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A Response to the Harassment of Female Tech Leaders

Before I jump into my thoughts, I wanted to throw out a quick disclaimer. Very seldom do I jump into this debate, just because it usually ends up with more angry tweets and comments than I care to read.  I also want to point out that I consider Amy to be an amazing woman, and a friend.  Last but not least, this post is not because I had nothing else to write about, but rather because I’ve had the privilege of being part of this amazing community, and I want to keep it amazing – but that does mean we have some work to do.  And by us, I mean all of us (let the hate tweets begin).

Before you read my response, check out Amy’s two blog posts, first with the initial incident, and then her follow up:

These things happen… and it’s not ok

I can’t stress enough that these things DO happen in the community – not because you have a bunch of jerks running around degrading women, but because you have a couple of jerks running around degrading women and the rest of us either miss it, or are passive when it happens.  In the first article, I think just one person said “knock it off” and then just let it be…  While we may want to try and avoid confrontation – we need to make sure we are sending a loud, clear message that this type of harassment is not ok.  When someone, anyone gives their time to help others, we should appreciate their generosity and their talents, not make snide comments (even jokingly) about how they look or how they talk or what-not.  This is not ok, and quite frankly if you are making these comments – you need to ask yourself why?  Is it because you’re intimidated, because you’re trying to be funny, or because you’re a jerk.

Most people know I am a self taught developer, and that I am grateful for the amazing community that we have.  But when I hear stories like this (and many more) from my female friends, I have to be honest… I’m not sure I would have stuck around.  I’m not sure I would have put up with the crap that they have to.  Again, thankfully MOST people in the community are not resorting to these lewd comments, but it only takes one person to destroy a meetup, a conference, a hackathon, or even programming for someone else.  And personally I feel responsible for ensuring that this community is as open as possible, because they accepted me and helped me grow, and as such I want to ensure that others can be part of this great community and comfortably reap its benefits just the same.

And if you think this is just an isolated case – think again.  There are some people who have never had to experience these types of remarks or comments, and I am THANKFUL that they haven’t.  But I hear way too many stories, and these stories need to stop.  The community will NEVER be perfect, there will always be jerks – but at least we as a community can stand up for other members when they are being harassed (even if it’s unintentional or not intended to be harmful).

Women… Don’t Give Up… Please!

Amy said it best when she said:

Do not leave, because, you should not have to.

If anything, it is those who try to oppress you, silence you, make you feel like you don’t belong who do not deserve a piece of this awesome community.

But more importantly, you are valuable members of the community who make it better.  There have been a lot of great women who have moved the PHP community forward, and without them we would not be where we are at today.  I am THANKFUL for all they have done to make the community a better place, and for all they have done to help me grow as a developer.

But just as importantly, if you give up- they win.  You have a bunch of allies here fighting for equality and fighting against these types of comments and attacks.  We may not have the comments being directed at us, or experience the pain, but we are with you, and we do support you 100%.  And the only way we can move forward is if we all march together.  It’s ironic this post is being written write after the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but those very same principles stand true here.  Things will get better, and we will not stop until they are.

Don’t Lose Control

This is the hardest thing to do, and anyone who receives these comments has a RIGHT to be angry.  But while anger can be beneficial and drive us, if we lose control or sight of what we are trying to do, anger consumes us and we end up hurting ourselves and others.  We actually destroy the cause we are fighting for.

I am 100% against public shaming for first time offenses – I think it’s one thing to say knock it off and that’s not cool and how would you feel in a comment stream- it’s a totally different thing to tweet a person’s name and start a war against them.  We win through education and enlightenment.  It’s a tough battle, it’s a long battle, but it’s changes as long-term and continuous.  We win by changing minds, and people tend to side where cool heads prevail.

On that note, I have to give Amy a lot of credit, because I know this bothered her, and yet she has requested that people NOT do a witch hunt.  Instead, she talked with the individual, and it sounds like the individual conceded that he was in the wrong.  Now – that won’t change anything over night, but in the long run if we can win hearts, and we can win minds, we will win equality and put a stop to all of this harassment.

There are plenty of people that will disagree with me on this, but just remember, you cannot stamp out darkness with darkness, only light can do that.  If anything history has shown us that it is through peaceful resistance and with a loving heart that changes are made.  Let us follow in MLK’s footsteps in this journey as well.

Or as Amy wisely states:

All I can say is, try your best not to find fault, but instead to make change.

My Thoughts on the Rebuttals

Amy received several rebuttals to her first post.  I just want to address those as well, very quickly:

“Leaders who leave the community because of a few stupid comments should grow thicker skin.”

I want you to think about what is actually being said here.  Being a leader, or even a public figure in a community means you’re going to deal with a lot of garbage.  You’re going to have people who love you, people who hate you, and people who are jealous of you.  You’re going to have people that bash your ideas, your code, your speaking style, your tweets, whatever it may be.

And I think that all of us that get out there and speak our minds know this.  But there’s a line – and that line is when the comments cross from opinions on code/ ideas to ad hominem attacks and comments on a person’s looks, gender, race, sexuality, religion, family-life, etc.  That line is crossed the second we stop looking at what they are saying and start attacking them personally.

When I worked at a camp many, many years ago we had a saying,

Can you say it nicer?

Now that may sound kind of stupid, and at the time we joked about it a lot.  But it makes a lot of sense.  When you say something, can you say it nicer?  Are you saying it as politely (remember I’m from Minnesota) as possible?  Because we as developers can be a little too blunt sometimes, and again if we get emotional can quickly turn a productive conversation about code and ideas into a derogatory conversation where we not only hurt the person we are speaking to, but ourselves and our reputation.

And a quick final thought on this… do we really want the leaders leaving the community?  Do we really want those who are driving change and improvement to give up, become burned out, or just leave out of frustration because of a few jerks.  Sure, you have to have a tough skin, but when a leader leaves the community – it isn’t just their loss… it’s all of ours.  And you can try to play the blame game, but the reality is, it is our fault, as a community for letting that happen in the first place.

“Why feed the trolls? You’re giving them the exact reaction they wanted.”

Again, I cannot stress this enough.  I am against public shaming.  I don’t like it, I think it’s childish and immature (more hate tweets).

But what I have to give my friends who have experienced these things, including Amy, credit for is that they want to drive PRODUCTIVE conversations from them.  You’ll notice Amy doesn’t chastise the community, but simply asks “please be aware and help change this.”

I think, especially for those of us who do not experience these things, it is very important for us to be aware of them.  It’s important for us to be educated on what is happening, how it is happening, and how we can prevent it or at least respond to it in a manner that moves the community forward.

One of the saddest moments for me was the cancellation of the TRUCE Conference, or a conference that was designed to start conversations.  There was a lot of backlash to this idea, but I think it highlights part of the problem – and that is divided we fall.  The only way we succeed is if we work together to effect change – and I heard a lot of comments against men in relation to that idea.  The simple fact is, most of us guys in the community WANT this crap to stop, but because we do not experience it we don’t always understand it.  We want you to help us understand it and fix it.

So please, help the community move forward, and don’t worry about what the trolls might think.  It’s not for them, it’s for us.  But I would also ask, remember that your posts should not be to declare war, but to educate.  It shouldn’t be to attack a person, because attacking one person doesn’t do anything… there will always be another jerk somewhere.  Instead, help us understand what we can do to become a stronger ally, and what we can do to help educate others.

“Your post about women’s experiences with harassment will discourage other women to code and sully the industry’s reputation.”

This may be true, some women may see this and say, “you know what, I don’t want to deal with that.”  But that’s not Amy’s fault, or any other person’s fault for writing about these things.  It falls on the community to make it a better, more accepting place.

And we have a new generation of programmers coming into the community.  It pains me to say it, because it makes me realize I’m getting old (little things like talking about 1995)… but these developers are bringing with them a new passion, a new energy, a new excitement that many of us old-timers lack.  And we need to make sure we are providing them with a community in which we can help them learn, but also provide a community that lets them channel this energy and passion – as they are our future leaders.

Pretending problems do not exist does not solve them.  Changing hearts and minds does.  And that’s why I’m writing this post, not to be critical of anyone, not to attack anyone, not even to express my opinions (of which I have many), but first and foremost to show that the COMMUNITY supports Amy, every other woman, and every other programmer that is respectful and eager to be a part of it.

“The women-in-tech topic is a cliche”

Here is my extra hate tweets topic.  Some people are tired of hearing about this, without question.  But the reason is pretty simple – they don’t understand what’s going on.  Many people who have tried to help have felt victimized by the very people they’re trying to help.  In the movement for equality I have seen the community split, just like our political parties with extremists on both sides.  But some people in the community are so hurt and so angry that they are ready to lash out at anyone for any simple misunderstanding – even if they’re trying to help.  Instead of educating and helping them grow and understand, they demoralize them.  Think about that, think about how you are approaching people – when they leave are they encouraged to help, or do they feel demoralized and as if they are somewhat of a lesser being because they lacked the experiences and education that you have?

I’m not saying you have to agree with me, but rather that you should be willing to talk to me when my views are different, engage with me, be willing to listen and hear out my thoughts, and be willing to share your thoughts.  I have pissed off a LOT of people in my life, but I’ve found that just sitting down and talking with them clears a lot of the air.

So yes, there are some people who think the topic is cliche, but we can fix that- through education and awareness.  But again, that requires patience and understanding- something that we all struggle with on topics we’re passionate about.

And for those of you that feel this is cliche, or talked about too much…  here’s a quick thought from Amy:

Sometimes, I want to scream “I TALK ABOUT THINGS OTHER THAN WOMEN IN TECH TOO.

We don’t WANT to be having these conversations, we want to be talking about other things, like code.  We want to focus on the conference we’re at, not just the jerks that ruin it for all of us.  But the sad truth is, we can’t.  Not until the community is as accepting of others as it was of me.

Police Matters

Last but not least, I wanted to go on a quick tangent and try and to provide a little bit of advice in regards how to handle people contacting you without your permission.  Keep in mind I’m not a lawyer, and this advice should not be construed as such (but seriously, how cool would it be if I was).

When people get ahold of our personal information, it can be scary, especially when they send us messages disagreeing with us or asking us to be silent.  That in itself is not a crime…  However, if you are uncomfortable, you should never fear involving the Police as they can give you the best advice.

If you simply want the conversation to stop, the best thing you can do is send a written message (if contacted via SMS, email) back telling the person to NOT contact you again.  If an SMS, take a picture of your phone screen, or save the email.  If the person does contact you again after that, in many states it is considered harassment and the Police can deal with it.  Until that point, until you tell them to stop contacting you, in many states it is not considered harassment unless they are sending vile or threatening messages.

In that case, without question and hesitation contact law enforcement.  Someone who is willing to send vile, or worse threatening messages may be just trying to play a prank or scare you – but if they are willing to do that, the question becomes at what point are they willing to stop.  Never play games with your safety.

A Final Thought

Whether or not you agree with me, please understand where my heart is.  I know that there are lot of opinions on these matters, and as someone who has been working as a developer for over a decade, I wanted to share my views and what I’ve seen.  And I wanted to make sure that everyone understands that the community is behind you and will support you as long as you are a respectful community member.  We will not tolerate harassment, and while I am definitely not a fan of political correctness, we need to make sure we are acting in ways that are respectful and inclusive of others.

At a professional event, it’s great to have beers and joke around – but remember where you are.  Remember you represent yourself and your company.  It’s not the time to be making lewd jokes or harassing others.  It’s the time to learn, network, and grow in the community.

And if you experience these things, let people know.  Let the conference organizer know (we take these things very seriously), make your friends aware of it, and if inclined, share a blog post helping us understand your experience (but I would ask that you do so to educate the community, in a helpful and productive way as Amy and many others have done, and that means names/ contact information isn’t necessary to share).

With that I would like to thank Amy for sharing her experiences, and all of my friends who have shared other experiences in confidence, and leave you with these last thoughts by Amy:

Dear reader, I hope that after this follow-up, that you have a better understanding of where I am coming from. That you stay intolerant of any form of harassment, yet excited about the awesome community surrounding hackathons.

We owe it to ourselves and our peers to build an inclusive community.

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