Background: Last week was GHC, it included a Male Allies panel (live streamed) and a male keynote event (available to watch online). I tweeted a lot (with others) and wrote a couple of things. The Male Allies panel was followed by a reverse “you talk we listen” event. There was also a Male Allies Focus group which I did not attend.
I often, in conversation with friends, coworkers, strangers, utter the words “I have to tweet that.” Sometimes people know what that means and sometimes they don’t, but they usually agree anyway, and are sometimes surprised by the response.
Sometimes I don’ t ask. Earlier this year I live tweeted a date with a misogynist. I didn’t ask him for permission, or for forgiveness. I tweeted an unfortunate comment a guy made advertising a conference (“beautiful women” as an incentive on par with “international airport”, who knew?!). And last week I tweeted things that men said at a conference for technical women using the hashtag #ghcmanwatch, some of which were good, and some of which were… not.
I have this rule, that I don’t criticise women or (by extension) women’s organisations. I make exceptions for this, I might vent to a close friend, and if I think something is actively harmful. But it makes me think twice. I thought the Male Allies panel had the potential to be actively harmful, which is why a week before the Male Allies panel I was tweeting and wrote my thoughts up long form in a (widely read, so much so that the panel introduction mentioned it) blog post.
But, I err on the side of saying nothing. I know, that the things where I feel the very mildest levels of disagreement, where I look at a situation that I have incomplete knowledge of and like to think I would have made a different choice – and note, this is all theory, we don’t know how we would actually react to that situation, are the kind of things that end in death and rape threats.
No one deserves to be threatened with rape. No one deserves to be threatened with death.
Not in Afganistan. Not in places where we send soldiers and declare war. Not in America. Not in the UK.
This should not be the price that women pay for having an opinion. And whilst it is, I just refuse to participate.
As an aside, and not to diminish being on the receiving end, but looking at the behaviour of harassers… Harassment seems to be a time consuming hobby. I wonder if there needs to be some kind of rehabilitation program that will find these people better things to do. Like… Knitting. Or golf. Things that don’t require an internet connection. I’d say for their own good but I don’t really care about their well being… just think of the social benefit.
When all this was happening, my mentions on Twitter were completely blowing up, and there was so much engagement. Which is gratifying, but also in this context a little scary. And repeatedly, I noticed, and was pleased, that I didn’t get harassed. I also gave a talk at GHC – about mobile, not burning the patriarchy – and right before I had more notifications and I choose not to read them before getting on stage, on the basis that if there was something that would really throw me. That day I also didn’t moderate blog comments, remembering a particularly vicious one recently, just in case.
I want to make two suggestions around dialog. The first is a strong suggestion, I wish we could make it a rule:
Don’t threaten people.
The second is to focus on our own voice in the dialog, and our own message.
Good Feminist / Bad Feminist
I got critique, and critique is different from threats and harassment, from both sides last week.
Some people thought I wasn’t angry enough. I don’t know, I think we have a right to be angry. Personally, though, I have heard so much shit from men in this industry that there is little they can say that elicits more than mild surprise and disappointment. I choose to laugh, as much and as often as I can, because it’s a survival mechanism and because I believe in the power of humour to raise awareness.
Some people thought I was being too angry and mean. These are the people who will say some version of, “You’ll catch more flies with honey.” I don’t honestly know what catching flies has to do with dialog but if someone wants to try that all I can say is good luck, let me know how you get on (sincerely).
And some people would say, or insinuate, that I was being a good hell raiser, compare me favourably to those other, more “angry” feminists.
Don’t do that. I might say “fuck” less than Shanley (who seems to continually lambasted as the “bad feminist; I abhor this), but I still want to burn this shit down. I support her right to be angry. I think we benefit from her delivery. I know we benefit from her insight. Whether I agree, disagree or just choose a different way to express it, I always think that she has a point.
Most people just amplified and thanked me. And I really appreciated their support.
The hashtag wasn’t #ghcmanhate. It was #ghcmanwatch. Watch. We have concerns, but we see you. We are watching what is happening, and we are witnessing, and commenting on it.
The Satya Nadella comments were so ignorant and unfortunate, I was horrified by them, but the rest of the session he had made some good points, declined to blame the pipeline and had taken a significant amount of time out of his schedule to come and experience GHC. He told a story of failing one of his Microsoft interviews, aged 23, because his interviewer deemed him “lacking empathy” in response to the question “a baby falls in the street, what do you do?” I was surprised by his honesty there, and I liked it. And yes, terrible remark about compensation, however Maria Klawe’s calling him out and telling all the women in the audience how and why to get paid what they are worth, and her honesty about her own experiences was amazing. I’m glad her comments happened.
What a man says in that context is less damaging that what bad managers are saying in 1:1s everywhere, all the time.
(What he does is another story, I especially feel for every woman at Microsoft who has reported up into him and not felt they were paid equitably. I hope they are working to address this.)
I was deeply unimpressed by many of the things said by men at GHC. But I have more respect for the man who shows up and says something stupid than the man who never said anything stupid because he wasn’t there.
Talking to women who are, or were at Google, we shook our head over some of Alan’s comments but we also give him a break because he has been doing this for a long time, because he has done a lot of good internally that we can point to, and because we know because he tells these stories about stupid things that he has said and being called out on it and learning.
I hope he never gets on stage and tells women just to work hard again. But I hope he does keep on this dialog, and next time makes a different mistake.
A different mistake because none of us are perfect advocates, and perfect allies. Some (predominantly white) men said some deeply flawed things to women. But white women at GHC have used that same platform and been deeply flawed with respect to women of colour (one of my favourite sessions in recent years included Brenda Laural deconstructing the promotion materials for that year and how the women of colour were represented), and also to trans women.
Because my fear is not that men opt out of this conversation, but that they get so PR’d in response to these gaffes that we don’t hear what they really think anymore. Agree, or disagree (and there was much to disagree with!) it’s illuminating [I liked Jocelyn Goldfien’s post on this topic].
The Red Carpet
One thing that comes up a lot when I talk with women about the tech industry is that the grief we get almost invariably comes from men who are… not actually competent. I do not fear brilliant men in the tech industry. They have better things to do than screw me over. I fear incompetent men.
If we say that there are two major factors: being good, and being lucky. The men we heard from at GHC are both good, and lucky. There’s a smooth red carpet laid out and they are storming along it. But what if you’re only good? Edging along the gap between the red carpet, and the abyss. What if you are only lucky? Those people have time (and incentive!) to try and stop people edging past on the outside.
So when a man says that he doesn’t think people (MEN!) mean to be unwelcoming and don’t actively try to remove women, what he means is that it would never occur to him to do this. He has never needed to. The good and the lucky are often moving too fast to see that that is what is going on.
And when a man says that it’s mostly “unconscious bias” and not “major issues” they don’t know how much doesn’t get reported, and, I think, negate the long term effects of “major issues” which can send a very strong message to a marginalised employee that they are not safe, they were never safe, they will never feel safe again.
And what exactly is major here? Because these things have compound effects. Two equally talented and hardworking female new grads join the industry. One of them has a good manager, who mentors, develops, encourages and challenges her. One has a bad manager who gaslights, ignores, and undermines her. While each thing they do might be “unintentional” and due to “unconscious bias” make no mistake there will not be a minor difference between the experiences of these two women, nor between their career trajectories.
I was expressing my surprise at the amount of attention I’d got to my amazing friend Leigh, because it at times felt a bit surreal. I felt like I barely commented, I just shared, mostly verbatim, what was being said. She told me, “I think there is power in bearing witness”.
And I thought about this comment in a broader context. Of what the guy from Facebook (Schrep) talked about, watching what his wife had experienced on her way to being a CTO and noting that he hadn’t had to put up with a lot of that stuff on his way to being CTO. One of the most powerful things men can do is bear witness to what happens to the women around them. One of my male friends, he could storm the Red Carpet but prefers to mosey along. And he observed, and commented to me on the difference between the way a guy was treating me (let’s summarise: badly) and how he treating him (weirdly, saying “it’s like he wants us to go on a date”, because he was so intent on leaving me out).
I just left my corporate tech job which is pretty cool because I’m building something exciting and now I can say what I really think for the first time in years (my friend Olivia’s observation on #ghcmanwatch, “you have really broken free of your corporate shackles”). Although I confess to worrying that #ghcmanwatch had become a career limiting move and that should I want another corporate job I’d probably need to retrain as an accountant or something.
Anyway, I’d got very tired of the industry, and we have a certain capacity and energy for empathy, and I felt that mine was being used up. Nerdy boys had become interchangeable to me, I could discern very little difference between them other than perceived threat level. And this was a very weird place to be in, emotionally. I do have nerdy boy friends who I am very fond of, and I did build some strong relationships with nerdy boys during this period but it was much, much harder than it used to be.
No matter how rich and powerful you are, it can be hard to get up on stage in front of an audience of thousands. It can be hard to hear how badly you screwed up and how much you upset people you are well intentioned to help. I have empathy for that. Someone asked me to tell Alan in the #ghcmanwatch take 2 panel that his “just be great” comment had “incited women to despair” and it was frankly horrible to say that to a man that I like and respect. And I saw that it wasn’t nice to hear it, but he thanked me for passing it on. I have empathy for both of us, there.
There are many men who will never say anything stupid about women in tech. Because they will never say anything about women in tech.
But I also empathise with women who have not been paid what they are worth. With women who have been given truly appalling career advice. With women who have faced repercussions for speaking up on issues ranging from the weird to the horrifying. For the women who have tried so incredibly hard to “be great” only to be continually stymied by the System.
We do need to burn this shit down. There are plenty of men who are not listening to the critique, who refuse to acknowledge the suffering of women and other marginalised people. They haven’t noticed, or they are even actively pursuing a different outcome. The men who are actually tuning in, maybe they don’t deserve the very strongest levels of criticism and it will be hard for them to hear. But I believe in their capacity for empathy. I think they can hear the hard truth, and say thank you, and apologise, and make different, better mistakes, next time.
Social Media and Power
I think one of the funny things about the #ghcmanwatch series of events was that it was very much a grass roots storm on Twitter, and it took by surprise people who really don’t use Twitter much or at all. Apparently someone asked “Where do we find this Cate?” and got a response of: “Twitter” (I don’t know if the person looking for me found that helpful).
And I think it must have been interesting, when Alan pulled together the second session, was as a powerful white man, he needed to attract the attention of women in order to get that dialog going. He had to come to where we were, and find us on Twitter. I’m glad he did, and that the second session was packed despite the last-minute nature if it, and people were mostly there from word of mouth.
It’s a change of pace and a shift in power. Sure, stand on stage, tell us what you think. But we will comment, we will engage, and we will have our own conversation. We raised concerns about the panel, and frankly many of us felt ignored. But once #ghcmanwatch was trending, it was clear that something was going on that they needed to engage with.
Personally, my experience at GHC this year was very weird. My interactions were much more online than in person, far, far more so than other years. I felt like when I was walking around I was mostly invisible whereas almost everything I said online was noticed.
This year I made as many sessions as I could, and saw a total of 9 men on stage, 2 of them men of colour. I saw far more women speak, but less than 30 (including introductions). Which is a lot, but that ratio of 3:1 women : men is much lower than in previous years where it was more like 10:1. I congratulate ABI on getting 483 male attendees, but was the only way to do that to get so many of them on stage?
I am speaking at a lot of conferences this year. I’ve heard some fantastic talks, learned a lot, met many wonderful people. Given that this is in the tech industry, many of these people were male. Men dominate the conversation in tech, just by numbers, even when they aren’t interrupting or refusing to hand over the microphone. So GHC had been this respite, where I would get to hear what women had to say. But it wasn’t this year, or not in person anyway, even if it was online.
Shanley’s book, “Your Startup is Broken” is a fantastic read in it’s entirety and includes particularly relevant essays including “What Men Can Do” and “Fuck You Got Mine”. Buy it and read it.
Julie’s Ally Series is fantastic and useful, including helpful pointers on “Ally Smells”.