White women are the most dangerous upholders of white supremacy in Silicon Valley, and holding them accountable could cost you your career, your community, and your sanity.
After two years at Webflow, I am saying goodbye to more than just a job I once loved. I’m risking the most important possession I’ve acquired. The very thing that I’ve sacrificed family, friends, and good health to attain. The thing I’ve held on a pedestal for 15 years — my career — to speak my truth.
White women are considered checkmarks on tech’s list of DEI requirements.
And not only that, but we are the easiest checkmark to fulfill first. We don’t feel like total strangers in the boardroom. Men can and do applaud themselves for adding a single white woman to their executive team or board of directors; it’s even considered a major milestone achievement in their “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This is particularly dangerous because male executives get validation of their whiteness from seeing their prized diversity hire behave as they would, which allows them to numb themselves in the face of criticism. Men can now sit back and have their dirty work done for them, and as long as she is bringing in results, they always have an excuse to remain silent. This authorizes the previously bad cops of the organization to rebrand themselves as benevolent fatherly figures. We start hearing familiar phrases like, “Hey, don’t look at me. You heard what your mother said.” Men can continue to cash in and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. When any non-cishet/white/man is in power (not the least of which are white women) and exudes traits of toxic masculinity, their behavior is more conspicuous, subjecting them to more damaging discourse and tarnishing of their reputation than her superiors would receive. This not only makes white men more covertly dangerous, it simultaneously decreases any opportunities for the rest of us to advance in our careers, get resources and support to do our jobs effectively, and ultimately feel represented and included at the company that markets itself as committed to our protection and prosperity. Yet white women continue to senselessly defend their toxic behavior.
White women often ascend the ranks in supremely toxic work environments, adopting and also benefiting from the same white supremacy that steps on the necks of their sisters and daughters along the way. The more they exhibit authoritarianism, the higher they progress. And because they climbed the highest mountain and sparkled in a sea of others who might cry at work, they feel uber accomplished and outstanding. Many go on to intentionally inflict the same, or worse, traumas they endured because they believe they are stronger because of it. We’ve seen it time and time again, in every industry, from the people we admire most. From my former favorite chef, April Bloomfield, to treasured feminist J.K. Rowling, but we’ll get to her later.
I missed all the red flags.
I started experiencing intense migraines a day or so after my weekly 1–1s with my current boss. Who doesn’t get headaches? I stare at a computer screen all day and barely get up to pee, let alone drink water. I remembered when she told me that so-and-so had taken three mental health days this month. I should exclude him from the planning meetings for an upcoming campaign because she didn’t think he could handle it. With hardly a conscious thought, I switched to Dropbox Paper for its dark mode setting, chomped down on Advil, and powered through the pain.
Eventually nausea surfaced during our 1–1s and profound fatigue followed into the evenings. Who isn’t nauseous and tired? We’re in a pandemic. I couldn’t connect the dots. I remembered the most recent director's offsite where she told me, the only woman besides herself invited, that I needed to stop giving feedback. That I need to understand that “because I said so” is enough context for me to get my work done. When I looked at my male peers in disbelief, their heads were down in their laps. Exhausted on the plane home, I couldn’t help but wonder what her intentions were in bringing us together if one of us wasn’t allowed to speak. I fought the urge to explore it more and opened my laptop.
I began to experience more and more confusion in my daily life. Typically a voracious reader, I silently removed myself from two book clubs I had been excited about joining. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t focus long enough to finish a chapter. I may have moved out of San Francisco, but Karl the Fog was rolling into my brain like clockwork every day around lunchtime. Four negative covid tests and an honorary Ph.D. from WebMD proved to be dead ends. Nothing was adding up. I suddenly remembered she was ignoring me after I asked her to recognize a long-overdue promotion for a woman on my team. “The all-hands meeting is tomorrow, so I better follow up.” I thought to myself before crawling into bed at 7 pm.
It’s significantly harder to identify the patterns of abuse from white women.
Our abusers don’t just look like us — they are us. Recognizing it makes us question our own identity. Calling it out makes us traitors, harshly casting us out of the only community we felt accepted in the office to begin with. The abuse is disparate, more insidious, and more widely acceptable, thus lending itself to be all too easy to be complicit in it. Cue the white women’s flying monkeys stage left.
This is terrifying on so many levels. It’s hard enough to determine when you’re being abused by obvious criminals. But when looking in the mirror is required? Identifying the abuse forces us to take a cold, hard look at our own insecurities and dishonest constitutions. That can take years of maturing and first-hand witnessing to even acknowledge, let alone accept. If we’re not seeking to educate ourselves, or witnessing our bullies suffer consequences in a predictable fashion, this critical step in recovery might never happen. Our oppressor sits at the desk next to us. They are lauded and promoted. The media revamps them as empowered queens. This conditioning from the #girlboss propaganda machine teaches us to manipulate our sexuality to get what we need to survive amongst men. It’s not only more respectable, it’s entirely less reckless to use the system to our advantage than to show humility and vulnerability at work.
Yet some of us know how excruciating it is to look in the mirror (oh, the irony), and we do it anyway. We’re excited to educate ourselves and we may not-so-secretly aspire to join the elite empowerment movement. We truly believe we can use our privilege to lift our sisters up. But here’s where it gets confusing again. The abuse itself doesn’t feel familiar. It’s not coming back from the bathroom to HipChat messages detailing how sexy I look in the skirt I’m wearing. It’s not the strategically placed sweaty palm resting above my ass at the company Christmas party while his bionic-smelling booze-breath whispers that he’s in an open marriage as his wife shakes my hand. It’s not the hallway gossip about who thinks they can bang the President’s daughter and who already has. It’s not the #girldad ex-Microsoft Senior Director responding “Sweetheart, what we’re doing is very hard” when I ask why the product launch is delayed in yet another, yawn, all-white-men-and-little-old-me meeting. It’s not the college-dropout founder with a Steve Jobs complex and fresh seed capital promising 20-year-old foreign beauties the opportunity to ditch university, move to America, and share a house 40 miles from the city in lieu of a salary. It’s not the exceptionally aggressive adolescent male founder sadistically laughing while he exploits your career accomplishments in a performance review as you struggle to fight back tears.
My white-woman-girl-boss and I got scarily similar results to the same bullshit personality test and instead of wanting to vomit, I smirked on the inside momentarily. Does this mean what I think it means? I must be destined for VP-dom too. It wasn’t until I had a panic attack in front of my entire department while presenting slides that she had bullied me over less than 24 hours earlier that I finally felt the nausea I was anticipating. I know what this is. I’ve been here before. My body was screaming at me to wake up. I messaged her that I would not be coming to work next week.
And then the pieces of the puzzle started fitting together.
When she was applying for the job and I was interviewing her and she dodged every question and turned it around on me. When she made the entire marketing team take personality tests her first month at the company and wouldn’t share the results. When she scolded me for allowing my direct reports to have their cameras off in meetings and be idle on Slack, while she operated on stealth mode. When she said “I’ve got news for you, sister. This is how it is at startups” whenever she disagreed with me (as if I was new to this). When she trolled employee Twitter accounts and used their tweets as evidence for her savage judgments of people. When she told me so-and-so was underperforming but wanted to save the headcount budget, so she hoped by not hiring a director and instead, pitting new senior managers against each other, this person would feel pressured to work harder. When she offered no support managing the workload of an employee with a disclosed medical condition and instead told me to “keep my spidey senses on” and notify her of any suspicious behavior I see. When she tried to actively block a performance increase for a Black employee. When she said that even though I was managing people on a higher salary track than mine that I didn’t deserve to be paid in line with that salary band. When she ignored my requests to include the newest woman team lead in the weekly team leads syncs and admitted she only invited the other non-male team leads in order to be inclusive. When she later wouldn’t accommodate the schedule of a team lead with a disability and said it was their choice to attend or not. When she told me I would never be a VP if I put so many “strict boundaries” on her after I asked her to clarify why our female Senior Events Manager needed to project manage an awareness campaign on accessibility. When she told me to try having an optimistic attitude in a group meeting after I asked how the sudden change in strategy would affect the roadmap.
When she, when she, when she.
We’re all complicit whether we can admit it or not.
It’s ridiculously hard to collect receipts when we’ve been oblivious to and yet also complicit in the parasitic behavior in question. We usually don’t realize what has been going on until it’s either too far in the future to remember the specific details that HR requires for proper investigations, or the unspoken statute of limitations that your infantile startup uses to determine a problem’s urgency and severity has expired. And without the aid from HR, we are either too green to have meaningful influence at our organization, or we’ve been traumatized one too many times. We’re too desensitized, drowsy, and downtrodden to hope for change. Not to mention, who the fuck is going to believe us?
If you were to snitch on the boss for any of these episodes individually, you are “not living up to the core behaviors of the company” at best and you’re excluded, gossiped about, and let go at worst. You might have the fortunate off chance to be in a meeting about an unrelated topic with HR and position a window to bring it up nonchalantly. You might watch as they sit in uncomfortable silence until your two-minute defiant act of bravery is finished and hear “what would you like to do about this?” So you’re saying that she has layered more inane processes for your hiring than she does for your male counterparts? I see how that could be frustrating. Could you be interpreting this the wrong way?
Well Susan, I’ve been asking myself that question my entire life.
About a month before launching our first-ever flagship user conference, I had an abortion. Before Webflow, I had taken a year off and in that time, had been feeling the pressure all women my age face — reproduce or relegate yourself to White Woman Jail. When I finally got pregnant, I freaked the fuck out. I was at a new job that I thought was too good to be true. I loved the people I was working with, I loved the work I was doing, and I finally felt back on track with my career after a freeing, but anxiety-riddled sabbatical. I didn’t want to give that all up. I decided to take therapy seriously for the first time since my father passed in 2009.
My soul-searching journey to unearth what scared me so intensely about motherhood was full of peaks, valleys, and an alarming amount of curveballs. I lost two family members after coming to terms with the fact that I had been psychologically abused by them for most of my life. I learned how to set boundaries. I learned my own self-worth. And I learned that while yes, I am an obvious victim who is entirely traumatized by circumstances beyond my control, I am also an actor in the play that is my life. I learned that I’m codependent with a certain type of narcissistic personality, and I’ve been attracting these people into my life like a magnet. I learned that I am not powerless. That I am angry, and I have every right to be. And I learned that I can use that anger for a higher purpose.
It was not long after I freed myself from the shackles of my familial abuse that I realized I wasn’t getting healthier. I realized I was playing out the same cycle of codependency and abuse with my current boss. Was she the first diabolical manager I’ve ever had? No. There was one other. Another run-of-the-mill Harvard Business School educated white woman on a mission to be The Girl Boss of All Girl Bosses. I left that job after three months because my body was physically breaking down. I lost twenty pounds in one quarter, developed eczema all over my face and body, and was introduced to the world of panic attacks. She was an obvious terrorist though. Miniscule pay with no benefits. Demanded 12 hour days, in-person 1–1s on Sundays, and relentless communication at all hours of the night when we were apart. Anyone and everyone could see how cruel, demeaning, and deceitful she was. And because her startup went under and she’s nowhere to be found in Silicon Valley, I believed that people who behaved this way did not win. I quit the day I ran into an old boss from an Australian company I used to work for. The mere sight of his kind, gentle face made me burst into tears.
I spent eight years at the first tech company that employed me. Every single manager — I had at least five — was a salt-of-the-earth type person. People who made sure you got home safely after work. People who took you out for coffee when they noticed a change in your demeanor. People who showed genuine interest in your life. People who mentored you and were excited to see you grow. People who explained how they did things, opened their networks to you, and encouraged you to make mistakes. People who stayed late on Thursdays and held an ice cream club just for you so you could have a reliable time every week to plan your future together. People who knew how to have fun while working hard. People who showed me what a real community does for their own members when you lost a parent and needed to feel safe somewhere. People who still check on you eight years after you leave.
I still believe that people who abuse other people should not win, and I am determined to make sure this boss is the very last boss to ever try me again.
The cost of calling attention to abusive white women is too high for the victims and the company.
Now that we’re painfully aware of what we’re participating in, there’s no turning back. The #girlboss propaganda rears its ugly head again to remind us not to take shit from anyone. But what if the shit we’re being fed is from our own mouths? We are traitors if we go against them. Even more contradictory, we desperately want to believe they are altruistic. Because that means we are too. But what happens when we say fuck it — what have I got to lose this time?
When she told me that I was family, I should think about staying on through the end of the year, the company had so much more to offer me, and she hoped I had more to offer it on the day I resigned. When she agreed that finishing out the quarter was best for both the company and me. When she told me less than 24 hours later I should leave as soon as possible after I had held her accountable for violating her end of our agreement — an agreement not to tell anyone or make any abrupt decisions about who my team would report to until she was back from vacation. When she ignored me for three weeks. When she failed to communicate that I had been awarded a performance increase and I found out by checking my bank account. When she asked me to stay on Zoom in front of the group instead of scheduling a 1–1 to rob me of the chance to prepare. When she acted as if none of what she said had happened. When she threatened to fire me if I didn’t have her back, work hard, not take time off, and keep a positive attitude for the remainder of my transition period. When she immediately changed her tone with me, ignoring me, and withholding necessary information for me to smoothly transition my work and my team. When she didn’t acknowledge my two years' worth of contributions or do her part in “presenting a united front” (which she reminded me is “always a good look”) when I posted my departure plans on Slack. When she started cutting me out of conversations; lying about her plans; threatening me repeatedly to stay silent; admitting that she spoke negatively behind my back with my peers; telling only some of my direct reports one story and the others another (or nothing at all); threatening to fire me; only providing updates to me in group settings where I was unable to get the full context or ask questions; intentionally excluding my Black teammates from her plans; accusing me of “going against her” by telling my team her master plan before it was finalized; forgetting it was she who told them in a 1–1; and finally when she formally initiated stripping me of all possible authority and my firing.
It’s near-impossible to influence changes in behavior from white women in power.
Once white women are in positions of power, their networks solidify their tenure. What starts as one human inflicting harm one-to-one soon becomes few-to-many as they grow teams and promote their own kind. Eventually, and rapidly, an indestructible black widow’s web is spun that traps people and cements processes. By the time anyone notices, the damage has extended beyond what the eye can see. While men are inescapably the biggest perpetrators and creators of white supremacy, once a white woman benefits and profits from the system, she becomes its fiercest advocate.
We were all heartbroken when beloved feminist JK Rowling used her mega influential platform and powerful support network to wage a war on “cancel culture” after being called out for her deeply harmful transphobic views. Who dare come after The Queen? She wasn’t going to take that lying down. After all, she had come into her power in large part because of the long-term support and revenue from the very communities she was attacking. And I’ll admit that it worked on me at first. I’ve never read any of her work, so I didn’t have allegiance to Hermione or her TERF mother — which makes my initial response even more shameful. When this came to light I, like so many of us these days, half-read a single tweet and thought to myself, “I obviously disagree with her, but no one is perfect. Why are we throwing away the good ones? She’s on our side.” It wasn’t until my white-woman-girl-boss threatened to punish me three times in the span of two weeks if I didn’t have her back that I realized I was on the wrong side. It was then that I realized this side is complete bullshit. It’s not the side we think it is. And it’s that much more painful and confusing for our most vulnerable communities when they become victims of abuse from their own mothers. When we hold the ladder up for our mothers and they kick it out from under us once they reach the top, it’s that much more heartbreaking and traumatic. And it’s that much braver of those of us who decide not to stand in solidarity with our own mothers any longer.
When I realized the more she said “this is the path to VP” the more I wanted to vomit, because I knew she was right. When I realized she didn’t have to threaten my silence. I had only white male peers who weren’t experiencing the same injustices. I couldn’t share with my younger peers because I knew what it meant to be a leader, and I desperately wanted them to be safe and happy. I had told HR and the CEO about the most recent incident, but they stared at me blankly and didn’t follow through on their promise to follow up. I had no one. Compounded by the societal restrictions of the pandemic, my mental health rapidly deteriorated. It wasn’t long before I was spending every weekend in bed in complete darkness, hopelessly trying to sleep off the evergreen hangover from living in flight-or-fight mode Monday through Friday for a year and a half. It wasn’t long before all the signs of depression that I thought I could spot so intimately were smacking me in the face, yet I had no energy to care for my own wellbeing. It wasn’t long before my husband would have to make sure I was showering and eating breakfast. I knew I had been here before, but again I ignored the signs until it was too late.
From one white woman in power to another
Just because I look like you, and we can bond over the same shitty taste in music, does not mean I have your back. There isn’t a single part of me that’s afraid to look in the mirror and see your face staring back at me. I’m not afraid of you. I’m not going to blindly support you just because you’re also a blonde woman who lost your father at a young age. I have empathy for you. I understand why you are the way you are. I see you. But I don’t respect you. I don’t trust you. And I’m coming for you, just the way you came for all the people who are powerless under you — with a smile on my face and my fingers crossed behind my back.
To HR departments and executives committed to DEI
You can do better than being the “all lives matter” gang of the office. We know you know.
To my coworkers who supported me
You may be younger than me, but you are infinitely stronger and wiser. Thank you for believing me without persecution. Thank you for helping me realize how not-ok this is. Thank you for giving me strength and courage. Unfortunately, you are the most vulnerable now that I’m gone, so “keep your spidey senses on.” I know I’m not doing this perfectly. Your feedback is welcome.
To my new friends
Your experience is the truth. Don’t fall for the trap of getting sidetracked by hyper-focusing on your symptoms instead of removing the parasite that’s causing them.
If my story resonates with you, I welcome your friendship. If you’re feeling brave like I am, use #girlboss to share your story so I can boost your post.