In the mornings I search my closet to find the perfect outfit that shows I’m technical enough, I’m smart enough, I fit in. One day I wear a skirt, and my manager can’t seem to process it, I have gone outside his expectations. He flips to the script of “this is a woman, not a skilled computer expert who knows more about her area of expertise than almost anyone else in the world.” He can’t hold “woman” and “good at technical stuff” in his brain at the same time. His obviously confused comments about how nice I look deflate me all day, and that’s the last time I wear a skirt to work. Another day my manager comments that it’s great that I’ve brought some women candidates to interview for the open position on our team, but that we won’t lower the bar for them. As if the bar isn’t already shaped like a white man, with false proxies that exclude so many qualified people. When he finds out a coworker made disgusting, sexually explicit comments to me I overhear him say to a coworker that the bully can’t be blamed since he thought I had picked up the coworker I was walking with in a nearby bar. I move to a team that rarely interacts with customers, a team where I have no chance of encountering my old teammates. They have much more of an casual clothing vibe. When I wear my existing wardrobe, clothes from boutique stores, I get puzzled comments asking where am I going after work, is it someplace fancy? One of the few other women on the team comes over to tell me she’s glad I continue to dress up because it makes her feel less out of place when she wears similar clothes. What I think is “Why can’t I ever get it, ME, right?” Why can’t I fit in? Why are my dragon scales always too shiny or not shiny enough? Why is my roar always silenced? When did I lose my voice, when did I start spending so much emotional energy to walk a fine line between likable and competent? When did I give in to the bullies?
It was years before I realized my path to belonging & success became very narrow when I reported the worst bully, a sexual harasser, to my manager. The manager talked me out of reporting to HR. He encouraged me to silence myself, to keep quiet, all to keep my chance at a promotion. What I heard is that my voice doesn’t matter, or even worse my voice is destructive to my career. I didn’t realize then that my chance at a promotion was gone the moment I spoke up about the harasser, the bully, even in the privacy of one sympathetic person’s office. It was clear the so-called “brilliant jerk” who harassed me was just too valuable to the team, and I was not valuable enough. Instead of insisting I was as valuable, actually even more valuable because I wasn’t a bully, I took my dragon roar and internalized it as a silent scream. I looked around at the sea of men I worked with and saw what others thought tech looked like – not me. I tried to muffle my inner shrieks and focus on creating success by changing myself, ignoring my own brilliance and aptitude for the job. I just knew if I could make myself even more “one of the guys,” if I could suppress the “bad” aspects of my femininity, I could “win.” I could manage my way out of this by tightly controlling everything – myself, my voice, my manager, my coworkers, how much of myself I shared with my boyfriend. Only I couldn’t. I didn’t. The more I silenced myself, the more I changed my dragon roar into a silent scream, the more I lost myself.
I imagined myself as a solitary dragon, alone in my safe cave. As long as I kept people at a distance I could survive. I never even considered that I deserved to thrive instead. I nursed my internal wounds, mostly by minimizing and ignoring them. I imagined my loneliness as peaceful solitude. I hoarded my energy, my thoughts, my feelings. I told myself I was in control, I was exercising my power. I shape-shifted into a shadow of myself, a caricature. I closed all the gates around me to keep the bad things away, ignoring that I also kept the good things away. Like so many trauma victims, I internalized the bully’s actions as partially my own fault. I thought I could, must, change myself to avoid future bullies.
But that’s not the way the world works. Instead of looking at myself as a scary dragon, I can choose to see myself as a free agent in the world, a friendly dragon who can fly where I want, when I want, how I want. I know there’s the reality of the white patriarchy, a system that builds success bars shaped like a narrow subset of cishet white men. Because of my own privileges as a white-presenting woman with one parent who graduated from college, because of the perseverance and grit and pure luck that let me slide through the edges of the white patriarchy and accumulate some wealth, I have the freedom to put myself in another part of the world, a part where I can thrive. My dragon scales are just fine the way they are, and I choose how much, what kind of, light to shine on them, on myself. I can befriend this bully culture dragon, I can stop internalizing it and stop trying to fix myself. I can make my experience a friendly dragon. That jerk who bullied me, who was found guilty of sexually harassing me when I finally reported him to HR, doesn’t define me. I don’t have to change myself, I don’t have to become invisible and silent to people like him and the people who excuse his behavior. He behaved very badly, he committed verbal violence. The system at work tried to find the balance of action so that neither of us would sue or speak out too much. But they misjudged. I did speak out. I reclaimed my voice. I started to speak out about my experience, at first quietly in small groups. Then from a stage. Then directly to my new team. Then loudly for the world to hear. I left Microsoft without signing their confidentiality agreement, without letting them steal my voice once again in return for a few month’s pay.
I reclaimed my roar and ended my internal screaming. I befriended that dragon. I reclaimed my voice and my feminine side. I belong because I decide what that means for me. I choose to step away from patriarchy, the quest for perfection, whiteness, hierarchy, and conformity. I choose thrival, self-care, and relationship-based work.
I see myself as a beautiful, free, contradictory, powerful, wise, and confident dragon with a loud roar. I am ready to take on the world, to speak truth to power. I create my own path. I journey with women, we reclaim our voices, we move on to new, bigger lives after a bully tries to make us small. We nurture new paths, new cultures, new open gates where we can be ourselves, create success, and generate a sense of belonging in our cultures. We ROAR!