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How can a female junior software tester survive in a sexist startup?

Software testers are no more immune to hostile work environments than anyone else. Expert Gerie Owen explains how to survive in a challenging startup.

I'm a woman and a junior software tester at a startup. I put up with the language and the innuendo, but it's starting to get more serious. What can I do?

It's very stressful to go to a job every morning knowing that you're subject to a hostile work environment. You can't do your best junior software tester work if you're always looking over your shoulder waiting for the next snide remark or unwanted advance.

Regrettably, many startup cultures have devolved into a frat house environment, with all of the negative connotations of that phrase. When a mostly homogeneous, young, male employee base works long hours in an informal and often alcohol-fueled environment, appropriate business behavior is the first thing to go. That seems to have been the predominant approach at Uber, led by Founder and Lead Frat Guy Travis Kalanick, who recently stepped down, largely in disgrace.

Thanks to veteran tech women, like Susan Fowler and Ellen Pao, the covers are starting to come off of this type of poisonous culture. But it's not clear how fast change will come, if at all.

I won't kid you. You may have to quit your junior software tester job and perhaps leave behind potentially valuable stock options. But you might have some junior software tester peers that you trust. Chances are they are just as uncomfortable as you. If you approach management together, there may be a louder voice in numbers. You might also attempt to educate your peers about the recklessness of this type of behavior, although they likely also find support from their male peers.

It is possible to file federal complaints regarding harassment. Most women understandably don't want to go through that process and are frequently discouraged from doing so by employment agreements.

The fact of the matter is that you are employed as a junior software tester by a business, and it should require business behavior. If management -- and most importantly, human resources -- don't want to treat is as a business, there is probably little you can ultimately do. It is not college, and you didn't join a frat house. If your management doesn't realize that, the company will likely fail anyway.

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