Edited notes from my talk at UW Oct 15th which was in part a reflection of what had happened at GHC this year. This is the talk I live tweeted.
I gave a talk on mobile last week at GHC, and I was feeling a little weird about the level of visibility I was experiencing so I started with a joke, “don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about burning down the patriarchy.”
And I came off stage and saw these tweets that were like, “damn”, and I always want to take feedback on board. So here’s that talk. You’re welcome to tweet it.
Sexism in Tech: a Problem?
Who went to GHC this year? Do you know why we have it?
We have it because women still make up 20% of software engineers (2012 survey, web dev higher), the experiences we use constantly are built by predominantly men: 17% at Google, 15% at Facebook, 11% at Twitter. These numbers encompass more than software engineers, incidentally, including at minimum UX and PM and often more. We have it because 56% of us leave at the mid-career level. Because 63% of women in STEM report being sexually harassed. Because right now multiple women are being sued because they named the man who assaulted them. Because just last week two women and their families were driven from their homes because of threats to themselves and their families. Because Anita Sarkeesian regularly gets bomb threats when she is scheduled to speak, and today has been silenced due to poor security measures in response to a threat of shooting. Because Julie Ann Horvarth got harassed out of her job at GitHub. Because one of my friends just abandoned Twitter because she couldn’t take the amount of online harassment she puts up with anymore.
We know that the tech industry monoculture makes for poor products. There is a long and proud history of tech companies shipping products that do not work for large portions of the population. Early voice control software did not work for women. Early facial recognition systems did not recognise black people. The Apple Health app just released without period tracking. And the data shows that more diverse teams innovate more, when measured by things like patent filings.
It turns out you can’t just, as they say, “shrink it and pink it”, you have to actually think about it.
It’s actually pretty clear that women have a problem in this industry. But we can say some good things about it.
- Firstly, the pay gap is lower than other industries, although make no mistake, it still exists, an average of $6,358 a year. Finance is worse, so you can’t escape this by becoming a banker.
- Secondly this year we have seen an openness about the data, and a recognition that the data is really bad. That so many powerful men took time out of their schedules to speak at GHC is a recognition of the importance.
- And the third thing is that there is in general a recognition amongst women that in this environment we should support each other.
I’m going to talk a bit about why people were annoyed at this panel, but first I’m going to explain what Angry Internet Feminists, of which I count myself a proud member, mean when we talk about “Pipelining”.
Pipelining means that people in industry look at these numbers and they blame the graduation rate. We don’t hear quite as much about this one, but universities can look at their numbers and blame schools. Anyway this completely ignores the attrition rate. They say, well our numbers reflect the graduation rate, and therefore they are as good as we can do.
Three major problems with this. Firstly, the graduation rates have been declining for the last 20 years and these companies are not made up entirely of new grads. So this comparison is at best ignorant and at worst intellectually dishonest.
Secondly it’s a complete disavowal of any responsibility. It’s throwing your hands up and blaming other people, and note, these people have less economic resources. I don’t understand how companies can have numbers on par with the graduation rate and claim to be leading in diversity. There are so many places they are not competing with!
Thirdly, the common answer to the pipeline being the problem is to send out the female engineers you have and have them evangelise your company and the tech industry. Which just adds thankless emotional labour on to their actual job of being an engineer. There’s this joke that when you’re a female in the tech industry that you get 2 jobs. Being an engineer, and being a female. But you only get paid for about 88% of the first one.
I have heard many stories of managers saying they don’t like to hire women because their wives don’t like it. I have heard stories ranging from the weird things that will make you second guess yourself, through to stories of sexual assault. Every day women in this industry put up with nonsense that men don’t, and then if they dare to discuss it they risk being harassed, sued, and professionally discredited. In this environment the shocking thing is actually that we hear as much as we do.
So pipelining was the free square in the middle of the bingo card. Because it’s just a joke that that is what it always comes back to. I like to play a game, when important people give talks and mention diversity, I ask them a question that is specifically not about the pipeline and see how long it takes them to get back to it. It’s a comfortable thing for them to talk about, because the pipeline is all external and requires no difficult examination of their own culture.
Why People Worried About That Panel
I’m going to cover a couple of things that made people concerned about the panel.
- The time slot. This was a plenary panel and a keynote. Previous years this is when I’ve seen Sheryl Sandberg, Carol Bartz, Megan Smith, Nora Denzel speak. This year Megan Smith, as CTO of the USA gave a 10-15 minute talk. These timeslots elevate listening to men, and replace listening to women.
- GoDaddy. Everyone has heard of their ads. And they are now claiming to be rehabilitated but I think we’d like to see more evidence there. They have done a lot of harm. I think Blake (their new CEO) is well intentioned, but intentions aren’t magic and do not eliminate their previous actions. Sexist marketing materials are an incredibly low bar to step over.
- The companies in general have pretty poor numbers. Facebook 15%, Google 17%, GoDaddy at 18%, I couldn’t even find Intuit’s. Someone sent me them on Monday and they are actually at 27%, which is great. Bank of America won the ABI Top Company for women award this year, none of these companies had. Intel won the year before although they completely shamed themselves over GamerGate right before the panel. If we read much of the material about women in tech to come out of these companies, it’s heavily about the pipeline – I don’t think there’s much evidence that they are innovating there.
I outlined some of these concerns in a blog post, which got shared widely. A large part of the response was “men needed to be involved in the conversation” which completely missed the point of most complaints that I saw (and had).
I decided to live tweet it, and ehashd came up with the hashtag “#ghcmanwatch”. As I was collecting people for the shenanigans, I ran into Alan Eustace who seemed pretty chill about it. I told him I would be live tweeting.
Then I picked up one of my badass friends and discovered she had bingo cards.
Then… the live tweeting began. And we made #ghcmanwatch trend. ABI had set another hashtag, I’m not even sure what it was, I think maybe #MaleAllies. Whatever. We took over. We made them come to us.
The intro to the panel actually mentioned my blog post, which was pretty incredible. If the guys on stage had read it they might have made our game of bingo harder.
I’m not going to go too much into what was said, because if you’re interested you can read the storify. It was very pipeline. It was very Lean In. They talked a lot about unconscious bias training, but not about evidence that UB training actually works.
The next day, so random, I get this tweet from Alan Eustace. Who at that point has 40 followers. And he’s organising a reverse “you talk and I listen” panel, and Schrep from Facebook chimes in and says he will be there too. So I amplify it, share it with friends, and show up. I have to rush there because I was giving an interview to ThinkProgress right before it. Blake from GoDaddy is there too. By the time it’s over, the room is full.
Alan opened by saying that he’d got some feedback and realised he had made a mistake, that the format hadn’t been right, and that it had kept him awake at night. It seemed like a lot of people (women!) who knew him had been in touch to let him know where he had gone wrong. And so they had come to listen.
So for the next hour, they said next to nothing. As women after woman commented on their experiences in the tech industry. We covered the effects of going to HR, which is not there to protect the individual but the company, the prevalence of bad managers, intent not being magic, the despair felt by the phrase “just work harder”, the words that get used about women, and only women. This was me, trying to recreate the what for me has been a powerful experience I think every year at GHC – where almost every woman in the room admits to being described as aggressive, or abrasive, or some other gendered word that means she tried to stand up for herself and was discouraged from ever doing that again. Hands stayed up when I asked who had been called a bitch. And who had been called the C word by a guy who should have treated them with professional respect. A friend of mine talked about how hard it is for her to keep doing pipeline work, she feels morally conflicted about it.
And then it was over. After, I had a brief chat with the panelists about online harassment. The economic disparity is a big issue. Men, especially prominent ones, do not get how much they are protected by their status. Women benefit from this, too, I started getting harassed more once I removed “google” from my twitter profile, a month or so before I left.
Schrep, the Facebook guy, said it had been one of the most useful sessions of the conference, which was really gratifying. I find it funny that he gave me credit for organising, I did a lot of thankless emotional labour in my time in the tech industry that went unnoticed by men in power, and Alan really did the organising. I did (some of!) the hell raising.
What Should You Do (University Students)?
- Take full advantage of the pipelining. It benefits university students and will discontinue once you are in the workforce.
- Believe and amplify other women. Men on Twitter have more followers, get amplified more. If you look at your own behaviour you will probably find that you are perpetuating this.
- Focus on your own message. I got told – by women! – that I was too angry last week, and also that I wasn’t angry enough. This is in no way a productive discussion. If you think someone’s message could be improved, go ahead and make that your message and try it. Let me know how you get on.
- Check your privilege. We talk about how bad women have it in this industry, and we do. But other minorities, trans people, people of color have it much worse. The best thing I did for my thinking on this was read the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele (Amazon). We have enormous privilege. UW is a very good school. The coop program means you can earn throughout your university degree and graduate with low or no student debt. We live in countries where we can fight for our rights to equal pay, when some women are just fighting for the right to work at all. Other, less noticeable things – how many of you have a parent in STEM? My mom is a doctor, so I grew up with the expectation that I would have a job, that I might earn more than my partner, and that that would be OK. That has tremendous impact.
What Should Men Do?
- I would actually advise men in general not to speak on panels of only men. Don’t speak at conferences with no women on the lineup. My speaker coach who writes The Eloquent Woman blog has a post about evaluating speaking gigs for bias. There is no reason why men can’t use that too. Don’t attend conferences where there are no women on the lineup. Demand that the organizers do better. You can also take the Code of Conduct pledge.
- Don’t be a bystander. We hear all the time, I heard this last week, that it’s a small minority of men who do things that actively hurt women. Maybe so, but it’s a large majority that stand by and let it happen. Men need to speak up when they see things happen in front of them, whether it’s shameless objectification of women, offensive words which get used about women and only about women. They need to start speaking up and saying, “yeah great idea bro but I liked it when Susan said it earlier too.” Especially when it’s offensive. There’s this fear of white-knighting, which I think is completely over-stated, but one way to mitigate that is for men to make it about their own feelings. Like, “hey I don’t like it when you use that word to talk about women”. You don’t have to be female to be offended when a man refers to women using gendered expletives.
- Look for ways to amplify and sponsor women. Anil Dash challenged himself to only retweet women for a year, which I thought was great. This applies to your team projects, I remember when I was at uni, which wasn’t exactly that long ago, we did this group project. One “girl” was doled out to each team. Along with one AI student, and one business student. At the end of the semester, we presented, and everyone had their role on the team. A shocking number of the women had the title “token girl”. You can shape a better environment for the women around you.
- When hiring or promoting, insist that there are women on the committee. This is how you get female speakers at conferences, and how you get women into positions of power.
- Be mindful about thankless emotional labour. Offer to take notes. Offer to organise the team event. Never, ever assume that a woman will do it, never assume she’s happy to do it, and never assume she is being appreciated by her manager or other people. Again and again I hear that is not the case. And, if you call out something like that follow up and make sure it is addressed.
We all suffer in a world where we are constrained to behaving in gender- and race- “appropriate” ways and punished when we do not. Some of us more than others, admittedly. But, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, and Beyonce sampled, “we should all be feminists”. So let’s burn the patriarchy down. Or at least, tweet our dissent until the men in power listen.