We all interpret life through the lens of our previous experiences. It’s difficult to understand what each day is like for someone who has had a life fundamentally different from your own because you simply haven’t had those experiences. I don’t understand what it’s like to transition from male to female while involved in an open source community. I don’t know the steps taken to become an astrophysicist. To embark to a new country as an immigrant. I haven’t lived struggled to survive on the streets as homeless person. Or a person who has been battered by domestic abuse. To understand the experiences of others, all we can do is listen and learn from others, with empathy.
There have been many news stories recently about women or other underrepresented groups in technology. I won’t repeat them because frankly, they’re quite depressing. They go something like this:
1. Incident of harassment/sexism either online/at a company/in a community/at a conference
2. People call out this behaviour online and ask the organization to apologize and take steps to prevent this in the future.
3. People from underrepresented groups who speak up about behaviour are told that their feelings are not valid or they are overreacting. Even worse, they are harassed online with hateful statements telling them they don’t belong in tech or are threatened with sexual assault or other acts of violence.
4. Company/community/conference apologizes and issue written statement. Or not.
5. Goto 1
I watched an extraordinary talk the other day that really provided a vivid perspective about the challenges that women in technology face and what people can do to help. Brianna Wu is head of development at Giant Spacekat, a game development company. She gave the talk “Nine ways to stop hurting and start helping women in tech” at AltConf last week. She is brutally honest with the problems that exist in our companies and communities, and the steps forward to make it better.
She talks about how she is threatened and harassed online. She also discusses how random people threatening you on the internet is not a just theoretical, but really frightening because she knows it could result in actual physical violence. The same thing applies to street harassment.
Here’s the thing about being a woman. I’m a physically strong person. I can run. But I’m keenly aware that men are almost always bigger than me, and by basic tenets of physiology, stronger than me. So if a man tried to physically attack me, chances are I’d lose that fight. So when someone threatens you, online or not, it is profoundly frightening because you fear for your physical safety. And to have that happen over and over again, like many women in our industry experience, apart from being terrifying, is exhausting and has a huge emotional toll.
I was going to summarize the points she brings up in her talk but she speaks so powerfully that all I can do is encourage you to watch the talk.
One of her final points really drives home the need for change in our industry when she says to the audience “This is not a problem that women can solve on their own….If you talk to your male friends out there, you guys have a tremendous amount of power as peers. To talk to them and say, look dude this isn’t okay. You can’t do this, you can’t talk this way. You need to think about this behaviour. You guys need to make a difference in a way that I can’t.” Because when she talks about this behaviour to men, it often goes in one ear and out the next. To be a ally in any sense of the word, you need to speak up.
THIS 1000x THIS.
Thank you Brianna for giving this talk. I hope that when others see it they will gain some insight and feel some empathy on the challenges that women, and other underrepresented groups in the technology industry face. And that you will all speak up too.
Ashe Dryden’s The 101-Level Reader: Books to Help You Better Understand Your Biases and the Lived Experiences of People
Ashe Dryden Our most wicked problem