Combating Sexism in Tech With Honesty: The Impact of Upload’s Silence

Danny Bittman
Sep 11, 2017 · 9 min read

I was the Creative Producer at Upload until most of the Upload San Francisco staff and I quit after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against its founders. We used to love Upload for its reach and ambition, but our trust in the company has faltered since our departure. These are my thoughts on bro culture in tech and the impact of Upload’s silence.

Upload jump-started my career and made me feel welcome when I moved to San Francisco by myself. Will and Taylor treated me extremely well, and I once viewed them as both my mentors and friends. That’s why this whole ordeal shatters me. I’m so saddened by the fact that not everyone felt as welcome as I did. It makes me second guess how much I let slide under my nose in the name of trying to please other men. And it sucks to watch the men I used to look up to slide into a reality that I can’t endorse.

I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts on this situation for months, but when I tried to write things down, I ended up with a mishmash of multiple drafts until I had about 15 pages of repetitive gibberish that I was too nervous to share. I was about ready to let this go and move on, as I had done so many times this summer, when the sound of my doubts rang one last time. That’s when I realized I was fighting myself.

“If I speak up, will men I respect still do the things I’m trying to speak up against? Will those men think less of me? Will they stop wanting to hang out with me? Am I taking things too far?”

“Well shit,” I thought, as I leaned back in my chair. Here I was, trying to support gender equality, and yet all I could think about was censoring my words to solely protect the feelings of men. I was subconsciously prioritizing men over women, and that scared the shit out of me. But arriving at these realizations should be celebrated; it became another opportunity for me to acknowledge my faults and actively reprogram the parts of my mind that are still littered by casual sexism. So screw it, here’s what I have to say.

Bro Culture Today… Still

It’s “cool” to talk about sex in the privacy of men, because refraining from or dismissing such talk can be alienating. It’s time to flip that logic.

Most guys go along with sex talk purely because they want to be socially accepted, especially when they meet a new group of guys, or start a new job. The last thing a guy wants to do on their first day of work is call out other men for being objectifying/sexist. The men will probably start thinking less of the new guy, and possibly avoid inviting him to the bar since he’d ruin their “fun.” So when an executive at the company asks the new guy what he thinks of the short shorts a woman at the office is wearing, the new guy will most likely smile and go along with it.

The inertia of moments like these is unbounded. Once the new guy agrees with these comments, or makes one of his own, the other men will congratulate him with warm laughs of agreement. Dopamine will rush through his cerebral cortex, and he’ll eagerly assemble another zinger to chase the high. The whole thing is like a creepy initiation processes that teaches men about the direct correlation between objectification and male social acceptance.

Men that do this will probably stop me here to say this is a double standard, and that women do the same thing. But that is so far beyond the point.

Of course women talk about sex and have the ability to objectify men. But we’re talking about the tech industry, a place over-saturated by men solely because of how men perceive and undermine women’s accomplishments due to objectification, not the other way around.

I’ll make this simpler. The more you hear about, talk about, or contribute to a belief of someone, the more that belief is reinforced as the primary attribute of that person. And so while men think their “fun” objectifying talk is harmless, what they’re really doing is training their brains to only see sexual objects when they talk with women.

Since men mostly do this when women aren’t around, it turns into a game. Let’s imagine a fictitious situation for a moment. Jill, a programmer, hands off her latest work to her boss John, who is sitting with a group of guys. John and the guys thank her and act respectfully, but the moment she’s out of earshot John only comments on her body, not her work. In the mind of these men, John’s words have zero impact on Jill’s life since she isn’t present for this conversation. In other words, it’s just “locker room talk.”

But that’s bullshit.

The moment Jill returns to discuss a new project concept, the men will without a doubt be thinking about the objectifying comments John just made while doing sneaky double takes to make sure those comments were accurate. They miss half of her pitch, and then dismiss her concept for its lack of structure. While they may claim that their thoughts during their second interaction with Jill were natural/unconscious/human nature/uncontrollable, their words spoken in private that created those thoughts were totally avoidable and made consciously.

The way Billy Bush and Donald Trump talked to Arianne Zucker after their “locker room talk” in that access Hollywood video is probably the most famous example of this. Billy’s excuse for going along with Trump? He felt like he had to in order to appear cool in front of someone he viewed as superior. While I believe Billy would have said that stuff anyway, his comment is telling.

I don’t enjoy talking about sex a lot, and yet I always feel a certain amount of peer pressure when the subject is brought up. I used to just nervously laugh when my friends objectified women, and sometimes say things like, “Oh yeah? Wow, that’s awesome man,” and then try to switch the conversation as soon as possible. But I’ve come to understand that this reaction is just as bad since it makes it clear to men that their actions and words are socially acceptable.

To help combat this, we need leaders who acknowledge the existence of these problems and will lead by example with accountability. Passive silence isn’t an answer. The men in our community need to have the guts to recognize and do something to address the damaging, accumulative effect of sexualizing women in the workplace.

The Week Upload’s Lawsuit Went Public.

When I quit my job at Upload, I made it clear that I did so because I didn’t support Will, Taylor, and Avi’s quick denial of doing anything wrong. I only worked at the company for three months, I didn’t have a clear picture of everything that was going on, but I knew it wasn’t perfect. It was my first full-time job and I figured that its dysfunction was normal. It was only once the news broke that both the men and women at the company started feeling more comfortable talking about the problems we thought we were only individually experiencing. We got together to compare notes without Will and Taylor present.

The issues were laid out on a fairly equal spectrum that detailed issues about sexism, and just flat-out bad leadership that didn’t have anything to do with gender. Everyone felt overworked, some people felt left out of the process and lied to, and above all, everyone was disgusted by what they read in that TechCrunch article. It didn’t take long before we began to notice all the discrepancies between truths, and the similarities in the things we thought we might have just been over reacting to. The truth became stupidly obvious to us; there totally is “merit” to Elizabeth’s allegations.

But we didn’t know how to express that. Everyone felt they’d be misunderstood by the media, and we all only had pieces of truth that only added up when everyone added their piece to the puzzle. Shock, confusion, and anger is the best way to describe how we felt.

The thing is, we all came to this realization before Will and Taylor pulled us together on a series of conference calls that week. So when they tried to convince us that they were telling the truth, and that the allegations were just an overreaction, we went absolutely insane on them.

They said they felt bad for what they were putting us through, and that they would do anything we wanted to make things right.

We said tell the truth or step down.

Then they acted like they never offered to do anything and denied the validity of the truth.

There was a brief moment there where we really thought we could fix this situation, start a conversation with the community and create positive change. But that moment died as fast as the Koolaid man attempting to burst through a concrete wall only to shatter into a million pieces of red sugarcoated glass. And so we quit.

That analogy may sound stupid, but that’s how stupid their decision to stay silent felt to us.

It’s a shame that we were all afraid to share how we truly felt before this lawsuit happened. I think that’s the most important thing to analyze and address now. I’m doubtful that Upload and it’s founders ever will (Please prove me wrong, Upload).

When we were employees, we used to believe in Upload’s vision to inspire, educate, and entertain our community, but now that vision is tainted by a lack of respect and accountability. Upload’s silence makes it hard for both women and men to speak up, because why would anyone speak up against inequality if even one of the largest influences in VR/AR isn’t held accountable for their actions? They could have become role models by showing the importance of admitting ones faults in regards to gender equality.

But their radio snow just continues to fall.

People ask me about Upload all the time at VR/AR events, and they usually approach the topic in a very cautious manner. I have tried to be honest about my perspective (about half of what I’ve written here), and every time I get the same response. A noticeable weight is lifted from their shoulders, and they begin to express how they genuinely feel. It’s usually the same.

Shock. Confusion. Anger.

What follows is often stories of their own encounters with Upload.

This whole situation has created a strange dynamic in the community. Even if Upload shares some crazy news about a VR experience, it’s hard not to feel a little slimy about the fact that the articles being shared by Upload. And that sucks, because the allegations are against the founders, not the media team or the work-from-home writers and who can’t just quit on a dime due to the small and competitive nature of VR/AR journalism.

Accountability & Action

The only way Will and Taylor can begin to regain my respect is if they speak up about the issue, admit that they made mistakes, and talk to the public about it without lawyers speaking for them, and soon.

If you’re a man in the industry and you notice these problems, speak up against the oppressor. If a woman you know is being objectified by their coworkers or boss, let them know. When men talk in private they think they’re safe. Prove them wrong. For executives accused of this level of mistreatment, its time to step down. An apology is rarely enough.

We must set a standard surrounding accountability, both in public and in the privacy of men. If Upload chooses to remain passive on the issue, then let them, because they don’t have to be our voice. Those of us who choose to ask questions and learn from past mistakes will have more impact on the industry anyways. If you are mistreated, there’s still a large part of our community that is willing to help and support you. We’re here, we acknowledge the authenticity of your emotions, and we’re willing to listen.

Humans are finally working together to build a whole new freaking universe through VR/AR, and the only way we can do that right, is if we’re honest and open with each other.

Are you a woman and have experienced sexual harassment in the VR/AR industry? Be sure to join the AR VR Women And Allies Facebook group. The founders and members of this group are dedicated to inclusivity and gender equality in the VR/AR space.

Danny Bittman

Written by

I’m a Virtual Reality Artist working with immersive creation tools like Tilt Brush, Blocks, and Unity to develop VR experiences. You can follow me @dannybittman

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