Story 1

I am the only woman in the office, and that’s okay

Hi, I’m Oana, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a community builder by choice, storyteller by nature, and I genuinely believe in tribes and stories. Both help us get closer to our best version, regardless of how we like to frame it.

A few thoughts to set the tone. I have ten years of experience in community building. I’m well aware that we’re taking significant risks with this endeavor. It’s a tall order, and I know that.

We’re not a community yet. We’re barely gathering an audience, but we’ll get there. I have faith. I did it in the past. With the Pixelgrade team and you, our reader, I can do it again. It takes time, effort, energy, and a lot of back-and-forths to reach that point, but it’s achievable, and I’m confident it is worth giving it a chance.

Beginnings are part of life. The more we get accustomed to them, the more antifragile we become.

I hope this story, a personal one, gives you a clue about what we aim to accomplish within The Upstairs Community. At least regarding the vibe, we want to maintain around here as we aim to publish stories that make us better people. I hope I don’t let you down with the first one.

Get yourself a coffee, tea, smoothie, whatever you prefer, and read these lines when you have some mental space. I mean it. Give it your best shot. I did the same when writing it.

A bit of history for clarity

Back in 2016, I was the second lady joining the Pixelgrade team, after more than five years of being a men-only crew. Ilinca, a fellow designer and illustrator, had broken the ice a few months before me.

In the early days, it did not feel weird at all. I was used to working with dozens of men during my freelancing career. I like to believe I get along with both men and women. Even with kids and dogs (though I am afraid of cats). 🙀

After two years, when Ilinca revealed that she was thinking of relocating to London, things changed. I missed her as a comrade, but also as someone who helped me temper conversations in our office.

I wasn’t a victim, nor am I today, but let’s say that I’ve been working like hell to make room for myself and start contributing to this team with all that I am.

At that moment, there was a lot of skepticism about what I was doing at marketing, and I was giving it my best to overcome that. What is it actually about, why we should pay attention, what’s in it for us. Most of my colleagues thought that doing marketing requires shouting, talking sh*t, bragging a lot, almost annoying people, and pushing stuff in their faces.

This entire area that I was accountable for floated in murky waters, and I was met with a massive heap of negativity and pushback in various styles.

With Ilinca by my side, it was easier to jump in and learn to swim. I love water, but I’m afraid of it, and when it came to marketing, my teammates’ relationship felt the same: a huge oxymoron.

With the help of a therapist and a few consultants (I totally dislike that word), we succeeded in reaching common ground and understanding. The conundrum started to fade away once we embraced the diversity of our opinions.

I did not feel like a solo sailor anymore. On the deck of the ship, people with broader acceptance and more trust started to show-up.

Some things did not turn out how I imagined

Almost two years later, after I’d joined the team, Ilinca listened to her soul and moved to London, where she’s currently based. I was the only woman in the office for a while, until we hired Maria to take a seat at Ilinca’s desk. Later on, we brought Ioana onboard to join forces and boost our writing efforts.

Then the shit hit the fan. We had a few business challenges that shook us from top to toe. The ship started to take water. We needed to let people go. Most folks who haven’t worn the leader or manager hat one day in their lives thought that this was the easiest decision to make. Hell NO! It was one of the toughest, and it left painful scars on my skin.

Sometimes, we just can’t avoid the iceberg. We decided to say goodbye to three of our teammates. Yes, you guessed it: Maria and Ioana were among the ones we parted ways with.

We didn’t do that out of sexism or discrimination. Not at all. Their skills and responsibilities were necessary and brought value to our business. The wake-up call was when we realized that these lovely ladies were far more relevant when things were on solid ground, not when the cash flow was red and threatening. The same applied to Cosmin, a junior developer we hired after a summer internship. These relationships were a bit unbalanced at that point. We needed to invest a lot of time and energy to get something in return.

When you are a small team and your business is in danger, the importance of mentorship dilutes. You need to get that water out of the hull, not run philosophy lessons.

The summer of 2019 and the beginning of fall were among the most painful periods I’ve experienced at the office so far.

We succeeded in keeping the ship afloat with big costs, and we hoped that the storm was settling down. We genuinely needed some warm rays of sun on our faces to soothe our souls.

My experience looks and feels differently

Once again, I was the only woman at Pixelgrade. The same is true today when I’m writing these lines.

A lot of people asked me what it’s like to be the solo feminine symbol at Pixelgrade:
Do you feel your voice is heard and respected? 
— Do you think it will be hard for you to bring other women into the team? 
— How do you react when someone crosses the line?
— Do you feel the pressure to behave in a certain way? 
— Are they compassionate and caring?

After taking therapy and coaching sessions, I think I have the skills and practice to grasp when a question is genuine or comes out of bias just to reinforce some well-rooted convictions. Most of them came packed into all kinds of profound beliefs. They did not show any curiosity or desire to discover my perspective.

I repeatedly felt that they are not ready to hear that I’m okay with how things are at the office.

On the other hand, some people were honest and authentic. Their kindhearted and open-minded approach led to long and vulnerable conversations. They genuinely were keen to hear my story, not to glue bits and pieces of their narratives.

I started to have mixed feelings and question myself. Maybe I’ve become blind, plastering my life with illusions and serenity due to those who accepted my whole story.

The truth is there are days and days, but most of them are beautiful. Those who are not don’t necessarily have anything to do with the fact that I work next to seven guys.

Let me put it more straightforwardly: my professional universe is a privilege I’ve been working hard as f*ck to arrive at today. If this makes me numb and incapable of seeing flaws anymore, well, so be it. But what I feel in my body doesn’t resonate with this picture.

We get along thanks to shared values, not because of our gender

I’ve been creating digital experiences and products next to seven guys who are kind, hardworking, respectful, funny, smart, sometimes vulnerable, genuine, and often ambitious. I care about each of them in various ways, and after four years and a half, I am grateful I have the chance to spend so many hours with George, Vlad, Răzvan, Andrei, Mădălin, Alin, and Alex.

Of course, it’s not all pink and fluffy. We have our fair share of heated debates. This is where progress and growth lie.

There are also moments when I feel I don’t receive empathy in return. Or moments when I cannot make myself heard because someone’s voice is louder. Or moments that highlight how many nuances they miss. Or moments when it’s hard to kick-off an intimate conversation. Or moments when I feel the pressure of asking for permission. Or moments when I am embarrassed to reinforce some internal rules we already agreed on.

But aren’t all of these moments more about me than them? I believe they are a good barometer of how much work I still have to do regarding self-knowledge. It’s the only place where I have control, not in wishing to change others. They are not broken, so why should I try to fix them?

If I shift the narrative and the lens through which I’m looking at the reality, they somehow help me become a better version of myself. Thanks to them I keep questioning beliefs and views, which is fantastic. They shape my becoming.

The truth is that I’m enjoying being the only woman among a bunch of guys at Pixelgrade. This does not mean that things will always stay the same or that I will discriminate when we search for new teammates. May the best (i.e. the most aligned with our core values) win, regardless of their sex, race, sexual preferences, ethnicity, religion, or skin color.

I can’t wait to welcome someone who challenges us and make us look differently at things we take for granted today.

I know some women are dealing with sexism and discrimination at their jobs, and I think it’s deeply wrong for multiple reasons. I also hear about men who face the same challenges, and I think it’s mandatory to make room for them to express their worries too.

This is not my reality though. On my side of the world, being the sole female within a team looks stimulating, and quite fun. In the end, as Rutger Bergman concluded the Humankind book, “most people are, deep down, pretty decent.”

Stay kind and safe. The world needs more of that.

Thanks for being here!
Oana Filip

Contributors of this story: Oana Filip wrote this gem, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development, Katerina Nedelcu took the photo.

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