Category Archives: Events

Technology Has A Culture Problem, Not a Man Problem

rubiks cube

This is a response to “Technology’s Man Problem,” an article printed in the April 5th edition of the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller.

Reading Miller’s recent article in the New York Times, one would think everyone working in the technology sector is White. One would also come to believe that men (read: all men) in tech are the bane of a woman working in tech. The characters in this plot are predictable: women are hapless and helpless, and men are aggressive predators.

Real life doesn’t fit neatly into the binary that Miller’s article advanced. This issue is about real life, not a novel or movie script.

Unfortunately, in “Technology’s Man Problem,” Miller treats the issues facing women in a one-dimensional way, sensationalizing events and generalizing the experiences of women in the community. Part of the problem is selection bias. The two protagonists of Miller’s article, Elissa Shevinsky and Julie Ann Horvath, agreed to be interviewed. The plight they faced in the tech world, while absolutely serious, is only part of the problem.

Where Shevinsky is concerned, perhaps it was supposed to be the galvanizing force of a shared experience, which is why Miller described Shevinsky’s feelings when watching the livestream video of the “Titstare” app being demoed at the Techcrunch Disrupt hackathon.

Now juxtapose Shevinsky’s experience with my own. I was onstage with Team Titstare, and I knew my silence would be a self-preservation tool. This was not lost on someone in the audience who tweeted the following:

Watching something online that is sexist can certainly be unsettling, yet experiencing the same event in real life is far more intense and harmful. It is not my intention to minimize what Shevinksy went through via livestream. My goal is to point out how applying the experience I faced in tech, albeit an anecdotal one, to another’s experience doesn’t serve the community or advancement.

Technology doesn’t have a ‘man problem’––as posited by Miller in the New York Times––it has a culture problem.

How do we address this culture problem in tech?

A holistic approach is needed. It is not enough to focus on sexism only, or racism only, or the threat(s) of violence against people. Focusing on one issue, or regulating interconnected or intertwined issues to second-tier status, is harmful to all women, especially women of color who are often assigned to marginalized status or erasure.

However, Intersectionality can lead the way.

Intersectionality is a theory crafted by UCLA Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her groundbreaking article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” Professor Crenshaw advances the theory that the lives of women of color don’t exist in a binary. The lives of women are complex, as are the lives of all human beings. A woman of color faces not only gendered threats and violence, but she also faces racialized ones, too.

Race is just one aspect of addressing intersectional issues. We must also consider other markers: country of origin, socioeconomic status, and even one’s health as something to be considered rather than amplifying two-dimensional representations of people.

For example, Leah Gilliam who works for Mozilla as Director of their HiveNYC project, tweeted what can best be described as surprise and disappointment at the lack of diversity in Claire Miller’s article:

Gilliam is a woman of color working in technology, and yet she didn’t see herself in Claire Miller’s article addressing her industry. She isn’t alone.

And this isn’t the first time a media outlet whitewashed the tech space. Writing about her personal experience in the tech word, Miyanda Nehwati recalls seeing a billboard promoting Silicon Roundabout, London’s version of Silicon Valley, with a photo of nearly all White subjects, in stark contrast to her everyday experience of working in the very same neighborhood:

Actually being in TechCity doesn’t feel like I’m in an exclusion zone. But walking past its billboard above Old Street Roundabout, I couldn’t understand what the photo represented. A magical all-white startup scene is not the TechCity that I know.

The photoshoot for The Guardian was itself a hastily arranged moment. Chatting with the one of the organizers later, I learned that the planning behind it was absentminded, framing what was, in my mind, a massive oversight. In her words: “We can do better,” and I agree: it was a missed opportunity.”

Miller could have also reached out to men in tech who are akin to those white liberals of the 1950s and 1960s who actively supported the Civil Rights Movement.

Historically, coalition building is important, even if it is often omitted from the pages of history. Lest we forget, women of color were marginalized during the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, despite also amplifying the calls to bring about suffrage.

I never experienced someone being hostile to me at a tech event until last year. I’ve been in the tech space for fifteen years, attending conferences, user groups, and meetups without incident. As the old saying goes, “when it rains it pours.” I’m not excusing sexism or giving men a pass, but my focus is to bring the relevant cultural problems––like a lack of diversity––in tech to the forefront.

Since the Pycon incident, I’ve had to navigate my personal safety, both online and offline due the ongoing torrent of threats. A majority of these were made from anonymous accounts, while in comparison, many men and women who work in tech were supportive. As a long time user of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, the lack of response to enforce their Terms of Service showed a lack of seriousness towards issues of harassment.

I am not alone. It is becoming commonplace for women and youth, activists and even male game developers to be targeted for harassment. While some may think the act of trolling to be harmless, the goals are much deeper with long-term harassment campaigns planned and carried out from sites like 4chan and Reddit. Why didn’t Miller write a piece about how people can protect themselves in the untamed world of social networks and the Internet?

What I propose is not a lofty goal. Women, Action & The Media (WAM) launched a successful campaign last year to raise awareness about Facebook’s lack of enforcement when it came to gendered harassment on their platform. I reached out to WAM offering my assistance in the hopes of supporting their efforts, which turned out to be productive.

Miller missed a pivotal opportunity to address a larger problem in tech––the lack of solidarity in tech–– and chose to instead churn out yet another article positioning the industry as dangerous and wild, particular for “women.”

Despite one throwaway sentence buried in the article, “Twenty percent of software developers are women, according to the Labor Department, and fewer than 6 percent of engineers are Black or Hispanic,” she doesn’t address the culturally relevant tech issues that impact women of color or others on the margins of the community and society.

It’s unfortunate that Miller treated women subjects as a singular, dimensional, non-complex block in the tech space, with no regard for other factors that shape our lives in and outside of the tech space.

Miller e-mailed me last year about my inclusion in the article, but one wonders if my inclusion would have addressed what’s lacking in the current piece: the cultural problems in tech (not just sexism), the lack of diversity and how people on the ground are changing things. Intersectionality is about looking at exploring problems from multiple angles, not just re-upping stale tropes or stereotypes.

While Miller’s email said she was writing a “long-form narrative piece” which would take a “broad, deep and compassionate look at these issues,” her article lacked those characteristics and did not address the real world experience of intersectionality in the tech sector. She replied earlier this week via email saying I had missed my chance to be “featured” in her article. This is bigger than Adria Richards.

The tech sphere is not perfect, but things are changing, and that’s the article I wait with bated breath to read…

Photo credit: Rubik’s cube by Booyabazooka by Duncan Hull

2014 SXSW Talk: Building The Bridge To Equality With Allies

flickr bridge hudson pennuja

Next week SXSW kicks off in Austin, TX with Interactive and film followed by SXSW Music. I’m honored to be speaking for the fifth year in a row.

I’m giving a talk titled, “Building The Bridge To Equality With Allies” and co-presenting with Dr. Kortney Ziegler — author, activist, creative artist and founder of Transhack.

This topic is especially close to my heart this year due to my experience last year of being targeted for a massive online harassment campaign by hate groups after speaking out about sexual harassment at a tech conference.  As an introvert, I’ve been most comfortable operating behind the scenes to create positive change and opportunities for underrepresented groups in technology but I’ve come to understand that speaking out is a powerful tool for change and healing.

Join us for this core conversation on how to be a supportive ally, how to recognize and reinforce good ally behavior and the impact of activating bystanders to speak up and say something.

What: Building The Bridge To Equality With Allies
When: Sunday March 9th, 2014 at 11am
Where: Austin Convention Center, room 5ABC

SXSW Schedule Link 

Description of the talk:

This panel seeks to provide practical strategies to help attendees become respectful allies to marginalized groups of people and expand the understanding of intersectional diversity.

Every year thousands of people experience discrimination at school, work and in their communities because they don’t fit into the neat, little box of being straight, White and male.

For example, 43 percent of LGBTQ people have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace and the numbers are similar for Blacks, Latinos and women.

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, many people felt upset, powerless and angry. However, both online and off, people are finding ways to organize and connect to demand justice. We no longer have to stand by and become silent partners to the problem, we can be part of the solution.

Attend this session to learn how you can make an impact in your community, schools and workplace through active leadership as an ally.

(Due to scheduling conflicts at work, Hudson Taylor – Co-founder of Athlete Ally, my original co-presenter was unable to attend). 

Photo credit: Building Of The Hudson River Bridge by pennuja

Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong At Tech Conferences

laptop_vivian_and_dad_girls_tech

Photo credit: “Vivian and Daddy on the Laptop” by Qole Pejorian

Have you ever had a group of men sitting right behind you making joke that caused you to feel uncomfortable? Well, that just happened this week but instead of shrinking down in my seat, I did something about it an here’s my story…

Yesterday, I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.

For those of you visiting from Hacker News from the tweet and from this post, thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the context.

I tweeted a photo of the guys behind me:

I publicly asked for help with addressing the problem:

I tweeted the PyCon Code of Conduct page and began to contacting the PyCon staff via text message:

and I’m happy to say that PyCon responded quickly not just with words but with action and a public response:

What I will share with you here is the backstory that led to this —

The guy behind me to the far left was saying he didn’t find much value from the logging session that day. I agreed with him so I turned around and said so.  He then went onto say that an earlier session he’d been to where the speaker was talking about images and visualization with Python was really good, even if it seemed to him the speaker wasn’t really an expert on images. He said he would be interested in forking the repo and continuing development.

That would have been fine until the guy next to him…

began making sexual forking jokes

I was going to let it go. It had been a long week. A long month. I’d been on the road since mid February attending and speaking at conferences.  PyCon was my 5th and final conference before heading home.

I know it’s important to pick my battles.

I know I don’t have to be a hero in every situation.

Sometimes I just want to go to a conference and be a geek.

But…

like Popeye, I couldn’t “stands it no more” because of what happened —

Jesse Noller was up on stage thanking the sponsors. The guys behind me (one off to the right) said, “You can thank me, you can thank me”. That told me they were a sponsoring company of Pycon and from the photos I took, his badge had an add-on that said, “Sponsor”.

My company was a Gold sponsor as well.

They started talking about “big” dongles. I could feel my face getting flustered.

Was this really happening?
How many times do I have to deal with this?
Can they not hear what Jesse is saying?

The stuff about the dongles wasn’t even logical and as a self professed nerd, that bothered me. Dongles are intended to be small and unobtrusive. They’re intended for network connectivity and to service as physical licence keys for software. I’d consulted in the past with an automotive shop that needed data recovery and technical support. I know what PCMCIA dongles look like.

I was telling myself if they made one more sexual joke, I’d say something.

The it happened….The trigger.

Jesse was on the main stage with thousands of people sitting in the audience. He was talking about helping the next generation learn to program and how happy PyCon was with the Young Coders workshop (which I volunteered at). He was mentioning that the PyLadies auction had raised $10,000 in a single night and the funds would be used the funds for their initiatives.

I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop.

I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.

I calculated my next steps.  I knew there wasn’t a lot of time and the closing session would be wrapping up.  I considered:

  • The type of event
  • The size of the audience
  • How the conference had emphasized their Code of Conduct
  • What I knew about the community and their diversity initiatives
  • How to address this issue effectively and not disrupt the main stage

Added 3/19: Description and photo of ballroom

The ballroom was huge.  Here’s a photo from that morning of the keynote speaker, Guido van Rossum, creator of Python.  Each section was 12 seats wide and 20 rows deep with six sections (front and back) in the ballroom.  I would estimate it held over 1,000 people that afternoon. I was located approximately 10 rows deep from the front right screen in the top-right section and about 5 seats in from the aisle on the left of the section.

pycon 2013 ballroom

(Math inclined folks: feel free to provide your estimates on how many people the ballroom held in the comments.)

Accountability was important. These guys sitting right behind me felt safe in the crowd. I got that and realized that being anonymous was fueling their behaviour. This is known as Deindividualization:

Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the losing of self-awareness in groups.   Theories of deindividuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation and decreased evaluation apprehension causing antinormative and disinhibited behavior.

Deindividuation theory seeks to provide an explanation for a variety of antinormative collective behavior, such as violent crowds, lynch mobs, etc. Deindividuation theory has also been applied to genocide and been posited as an explanation for antinormative behavior online and in computer-mediated communications.

It very much reminded me of Lord Of the Flies.  I decided to put out the fire at the base.

PyCon has gone to great efforts to position themselves as a conference that everyone is welcome to attend according to their homepage:

PyCon is the largest annual gathering for the community using and developing the open-source Python programming language. PyCon is organized by the Python community for the community. We try to keep registration far cheaper than most comparable technology conferences, to keep PyCon accessible to the widest group possible.

and they go on to say:

PyCon is a diverse conference dedicated to providing an enjoyable experience to everyone. Our code of conduct is intended to help everyone maintain the PyCon spirit. We thank all attendees and staff for observing it.

I did a gut check and waited until Jesse finished introducing Diana who would be the new PyCon US chair for 2014. I stood up slowly, turned around and took three, clear photos. I said back down, did another gut check and started composing a tweet.

Three things came to me: act, speak and confront in the moment.

I decided to do things differently this time and didn’t say anything to them directly.  I was a guest in the Python community and as such, I wanted to give PyCon the opportunity to address this.

A few minutes later, one of the PyCon staff member approached to the left.  I stood up, went outside to talk with him and explain the situation with a few of the other PyCon staff.  They had seen my tweet.  After explaining, they wanted to pull the people in question from the main ballroom.  I walked back in with the PyCon staff and point them out one by one and they were escorted to the hallway.

As I walked back to my seat, I cannot tell you how proud I was of the PyCon and Python community at the very moment for keeping their word to make the conference a safe place to be.  A bit shaken, I took my seat to continue watching the lightning talks.  I sent an updated tweet that the situation was being dealt with and later on, PyCon tweeted they had addressed the issue.

For context, I’m a developer evangelist at a successful startup.

That means I’m an advocate for developers, male and female. I hear about demanding bosses with impossible deadlines for product launches and the overall experience of working at other startups firsthand.

I listen and offer suggestions, ideas and mentoring to help developers become problems solvers. Sometimes the answer is our API or not answering email after 7pm while other times it about being assertive and shedding impostor syndrome.

The forking joke set the stage for the dongle joke. Neither were funny.

What many of you don’t know is that this wasn’t the first time that day I had to address this issue around harassment and gender.

I had been talking with a developer after lunch in the hall and he told me he had made a joke. He had been looking for some boxes and said aloud that he was looking under the skirt (he had meant a table skirt) in the expo hall. A woman had “given him a look” and/or made a comment after he said this so he responded by saying “it was bare, just the way he liked it” as an innuendo for when women shave off all their pubic hair. I explained that while this could be funny, it was out of context because:

  • We were at a tech conference
  • There was a job fair going on
  • Women historically have felt unwelcome at tech conferences
  • PyCon was making a special effort to be welcoming to women
  • There were several women’s groups here (PyLadies, Women Who Code, CodeChix, Ada Initiative)
  • He was wearing company logos and that meant his actions and words carried on their behalf

….much further than his sense of humor ever would.

He disagreed. I urged him to talk to someone at the conference who worked for the same company who was a guy and who would understand this issue and potential for brand/reputation damage. We were able to discuss this because we were in the hallway, not a packed ballroom.

At a conference where it was was celebrated that 20% of attendees were women

it wasn’t the place to make “jokes” like this. I felt our chat went well (as well as could be expected) and headed on my way to more sessions and the final closing talks. Why did he share his joke with me?   Maybe because I told him I’d just finished a 5 week stand up comedy class and he wanted to reciprocate. Maybe because my job as a developer evangelist means I spend a lot of time around male developers and he thought I would understand.  What I did know is I needed to say something instead of laugh.

I have been to a lot of tech conferences and hackathons over the years.  I’ve heard a lot of things said.  That means I’m more desensitized than others but it doesn’t make it ok.  Here I could go into all sorts of comparisons on things I could say around guys to make them uncomfortable but that’s not the point of this post.

There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry.

Women in technology need consistant messaging from birth through retirement they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry.

Let’s unify the message to our daughters and to the women developers we work with:

“We want you to be here and we will do our best to welcome you into the world of programming.”

What has to change is that everyone must take personal accountability and speak up when they hear something that isn’t ok.  It takes three words to make a difference:

“That’s not cool.”

Not all men at tech conferences are like these guys.

Not every woman who attends a tech conference is a victim in waiting.

We need to build bridges and be aware of our actions and not discount that our words carry weight.  A guy in my PyCon sprint group today shared a beautiful French proverb today:

“Live a good life then make room for others.”

Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.