Lean In and Push Back: A Love Letter to Girls in Tech

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I recently gave a keynote speech at a hackathon at Simmons College in Boston called Lean In and Push Back. It was a different presentation for me because I'm a tactical presenter. I'm usually teaching people how to use Instagram and how to use Facebook. But these students are the future of our workforce specifically in the tech industry, and so I thought, “If I was a college student and going out into the world, what would I need to know?” Here's what I wish I knew when I was working when I was in my 20s.

Lean In and Push Back: A Love Letter to Girls in Tech

Below is the transcript of my presentation. You can watch the video at the bottom of the article.

It's titled Lean In and Push Back because I love Sheryl Sandberg's whole concept of leaning in and helping each other. Guess what?  You're going to have to push back a little bit too because we're a little bit too passive when we're in our 20s. We're in the workplace, and we just don't know it until years later, and you realize, “I could've done something differently.” You guys are all going to have a tremendous upper hand when you get out there and get started.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg


Lean In and Push Back: A Love Letter to Girls in Tech from Peg Fitzpatrick

As Shayla mentioned, I did write a book. I think it's interesting to share I live in New Hampshire. It's very small place and, yet, I have worked for companies like Motorola, Audi, and McDonald's. I work with Adobe right now on their Spark project. It's an impressive work environment because it doesn't matter where you live.

I created a whole different career for myself and created this cool thing that I love. Today, more than ever, you have the opportunity of working for a corporation or starting your own awesome thing from wherever you are with your great tech skills which were not available when I was graduating.

I always tell people I'm just a girl with a computer and I come up with ideas and I make them happen. You can do this too.

Push the boundaries.

The first thing I want to talk about is pushing the boundaries. When you're going out into the world, you don't have to just take what's offered. I created my career. Push the boundaries.

My husband kept telling me, “I don't think what you're trying to do is a job. No one is going to pay you to do this.” I'm like, “They will. I'll be awesome at it, and people will love it.” Now he's like, “Honey, you go work on the computer.” He's all about it now. It took a lot of work, but you can really push the boundaries with your ideas these days. The internet has connected the whole world.

It's interesting because, as I said, you can connect with people anywhere, you can push all the boundaries.

The boundaries are pushable.

Don't think I have to just apply for this job, that I just need to fill out my LinkedIn profile and wait for things to happen. You guys, more than any other generation, can just make awesome things by pushing the boundaries.

Things that I do not want you to accept.

Back in the day, I don't even know if they do this anymore, but Glamour Magazine used to have these things called Glamour Dos and Glamour Don'ts. Do they have those anymore? It was this girl with an awesome outfit; she was a Glamour Do. The don'ts have a little black stripe across their face, so you didn't see her face because her outfit was so bad. These are the dos and don'ts. These are the things that you don't want to accept.

Being patronized.

Way back in the day when I worked at Merrill Lynch when it was just Merrill Lynch … I don't know if it's been, bought, sold and a million other things at this point. The manager of the office used to call me all kinds of cute nicknames because he thought I was nice. I think he probably thought it was a compliment that he liked me and he called me Pegatha. He had so many “cute” nicknames for me.

When you're 20, you don't know what to say. “Can you please call me by my name?” You're in a position where you think “I can't do anything about it.”

Now, you guys have a lot more information in your toolkits than we did back then. If you ever feel like you're being patronized by someone using demeaning language or anything like that, speak up and say, “I'd prefer it if you would call me Peggy,” or whatever name you want to go by.

It's things like that that sometimes we don't realize until later. Maybe it wasn't a big deal. Maybe it is a big deal.

Those are the things that undermine your authority and your professionalism. It is hard when you're young because you go in and everybody else as been there longer, people know each other, they have the ropes down already, and you're new.

I had a bad situation. I worked at a bank before I worked at Merrill Lynch, and I had confidential payroll information on my desk, and somebody actually went and looked at employment numbers. I had no idea, in my 20s, that someone would do that. Who would be that unprofessional that they would go through other people's things on desks? Guess what? People did it.

I had somebody in the IT department at a different job delete a whole presentation right before I was supposed to give it. Little did she know, I can work really fast and I recreated it, and I didn't say one word. I just went, and I redid it. Sabotage by other women can happen. It sucks. Push through it and be better on the other side.

It's unfortunate that when you go out in the workplace, everybody isn't necessarily going to be maybe your best friend, but that's okay. You just have to be professional and be prepared.

Being harassed.

Being harassed, again, you guys have a lot more in your toolkits now in the workplace. There are a lot more laws. There have also been ways that you can be harassed that are just super subtle.

Being in the technology industry, you guys are going to have to deal with it. Unfortunately, I think, a lot more than other fields because it's out there. It's not friendly all the time, but you guys can handle it if you just make sure that you document things if they do happen. If it's something that makes you feel uncomfortable, that can be harassment without it being something huge or lots of things. It can be little things that happen over time.

There are many different ways that harassment occurs. If it makes you feel harassed, it's harassment. That's the bottom line.

Make sure when you get a job, which, of course, you guys all will get awesome jobs, you check the paperwork, and you keep it because there may be some time when you may need to go back and find the person that you can go and talk to.

Unfortunately, I did have harassment issues. I did deal with them. I went in, and I was like, “This isn't okay.” I was told, because this is before the strong harassment laws, “They produce a lot of money. Do you think you can just handle it? Do you think it would be okay?” I was like, “No, I really don't think it will be okay.”

That person did not get fired. Today that wouldn't happen. That person would be fired. I did report it.

It's unfortunate that those things happen, but just don't feel bad if you ever have to push back on things because it's your job. People that may have been there longer and they think they can get away with things, but they can't unless you let them. You definitely don't want to do that.

Stop apologizing!

This is mostly for the females in the room. For some reason, our gender apologizes. “I'm really sorry, but I hate to interrupt you.” “I'm sorry.”

We apologize all the time. I don't know why. I think we're just really polite, which is very nice, but when you enter a workplace, that can be seen as a weakness, to apologize for things. Think about how you're phrasing things, and if you're apologizing for things that aren't really … If you're just asking someone a question, it's their jobs to answer the question whether it's a professor, a boss, whoever. Think about it and don't apologize for things that don't need an apology.

Now that I've told you that, hopefully, think about it, but it's just something that we do. We apologize way too much.

Stop judging.

Mostly ourselves, and other people. Just stop judging. Cut people some slack, cut yourself some slack.

You don't need to be so hard on yourself. Take a breath, don't judge everything. I know I am the worst judge of myself. I am my own worst critic.

Number one, people are probably not even paying attention to you. We think everybody's got their eyes focused on us, but most people are focusing on themselves. Don't judge.

Watch out for mean girls.



How many people have been personally victimized, Regina George? You don't even go here.

On the internet, a mean girl isn't necessarily Regina George because we don't necessarily see the person pulling up in the convertible to tell us to go shopping with them.

Mean girl behavior honestly does exist in forums, live on Twitter. All over the place. Be cautious and be aware that mean girl behavior happens. If you see it happening, remove yourself from conversations.

One of the things I used to feel bad about was unfollowing people or blocking people. I felt like it was so mean of me to do that. Guess what? It's not mean. They're not your friend. They're harassing you.

Everybody's not out to be friends with everybody. Some people just enjoy being mean to other people. For whatever reason, they do. When you see mean girl behavior, whether if at work, in the tech industry, anywhere that you are, address it or ignore it, however, you choose to deal with it, but you don't have to accept it. You don't have to let people harass you.

I'm sure you guys probably saw the story with Leslie Jones who's on Saturday Night Live and she was in Ghostbusters. For some reason, some people online just hate her. They are horrible. They harassed her so much on Twitter that she left Twitter and she was like, “I can't deal with this.”

They went, and they doxed her. They went on her website, they hacked her site, they hacked her phone, her email, all of her pictures, and, of course, the news sources aren't even savvy enough to know what doxing is, but I know you guys all know.  They put a copy of her passport on her homepage. Serious things can happen. It's not just little teeny things. These are serious issues.

The laws haven't even really caught up to the things that are happening. If you see stuff like that you'd want to avoid. It. The levels of mean girl behavior went from just a little harassment, like Regina George, to now you can get doxed and all of those things, so it can be really serious.

Make sure that, if things happen with you, you address it if your accounts get hacked or something like that. I'm sure you guys all have really great passwords. You guys must know more about IT safety than I do, so I'm assuming no one has Password 1234 or any of those kinds of things. Still, if somebody really wants to, obviously they can hack it. I don't know if the stars necessarily all have great passwords, but they certainly need to get better with it.

Then I wanted to leave you from this section with a quote from Katherine Hepburn which I love, which she said, “I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a middle road. I've not lived as a woman, I've lived as a man. I've done just damn well what I wanted to, and I made enough money to support myself, and I'm not afraid of being alone.”

She wore pants a long time ago when it was not cool at all. Back in the day, when I started work, I had to wear skirts, pantyhose, and heels every day to work. What a pain. I'm thankful you guys can wear much more comfortable clothes, especially if you're startup people. Comfy tech t-shirts, Converse, skinny jeans forever, and possibly a cardigan on the side.

It's just nice to know that some women before us really did make a push in the workplace. She was a Hollywood actress, which was even a bigger deal. I think that we made a ton of strides in the workplace and then we stopped a little bit. I feel like it just went back to what it was.

We've got more work to do.

All the different equality things that you could have at work are not there yet, so I'm hoping that you guys can really push it and get the gender wage gap fixed because I think everybody should make the same amount of money. Don't you agree?

A rising tide that floats all boats.

I love this quote. If you think about it, working together, as you guys are going to do on Hackathon, really makes everyone better.

Try not to think of everything as “me,” and think of “we.” Whether you just have a couple of friends that you're working with, a couple teammates, whoever it is, even if it's just one really awesome person, working as a team helps make you better. Having a mentor makes you better, being a mentor makes you better.

All of these things can help make us better. Think about working together and floating everyone's boats.

These are things that are a-okay, which would be a Glamour Do.

Support other women in tech.

Support other women in tech any way that you can whether it's reading someone's book and share it. We were just talking about #GirlBoss before. Sophia Amoruso is so amazing. She wrote her book #GirlBoss; if you guys haven't read it yet, it's super good, it got picked up by Netflix. It's going to be a show.

People are doing awesome things.

Find other women in tech that you can support whether it's code that they wrote, a blog post that they shared, find a way that you can support other women in tech. Definitely do it.

Men can do the most to help women because other men helping women be successful, by treating them as equals. It will make a huge difference for everybody.

Women are equal.

Learn to negotiate.

It's a very hard skill, and it goes back to that thank you thing, but you're going to need to learn to negotiate when you're getting hired because somebody will make you an offer. You don't necessarily have to take that first offer. As much as you really want a job, you don't have to take the first thing someone offers you. You can counter offer, and you can get a better offer. You'd don't have to necessarily take it.

It's one of those that men traditionally do better than women, and they make more money because of it. Why don't we negotiate so we can make more money? I'd say yes. I do it, and then sometimes they accept it right away, and I'm like, “Next time, I'm raising it.” You know what happens when I raise it? I still get more clients. It works. I tested it. It totally works.

Create an inclusive environment.

Again, you guys being especially in this environment are awesome with these things. Think about that when you're in the workplace or any place because if you're tech, it can be competitive.

New jobs are competitive, but just be inclusive and include everyone, accept everybody's ideas, and then you can really grow together.

Create a positive work environment.

This seems like a trite statement, but, honestly, you'd be surprised how many workplaces aren't favorable. There aren't very many people that do things to support a positive work environment, and it makes a huge difference in the whole office. If you have somebody who makes cookies on people's birthdays or does things like that, it makes a huge difference to make everybody get along better and just to make it a better work environment.

Encourage more kindness.

People are stressed … Especially computer science; you guys work weird hours, you're up late, you could be grouchy. Just try to encourage kindness by being kind.

Be a goal digger.

Not a gold digger. Set goals and work hard because I know that with the education that you guys are getting and the opportunities that you're going to have, you'll be able to create some awesome goals and begin to make them happen.

I leave you with a quote from Tina Fey who, of course, also wrote Mean Girls. I Tina Feyed twice, but how can you not because she's Tina Fey?

“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?”

Remember, the boundaries are pushable!

I'll be looking for great things from our future women in tech. You can do it.

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  1. Peggy-
    I just read the Lean & Push Back post. Awesome! I will share it with my 13 year old daughter who could sure use some wisdom in this area. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Peg,
    This is a brilliant post that asks questions, offers choices, and challenges young women to be strong, confident, and smart. And I agree: Kindness is still a good thing (maybe now more than ever!). “Boundaries are always pushable” – and, as women, we garner more courage when we support and cheer on one another. I am sharing this with teens, teachers, and their adult leaders. I think this message is particularly valuable for adults – because adult women often challenge girls to pursue their passions and, through their words and actions, talk them out of them at the same time. Your words are encouraging for ALL women.
    Well said!

  3. Thanks for reminding young women that boundaries are pushable! This is a very encouraging message to all young women these days. Women don’t need to compete with one another in the workplace to thrive in their chosen career.

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