Schooled in Feminism: An Ally’s Perspective
P r e s e n t a t e
Schooled in Feminism:
An Ally’s Perspective
This talk was given at the Dare Conference in London, September 2013. [photo: CC by Juliana Coutinho ]
A micro-aggression is telling young boys that they are very
smart, and telling young girls that they are very pretty.
We grow up in life picking up on the behaviors and actions of others. The more impressionable we are, the less critically we think about what kind of message certain actions may send. And we have little reason to examine or question these actions when they are tiny and seemingly innocent — which, if they were an isolated and rare occurrence, they would be.
I am a person
who works in
The other day I was getting a haircut, and after I mentioned that I worked in technology, my stylist started talking about how he read Steve Jobs’s biography, and we wound up in a long discussion about all sorts of tech topics. I asked him what interested him so much about tech, and he told me how he saw the technology field as the great big revolution of our age, much like how the railroads and industrial revolution changed the world before us.
I couldn’t have agreed more. Technology has always been about driving the human race forward. We work in this field to serve others, to improve the lives of people all over the world.
And that is also why I care so much about social issues in the field of technology. Because those issues are not separate from the work that we do; they affect us, and so, they affect our work.
Our industry. Our people. Our respect.
Now I’m basically white, straight, male, no disabilities… Meaning, I am a very privileged person, more so than most. Sexism, for example, doesn’t generally affect me
personally. When I’m wrong, nobody blames my entire gender. If I say something controversial, I don’t get viciously harassed by people trying to silence me. I don’t suffer street harassment, like catcalling or people telling me to smile.
But this is not true for many of the people I love and care about. They
are affected, and sometimes quite severely. They find themselves in a culture that can be unwelcoming or even hostile to anyone who is different in some way, a culture wherein people don’t even realize that they’re affording others less respect for no valid reason.
We may be a technology industry, but we’re still comprised of
people, and people deserve our respect, first and foremost.
improve everything with technology
I will continue to say this until we have an empathy-creating gun like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But until we do, we can only teach empathy to people by a slow process of appealing to their humanity. By having conversations about these issues when the need arises, like when the CTO of a prominent business site tweets openly misogynist “jokes,” or when a major tech conference lets two incredibly sexist apps get showcased to an audience.
We can only get people to understand these problems in ways that inevitably confront them with their own (generally subconcious and unintentional) complicity in keeping these problems alive. And that makes it extra challenging.
Why is that?
And what exactly
is the problem?
The problems are many, but they all boil down to this: our society is made up of countless different systems we’ve built over time, and these systems include elements of discrimination against various demographics. One prominent example is our male-oriented culture, where 70% of children’s books’ protagonists are male and 82% of mainstream movies’, because male protagonists are regarded as “neutral”. It’s part of a system that permeates our society with constant approval for men and their actions, and obstruction and disapproval for women and theirs. We’ve come a long way in the past century, to be sure, but we’ve gone from a society wherein women had no choices, to one wherein they’re
blamed for the choices they make.
These systems are everywhere, in small and subtle ways, but they are not an inanimate program. These systems are made by all of us, whether we like it or not. We inherit our role in this at birth, and we can go through our own unique lives largely unaware of our part in keeping these systems in place. We don’t
intend to do so, but intention is not a magic bullet. We’re trained not to question these systems or our part in them, by society as a whole.
Regardless of your status in this world, you have reason to care about these issues, and seeing them fixed. Especially those of us who work in the field of technology.
Because we want to innovate. Because we want to be creative. Because we want to make great products, that serve and improve people’s lives all over the world. Because we want to hold ourselves to the promise of making the world better.
That’s why we should be doing the work that we do. And I’m not saying this should all be some noble, altruistic effort: we should also be paid for it. But if the money is a greater priority than doing something of meaningful, lasting value, it does not align with the true spirit of technology and innovation.
But what does that have to do with sexism, or racism, or…?
For many decades now, scientists have conducted research into the quality of work and output by diverse teams compared to homogeneous teams, and the research shows, time and time again, that diversity of thought, of backgrounds, of people, produces more creative ideas, more innovative work, more successful products.
Homogeneity in teams stifles innovation and reduces quality. Imagine the compound effect it has on our industry. These various issues wear people out; they disillusion them and make them quit their jobs, or worse, leave the industry altogether— and that makes us weaker, less innovative, less creative.
Every country. Everywhere.
Let’s make one thing very clear: our global society at large has ongoing problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and so forth. Gender inequality is a particularly prominent one, because women comprise 51% of the population, yet are vastly underrepresented in positions of power virtually anywhere. Politics, business, you name it.
Some fields are more inclusive and welcoming to all than society in general. Other fields are worse. On a good day, technology has the potential to be better than average. On a bad day, it’s a lot worse.
But since we work in it, it is up to us to define what kind of culture we represent.
We have the power to change this.
Engineers like to solve problems through engineering. Designers like to solve problems through better design. This, however, is a human problem. A societal and systemic problem, yes, but one maintained by the (often unconscious) actions of
people. So we must also solve it through people.
The first step is to get people to become aware of the problem. With efforts like
the Everyday Sexism project, which showcases how prevalent sexism is. Or Hollaback, a project to end street harassment. But these are just a start.
As you may know, I have long been involved in calling out these problems happening in our field, and beyond. Perhaps a bit
too involved, at times. But when Adria Richards drew attention to two guys making sexual jokes at a public event, earlier this year, and was subsequently threatened and harassed off the internet by thousands of people, it made me think about my role as a founder of a company.
Being a founder or a CEO means being responsible for handling difficult scenarios like the Adria Richards case, and it’s not just about your own company. Both Adria and the guy who made the joke were fired, their employers subsequently lost a huge amount of credibility and customers, and technology’s reputation overall took quite a hit in the newspapers. And mostly because of the way each company’s founders went about it, handling it all very poorly.
A similar thing happened with Geeklist: the founders were confronted over a sexually exploitative video showcasing their brand, and instead of listening they went on a patronizing and sexist attack against the woman who reported it.
A company called Sqoot wanted to run a hackathon, and listed “women getting you beer” as one of the perks. Subsequently, sponsors pulled out and the event was cancelled.
And an even sillier example of this was BritRuby: the organizers cancelled their event after some very,
very minor criticism, then blamed everyone but themselves for failing to think about what kind of message they were sending to the industry by having a speaker lineup consisting entirely of one very specific demographic whilst calling themselves “the most diverse event in Europe.”
The first thing these and other examples have in common, is that the people on the receiving end are often not responsive to this type of criticism, especially online. First they get defensive, then they get aggressive and lash out. And we see this over and over again
no matter how friendly and supportive and civilized the criticism is.
The second thing they have in common is that we all lose. There are no winners here. We all lose from educational events and hackathons being cancelled, and we all lose from mainstream press writing up yet another major sexism incident in technology. These are not the ways to attract new talent to our field. And we need that talent.
One commonly heard suggestion is for us all to just “stop talking” about these issues, despite history showing us that social problems don’t go away if we ignore them.
And even just staying silent enforces the status quo. Silence is the path of least resistance, and it is exactly that approach that allows these systems to flourish: by discouraging people from challenging the system.
Systems of privilege do not exist to account for the world in some kind of rational or accurate way; they exist to defend privilege.
Allan G. Johnson
It is almost always people with white and/or male privilege who say this. If in all your life you’ve never had to fight for your right to be heard or respected for the work that you've done or the person you are, then naturally you have no reason to believe there is anything wrong with the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to be told that you may have been responsible for hurting people despite your best intentions. We need to learn to be uncomfortable about this.
I started speaking out to make it clearer that there are also many men who don’t find sexism funny or acceptable. I armed myself by doing research and learning more about the issues, reading studies and eye-opening articles. Mind you, nothing I do is groundbreaking; I’m simply extending the work that countless women have been doing before me. For so much of this the real credit goes to the women who have started these movements, conducted that research, written these articles, and showed so much inspiring leadership across many decades.
Because this is what men can do when they have the spotlight on these issues: we can magnify and pay tribute to the voices of the many women who are doing great work in these areas. We can ensure our companies implement hiring practices that encourage diverse candidates to apply. We can make a stand against toxic behaviors in our culture, which sends the message that such behavior is unwelcome.
And even so, men speaking out is of great value itself: to reach more people, to show better leadership, and to help improve our culture that we all live and work in.
I didn’t start speaking out to achieve anything for myself, as there is nothing to achieve. Nothing but a better world for us all to live in, and I feel that that is worth fighting for. There is no “endpoint” to being a feminist or feminist ally. There is no award you receive, no Achievement Unlocked bonus. Being a feminist and ally is not a badge of honor; it is an ongoing, everyday process of doing the best you can, respecting people as best you can, and above all, listening attentively to people when they complain, and making sure
their voices are heard, not just your own.
It is an ongoing struggle with the sexist, conformist views that society keeps trying to instill in all of us, whether we like it or not. Being a good ally means knowing when to shut up and listen to the perspectives of other people. And it's about recognizing when it is not okay to walk that path of least resistance.
So I wanted to contribute to making both our industry and our society more inclusive, and that meant critically examining my own behavior and actions, sometimes with the help of others.
It meant swallowing a giant humble pie and reflecting on what behaviors of mine were not inclusive, and what I could do to fix them. Speaking out was one thing, but being inclusive meant changing my whole approach to tackling these issues.
For instance, it was no longer acceptable for me to use my white male privileges in debates, which involves being the loudest or most aggressive voice in an argument. It never occurred to me that those approaches were privileges. Worse, they were privileges I wielded unintentionally, and while they often ended debates, they did not necessarily resolve them.
Intent is different
from action and result
An undercurrent to what I’ve been talking about is the unintentional nature in which people commit these acts of sexism or racism, whether tiny and subtle, or obvious and prominent.
For by far most cases that happen, people don't
intend to be offensive. They don't intend to cause harm. But these incidents still happen anyway. Why? Because the system teaches us not to think about these issues.
The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
— Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Australian Army Chief
We have less excuse when we become more aware of these issues.
While it’s hard to distinguish, being called out for a sexist joke for example, doesn’t mean you’re being accused of being a sexist person at all times. We
all commit acts of sexism or racism in small ways here and there. This is unavoidable. Most of them are subtle and deeply ingrained in how society operates, and we are thus trained to see these as normal and inoffensive.
But intent is not important. We should own up to our mistakes and our actions, because those are the things that can hurt people, and good intentions don’t change that kind of outcome.
It’s easier to respond with anger than with vulnerability
We all consider ourselves to be good people, and most of the time we also are. However, sometimes our actions hurt people unintentionally, and if we think of ourselves in binary terms of either good
or bad, in either racist or not racist, sexist or not sexist, then the claim that one of our actions has been offensive puts us, in our own mind, in the “bad person” column. This causes a cognitive dissonance, which we can overcome by realizing that we all exhibit tiny bits of racism and sexism here and there. Not intentionally, but because we are trained to be.
We almost universally accept that the code that we write will contain bugs, but this is never intentional, nor is it a personal reflection. Similarly, we as people will make mistakes, and like fixing bugs, we should recognize the damage they may have caused, perhaps apologize for them, and learn to do better.
And let’s stop referring to these bugs as “features” of our culture.
People have told me they wanted to come work at my startup, before I’d even announced what kind of products we were making. At first I figured it was just because I made Modernizr, but then it happened with people who’d never heard of it, who weren’t front-end devs or web designers. Those people wanted to work for me because of these views on creating diverse and inclusive cultures; cultures that allow everyone to contribute to the best of their abilities and talents, and not have to fight to be respected as a person.
These are the kinds of people who will be some of your best and most valuable hires or teammates. Because they will invest not just in the work that they do, but in your organization itself. These people aren’t in it for just the money, they believe in your vision for a better company or team, and they’ll do their part to help you achieve it.
The work of today’s feminism isn’t just to create more opportunities for women, or getting equal rights and treatment for women, gay and trans people, people of color or different abilities and status. Nor is it just to get all people universally treated with the same basic respect we afford to men all too easily. It goes much further and deeper than that, examining the very ways we shape our society and our way of thinking. It’s about solving
all social issues, for men, women, and others alike.
And it is important work, because getting people to see others as equal human beings, first and foremost, has positive consequences for our future. Our society, whether we like it or not, is raising the next generation. And we all benefit if tomorrow’s leaders in technology, business, and politics, see us all as people, not statistics. If they are more inclusive, and empathetic to people’s needs.
We can spend a little more time than we used to, educating ourselves about how
systems of privilege work. We can call people out for everything from microaggressions to major transgressions. We can examine our role in society and how it affects others. We can learn how to be better allies to the disenfranchised. We can arm people with better facts and knowledge, so that they can raise awareness effectively.
This is a complex system that doesn’t benefit anyone except through unfairness. We are not the system, but we have the power, and in my mind the responsibility, to change
how the system works.
We can make that difference.
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Sep 21, 2013,
Last updated: Oct 10, 2014
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