Shut up and listen: women, sexism, and tech

Today, NationBuilder (former host of my website, former employer of my husband) lost its email function for a few hours. Why? Because someone at its email service provider, SendGrid, had dared call out sexism at a tech conference. The guy making sexual jokes was fired by his employer. Then hackers attacked SendGrid in retribution, and the service went down.

I am not in tech, but I do have a thing or two to say to the folks who are. It goes a little something like this: SHUT UP AND LISTEN.

Background: this article explains the hacking and this is the story from the point of view Adria Richards, whose Tweet about her discomfort at sexual jokes sparked the maelstrom and who has since received rape and death threats on Twitter, in addition to the assault that took down her employer today.

Note: nothing — NOTHING — happened to the person’s employer, who saw the tweets, made its own informed decision, and FIRED the freedom fighter himself. Apparently only the person who raised questions about feeling uncomfortable needs to be shamed.

So, to the point: the art of shutting up.

A good friend once said to me, “I realize that when I’m in a position of power, the best thing I can do is shut up and listen.”

If we start with the premise that a male-dominated space/industry/conference could already feel exclusionary, it might be worth a good listen to people who aren’t the norm.

Let’s try a little thought experiment:

Imagine walking into a room where everyone is else is X (something you’re not — a different race, gay or straight, a different gender, 4 feet tall, whatever.). Imagine all the leaders are X, all presentations use X as a default example, and that just being X means you’re more likely to have been seen as promising in your field from an early age. But you, not X, have made it, and you’re there. Really picture it. Look around the room. Seriously try it.

Now imagine that as people get more relaxed around you, they feel like they can say what they would have said in your absence — silly jokes you should know are just jokes, generalizations about why there aren’t more people like you there, or assumptions in presentations to the whole room (“You know how it is when you’re trying to explain coding to your wife?” Big laughs. Stupid wives.)

Not everyone says these things. In fact, most people don’t. But pretty much every day someone either looks at you like you’re a unicorn for being there, tells you how “great” it is that you’re breaking in, clearly treats you differently, or says something just plain offensive.

It takes the focus off what you’re there for — your skills, your interest, your goddamn job.

Sometimes it just plain pisses you off.

So, to people in the Land of X, I say:

1) Things that might seem funny or small to you can be intimidating, offensive, and exclusionary when all the cards are already stacked against someone belonging.

2) You’re probably a decent person. So do the hard work to stay that way.

3) Be an ally. Sometimes that means speaking up so others don’t always have to. Other times it means taking up less of the air.

4) The little things count. Quick jokes that end with “it was bare, just the way he liked it” are a 2-second road to sexismville (again, see Adria Richard’s description of her day leading up to her Tweets).

Conversely, it’s easy to do good. I recently got an email that said, “Feminist programming is when you change the icon which means “Administrator” from a picture of a man to a picture of a woman.” From a man. That was nice.

5) If you’re a member of category X — which, yes, is diverse and lovely and aren’t you, feminist author of this blog, making a lot of generalizations yourself?! — consider asking what it would feel like to be always or often grouped into a category.

6) Language matters. It’s not about the PC police knocking on your door. It’s about the constant barrage of exclusionary messages to which your jokes or plain thoughtlessness contributes. These reflect very real exclusion — pay, mentoring, hiring, etc.

(On language: earlier I found myself writing “Her Tweet about her discomfort about sexual jokes led to someone getting fired.” Nope: Someone representing a sponsor organization of the conference made sexual jokes and got himself fired. See, we all make mistakes. Think it through. The meaning matters.)

7) ACCEPT THAT THIS IS NOT THE DEATH OF COMEDY OR HUMOR. It doesn’t even mean we can’t talk about sex or penises or women in hilarious ways. See the recent discussion on rape jokes on why there’s a time, place, messenger, and message. (Spoiler: sexist jokes at places that are deeply sexist are rarely funny.)

8) Pulling out my feminist card again, Ani sings, “…Privilege is a headache you don’t know you don’t have.” Accept that other people have headaches. Maybe, just this once, you could lower your voice and fetch some goddamn Advil.

9) It’s bigger than you, so don’t get all sodden with guilt. Do what you can. (see points 1-8 and 10.) (We’ll save investing in structural change for a separate missive.)

10) Lastly, shut up and listen. To your staff, your friends, the people that you might have to make an extra effort to reach. Make that effort, build the networks, and ask the right questions to unpack your own assumptions. Come to the table with humility and time.

This is not about figuring out how “all those people” feel. Nor does it mean that power dynamics are set, constant, or always the same. BUT, if you look around the room and see a lot of people who look sorta like you or if you’re in meetings and hear a lot of your own voice or, as in the case I opened with, you’re making jokes you wouldn’t make in front of a group of people not-X, it might be worth taking the time to understand your own biases, the ways you have power you might not recognize, and the possibilities for making your world more actually welcoming.

Addendum: there are plenty of people saying plenty of more intelligent things on the matter. For some reason, I really like these:

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