What to Do When the Tech Failboat Sails

Posted Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 at 7:51 pm

The tech world is no stranger to occasional outbreaks of Sexism!Fail, but the past two weeks have seen a rare double instance of it. Naturally, I’ve got to speak up. By the way, for anyone who missed the events, here are a pair of quick recaps:

And now, my responses to these items, and to some of the reporting surrounding them.

Get Mad, Make Noise

In both cases, the problems were flagged, and then ultimately stopped, because people spoke out about them and publicly called the sexists to task. In the second case, it took just one person speaking out to raise the ruckus that revealed Geeklist’s founders’ sexism and rampaging entitlement issues. In fact, their own issues were part of what made it so effective.

One point that hasn’t been addressed much is the insistent demands of Geeklist’s founders that Shanley Kane contact them privately instead of airing the issue on Twitter. If Ms. Kane had gone along with that, Sanz and Katz wouldn’t have had to listen to her at all. They wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that every entitled, arrogant response they made just dragged their public reputation further down into the gutter. They could have made their subtle, implied threats about her job in private, where nobody else could see how chillingly[1] creepy they[2] were. And when they were tired, they could have just shut down the conversation, with no consequences.

But Kane was smart enough not to fall into that trap. And besides, she was right: As she pointed out to them, their video was “in public and it merits a public response.” A public insult does not get to demand a private response. Once it’s out there on the public Internet, on the street… that’s where the conversation is.

It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

Cnet blogger Ben Parr weighed in on these issues (as well as BusinessWeek’s “brogrammer” article). In the main, I agree with his call for more women in technology and engineering, and his call for an eng/tech culture that’s more friendly to women.

But I have a quibble with his claim that “building that culture requires having more women in technology.” While I agree that having more women in tech would certainly make that culture-building easier, I don’t think it’s one hundred percent necessary. We can make tech culture friendlier to women with one, simple, easy move:

Have the men in tech stop being sexist dicks.

Ben Parr implies that if there were women in Sqoot’s or Geeklist’s executive or marketing teams, they might have raised warning flags about their companies’ sexist behaviors. But it shouldn’t require an actual female to say, “Hey, wait a second, this sounds like something a sexist asshole wrote, and maybe we shouldn’t print it”. It should be just as easy for a man to say the exact same thing.

Women should not have to bear the whole burden of noticing and calling out sexism. Heck, if you believe Geeklist, it was a woman who produced their video in the first place! (However, if you believe Design Like Whoa’s Gemma Aguiar, Geeklist actually commissioned the video themselves. Who do you trust?)

Please note: I’m not saying that improving men’s behavior will fix everything. I’m just saying that it’s a damned good start. I’m saying that since men — or, really, immature little boys in men’s bodies — are the primary drivers of sexism and misogyny in the tech world, improving their behavior cannot help but make “a culture that is more friendly to [women]”, as Ben Parr asks for. Adding more women would be very beneficial, and I’m all for it, but it’s not a prerequisite.

I agree with Parr that it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. But that’s not an excuse for men to say, “Well, we can’t do anything until more women get involved.” We can improve it on our own, without waiting for anyone else.

We can do that today. Every day.

Just like this blog post. And just like Shanley Kane speaking out on Twitter. Because, really, her words didn’t require a woman to say them. They just required anyone to say them. And the same goes for Coda Hale, Johnny Diggz, Kevin Marks, Emily Rose, and other people who spoke up and got involved.

I Think It’s Getting Better

I don’t have hard numbers on this. It’s just my general impression, as someone who’s followed idiotic Sexist!Fail incidents in high-tech for over a decade now:

Every one of these incidents involves a fair number of people who make excuses for sexism and the status quo. “She just needs to lighten up!”, “It was just a joke!”, “Even if she has a point, she shouldn’t be so shrill about it”, and all the other excuses that are so common, they’ve been put on bingo cards so we can keep track of them all. Of course, we can never completely get rid of the people who want to drag us back to the Bad Old Days.

But it felt to me like the general ratio of comments — on both of these incidents — was skewed much closer to the feminist end of the spectrum, and further away from the sexist end. I was pleased to see lots of people[3] actively pointing out how unacceptable both of these incidents were, and only a few making excuses for it.

Let’s keep up the good work.

Aside from that, I’d like to call out the good behavior of Shanley Kane’s employer, Basho, who pointedly refused to be dragged into Geeklist’s attempts at intimidation, and also of Boston API Jam sponsors Apigee, Heroku, and MongoHQ, who publicly pulled their support for the event. I’d say, “let’s hope the responses will be even better next time”, but what I really want is:

Let’s hope there is no “next time”. Let’s work to make it so.

[1] The fact that “chilling” also refers to chilling effects is not a coincidence. ↑↑

[2] Does “they” refer to the threats, or to the people making them? Again, the ambiguity in my phrasing is not a coincidence. ↑↑

[3] Yes, of both (or all) genders — not that that it should matter, but it does make me happy that men in tech are stepping up to the plate, too. ↑↑

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