Meet Apple's New Inspiring Transgender Programmer

Facebook programmer Brielle Harrison

When she became a senior software engineer at Apple this year, Brielle Harrison reached her most important milestone yet. She is one of a small number of transgender programmers who are continually breaking the glass ceiling in America’s technology industry.

The Advocate spoke with Harrison about her pioneering career at some of the most well-known companies in the field: Facebook, Netflix, Google, and SmugMug. For the first time ever, Harrison publicly shared key details of her diversity work at Facebook and her continuing efforts at Apple, which she called “the best company yet to work for” and a great proving ground for a new generation of affirming practices for trans technologists.

Harrison’s efforts align with that of leaders like Angelica Ross, whose TransTech initiative helps link transgender people to employment within the field. Laine Campbell is another pioneering transgender visionary who founded PalominoDB (now part of Pythian), a company that managed the databases of elite tech companies. Campbell’s position as a tech industry leader was solidified when Forbes included her among a select number of emerging CEOs on its 2013 list of “Female Founders To Watch.”

Harrison’s contributions stand out among her peers. As an in-demand engineer who continues to work on key teams within the industry in Silicon Valley, she is uniquely primed to address internal issues of inclusion. Now, more than ever before, Harrison is helping to rethink how nondiscrimination policies are implemented, creating new strategies for welcoming and retaining trans talent, and developing best practices that affirm the unique experiences of trans users. Here are the ways that Harrison is making a difference.

Changing “brogrammer” culture for trans employees.

Harrison believes that changing the workplace culture of the tech industry requires a fresh examination of the male-dominated tech industry’s much-talked about “brogrammer” sensibility. She fully admits that she too has had to examine her own prior experience of what she called “male privilege” before she transitioned. While, arguably, the field has welcomed white gays and lesbians, it has not always embraced cisgender (non-trans) women, black people, and gender variant people. Harrison reasons that many cisgender men in the industry do not even realize the gravity and extent of their hostility toward cultural differences. 

“In most conversations of tech diversity, many point out the lack of women in the industry as a major problem, and rightfully so,” reports VentureBeat, a technology news source. “Unfortunately, these conversations favor cisgender women as the critical component of true gender diversity, leaving trans and gender-nonconforming people completely out of the equation.”

Harrison’s diversity efforts arose out of her own drive to be her authentic self. After stints at Google and SmugMug, Harrison began planning to change her gender identity while working at Netflix, where she refined her programming and managerial skills. Privately, most of her friends knew she was trans, including her wife of seven years. Harrison told her wife that she was transgender before they married and, Harrison says, her wife loved her all the same. 

“She’s from Japan. She’s a cisgender heterosexual woman, which makes things interesting,” Harrison says, “and she and I love each other very deeply. Love, in our case, is one of the things that transcends classification and organization.” 

While working at Netflix, Harrison’s father died and she felt a release surrounding her gender identity for the first time.

“I had lived a lie most of my life," she says. "My father had recently died, and he was one of the last people that I could not figure out how to tell who I was. His death was a catalyst for me becoming free. It was time. I felt like the only way I was going to pull this off really successfully was to go to a new company from day one as a woman, as me.”

After leaving Netflix and medically transitioning, Harrison applied to Facebook as a woman. She stresses that Netflix was a great company. After finding out that Harrison left to transition, a few of her former Netflix coworkers told her that they wished she had stayed because they would have taken care of her. But, according to Harrison, Netflix is unlike most tech companies where engineers are in their twenties and early thirties. Many Netflix employees are older, and Harrison worried about their discomfort were she to begin using women’s bathrooms after transitioning. 

It was then that she began thinking through the complexities of creating a trans-friendly workplace. She reasoned that diversity efforts must go beyond building on the Justice Department’s forward advances and the new legislation of key jurisdictions like her home state of California, which recently enacted trans-friendly laws. Once policies and personnel are in place, the very culture itself must be examined so that they way management and employees behave changes. These changes require understanding the unique experiences of transgender people.

At Apple, Harrison is a part of a team that is working through the complexity of implementing the company’s robust nondiscrimination policies. Supporting trans employees who seek to medically transition is key to this implementation. Such support requires a new level of attention to medical leaves and remuneration.

“I didn’t get to work at Facebook on dealing with these things with management and employees, but I am starting to work with people [at Apple]," Harrison says. "Let’s talk about some of the considerations at hand. You now have this wonderful trans-inclusive medical benefit package. You want to go have bottom surgery. You will be out for a month. Are you going to get that much time off? Are you going to be paid for that time off? How are these things going to work? If you can’t afford to get paid, then you basically can’t have the surgery. It doesn’t matter what they say they offer if they can’t support you.”

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health stresses that transition-related care for transgender people is medically necessary. This means that such care merits health insurance coverage and employer benefits. Many sources agree. Harrison acknowledges that such care should be treated the same as every other procedure that entails a fully supported medical leave with remuneration. She is pleased that Apple understands these details, and she is working on implementations that truly understand the realities of evolving as a trans individual.

Welcoming and retaining trans employees and users.

Harrison recalls that working at Facebook as a newly out, trans woman was a mixture of beneficial and problematic experiences, and considering those experiences can be instructive in changing how tech workplaces welcome and retain trans talent. Harrison’s challenges bear similiarities to those of Jessica Lachenal, a trans woman who worked at a tech startup as a quality assurance engineer. Last year, Lachenal told The Advocate, “I thought tech would be a progressive place to work as a trans woman. It isn't—but it doesn't have to stay this way.”

Among the problems Lachenal encountered were transphobic slurs, hazing, outing, and a pressure to be silent about everyday trans experiences in a way that cisgender coworkers never do when discussing their lives. Harrison’s recollections of her time at Facebook expand on Lachenal’s testimonial, adding fresh information about patterns of mistreatment within internal engineering teams and among managers.

“Facebook was where I learned to be me,” Harrison recalls. “It was where I first experienced loss of male privilege. It was where I first had my fifteen minutes of fame. There were a lot of great things that happened and bad things that happened. I found at Facebook—and I think this has to do with the fact that there were a lot of younger male employees who had a brogrammer mentality—that there were men who looked down at the females on the team. So the ones who did not have issues with me being trans would treat me like the other women, which I quick found was very discriminatory.”

Harrison highlights the simultaneously cis-sexist and transmisogynistic treatment that she experienced, describing how female team members were treated differently than their male counterparts.

“When they came into a meeting at Facebook, female engineers were expected to have a bunch of data to back up any specific claim or suggestion that they might have. If they do not have this information on hand, their [ideas] basically go un-listened to.”

Without copious data, female engineers would be subjected to subtle hazing, Harrison recalls. Their male colleagues would rib them with jaunts like, “What makes you think that will succeed!” in ways that dismissed their contributions. Yet oftentimes, the ideas of men that were junior in rank to female engineers “would be accepted without any questioning,” Harrison notes. She talked to women on different teams and realized, anecdotally, that there was a trend to these microaggressions.

Harrison explains that there is a lack of attention to how male privilege shapes men’s behavior in the tech industry and how, as a result, the contributions of men get valorized over women and trans employees. These problems came to head in her experiences with the first manager on her team.

“I was mysteriously told by my first manager that I was underperforming. But he couldn’t provide me any information as to how I was underperforming," Harrison says. "So after a couple of weeks of meetings with him being nonresponsive and evasive, I went to HR. They realized that it was a problem, because when they asked him to give me a list of concrete expectations, he failed to do that. They moved me to a new manger. He was great, but his boss was my first manager. My new manager told me bluntly that he was getting pressure from my old manager to be extra harsh on me.”

Harrison reflects that her challenges point to a need for tech companies to openly examine patterns of hostility toward underrepresented employees that stem from no apparent cause other than irrational bias. Harrison stresses that the kinds of microaggressions and devaluing that she and many others face are at once widespread and little-acknowledged. The first step to rectifying the problem, she reasons, is for workplaces to track instances of institutional bias more carefully so that the specifics of the challenges can be better addressed. 

After data about bias is gathered, internal diversity training programs need to be created that guide mangers and employees to engage with colleagues fairly. This must come with an unsparing openness about prevalent problems of male privilege. Harrison insists that without such robust internal training programs, systemic mistreatment that dismisses employee contributions and condones everyday harassment like toxic evaluations will continue to exist, and talented trans employees as well cisgender women and people of color will continue to not be welcomed and retained. 

At Facebook, Harrison was part of a team that helped review the company’s user options for identifying gender, a process that led to the much-heralded introduction last year of 58 gender options from which users could choose.

But, despite teaming up with a vocal faction within the organization, Harrison could not change Facebook’s controversial “real name” policy. A trans woman who goes by the name “Zip” online and who, along with Harrison, helped Facebook customize its gender options, was banned by the organization for not using her “real name.” The “real name” policy was met with protests from gender variant and uniquely named users who charged that it banned them without any warning or conversation about the need for having diverse naming approaches. 

Recently, Facebook announced changes in the way its “real name” policy will be implemented, introducing a test whereby users can register the names they’re known by to friends, family, and fans and creating a system whereby those reporting allegedly fake names must provide detailed information to ensure that they are not harassing users. But the basics of the policy remain. 

“The ‘real name’ policy was a code I and many others could not crack," Harrison says. "There was, in fact, a lot of resistance to changing the policy at Facebook. People were very divided. At meetings it came to the point where I realized that the wrong people were in the room. People who could change the policy were not at key meetings.”

Along with creating a more welcoming workplace that retains trans employees by fiercely examining patterns of mistreatment, Harrison maintains that tech companies need to create products and services that keep the experiences of trans users in mind. Doing this means making sure that the right people in upper management become committed to trans-friendly practices.

Speaking of code, Harrison waxes poetic, eloquently explaining that her life is dedicated to working with its intricacies. Yet, as her career reaches new heights, she has found a synergy in her engineering work and her justice work.

“There is no greater code to crack than figuring out how to be yourself and find your happiness," Harrison shares. "But cracking this code can’t only be your journey. Your place of work must take the journey too. Everyone must crack the code.”

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