So I reported him. That’s what we do right? That's what all these companies train us to do in their onboarding with their anti-harassment contracts and training.

My manager, also a white male, told me to talk to him and work through it with my coworker. Yes, please, can I talk to someone who seems like they are emotionally and mentally unstable about the mistreatment and micro-aggressions he’s shown towards me. I think not.

I never approached my coworker. He was too unstable. I couldn’t put myself at risk. I stopped from lowering myself to his standards once already, I didn’t think I was strong enough to do it again. He continued to mistreat me, and my manager continued to ask me if I had spoken to him yet. What was happening? Is this my worst nightmare? Two white dudes putting me in a place where I was destined to fail.

I hate to say this, but the situation only got worse. My reporting finally worked and HR was brought in. At the time, I was living in Minnesota, working remotely, as was my manager, and he and I both had to fly to SF to have a meeting with my coworker, who was located in SF as was HR leader. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Why in the world did I have to fly across the country, leave my family behind, to have a discussion about someone else’s bad behavior? Why was the effort put on me? Not only that, but the end result of that meeting was that I was supposed to tell my coworker to “eat a sandwich” when he was mistreating me. He suggested it, and HR agreed to it. Yet again, what was happening to me?!

And the worst part, our HR leader was a woman. A woman who clearly felt that the pressure should be on me to resolve this situation.

So many more things happened, including getting reprimanded, on my birthday, for the only negative comment I had ever made at that company. I was bubbly, and kind, and optimistic, so when I finally shared negative feedback, it was jarring, and my manager decided to also scream at me for it. This situation felt all too familiar.

I thought my manager had my best interests in mind. He was kind and constantly praising me for my work and lifting me up publicly and in front of executives at my company. I believed that there was no way that he was maliciously playing a role in this situation because of that.

But here’s the thing, no matter how kind or nice or amplifying or supportive your manager may feel, you can’t use that as an excuse for their neglect. They’ve been given the privilege & authority to support and manage you, and if they’re failing in any area, they’re failing you.

I was the only woman on that team. And even though I'm strong, & vocal, and for the most part, I can take care of myself, I still was put in a situation that any woman would have failed at. And that is the part that makes me incredibly sad

What happens to women who aren’t like me? What happens to women who haven’t had to fight their entire life for everything they want? What happens to the women who are too scared to speak up for themselves?

They leave tech.

They leave the toxicity behind because it’s not worth the energy. But we need these women. I need women who are going to support me and speak up for me and women that I can support and speak up for.

We need allies, & we need each other.

I know that a number of you are nodding your head, maybe even tearing up a bit, it's a little hard for me to hold it together honestly, because you’ve been through this. Take a deep breath and imagine a world where we all have each other's backs. Imagine a world where if I saw that same co-worker screaming at another woman, that I stood up, and I stopped the micro-aggression immediately before it could rear its ugly head because I knew that every other woman in that room had my back.

Just take a second to imagine what that world would be like.

It gives me goosebumps. It gives me hope.

I don’t have a computer science degree, I’m just a scrappy girl, who came from a low income small town. I left my first job in tech because they brought in a new female manager, and she hated me. To this day, I really don’t know why, but I left the company because she made my life a living nightmare. I worked so hard for that first tech role. And it hurt like hell when I left it behind.

It’s not just men that we have to watch out for. It’s every toxic person who is trying to take us down and stifle our success.

The only way we’re going to break this culture of toxic masculinity is by breaking the culture of toxic behavior among women. We can’t be causing harm to our own gender.

Have you seen the movie Mean Girls? This behavior is encouraged in our society. We’ve been encouraged to compete against each other. And encouraged to take actions that bring each other down.

Today, we need to band together. We need to support each other, compliment each other, elevate each other's work and praise one another publicly. So much so that the tech industry notices our impact.

Because suddenly less women are leaving tech and more women are taking on difficult leadership roles and nailing them. Why?

Because every single woman is standing behind them ensuring that they know that they have what it takes to change their company, to change our role in tech and to change the world as we know it.

My name is Tessa Kriesel, and I vow to only encourage women and elevate them every single chance I get.

Because I have a daughter, I want better for her. I want better for every single girl and woman in this world.