Interview: Patti Vacek talks about gender & mental health

As a software engineer at unu motors in Berlin, Germany, Patti Vacek is helping to build all-electric urban mobility solutions. Patti is a contributor to Uptane, the automotive security standard, and previously led the embedded engineering team at Here Technologies (formerly Advanced Telematic Systems) that developed the first commercial open-source implementation of Uptane. Patti also records music as Chromatic Apparition and writes music criticism.

We talked to her about gender and mental health, the challenges of being of woman in tech and about coming out as trans in the workplace. 

We took International Women’s day as a starting point to look at women, trans people,  and non-binary people and their relationship to mental health. In your opinion, can gender have an influence on our mental health?

Yes, I think it’s inevitable. In some fields or in some workplaces, women are simply underrepresented. Trans people may feel vulnerable if they are out – or even if they aren’t. Non-binary people are often not even taken seriously or accommodated in any way. Men are often assumed to be the default. Just look at our language: A lot of people are taught English as if using male pronouns as the default is correct and anything else is a mistake. There are a lot of ways in which women, trans people, and non-binary people are treated differently and these things can be very subtle.

If you’re in an environment where you’re the only woman, for example, and something happens that makes you feel uncomfortable and makes you feel like it’s related to your gender – who do you talk to about it? It’s really easy to feel alone and other people might not be capable of understanding the subtleties of these feelings. So, of course, that affects your mental health.

There are studies that show that, for example, women have a higher rate of burnout. That raises the question: Is this due to biological factors or are societal or workplace structures playing into it? What are your thoughts on that?

I tend to think that we overestimate the biological differences between men, women, and non-binary people. I mean, there are going to be some differences and those can have an impact. Maybe there is something different about women that could make them more liable to burn out. But even if that were the case, it shouldn’t mean that women are somehow worse at their job. It’s just something that should be accommodated. And if the higher burn out rate is down to certain aspects of masculinity being considered the default – well, that’s a problem! However you look at it, it’s still a problem. It doesn’t really matter if the cause is biological or sociological.

I used to get really hung up on these things. I used to think everything is social and biology is totally overrated. I’m not as sure of that now – but I still think that the biology aspect is often overrated. In the end, I don’t know how much it really matters. People are people and they all deserve respect, they all deserve fair treatment. 

You work as a software engineer – do you ever have the feeling that as a woman in tech you face specific challenges?

Yes, I think so, but I think these challenges can be very subtle. It’s really easy to fall back into stereotypes, but I do see patterns in how I’ve been treated and how my female colleagues have been treated. It can be a little bit harder to be taken seriously as a woman, for example. It can be harder to be heard and respected and get credit for things.  

There is this idea that women are more likely to be interrupted – which matches my experience. Women’s voices tend to be higher and men’s voices tend to be lower, and deeper voices are often heard as more authoritative. We seem to be acoustically tuned in such a way that deeper voices are heard more easily when multiple people are talking. That means there’s an acoustic reason for that situation beyond even whatever’s happening socially. I think you can train yourself to work against things like that, but just the fact that we have to fight some stereotype or some tradition or some perceived disadvantage can be frustrating and exhausting.

I noticed when I was applying for jobs last summer, for example, that there were situations where it became clear that either being trans or being a woman was going to be a thing. In some cases, it was obvious that everyone else on the team was a cis man and they had a certain culture they were used to. Adding me to the team would have meant a significant change. Maybe everybody would’ve welcomed that change, but sometimes you get the impression that it would be more of a struggle. Yes, there are plenty of tech jobs around and it’s not impossible to find a job where this is not the case, but it’s still frustrating when you have these sorts of feelings.  

I don’t want to blame everything on pure sexism or transphobia or cis heteronormativity, but asking yourself if certain things happen to you because of your gender is something cis men don’t have to do. It’s just extremely rare that they have a negative experience in the workplace on the basis of their gender. So the mere exercise of processing these things becomes work that you have to do while other people don’t have to do that.

You came out as trans over a year ago. What effect did that have on your mental wellbeing, what changed with you starting to be your authentic self – also at work? 

It’s such a huge topic! There’s three aspects of how I’ve experienced it. 

There’s the part where you’re trying to make sense out of it. Once you have that thought of, “Wait a minute, am I trans?”, it doesn’t just go away. You keep having that thought. It’s exhausting and distracting! For a year or more it consumed me. That takes a lot of energy, and my ability to concentrate on my work suffered as a result. In the office, it was kind of obvious that something was happening. Even before I started asking myself if I was trans, I started to dress differently. Thankfully, nobody was particularly weird about it, but I got some questions and I got some looks – and that’s already a lot to process. Once I decided that I really was trans, I had to ask to use a different name, different pronouns, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a lot you have to navigate.

So, yeah, it’s challenging, it’s stressful. That’s one part, the next part is actually being in transition. People do their transition in different ways, so what I’m describing isn’t necessarily going to be the same for any other trans person. For me, even after I came out, I didn’t start medically transitioning for another seven or eight months as I figured out what was right for me. And again, that’s a process – figuring out what you want to do with your body and your life and your relationships. So being in transition in itself brings additional challenges. If you’re doing it medically, you’ll be going to doctors and your hormones will be changing, which can change how you feel about things, how you react to things, to say nothing about how you look and how people react to you. 

And then there’s the third part, which is just being out with it – it’s just such a relief. As soon as I got comfortable with it, it felt like suddenly all these things made sense. It was like a burden had been lifted from me. I was lighter. I just felt like suddenly I could be myself in a way that I had not really been able to before. And that’s so liberating. It just keeps getting better. With time, the further I go, the better it gets.

I read about the term gender euphoria the other day in opposition to gender dysphoria, and I liked it because it sounds so positive and liberating, as you said.

I think trans people and mental health professionals focus a lot on gender dysphoria, because that’s often the way that you figure out that you’re trans. Having this sensation of euphoria is something we talk about less for some reason. It’s silly because that’s the goal, that should be the point. Relieving dysphoria is great but euphoria – that’s what you really want, right? 

In that whole process that you just described, is there anything that you would have wished from your workplace or from your coworkers that could have helped you along the way?

Honestly, it went pretty well. When I came out at my last job, I think some of my coworkers had seen it coming. I actually had a couple coworkers ask me, “Hey, do I need to check in on your pronouns?” Looking back, I’m really happy that people did that. I kind of wish there had been gender neutral toilets to ease some of that stress for me. But again, nobody really made a big deal about it when I did start changing the restrooms I used. I had a pretty open relationship with my coworkers, so I felt comfortable talking about it with several people. That made a huge difference. 

What do you think makes a workplace a safer space for everyone – a place with space for equality and diversity? 

I think having a workplace where gender isn’t so sharply divided is great, like having gender neutral bathrooms, for example. Similarly, most workplaces don’t really need a dress code and not having one is actually really helpful. But if for some reason it’s required, try to make it as gender neutral as possible. I had workplaces in the past that were rather strict, and that was frustrating for me. Historically, I identifed as nonbinary, but I wasn’t out at work, and I just hated having to fit into male dress codes. That was a struggle for me. 

I also think it’s really useful to have places in the office where you can have private space. I’ve had times before where I just needed some time by myself, and the only place that really was an option was the bathroom – and maybe even that wasn’t an option. Sometimes you just need to cry, or take a call, or you just need to talk to a coworker in private. A lot of offices don’t have that, which just seems so dehumanizing to me.

The more flexible you can schedule your time, the better. Lots of people have family responsibilities or just things that come up. I have a lot of appointments I have to go to. Thankfully, my workplace is very understanding about that. If I have to go take care of something, I’ll be there later and I make up the time. More importantly, I get my work done. I think being flexible like that, not demanding specific hours to the extent possible, makes a huge difference. 

Another very important point is being able to call out bad behavior and having a culture of not tolerating bad behavior, even from managers or from high performers. One person can spoil your entire company culture. If people have the feeling that they aren’t listened to or that their respect was infringed upon, they should be able to communicate this and something should be done to rectify that. It can be very frustrating to work somewhere where one person is constantly being disrespectful, but nobody confronts them, because they’re just too important.

What’s the best advice ever given to you?

I was told many times over the years not to cut my hair. That probably had more significance when I identified as non-binary and most people saw me as a man. The real lesson there is: Don’t compromise yourself more than you have to. Don’t sacrifice yourself just for a job. There were jobs I couldn’t take because I didn’t want to cut my hair. The dress code didn’t allow men to have long hair and legally I was a man. I’m glad that I was stubborn and I let myself be who I am on my own terms. 

Another thing: I had a manager at my last job who told me not to worry so much about what other people thought about me. In my case, I was talking to him about which bathrooms to use at the office. At a certain point I told him that I was more comfortable using the women’s bathroom. And he said, “Well, I think you’re worrying too much about it. I think you should do what you’re comfortable with and realistically, nobody’s going to have a problem with it. It’s not really an issue here.” And he was right. But it can be hard to internalize that. I think there are moments where you think, “Oh, I can’t do that. People are going to judge me or they’re going to take it the wrong way.” And it’s hard to know if that’s true or not. It can really help to talk to your manager or a trusted coworker and get a second opinion.

What advice would you give to women in the working world?

Find allies. Find people you trust, who you can talk to about your feelings or if something happens that feels weird to you. Take the time that you need for yourself. Don’t measure yourself with other people’s standards. Don’t compare yourself to others. I think it’s common early in a career to feel like you have to compromise a bit and maybe take jobs that don’t feel like a perfect fit. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but don’t forget who you are, what your goals are, what your values are, and what you really want. Don’t hide more of yourself than you have to. If you do have to make a compromise, make sure you know where the line is and try to work around it or try to get past it. Try to find a job in a couple of years where you don’t have to make that compromise.

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