Career WISE women in computer science

It’s Not an Asshole Problem—It’s a Bystander Problem

Arriving to My New Home by aksarnerk
Credit: DeviantArt / aksarnerk

A man left an obnoxious comment in a professional document. A more senior man noticed the comment and replied, “<sigh>”, signifying—I think—that he had seen it, and that he didn’t think it was funny. But he didn’t actually address the comment being there, and so it remained there for me to discover several months later.

I heard on the grapevine that the guy who had made the original comment got a talking-to but not the guy who sighed. It was fine, somehow, to be a bystander.

I disagree. I don’t think the tech industry has an asshole problem so much as a bystander problem. It is the main thing I ask of would-be allies. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t just sigh. Do.

I didn’t expect to be a part of this conversation on male allies in the tech industry. For the longest time, all I wanted from men in the tech industry was for them to leave me alone, stop being obnoxious, be nice rather than “nice”, and let me get stuff done.

I read Lean In and looked around at the women I knew, and I noticed how, for most of us, it “just so happened” that a guy was promoted over them. It “just so happened” that he was the tech/team lead, or the manager. It “just so happened” that we hadn’t been promoted before our projects were killed. After I talked to the few women I knew who seemed to be thriving, I thought about the situations where I had thrived, and I observed a common thread of having a sponsor. Having a sponsor meant having good stuff to work on. It also meant that the obnoxious people, seeing someone looking out for you, mostly left you alone.

There’s an emotional cost to being pushed around, overlooked, belittled, and called names. I got tired of paying it. It’s time consuming, those grey-area events that you talk over with your friends (“Is that fair?”, “He means well”). Meeting with HR to go through the process of deconstructing every interaction you ever had with someone is time-consuming, draining, triggering, and risky. On top of that, all your actions will be critiqued, and you’re liable to be fired. They are not on your side.

I used to think that it must be so nice to be a white dude in the tech industry. No one demands your thankless emotional labour for the “greater good” (a.k.a. the pipeline). You aren’t representing your entire sex, fearing that a guy you work with might later say, “Yeah I worked with a woman once, I’d prefer not to again”. You can ask stupid questions. You might get called an idiot or a jackass or an asshole—but not a “dumb bitch” or a “c***”.

My embracing of the need for male allies stems from—most depressingly—a realisation that the obnoxious ones are never going to just leave us alone. I suspect this is because mistreating women (and other minorities) in the tech industry is such a low-risk–high-reward activity. The risk is low because obnoxious white men appear to suffer almost no social consequences. And the reward is high because, as I’ve observed before, it tends to be incompetent men who play these games, and so there are significant benefits if they can undermine and eventually eliminate their competition.

So how should male allies help here? It’s other men who have the power to create social consequences. It starts with refusing to be a bystander by calling things out. Ultimately, if men stopped working with, hiring, and funding those men who behaved badly, the effects would be dramatic.

And I’m tired of pointing this shit out: when I say, “Hey, does it really just so happen that all your leadership is men?” I’m seen as asking for something that would benefit me—even if it wouldn’t. But when a man points that out, he’s seen as offering to give something up, even though he’s unlikely to be called upon to do so.

Which really is another discussion of social consequences.

So I came to this concept of male allies, and I saw the value of it. And then… what? Well, we made a bingo card to playfully illustrate some of the ways men can help.

I’ve also reflected on the price of failure for would-be allies. In an article that Karen Catlin and I wrote, we pointed out some of the shortcomings of Vivek Wadhwa, a would-be ally. And we were criticised for that. The criticism came in two forms: that he meant well and so we shouldn’t have critiqued him, and that he meant well and so we must be wrong. But the way I saw it, if he was really that good, our two paragraphs of mild critique wouldn’t harm him, and our remarks would eventually be shown to have been premature.

I don’t think the social consequences of being a bad male ally are particularly high, but I can understand the fear of those consequences.

I came to a point of empathy with the many would-be allies who don’t really know what being a good ally looks like, fearing that they might get it wrong or be accused of white-knighting. Because the truth was that I didn’t really know what a male ally looked like either. Eventually I realised that—like a lot of intangibles—good ally work is often invisible.

For example, any of these gestures could go unnoticed:

  • If that document’s obnoxious comment had been dealt with at the time.
  • Or if a guy who was researching managers was told, “That guy might be OK, since you’re a white dude, and it depends on whether you’re OK with that”, and he replied, “I’m not OK with that” and went elsewhere.
  • Or if a manager noticed that a guy consistently undermined a woman on his team, and he proactively addressed it.

The effect of these would probably look pretty small. Perhaps it would look like nothing had happened, because in fact almost nothing would have happened. Instead, something would have been prevented. It’s not as if someone had come in with a cape to save the day. And yet without those gestures, our spirits can be slowly crushed, not unlike the way a river slowly erodes its course. Self-confidence isn’t annihilated in one bad interaction—it’s worn down over time.

One thing I’ve noticed in myself and other women is that we often trap ourselves in bad situations because we look at the data and say, “Hey, is it really going to be any better elsewhere?”

But the data tells us what we can expect over the course of a career, not the duration of a year.

If we think of the data’s findings as not what can be expected but what can be can tolerated, it’s not unreasonable to believe that would-be allies refusing to be bystanders could reduce the (micro-)aggressions within the tech industry and drive up the average tenure of women*.

Or we could just sigh. And keep longing to be left alone so we could get stuff done.


* Most things about women I think generalise to other minorities, but I have not found any data of retention of other minorities. Also I recognise that leaving the tech industry can be a measure of financial privilege which in the US especially is stark along racial lines.

Massive thanks to Ari, BrettJanKaren, Marc, MarcoNat, Phil who proofed and sent feedback, especially to Ashley for her fantastic copy-editing (and educating me about grammar!), and the many others who offered!

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36 replies on “It’s Not an Asshole Problem—It’s a Bystander Problem”

[…] It’s not an asshole problem – it’s a bystander problem – More food for thought from Cate Huston, talking about some practical ways for men to help our industry’s awful gender ratio without making a big song and dance of it. […]

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You asked why people don’t speak up against the status quo. My observations were that speaking up invites bullying and harassment on the person who speaks up (man or woman). Most people are just trying to fit in, keep their head down and get on with their work.

There were times I felt very betrayed by my friends for not speaking up and confronting the culture. But, I understand why they could not. The consequences for them would’ve been just as bad as they were for me.

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[…] It’s Not an Asshole Problem—It’s a Bystander Problem | Accidentally in Code “I read Lean In and looked around at the women I knew, and I noticed how, for most of us, it “just so happened” that a guy was promoted over them. It “just so happened” that he was the tech/team lead, or the manager. It “just so happened” that we hadn’t been promoted before our projects were killed.” […]

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Cate, I think you’ve put your finger on something important which is that while successful interventions are nearly always invisible, unsuccessful ones are often quite visible and painful. Which is why most people adopt an “I don’t want to touch it” attitude.

Let’s just say that I’ve known quite a few men in tech who would score quite high on a social anxiety scale. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to look to them to do a beatdown on their more aggressive co-workers.

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It’s an important topic! I’m glad you are writing about it too 🙂

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