Considering Uber and “boys will be boys” workplace culture

I don’t talk about “work stuff” on my blog much. On purpose. But, I’m going to make an exception to talk about sexism in the technology industry. If you aren’t aware of some of the recent sexual harassment drama at Uber, I’ll give you a moment to catch up before adding my own thoughts.

I read Susan’s post shortly after it came out, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since (note: I don’t know her or any of these people). Her experience made me angry. It brought up memories of similar experiences I’d had. It underscored the fact that I’d had a bad feeling about that company from the first time I started hearing about it, and I was right to trust my instincts.

Then there was the response from a woman inside, largely agreeing with Susan, but pointing out that it wasn’t all bad there. There’s always at least one. The poster woman. She reminded me a little of myself, back before I got mad.

Then, this week, there was another post, describing an experience similar to Susan’s. That’s when I remembered, and went back to dig up, an essay I wrote about this for a creative writing class back in March 2013 — almost exactly four years and one employer ago. I re-read the essay and was amused to see the thought process of little baby feminist me taking shape. I was less amused to see how little has changed in the industry, and to realize how much this has blown up in the past four years.

There’s a lot I’d change about how that essay was written, but I’ve decided to post it here, unedited, to show you one example of what it looks like when a clueless, privileged, Midwestern girl, starts to wake up.

I’ll also note, things have not gone smoothly for me since I wrote that essay and made the first tentative steps toward standing up for myself and others. There have been so many times I’ve wished I’d just kept my mouth shut, and times I have kept my mouth shut against my better judgement. But, every time, I keep coming back to the same conclusion, the one I arrive at, finally, at the end of this essay.

I’m lucky to work at an employer who cares about this stuff and is taking real steps to make changes. Everything they do isn’t perfect, but it’s miles beyond paying lip service to the importance of women in tech while making no policy changes and continuing to promote and reward the perpetrators of the exact behavior that keep those numbers low. It’s made my work life much less stressful, and for that I am grateful. But, I know this has a lot to do with the size of my employer. Start-ups are still the “wild-west.” If you’re a woman working in a start-up, you’re definitely on the front lines in this war, and you have my sympathies.

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“Boys Will Be Boys” — written March 2013 for a UC Berkeley Extension class in creative writing

You know those “happy birthday” email threads you get at work? Someone with an enviable memory for dates sends out an email to “Joe Whitecollar” wishing him a happy birthday and copying the entire team and everyone in the surrounding area on the email, guilting everyone into replying-all to join in the chorus of “happy birthday” wishes. Of course someone chimes in that they brought a cake and arrangements are made to make short work of it sometime after lunch. It’s all fun and games… until the joking escalates and someone responds with “… a lap dance has been arranged. I did some practice yesterday. You can choose me or Matt or Frank…”

Or does that part only happen in my office?

I’ve always been proud to be a woman considered “one of the guys.” Early on, before I even entered the workforce, I developed an unconscious ability to become more or less invisible when hanging out with, being on a team with, or working with, an entirely male group. I’ve found that this “invisibility” means accepting, laughing at, and to some extent even making, what more-enlightened individuals might consider to be “sexist jokes.” After all, it’s all just fun and games, right? Of course, by the time I get sick of these jokes, or the guys begin to push past my above-average tolerance level, I’m already guilty by association.

When I started at my current job, I was the only woman on a team of over twenty men. I was the only woman on any of the teams that our team worked with on a regular basis. I was often the only woman in every meeting I attended. Sometimes, I went for entire days without speaking to anyone of the same sex at work. Well, except for the project managers.

In technology, project manager is about the only role largely dominated by women. To make matters worse, the role of “PM” plays right into female stereotypes. They are the soccer moms of engineering, keeping track of who is doing what, making sure everything gets done, and nagging everyone until they finish their “homework.” In order to be taken seriously at my job, I try hard not to be confused with a PM, which just further alienates me from the other females I work with.

Most people seem to think the best way to get rid of the “boys club” culture in science and technology is to get more women into these fields. Everywhere you look, there are initiatives to increase the level of female participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies. No one seems to have a handle on why it is that women, beginning as early as middle school, exhibit decreasing interest in pursuing these fields. Studies have shown women have at least as high an aptitude for STEM fields as men. So what gives? Could it be that the “boys club” culture is actually what’s making these pursuits unattractive to women? Maybe, at some point, women are deciding that sales and finance are just more welcoming environments, roles in which they will be subjected to fewer dick and fart jokes they must smile through on a daily basis.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but, until recently, I never gave this issue much thought. As a woman who chose to pursue a career in a STEM discipline, I’ve been thriving in a male dominated field for my entire adult life. I like the work, I naturally have a foul mouth and a raunchy sense of humor, and I love guys. But, the older I get, the more I notice the research. I am beginning to worry about the future of women in technology. Recently, link-bait articles with provocative headlines like “Can Women Have it All?” that appear regularly in the press have become infuriating. Each one wants an easy answer and fails to recognize the complexity of the issue.

In the past few months, as these articles have been focusing more and more on prominent figures at technology companies in the Bay Area, I have found myself very close to the epicenter of this controversy. Most recently, I’ve been fascinated by the backlash against Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for having the nerve, in her new book, Lean In, to suggest that women shouldn’t back away from pursuing their goals. Then I found out last week that a woman was fired from her job as a developer at a technology company for, presumably, calling out sexist behavior at a programming conference I had just attended. As much as I’ve tried to avoid taking sides in this controversy, I feel it has become unavoidable.

Adria Richards’ experience illustrates beautifully the complexities at play. Ms. Richards “called out” some men sitting near her at a Python coding conference, PyCon, for making what she felt to be inappropriate jokes of a sexually demeaning nature. She explained later that she was not bothered by these jokes. However, the idea that the jock mentality and associated “harmless” sexist jokes would continue to keep women from feeling comfortable in this male dominated culture made her speak up. She tweeted about it. She posted her thoughts on her blog.

In response, she has been publicly ridiculed, called offensive names online, suffered a denial of service attack on her website, and been fired from her job. To be fair, I don’t know her or any of the parties involved, and this is a complicated example in which I’m not sure we could possibly have all the facts. Still, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say she didn’t deserve the response she received. The attacks were pretty horrific, and the threats were female-specific and wished violent harm upon her person.

Sadly, the name calling and the ridicule don’t really surprise me. I’ve come to expect that this is what happens when you speak up about something that many want to write off as “just a joke.” What shocked me most was that she was fired from her job, and that her employer stated he felt that because of this incident she would be unable to effectively perform her job. Even if there were other circumstances that may have given her employer cause to let her go, this action is bound to send the message that it’s better to shut up than speak up if you want to remain employed, and employable.

Article after article has been written analyzing if or how Ms. Richards should have confronted these men. How she might have handled the situation differently. Why she was right or wrong in doing what she did. Almost everyone seems to have an opinion. I find myself agreeing with at least half of almost every article I read about the situation — even when the articles completely disagree about the right thing to do. At the same time, I am reminded of my first brush with “workplace harassment.”

I moved to St. Louis for the summer after my sophomore year in college to complete my first internship at McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace company. I arrived armed with my very first wardrobe of business clothes. I brought suit jackets, skirts, dress pants, and silk blouses to wear underneath the jackets. With the clothes to complement my education, I felt as prepared as I could be for my first summer as a woman in manufacturing management. What can I say? I was young. Naive.

St. Louis is hot and sticky in the summer, but the office had air conditioning. One particularly warm day, I had removed my jacket and hung it on the back of my chair in the cubicle I was sharing with a middle-aged guy on my team. While standing in the cubicle doorway, attempting to have a conversation with this man about some work topic, he decided to make a comment about how “it must be cold” in the office. I was immediately embarrassed, horrified, and completely at a loss as to what to do. I made a quick decision to blow off the comment, put my jacket back on, and find something outside the cubicle that needed to be done right at that moment. (I’ve never been particularly skilled at the art of the snappy comeback.)

Every woman handles these situations differently. I was never one to rock the boat. I guess I always hoped that the man’s common decency would assert itself once he realized his comments did not have the desired effect (unless his desired effect was to make me uncomfortable…). I assumed he, too, would be embarrassed, and maybe in the future he would not make the same inappropriate remarks. However, was that enough? What if he wasn’t embarrassed at all, but thought it was okay because I didn’t say anything? What if he said that to other women, other interns, all because I didn’t speak up and say something? If I had said something, would I have still been given a glowing review and asked to return the following summer? Or would I have been labeled a “trouble maker” or a “drama queen.”

Sixteen years later, I am still working in an environment where jokes like this are the norm. I’ve sat through mandatory harassment briefings at all but my most recent employer, and said to myself (only once out loud), “but what if it doesn’t bother me?” The answer, I’m told, is that it doesn’t matter. Regardless of my above-average tolerance level, others may be offended. The rational minds in Human Resources suggest that the best course of action is to speak up and say, “hey, that’s inappropriate.” Clearly these well-intentioned HR people have never worked in the environments they warn us about. Because, as we find time and again, if you call someone out as being inappropriate, you immediately become a target. A stick-in-the-mud at best. A heinous, man-hating bitch, at worst. Or maybe not worst, maybe worst are the threats of a physical attack.

I’ve been banging my head against this wall for my entire adult life because I chose to work in a male-dominated field. Have I done everything right? Hell no. Would I go back and change things? Maybe. Maybe not. Would I speak up if I found myself in the same situation as Adria Richards? I’d like to think I would, but clearly I’ve been in those situations before and remained silent. Would I react differently now? I honestly don’t know.

“Boys will be boys.” We hear that all the time in our culture. The phrase is as frequently used to describe children as adults. Most often it is used to explain away behavior that, if exhibited by the opposite sex, might be considered inappropriate or unacceptable. Even in our enlightened age, there are still many things that are socially acceptable for men, but not for women, to do and say.

In American culture, it is socially acceptable for men to: go bald, let their hair go grey, sport a pot belly that hangs over their belt, yell, swear, and drink excessively, and yet still be considered successful and even distinguished. It is entirely acceptable for men to sleep around, remain unmarried, decide not to have children, put their career first, exaggerate their accomplishments, be insensitive, and play hardball. Can you tell me what the female equivalent of “cocky” is?

Of course you can probably think of exceptions to these assertions. Of course you want to tell me that it is perfectly acceptable in this day and age for women to remain unmarried or to decide not to have children, or to put their career first. I will tell you, as a married woman who has decided not to have children, I have watched nearly all my male coworkers squirm under the desire to ask me when/if I will have children while knowing that they are forbidden by HR to do so. It is ridiculous that I should feel as though I need to put their mind at ease by explaining that I will not be running to their office in a matter of months requesting maternity leave.

So, for a start, let’s be honest about where we are as a culture. I want to live in a society where it’s socially acceptable for women to be aggressive, even cocky. I also want to live in a society where it’s okay for men to not have to be those things in order to be successful. Because this is where I think the gender issue begins to fail — when it becomes women against men. Us against them. It’s more or less a 50 / 50 split along those lines, and before you know it we end up in the same deadlock that our American political system is in. We retreat to our respective sides, call each other names, and progress is stalled. When, in reality, we all benefit from gender equality. Meanwhile, young women think, “I don’t want to deal with that mess,” and move into other pursuits. Bye-bye, STEM.

Women and men of my generation, and younger generations, are doing much to eliminate, or at least dramatically reduce the ideas and environments that reinforce the “male, macho, technologically inclined” stereotype as much as the “female, delicate, emotionally inclined” stereotype. We grew up trying to fit ourselves into these uncomfortable and limiting boxes and are actively trying to break down those barriers for today’s youth.

I have two nieces. I want them, and all little girls, to grow up in a world where it is socially acceptable for them to be aggressive, assertive, mechanically competent, strong, and proud of their accomplishments. I hope they never have to confront someone who tells them that as long as they’re beautiful, it’s okay if they’re not smart.

I have one nephew. I want him, and all little boys, to grow up in a world where it is socially acceptable for them to be delicate, gentle, artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, and kind. I hope he never has to confront someone who tells him he shouldn’t do something or wear something because “it’s gay.”

I hope someday, if they ever read this, they will wonder why everyone made such a fuss about sexism and gender stereotypes because, of course we’re all equal, and of course we each have our own interests, and these have nothing to do with our sexual orientation. I hope that’s all they know because that’s just how it is, how it should be. If that means it’s time for me to start speaking up, I guess a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

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Feminism

At one point this year I tried to write a post about feminism. The post just sat in my drafts for months and months and I couldn’t find the right words. I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism this year, mostly because at some point early in the year I realized that my years of being “one of the guys” and rolling with the raunchy / sexist jokes just didn’t feel right anymore. But I’m still trying to come to grips with where I stand on this issue.

In my youth I struggled a lot with calling myself a “feminist.” Mostly because the term “feminist” was tightly linked in pop culture to man-hating women such as those portrayed in this classic clip from the movie PCU (kind of like a mid-nineties version of Animal House).

However, I don’t think it’s worth denying any more. I’m a feminist, because at the end of the day I think it all boils down to this (buy the tote bag here):

Cartoon by MariNaomi

My feelings on the topic are still very mixed and I’m sorting through where I stand on many issues. So, instead of using my words, I think I’ll just link you to a bunch of articles I read this year that got me thinking more and more about feminism and what I think about feminism.

This was a big year of articles about women in technology. Mostly it was all about the Adria Richards thing (this Forbes article has a good summary and a ton of links to more info). And *maybe* that was what got me thinking about all this to begin with. But I think it started before that.

Around the same time there was a big kerfuffle in the publishing world about sexism. John Scalzi (award winning, best selling SciFi author) decided not to speak at any more conferences where there wasn’t a policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment. He wrote this amazing take-down blog post called “To the Dudebro Who Thinks He’s Insulting Me by Calling Me a Feminist.” Around the same time Chuck Wendig started blogging about “hetero-normative white-dude mountain” and his thoughts on sexism / racism in writing / publishing. And someone did a deep dive analysis on the New York Times YA Best Seller List to determine if the “gut feeling” that women “dominate” that list was based on any shred of evidence. (Spoiler: it’s not true.)

I read a lot of scifi / fantasy / fiction. I always have. It’s great that there is a proliferation of “strong” female characters popping up in all types of genre fiction lately. And while more stories with heroines are great, I worry that we’re moving in the wrong direction with this whole concept of “strong” female characters. Several articles have written about this lately, most notably, this article about Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) from Entertainment Weekly , and this article entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall for the New Statesman.

The stand-out quote from Joss in the Entertainment Weekly article I link to above, the thing he said that had me thinking, YES! That! was this (emphasis mine):

The thing about Buffy for me is–on a show-by-show basis–are there female characters who are being empowered, who are driving the narrative? The Twilight thing and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive, or not really knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s incredibly frustrating to me because a lot of what’s taking on the oeuvre of Buffy, is actually a reaction against it. Everything is there — except for the Buffy. A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.

And, basically Ms. McDougall’s (long and thoughtful) rant boils down to this:

Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong?… It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question….

A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius.

Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

I had mixed feelings about this New Yorker article about feminism and Free Speech and Twitter Trolls: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/08/how-free-should-speech-be-on-twitter.html

I can never understand all the difference between all these “waves” of feminism, but this article in The Guardian talks about the “New Wave of Feminism”: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/27/new-generation-of-feminists-set-agenda

And I can relate with a lot of this article in Rookie, especially this: “I built my feminism Lego-tower-style, brick by brick, adding, removing, and changing components as I went along.”

I found this eye opening intro to the currently popular “Retro / Ironic Sexism”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD0Faha2gow

And then this series of videos detailing sexist tropes in movies and video games (which can also be applied to books / writing):

  1. Manic Pixie Dream Girl
  2. Women in Refrigerators
  3. The Smurfette Principle
  4. The Evil Demon Seductress
  5. The Mystical Pregnancy
  6. The Straw Feminist

I bought several books on feminism, but haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of them yet… in my to-be-read (TBR) pile are:

So, 2013 could be said to be the year where I got a little more in touch with my feminist roots. Or the year that I added a bunch of bricks to my Feminism Lego Tower. It’s not done yet, but it’s definitely a stronger tower than it was last year.