Marissa Orr Is “Not Like Other Girls”

A new book by an ex-Googler claims 'women just naturally choose to not work in tech'.

The Remarkable Premise 

I came across this AMA yesterday morning on Reddit, and, it was a ‘remarkable’ premise, as Cal Newport calls it — It’s a premise a lot of people with remark on. And we did. Oh we did. In fact, I am remarking to you about it right now. 

The AMA is from Marissa Orr, who worked in marketing at Google for 13 years, quit to join Facebook, where she got fired because her (female) manager had bad beef with her, because she was seen as cosying up to Sheryl Sandberg, and her manager hated that. 

And then she wrote a book, titled Lean Out. Yeah, she’s definitely not cosying up to Ms. Sandberg. 

But, unlike exposes about technical details of an industry, like Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys, this one ‘debunks feminist rhetoric’ or something. It claims to tell us the ‘Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace’.  

Basically, Ms. Orr tells you how the current brand of corporate feminism is antithetical to women’s interests and doesn’t do anything to help women — which is the charitable interpretation. 

But, from experience, you know when someone claims to ‘Tell The Truth’ about something that’s talked about a lot, you know it’s going to be a bunch of poorly-argued talking points. 

Unpacking All That….

Ms. Orr wrote a whole book about her opinions about that topic, and I can’t quite summarize it in fervid detail, for space and sanity concerns, but she has a few representative links on her AMA itself. 

If you read these links, you’ve read the book, as well as saved yourself a lot of the bluster that goes between the points she’s trying to make. 

I’m wondering about the thesis of her book, and really, it seems to boil down to the following few things: 

  • Women managers also suck. 

  • Work sucks and the women who want more women in the workplace are wrong to want that.

  • Men and women are biologically wired to want different things. 

Let’s try breaking it all down. 

My experience as a woman in tech

I’ve been working in tech for ten years. I’ve been a machine learning engineer/researcher at various companies of different sizes. This is in direct contrast with Marissa, who was a marketing professional at Google for all her career, and Facebook for a little over a year. 

 I’m a natural misfit, and having ADHD doesn’t help. I don’t define myself by my work and given a choice, I just want more money and less responsibility, much like Marissa. 

I experienced sexism more in the earlier few years of my career, and as a mentor to other women, I’m no stranger to the variety of issues women face in the tech industry.

However, I’ve also tried to work in the media industry, and have friends who do. The kind of sexism and misogyny they experience is way worse than most experiences in tech, and I’m always clear about my opinion that tech is the least worst career you can have as a woman.  

I’ve never been uncomfortable being the only woman in the room, and I’ve never really looked for representation or role models. All the way until my first job in the US, I always felt like one of the boys, and I shrugged away helping hands older women offered me at my first job, because they came off as too negative, and too showy about being a beacon for women in tech. 

But a few months into the job, I realized I was being constantly underestimated and being put on projects that were far below my potential. In hindsight, I realize I was being set up for failure. I didn’t understand what was happening, and kept blaming it on myself. But then, these same women swooped to my rescue, mentored me, and even better, sponsored me. I got put on better and stronger projects, where I could show my strengths and shine. 

I’ve also experienced significant racism on the job, being an Indian woman. While navigating HR and diversity practices, I’ve come to realize you need a tribe. You cannot, and must not try doing it alone, unless you’re completely fine with suboptimal outcomes. Prior to this, I always considered diversity events to be a complete waste of time, but I came to realize that those events are really for you to find your tribe. 

I’ve always tried to be a force for good for women I work with, and focus on quietly mentoring women under the hood and sponsoring them as much as I can. 

Not Like Other Girls 

Having said all that, it intrigues me when someone is ‘not like other girls’. I was one of those for the longest time, and I realize it is just so easy to not be like other girls, because femininity is very narrowly defined, and breaking any of the many rules makes you ‘not like other girls’. When young women do this, it is them owning the label that the world foists on them. 

There’s a small backlash against this now, with a whole subreddit dedicated to the trope, and I find that incredibly misogynist to call that an example of ‘ingrained misogyny’. I don’t consider it a negative thing for a woman to feel that way. 

But that said, there’s one issue - even if you don’t consider yourself ‘like other girls’, the world does. At some point, every woman realizes that, and finds common cause with other women. 

Marissa Orr hasn’t reached that point. 

It’s possible it’s because she works in marketing - it is a field with no dearth of representation of women. It’s also that she hasn’t worked anywhere outside of Google or Facebook, two companies that take diversity initiatives very seriously and are very focused on hammering that message out, more so because they are the lightning rods for criticism on their male-female ratios, from the media and others. 

Marissa Orr basically lives in a bubble where she isn’t really being discriminated against for being a woman. 

She doesn’t seem to have come back from maternity leave and had her promotion rescinded. She hasn’t had people consider her a secretary when she was a researcher. She probably hasn’t had people dismiss her concerns because she was a woman. And she probably has never had to feel weird in the office wondering if all the men notice each time she goes to the restroom, or eats, or needs to fish out a tampon from her handbag. 

This gives her the luxury to think that somehow all the messaging from the top is somehow misguided, wrong, and unnecessary. No one around me has any trouble being confident, or asking for a raise, or with sexual harassment, so why are these the things that the company focuses on? Is it possible that I’m out of touch? No, it is the children company that is wrong. 

Why Marissa Orr is so, so, so, wrong at best, and insidious at worst 

The first thing I notice about Marissa’s book chapters are, they are very, very, extremely tied to Facebook and Google. Adding to this is her almost pathological obsession with Sheryl Sandberg. Of course, her book is titled Lean Out, to contrast with Ms. Sandberg’s book, and every chapter has more than a few pages dedicated to something Ms. Sandberg said, or did. 

It’s like there’s no female role models in the world other than those at Facebook and Google. There’s no organizations other than those two either, and there certainly isn’t any corporate culture that’s not Facebook or Google. This kind of frog-in-the-well mindset clearly limits any thesis you can make, but that does not stop Marissa from generalizing with abandon! 

Let’s go over them one by one. 

  • All women are forced to apply for promotions even when they don’t want to! Otherwise, they are called unambitious. She comes up with this mainly because she wanted to keep doing her job and getting more money, but didn’t want to manage people. But Google doesn’t let you stay in the same role for more than a few years without a promotion. How tragic that her boss was telling her to apply for a promotion and manage people! Now from my understanding of companies, the junior/IC roles take more than they give to the organization, so it’s natural that after a few years, they expect you to give back. You can’t waste all that organizational knowledge you have; you are expected to use that in meaningful ways. Now this might or might not be a track for you, but no one is viewing you as unambitious if you aren’t trying for a promotion. They see you as deadweight. You’d think someone with 15 years of corporate experience would understand that. But Marissa doesn’t. 

  • Facebook silences dissent by forcing employees to take down social media posts! She criticized an organizational practice of Facebook in a public post (on Medium, no less) under her full name, and they asked her to take it down. How horrifying that a highly scrutinized company wanted to be careful about what messaging it put out into the world, especially given stakeholders were involved! 

  • “Ban Bossy” is silencing free speech! The mental gymnastics to come to this conclusion boggle my tiny girl brain. So Sheryl Sandberg started this thing that says to not call women ‘bossy’ when they are being assertive. Now, I don’t really like Sheryl Sandberg, and I think more people should express doubt and uncertainty. But seeing assertive little girls being called bossy, and me myself having a subordinate yell ‘You’re not the boss of me’ into my face, all for when we assert ourselves to get the smallest tasks done, the idea resonates strongly with a lot of women. Ms. Sandberg isn’t trying to fix the first amendment, or censoring the world from Facebook. She’s trying to raise awareness for how damaging that word can be in all its uses. Ugh, I can’t believe I’m defending Sheryl Sandberg. Look what you made me do, Marissa. 

  • Being girly is a disadvantage in corporate America! Oh no no no no no, Marissa. See, Marissa is a tall, blonde woman. I’m a short brown woman who doesn’t dress fashionably or perform traditional American femininity. In my experience, corporate America loves the Marissa type, and isn’t too hot on the Lila type. If anything, I’ve been told to be more Marissa. Okay, she was talking about communication styles. Apparently meandering, storytelling communication styles are discouraged in corporate America. I recently watched Nate Bargatze’s standup, and one joke that stuck with me was “Imagine being so old that whenever you talk, you tell a story”. NO ONE likes the storyteller. Everyone’s waiting for you to get to the point. In all professions. Across all genders. And all races and religions. The point might look different across cultures, but really, stories muddy the waters and leave things ambiguous. In decision-making positions, that’s not what we want. Heck, even the storytelling event, The Moth, doesn’t like it if you meander too much. 

  • Girly communication styles 2 - electric bugaloo! She stresses a lot on this point, so I feel the need to do so too. She is annoyed that corporate communication classes are all for women, and they tell you to communicate more like men. In that they tell you to sound confident, not fumble, and not add unnecessary apologies or qualifiers. I used to wonder about this too. But then, I noticed that it feels awful when someone apologizes too much, like I’m actively oppressing or inconveniencing them. It’s hard to pay attention to people who fumble a lot. And if you say things like ‘It’s just an idea, but…’ or ‘It’s not a big deal, but…’ and other qualifiers, it just confuses me. Am I or am I not supposed to take note of your point? Do you consider it important or not? Those words, phrases and styles seem to come from a place of not really taking ownership of what you’re saying. What I do when I talk like that is to push decision making onto someone else. What people are looking to me to do is to offer my expertise in a way that leads to decisions, and by adding all those qualifiers, I muddle the message, and I make it harder to make a decision based on my input. Why, and when are those ever good things? 

  • Girly Communications 3 - Jedi Mind Trick: Sorry, but she keeps going on about this stuff. She cites this example of a woman not talking in a meeting, which her manager interpreted as her not being confident in her work, and didn’t assign her onto some project or something. She then questions the questioner and says the manager not talking to her about it immediately is also a sign of him not being confident in his work. Another sign of male communication being privileged over female communication, because the woman was asked to speak up more. Maybe Marissa should move to Japan, where subordinates aren’t expected to speak in front of their bosses, and all communications are top-down. The fact is, American culture allows 2-way communication, which in itself is a rarity in the world. If the culture allows for that choice, and someone chooses to not take it up, it is natural to conclude that the person doesn’t have anything to say. In a workplace meeting, it means either the person isn’t confident to speak up, or they don’t care about the job (in which case, why are they there?). Which one is the more charitable interpretation? 

  • Maybe women just aren’t interested in STEM! This is the one thing I’m incredibly annoyed about. Not because I want more women in STEM (I do), but because of the sheer circular logic of it. The circle goes something like this. Women aren’t interested in STEM —> Sure it’s more money, but money is just one measure of value —> Why don’t we talk about men not being interested in nursing or doing chores, because who’s to say a nurse or a housewife is less valuable than a programmer? —> Maybe irrespective of value, men and women are interested in different things —> Women are not interested in STEM, men are not interested in nursing and chores.
    How does one give talks to women in the workplace for over a decade, and still not come across women who were discouraged from pursuing a tech career? And how does she stay with this line of reasoning and not spend one second thinking about just WHY this is the case in America, but not in former Soviet countries, or Asia? Has she not heard of the women from Hidden Figures? If money isn’t valuable, why is she angling for more pay with less responsibility? And she spent all these years writing a book, hasn’t she come across all the talk about emotional labor in domestic chores that’s been all the rage over the past few years? I mean, if she looked for it, it was there.
    Also, why is it not worrisome that women don’t want to make more money? Is it even reasonable to assume women hate money and willingly choose to remain poorer? Economic theory would tell you that’s wrong, not that Marissa has read any of that. 

  • Who will do all the teaching and nursing jobs if women go into STEM? Also, why don’t we have drives to get men to go into teaching? Actually, a lot of schools really want male teachers now, because they want more healthy role models for young boys. The issue is really that when a job is seen as women’s work, the average pay just drops. I don’t know why that happens, but it does, and it’s terrible. So having gender equality in the demographics of all jobs is pretty important. 

  • Maybe women don’t want to be CEOs! Just like men don’t want to do chores! Yeah, those two are totally the same thing. Day on day drudgery is the same as aspiring for leadership that comes with a fuckton of power and millions, if not billions of dollars in income. Even if nothing, I don’t know why the idea that NO ONE LIKES TO DO CHORES finds no mention. They are boring, repetitive tasks you have to do day in and day out. Definitely not the same as a CEO where you get to play a hero, or at least, the villain. 

I recognize that she brings up genuine issues, like the focus being on presenting yourself more than actually being good at your job. As a programmer, I hate this, and I assume the focus on this is incredibly intense for people in marketing. But it’s not so much a gendered skill as it is a business skill to be able to talk about your work in a way that fills stakeholders and customers with confidence. It’s something I suck at, and I wish we didn’t have to, but as a customer, I find I respond more positively to people who present well. Even then, customers and stakeholders are smart; they are going to figure out when you’re actually incompetent, and you can’t get very far if you’re only communicating and not delivering.

What’s the deal with this woman, really? Who is she signalling these stances to? It looks to be specifically crafted to appeal to people who supported James Damore, but somehow even more insidious. James Damore didn’t intend his long post to go viral on the internet, but this woman is definitely trying for her content to.

Young ladies, please don’t get misled by this snakeoil saleslady

Things are nice in computer science right now. There’s been a huge push to interest and retain more women. It can look overboard sometimes, and all the overflow of support, mentoring, and social events can be a bit much. Plus, everyone seems SO NICE! Even the men. Especially the men. 

And the women in tech events are SO BLEAK in comparison. They talk about ugly shit like sexism, and have brittle women talking about the terrible experiences they had. Or, they are telling you to be loud, and bossy, and pushy. Ugh, who would even want to go there? 

I get it. I’ve been there. It’s also insanely annoying to see women who don’t think twice before cutting you do this performative wokeness and pretend to support all women. We’ve all been there. 

But! All those negatives are minor distractions you can ignore. Those events are where you go to find your crowd, to have face-to-face interactions with others who are like you. Most work gets accomplished through informal backchannels, not through official channels. That’s how office politics works. You make friends through social events, and then use those friendships to accomplish things. Like, I grab dinner with a colleague or three over the weekends. At those dinners, we talk mostly about random pointless stuff - but that is also where we catch things the other is doing wrong careerwise, and help them fix it before it spirals out of control. 

That’s the kind of stuff you should be aiming for at those events. Those connections come from repeated contact, so if it doesn’t work the first time, go again and again. 

And yes, the more women there are in power, the more you’ll experience bad behavior from them. That’s a power thing. There’s always going to be two kinds of people - those who want to remove oppression, and those who want a seat at the oppressors’ table. You don’t always know who is who. So as more women come into the workforce, company rules and codes of conduct will change to reflect that. That’s the aim; it can’t be any worse than it is now. 

Also, no one is pressuring you to be ambitious. If anything, there’s a lot of pressure to be not-ambitious, still. If you want a more balanced life, look outside of FAANG (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix Google) jobs. The industry is diverse enough to allow for every kind of lifestyle choice. 

Men, please don’t get misled by this snakeoil saleslady

A good number of you know sexism is real and exists in every industry, including tech.  Sure, some moves your employers make might seem overboard, but you probably didn’t notice the times when it was tilted in your favor, because that’s the default. 

Women who bring up these talking points probably feel good to listen to at some level, but they are basically trying to assert traditional gender roles. They probably think a man in teaching or nursing, or one who isn’t bringing in a ton of money isn’t man enough, and they probably consider a man displaying emotion or vulnerability as ‘weak’. 

Most of our present-day gender expectations haven’t always been so; it used to be considered manly to cry, for instance, and in medieval times, a lot of innkeepers and pub owners were women. In India, a lot of communities are matriarchal or matrilineal, and having a horse-riding grandma is not uncommon. My own grandma split wood for fun, had a side-gig teaching the brides of celebrities to cook (her main gig was teaching math), has an eidetic memory for thousands of ancient verses, and owned her own personal sickle. She isn’t particularly badass or unique as far as Indian grandmas go. Present-day American gender roles are just that - present-day, and American. Judging those expectations as something biological or natural is a bit of a stretch, because different people behave differently based on their society and their unique circumstances. 

People like Marissa Orr have specific personal or professional goals they achieve by riling up people by touching on their base values, and don’t mind massaging the truth, or outright ignoring evidence, to achieve those aims. 

Please don’t let people like that put you, or anyone else, in a box. And remember, you contain multitudes. 

Why would anyone go on the internet and tell lies? 

I know, it’s maddening that someone would use their position of privilege and their professional credentials to blatantly lie. But doing so in a ‘remarkable’ way is one way of achieving fame and fortune. Of course, it won’t last, and negative attention isn’t as great as people assume it is, but what happens is they rile you up, and sell a few copies of their books, and we can all feel like life is a little eventful. 

In Marissa Orr’s case, let’s put ourselves in her shoes. She had a career at the top tech companies for nearly 15 years before being unceremoniously fired. Once you’ve worked there that long, you can probably not really have to work again, and you’re probably burnt out anyway, and age bias in the industry is real. 

But when you realize she’s a single mom who has three children, she probably needs to provide for them, and for her own retirement. She probably wants to open her own venture to conduct workshops for women to succeed in the workplace. But it’s definitely not going to take off without a ton of initial publicity. 

This book is perfect for that. Riles up people, gets a ton of publicity, while establishing her credentials as being from Google and Facebook, and attributing her firing to ‘politics’ instead of ‘incompetence’. And then she can probably tone down her extreme stances a bit, so people might actually employ her. Or maybe she’s appealing to the men in the industry who want to help their female employees ‘lean in’ while also assuaging their feelings that all this feminism stuff is ‘too much’. 

So yeah, it’s an irresponsible cash grab. She doesn’t really care about the misinformation she’s spreading, which is honestly so terrible that her AMA is full of men calling her out. 

In my most charitable interpretation, I feel like maybe she’s annoyed and frustrated that she had to work as much as she did for a living, as her ex-spouse didn’t provide as much as she expected; It strikes me that she might not have been career focused at first, given how she says her only concern in college was alcohol poisoning, and how throughout her book she mentions partying as an alternative to being interested in science. 

I won’t lie. There’s been many a day when I wished I was a housewife who didn’t have to work for a living. But then, I know better than to assert that women are being forced to be too ambitious, especially since my own mother had her career derailed simply by the event of my birth, and I have to make a choice everyday to continue on my path as a programmer and writer.  

No one likes being in a situation day in and day out that they don’t like and didn’t expect to be in. But that definitely doesn’t give anyone a license to lie and con their way to wealth and fame, by parroting the talking points of the very people who think women have too many choices.

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