This industry and living life on the lowest difficulty setting..
Today I once again stumbled upon Jessie Frazelle’s blog post ‘This Industry is Fucked’. And today it made me even angrier than normal. You see, my biggest problem right now is that I have three different conference presentations in three weeks and barely enough time to prepare for them all. But Jessie’s problem is that whenever she walks on stage she’ll be getting rape & death threats. And it is easy to say to ignore it, that they aren’t serious, but just receiving those messages would exert a mental toll that has to be (almost) unbearable. Certainly not ignoreable.
And all this reminds me again and again about an article I read a few years ago by John Scalzi called ‘Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is’. I keep seeing that pattern over and over again. It not that we straight white men have it easy, but in the general game of life it is easier for us than any other demographic.
I worry about not getting accepted to conferences. Jessie has to worry that if she gets accepted what happens now it is public where she will be at a given time.
I recently put my Twitter handle on all my slides to make it easier for people to interact with me. I can imagine Jessie (and many other women I know) would worry about how much extra harassment that will bring.
My biggest fear when speaking at conferences? That that one guy stands up during Q&A and goes on a three minute monologue that has nothing to do with my talk, dropping names & jargon left and right and ends with: ‘What is your opinion on that?’. I occassionaly have people disagree with me.. the horror! But not quite on the same having as having to fear to be sexually assaulted at a tech conference.
One of my worst experiences in open-source was a few weeks ago when a maintainer closed the pull request I worked on for four hours with the words: ‘Not needed’. No death threats, no rape threats and no dick pics.
And the thing that gets me really riled up is that Jessie is doing awesome work for our industry. She isn’t taking away any of your toys, but has instead been instrumental in getting Docker to the state it is. That tool that is completely redefining the IT industry. She is a better developer than you and I, probably combined.
And that is why we Straight White Males are playing the game of life on the lowest difficulty settings. I don’t have to worry about an entire class of problems (No harassment is like having unlimited ammo in a shooter).
But it goes much beyond those big, ugly excesses. It is also small stuff that happens every single day. Being a Straight White Male means people listen to the actual words that come out of my mind when making up an opinion about it. As I have mentioned before I have an unconscious bias against women in IT (like pretty much everyone else) and I have been working extremely hard over the last year or two to counter-act that. The most important improvement is that I can often sense it happening, often too late, sometime just in time.
So I was interviewing a woman a while ago that had a resume that was decent, but had a few potential problems in it. But most importantly I found her unattractive. You read that right. During the entire interview I could feel my brain trying to justify rejecting her based on those potential resume problems. But whenever I delved into them it turns out they were nothing. She was experienced, had the right mindset & attitude and dressed & acted professionally. I almost didn’t progress her through because she wasn’t my type. And that stuff scares me shitless. How many women get rejected every single day because a male interviewer does not find her attractive. This is one of the many reasons to never interview someone from the opposite gender alone btw.
And the list goes on and on. A month after giving birth to our daughter my wife went to a Meetup with two international thought leaders. The first question from about half the people she spoke to? Well-educated, polite and generally nice people? ‘Oh.. What are you doing here? Where is Erwin?’ Maybe she was there for exactly the same thing everyone was there for? Professional Development? Learning cool shit and networking? And Erwin was at home looking after the baby. Speaking of which.. No one has ever asked me how it was to get back to work after the baby. Or how I am juggling work and child care.
And it start so so young too. My daughter is 1.5 years old now and there is almost no media that isn’t sexist to some degree. Once seen it can’t be unseen. Great example is a Peppa Pig book she got a while ago. Peppa drops her teddy bear from the balloon; Daddy saves him. Mrs Rabbit flies the balloon in the tree; granddad saves them; Grandma bakes cake.
The doctor in the nursery rhyme is a man. The car that mama drives has a baby in it. In a song the boys have to pick a girl to dance with. And when there are two boys that want to dance with the same girl, the girl says that unfortunately the other boy asked her first. But he can try again next dance. Because it is obviously not possible for her to have a preference. First come first serve.
But the thing that makes me most livid is a booklet we picked up at the Penguin Parade on Philip Island. In it a girl penguin tries to change the behaviour of the group. And she get’s called ‘bossy’ on every single page except the last, when she finally asks the group nicely. Exactly what we should not be telling our girls. That they can’t be assertive, but need to be nice and proper. This is pre-school reading for crying out loud.
So fellow Straight White Males, it isn’t a piece to make you feel bad about you have accomplished, but hopefully a wake up call that while you worked hard for what you have, other people have to work twice or more as hard to get to the same point. It is up to us to help fix that gap and level the playing field to give everyone the same opportunities we have gotten for free.
This is a wicked problem with no easy solutions, but we have to start somewhere. I have started doing a bunch of small things to try and change my behaviour and the people around me. I am trying to get rid of the phrase ‘hey guys’ when addressing mixed groups, not complementing girls on their appearance, but engage in their interests, like you would with boys. I am working my way through the Feminist Frequency Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. I am actively working on recognizing my unconscious biases, changing how I do recruitment and mentoring women that want to get into public speaking.
What are other things I (and other people that are interested in levelling the playing field) can do?