For a young person starting out in tech, an internship at Google or Facebook should be like winning the lottery. But from the moment software engineer Tracy Chou set foot in the offices of Silicon Valley’s tech giants, she felt deeply uncomfortable being a woman in a sea of white men. One male coworker “offered to give me a massage ‘because I looked stressed,'” she wrote in an essay for Quartz. “Another tried to get me to watch a movie with him in a dark room with the door locked and blinds closed.”
Such experiences prompted Chou to become one of tech’s most prominent—and passionate—diversity advocates. In 2016, she co-founded Project Include, a nonprofit helmed by former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, that uses data to help tech companies bring on more diverse employees.
Chou’s first foray into advocacy came when she created a spreadsheet in 2013 that recorded the dismal number of female engineers at major tech companies. Noting the lack of transparency, she wrote a Medium post asking industry colleagues to contribute data about the gender breakdowns at their companies—starting with her own employer at the time, Pinterest.”Every company has some way of hiding or muddling the data on women actually in engineering roles,” she wrote. The lopsided results she uncovered rocked Silicon Valley.
Chou has also emerged as a champion of the humanities in an age when their importance is often dismissed. “Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree,” she wrote.
In an interview with Quartz, Chou spoke about how she learned to question the myth of meritocracy, the book on luck that changed her worldview, and how she believes you should “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
This “big idea” is one that many of us have been repeating ad nauseam for years, and some for decades, but unfortunately is still struggling for traction in the tech industry: Diversity and inclusion is important, and it’s worth the investment. There is the very human moral case, and there’s also the business case. The quality, relevance, and impact of the products and services put out by the technology sector can only be improved by having the people who are building them be demographically representative of the people who are using them. We can only do better to have our teams more informed, creative, and critically engaged, all of which are research-proven benefits of diversity in an innovation context. And yet the tech industry’s efforts toward diversity and inclusion continue to be lackluster and ineffective.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Being lucky. This may sound like a cop-out answer—and it is a bit—but not entirely! Hear me out.
A few years ago I chanced upon a book called The Luck Factor, which describes a psychologist’s study of luck and lucky people. Richard Wiseman found that people who self-identified as lucky are not actually statistically luckier in controlled tests, like lottery drawings, or other rigorous analysis of odds and outcomes. Rather, lucky people create lucky lives for themselves: For example, by maximizing opportunities for serendipity and fortuitous outcomes, and by seeing the positive even in negative situations. The book immediately resonated with me; it felt like Wiseman was describing my own approach to life more crisply than I could have.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Make childcare affordable and accessible. Women are still disproportionately responsible for the care of children, the economics and logistics of which are often difficult or prohibitive for their careers. Supportive family policies set by the government—such as multi-month and equitable paid parental leave, and guaranteed and/or heavily subsidized childcare—has empirically correlated with greater representation and success of women in the workplace. Denmark and other Nordic countries are fantastic examples of this.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known how unfair and insidious the power structures of society and business are. I unquestioningly bought into the meritocracy and all the false markers of qualification and success that Silicon Valley obsesses over: Ivy League pedigree, time at Google or Facebook, connectivity to the heroes of tech and venture capital. It hardly hurt me to believe these myths; I had the “right” credentials, and they opened countless doors for me. It’s easy to believe in a system that tells you that you are winning because you are the best and you deserve all of your success.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the organizations and institutions that believe themselves to be the most meritocratic are often the least, because they are the least vigilant about examining and mitigating inevitable bias. I had an embarrassingly belated and slow awakening to these issues, and for a long time participated in the tech industry’s pervasive gatekeeping to filter out those who didn’t have the kinds of credentials I had. It’s a small consolation, but I try to remind myself that if I weren’t embarrassed by where I was five to 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be making enough progress!
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
About a year into working full-time, I seriously questioned whether I belonged in the tech industry. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the work of software engineering—I loved it, actually—but I didn’t feel like the environment was one in which I could be happy and successful. I remember crying myself to sleep many nights, escaping to the women’s locker room at the gym for workday crying, and then berating myself for being upset and expending mental cycles on something besides my engineering work.
It got better when I realized the problem wasn’t just me, and that I wasn’t alone in my experiences: First, of being marginalized, and second, of being gaslit in that marginalization. Back then our industry wasn’t having so many of these conversations in public and loudly, so it took me a while to realize what was happening. But I was lucky to meet and connect with wonderful people who validated me and who also presented me new opportunities to stay and succeed in tech.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I try to always assume good faith, and then work from there. To take an analogy: It helps to assume that everyone is trying to row in the same direction. From there, you can work with people on how to row even more effectively together, or to ask why it might not feel like everyone’s synced up and make adjustments.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think I just saw this in a pin on Pinterest, but I’ve absolutely been loving the mantra, “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.” It is obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I appreciate the reminder to charge forwardly more bravely and boldly, despite feeling the constraints of societal expectations on me as both a woman and an Asian-American.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Have the same high expectations of women’s commitment, skills, and potential as of men’s, and engage accordingly. If that’s too tricky and imprecise a directive, the Rock Test is a nice hack.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that GIF is pronounced with a soft g. It’s an animated “jif,” not “GIF”!
I wish people would stop telling me… that diversity means lowering the bar.
Everyone should own… a good set of workout clothing.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.