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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Update on my RSS obsession

So, it’s been what? A month Almost two months (I had to look that up), since Google killed Google Reader? And it’s been just over four months (I had to look that up, too) since I wrote my melodramatic “Ode to Google Reader“. I was just checking my feeds on “The Old Reader” and it dawned on me… I don’t really miss Google Reader.

To be fair, this is mostly because my habits have changed. And, to give credit where credit is due, my habits have changed mostly because Google killed Google Reader. I still want to follow blogs I like, but I am no longer obsessing about following everything. I’m still an information junkie, but now I go for days at a time without ever checking in on my feeds.

So what’s changed?

Before Google Reader died on 1 July 2013, I transferred almost all the 20 or so blogs I follow over to The Old Reader. As far as I am aware (and, internet, please do correct me if I’m mistaken…) The Old Reader does not have an Android app. So, now that Google Reader is dead, I am reader-free on my phone.

I briefly considered some of the feed reader options that also had a phone app, or that were primarily phone apps, but I didn’t really like their terms and conditions. So, I have no reader app on my phone. Oddly, I have realized that I’m totally okay with that.

I think it works for me because most of the blogs I follow are friends’ blogs. And most of these have either been completely abandoned (I only subscribe in case someday they change their mind and post something), or they are only occasionally updated (my friends are busy people, most have small children that occupy most of their time, and blogging has become somewhat uncool these days, I think).

There are only a handful of blogs I follow that are actually updated regularly, and I follow most of those people on Twitter, so I usually see when they post things. Unfortunately, when I’m on Twitter I rarely have time to read anything longer than 140 characters (it’s just a quick break to check in on what’s going on in the world). So, I almost never click through to read blog posts. I rely on the fact that those blog posts are waiting for me on my laptop at home.

Yes, that’s right, I only check my RSS reader on my laptop at home. I follow a policy of “not crossing the streams” as my IT folks at work put it. Work stuff on work laptop, home stuff on home laptop. I mean, I’ll book flights for vacation on my work computer, I just won’t access my home email, or RSS reader, or (OMG) Facebook.

(Side note: why in the world I even still ever log into Facebook, or have a Facebook account is beyond me. Actually…. I take that back… Come to think of it, I know exactly why I have a Facebook account and check it a few times a week. It’s because all those friends that stopped blogging only post stuff on Facebook. So, if I want to know what’s going on, I have to log into Facebook. God, I HATE Facebook. Why can’t everyone just get a Twitter account? Just saying… )

Anyway, I went on vacation almost immediately after Google Reader died, and I had limited screen time on that vacation. So, I started reading books like a crazy reader person, and after about a week I think I just sort of forgot about my feeds. Step one in changing a habit: if you can do it for a week, you can likely keep it up indefinitely.

When I returned from vacation, I realized that I couldn’t keep up with my favorite tech blog effectively if I didn’t have a reader app on my phone and wasn’t obsessively checking my feed reader. So, after about a month of trying to absorb a week’s worth of my favorite tech blog’s posts in one day on the weekend, I gave up. I unsubscribed from that feed in The Old Reader. I mean, I follow them on Twitter, and I subscribed to their daily email digest that discusses the major topics / stories of the day and lists them all for easy clicking. I decided that was good enough.

Instead, what really happened was that I just stopped obsessively reading about the tech industry. And that is probably a good thing. Because honestly, it’s a lot easier to read about the tech industry when you are a) not living in San Francisco, and b) not working for a big name tech company. When you’re doing both “a” and “b” you pretty much live and breath tech news. It’s sometimes all people talk about. So, having a break from it is sometimes welcome. Besides, most of these stories are just incendiary garbage meant to generate clicks and satisfy the voyeuristic tendencies of those who are not doing either “a” or “b.”

I began to realize that every story, even well written and insightful ones (and those are few and far between), have a tendency to make me slightly stabby. Either because I HATE the (stereotypical) entitlement culture of the young hipster tech geeks in the Bay Area (and that is almost always the way Bay Area tech people are portrayed in tech blogs — though, I admit, it is a valid portrayal of a not insignificant portion of the people working at these companies), or because it is really difficult for non-tech, non-business people to write a story about a technology company without going for the easy, link-bait, rile-’em-up angle.

In fairness, some people are trying. I think the blogs I choose to follow (mostly PandoDaily, and some individual journalists like Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic, and, increasingly, the tech writers at the Washington Post) do a pretty good job, usually. When they’re off, they are usually just doing the best they can with the information available to them. But sometimes even the good guys whiff and write some face-palm story that completely misses the point.

As you’ll see when I post this month’s “by the numbers” post, the result of less obsessive RSS feed reading is more time reading ACTUAL BOOKS! And, more time thinking creatively. And, less time freaking out about the apparent deterioration of journalism (due in large part to the deterioration of the attention span and critical thinking skills of most of the population) in the US.

Okay… clearly, I still maintain the potential for working myself up into a fit of “stabby.” I’m going to hit publish now and then close my laptop and go read a book. Or talk to a human. Or something. 🙂

Friday Fun

Yesterday was filled with little awesome, happy things. Here are two captured on Twitter:

First, Seth Green and co. visited Twitter to talk about their show, Robot Chicken (which I have actually never seen, but will now have to…). I was always a big fan of Oz on Buffy, and his other appearances in the “Whedonverse“…

Then, inspired by this awesomeness, I tweeted my “top five” list of people who I would love to see visit Twitter, and @neilhimself (Neil Gaiman) responded! Twitter is magic. My tweet and his response, generated a lot of responses and favorites.

The top five, in case you can’t decipher their Twitter handles, are:

  1. @NathanFillion = Nathan Fillion, another star of the Whedon-verse, known mostly for his role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds (aka “Captain Tightpants”) in Firefly / Serenity, and his current role as Richard Castle on the ABC TV show Castle (which I’ve only seen a few episodes of because it’s not on Netflix streaming…)
  2. @rebsoni = Rebecca Soni, Olympic swimmer and gold medalist in the 100 and 200 breast stroke
  3. @neilhimself = Neil Gaiman, author of some of my favorite books including Neverwhere and American Gods
  4. @ActuallyNPH = Neil Patrick Harris, actor first known for his role as Doogie Howser in the TV show Doogie Howser, M.D., more recently known for his role as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, but also for his appearance in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog
  5. @feliciaday = all around amazing actress and writer / producer, frequently appearing in the Whedonverse (Buffy, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible, etc.), but recently better known for a web series called The Guild.

Of course there are many other actors, actresses, and famous people that I could have listed here (like J.K. Rowling, for example). But, part of the reason I picked these five is that they are all very active on Twitter and use Twitter to interact with their fans and fellow famous people. I feel like they are getting a lot out of the product, and I’d love to hear them talk about  how they’re using Twitter and what they love, or what they’d love to see, in the product.

If any of these folks ever do make an appearance at the Twitter office, it will be difficult to contain my levels of extreme excitement, and hold back my inner fan-girl “squeeeee…”

Ode to Google Reader

Google Reader is dying, but increasingly it appears that I am still going to be there, holding its hand, pleading with it not to leave me, until it takes its final breath and they find me staring at my laptop screen hitting refresh and quietly sobbing, or until I finally have to press my finger to the app icon and hold it there until I can bring myself to drag the app to the little “x remove” at the top of the home screen on my phone (Android, people, deal with it).

Melodramatic much? Fine. Maybe. But this is Google Reader! How am I going to get all of the many blogs I lovingly read and obsess over to deliver their contents to the same place where I can easily read, file, tag, email, and share articles on my phone or on my laptop?

Google Reader is how I keep up with my long-distance friends’ mommy / daddy blogs. It’s how I make sure I never miss an XKCD comic. It’s how I keep up with what’s going on in the wide world of technology. And it’s where I read about and draw inspiration from the blogs of several authors and one editor I admire.

Yes I know there are a bunch of alternatives, but none seem to give me the same mix of basic functionality (everything you need to have and nothing you don’t), with a clean UI. And of course, how do I know they won’t just up and leave me someday? After all, when I gave all my feeds to Google Reader, I would never have expected (the Spanish Inquisition…) the Googles to just shut it down one day.

I’ve tried paring down the blogs I follow to a bare minimum. I’ve loaded everything that’s left into “The Old Reader.” I’ve tried (when I’m on my laptop… I’m not sure Ye Ol’ Reader has an app, so I haven’t figured out how to use it on my phone…) to break my Google Reader habit by deleting the bookmark and adding one for the Reader in its place. After a few days I dug through the “more” menu on Google trying to find a link to Google Reader and finally resorted to Googling for the link. Then I just left the Google Reader browser tab open. I’m such a cheater.

This whole drama (as exaggerated as I’m making it out to be) is forcing me to think more about two topics that, in my line of work especially, you generally don’t spend much time thinking about… 1) who owns the content I create and curate, and what right do apps have to hand that content over when they decide to close their doors? … and 2) is consuming all this information (drinking from the information highway fire hose…) really that good for me?

Maybe the information-age haters are right and “News is bad for you.” According to them I would be more creative and more productive if I stopped reading “news flashes” (like Twitter) and stuck to reading only things folks today would consider #LongForm or “tl;dr” (Note to Mom: that stands for “too long, didn’t read”). I don’t exactly know if the contents of my Google Reader fall into the long-form category, or if they are more “news flashes” that are just supplying me with a steady stream of information that I wouldn’t really miss if I didn’t know it was there. Maybe losing Google Reader is actually going to be good for me.

I’ll admit it, I am an information junkie. I love to read, and I love to collect information. You never know when that information is going to come in handy, or give you inspiration for a piece of writing. Tools like Twitter and Google Reader allow me to plow through mountains of information in a small amount of time, and flag anything that looks especially promising to read in more depth later, or forward on to someone I know would benefit from (or enjoy) the information.

But like any good junkie, maybe I’m just in denial about my addiction. And, like any good junkie, I’m not going to let the death of Google Reader slow me down.