Sexism in Tech: Don’t Ask Me Unless You’re Ready To Call Somebody a Whistleblower

I’ve got a lot of almost-rehearsed level responses to most questions about sexism in tech. I spent some time researching them. Each of them has to be well-researched whether I’m interested in the topic or not, but they are all worded mildly and inoffensively because I fear being labeled as a liability.

If you asked the most honest, insecure version of me for an answer, I would probably reply “Please don’t ask me,” but I never say that, because I am a proud woman, and I don’t want to be called a coward.

Nor is it that I don’t care. I care a lot. I feel like I have to care, and I can’t imagine any real way to escape it. These things are uncontroversially severe and unacceptable in our society, and we are point-blank not handling them.

On two occasions, my employers have offered me bribes to leave quietly because they were worried about sexual harassment claims either slightly before or after dramatic percentages of women either transferred to another department, quit, or were removed. I had not brought any harassment concerns forward prior to either offer. In both cases I have reason to believe I was the only woman offered financial compensation. I have spoken at a professional conference and had about two dozen drunk fully grown men shout-chant at me to take my shirt off, becoming louder and growing more numerous the longer nobody responded to them. Security did nothing, and I was on my own to de-escalate the situation.

I have been raped by a colleague — not just once, but several times over months. A second colleague at a different institution held me against a wall against my objections and struggles and hit me with objects for his own amusement. My female colleagues told me later that he raped some of them, and in much the same way I had been raped by my rapist. I’ve had a colleague scream at me that everything good I ever had was given to me because I was a girl and that if were a boy, nobody would even know my name. He screamed it in public to humiliate me. The worst part was that, as I told him to go fuck himself and tried not to cry, I couldn’t prove to myself that what he said wasn’t true. Nor could I prove it to myself later, lying awake in bed.

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship. The first incident happened when I was 14. Neither my rapist nor the man who hit me was at one of the places where I was offered a bribe.

Though others have surely seen worse and not all women have the same experience I do, I have seen things that nobody should have to put up with at work. I have seen these and a thousand others, some tiny, some giant. I’m not brave enough to write some of the things I have seen, because they are too easily traced back to individuals I don’t want to pick a fight with. Saying there is sexism in tech is a very risky business, and walking around confidently with a “do your worst” attitude attracts those who would like to try.

There is one thing you know about every single person who has ever complained about an act of sexism loudly enough for the public to notice: They worry that they will be seen as liabilities for the rest of their career. No whistleblower has ever been given a “team player” award by the organization they spoke ill of. That shouldn’t be too foreign a concept: people we call whistleblowers, who outed the wrongs of government or industry, certainly aren’t doing it for personal gain. In this way, sexual harassment whistleblowing is the same as any other kind of whistleblowing. Consider Mark Klein, who in 2006 blew the whistle on AT&T and the NSA for mass surveillance of Americans, or Thomas Andrews Drake who helped expose the NSA’s Trailblazer project and was later charged under the Espionage Act. Despite doing the nation a service, neither of these men have been protected by the community they helped police. It is unlikely that anything a whistleblower on sexism in tech shows will be nearly as clear cut, nor is the public likely to rally around them. Realistically, only bad things happen to the whistleblower. So when someone tries to discredit one, ask yourself — what could the whistleblower’s motive possibly be? They’re knowingly ruining their own lives.

However, we don’t call anybody who talks about sexism in tech a whistleblower. Even their staunchest allies don’t call them that. We aren’t that generous with words.

Nevertheless, any whistleblower on any topic risks everything, hoping they can prove both the actual wrongdoing, and that they aren’t doing this for personal gain. People who don’t believe you will consider you an enemy and call you “traitor” or “attention whore,” but never whistleblower, and people who haven’t bothered to research enough to form an opinion will call you a “liability.”

Let’s define some terms. I’ll call the belief that the whistleblower is telling the truth “factual trust” and the belief that the whistleblower isn’t doing this for personal gain “motivational trust.” A person who has both factual and motivational trust in you is your ally (and you’re theirs). A person who lacks either trust considers you an “enemy.” Those who haven’t made up their minds yet are normally waiting for more facts to be brought to them, but normally a topic loses communal interest long before the entire truth comes out. This means your claims are left as “unknown” and the community winds up leaving you forever marked as a “liability”.

I’m not afraid of people who have made a real, rational effort to understand my position and still decided I am their enemy. I can’t think of anything I could gain from this, and by not naming anybody, I’m making it clear I’m not doing it for revenge. All that’s left is the truth I’m bringing forward. Nothing is universally accepted, from a controversial issue like what health benefits organic food specifically provides, to something pretty widely accepted except by a select few, like the concept that we landed on the moon. Since all I’m claiming here is that sexism in tech is generally pervasive and toxic, my enemies have to believe that these things are physically impossible and consequently could not have happened to me. If there even exist people who believe such a thing, I don’t care what they think of me because we won’t work together well regardless. If these people are so pervasive that they’re inescapable in tech, then I’ll have to leave anyway, so I might as well find that out sooner than later.

What I fear instead is being labeled a liability. When somebody calls you a liability, it means they don’t care whether you were doing something noble or just exploiting the system for personal gain. They just know there was some controversy around you. This is the horrible default bucket any woman who tries to speak up falls into, this terrible place where newspapers write things like “Employee Accuses Former Employer Of…”. Society hasn’t examined the facts enough to really come to a conclusion, and so even in casual conversation people say things like “allegedly”. Nobody wants to take a side and the story dies out in people’s minds before the truth comes out. The impact on the would-be whistleblower is tremendous.

This is a terrible place to be if you can’t immediately leave the freshly-kicked hornet’s nest of an industry. Maybe you’ll get threats of personal violence from those enemies, but they’ll lose interest eventually. Scarier are those who either can’t bother to research for themselves or were convinced by a well-researched enemy that you’re a liability. People are going to pass you over for jobs because they think you might stir up trouble. Even if you aren’t directly passed over, it counts in the other candidates’ favor. To some degree, anybody who ever challenges the status quo accepts this, because humans are too lazy to check their facts. Altruism is required to make progress, but tech is a closely-knit network and being considered a liability has far-reaching consequences.

Some people think the personal gain is such a common motive they won’t even check if their assumption makes sense. Those people are even scarier. They’ll just assume you’re a liability (or downright malicious) unless they spontaneously ingest overwhelming evidence you aren’t. If everybody around you falls into this bucket, you’ve paid the price but not been heard. You’re now blacklisted but without accomplishing change in the system. Before people can come forward and talk about their experiences of sexism in tech, they need to trust that this isn’t going to happen to them. Otherwise they are either playing the odds with their employability or being self-destructive.

Honestly, I’m still dodging the question of sexism in tech. We already know rape is bad and that the long list of things I listed as “unquestionably unacceptable” are widely accepted to be, in fact, unquestionably unacceptable. It’s even harder to talk about the things that could be questionably acceptable if you didn’t have the backdrop of the far worse things which have happened, and which I believe happen fairly commonly to women in tech. I want to talk about the question more directly.

Honestly though, I have no idea how to talk about this stuff. I don’t know if we’re even able to talk about things like rape, which are blatantly unacceptable as a society. Did you know 4% of the men surveyed on an American college campus self-identified as rapists? As in, when asked if they had sex with somebody who either was in no position to say no or in the man’s estimation was physically unable to say no, 4% of men said “yes.” Half of those were repeat rapists, and those individuals averaged 5.8 victims. Similar results were found when surveying American armed forces. Why isn’t that fact brought up at every discussion about professional equality? How are we to discuss the subtle ways college-educated women are made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace if we can’t discuss the very obvious ways college-aged women are made uncomfortable by being raped? How many times do we need to watch people discuss this as someone else’s problem, instead of taking a serious look at our culture to see if it’s here too?

This culture of avoidance is very prevalent in tech. In the last 3 years, I was asked not to use the words “sexism” or “racism” when speaking on a diversity panel because it might make the audience uncomfortable. The person who asked this had significant financial stake in the institution I worked for. Explaining that I was uncomfortable with that request was pretty hard.

Silicon Valley at least seems to understand that culture is important, but a lot of times when we talk about cultural power imbalances we default to a minimum standard of avoiding liability instead of actually handling problems. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever seen a sexual harassment seminar or mandatory-video-to-watch which strove to be anything more than plausible deniability fodder. Most seminars or videos seem to try to scare would-be harassers into not bringing liability on to the company. The companies want to avoid lawsuits at least as much, if not more, than they want to protect their female employees. I’m not sure it is any sort of improvement.

Here’s a non-comprehensive litmus test for if your workplace equality efforts are working or not: do they try to give the impression that workplace inequality is “under control?” Everything I have read and seen says sexism is not under control in tech, and that it is in fact wildly out of control. Sexism in tech is not a thing to be kept “under control.” It is the sort of thing that, when properly investigated, will fundamentally change the balance of power (in this case between genders), like any revelation a whistleblower brings forward would!

Your efforts to enable whistleblowers need to protect them, but also need to involve all the tools used in any response to other shocking revelations: investigation, fact finding and statistic taking, and continued dedicated study. If your reactions to the issues of sexism in tech are crafted out of fear that a scandal will rock your safe place, if you only threaten punishments to your would-be harassing-employees and never educate them, point to a diversity hire, or point to a position you have created for this purpose and haven’t touched in years, you are keeping the status quo rather than actually tackling our societal problems.

I had a boss once who knew he was sexist (also homophobic and transphobic), but was trying to get over it. He said some incredibly dumb things, like offering to have a company meeting at a strip club. He genuinely had bizarre concepts of what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior. He was ashamed of this and really trying to improve. Listening to him quote the sexual harassment seminars was the saddest bit: on one hand he was really trying, but on the other, everything he was quoting made absolutely no sense. I frequently found him putting so much effort in where it didn’t really matter, like obsessively counting how many times he had asked a man vs a woman to carry heavy equipment. He always seemed overloaded with things to remember about “not being sexist” and afraid to get something wrong. It seemed almost heartless to risk getting him in trouble.

On the whole, however, I don’t hold against him all the inappropriate things he did. The best I could do was kindly remind my boss when something made me uncomfortable, but he always looked panicked when I did. I didn’t want to get him in trouble; in fact, half of my comments to him started with phrases like “you know people are going to take it the wrong way if they hear you saying that.” I wish my male peers had helped him more in this regard. I feel they could have done it without making my boss feel like he was being directly threatened with a huge HR complaint. It’s a real shame for our tech culture that there is no way to get somebody tutored about what is and isn’t appropriate without also landing them in deep trouble.

Frankly, between the people who are mistreated because they are seen as persecutors, those who are seen as self-promoting, and those seen as liars, whistleblowing for sexism in tech is getting really unattractive for anybody who isn’t willing to leave the tech industry. We’re in a difficult place though because if we are asked and we deny that anything wrong went on, we know we’ll just be trotted out as evidence against any actual whistleblower to show that nothing is wrong and they are just making stuff up. If we decline to comment, we’re seen as cowards. It’s not a pretty situation to be in.

What needs to change is three-fold.

The first thing needed is pretty simple: In all organizations, demand that there exists a code of conduct and clear method to report misconduct. Imagine right now that you have just witnessed something inappropriate in your workplace, at a conference or in a community. Do you have a place you could report it? Do you trust that it would be handled properly, or would they just try to avoid liability? Do you believe you would personally suffer for making such a report? If you’re not comfortable with any of those answers, you have work to do. Reconsider what systems have been created, and fight for ones that treat this like a whistleblowing issue, not something to be “kept under control.”

Second, while there will always be truly malicious people, most people just don’t realize the harm of their action. There needs to be correction without punishment for people who are not malicious. With such a mechanism in place, people who see sexism in action can help fix it. At the same time, it allows those who are doing things wrong to learn in a safe environment. For more about this approach, check out some of the great articles about call-in culture. The goal is simple here: help your well-intentioned friends figure out they are hurting people without making it seem like a threat or shaming. It’s easiest for you if you aren’t the one being wronged. This step is important because whistleblowers need allies, and we need people to not be afraid of announcing they are allies. This means two things: One, that we be welcoming and patient with those striving to be better, and two, that our allies (and those of us trying to lead the charge) be committed to self-improvement whenever the opportunity presents.

Third, and most important, is making a serious personal commitment to solving this. You’re tired of hearing about this “women in tech” stuff, and we’re tired of living it, but there are some big issues here, and we’re not going to solve them by pretending they don’t exist because we’re bored or afraid of them. We need serious discussions, and we have to have educated opinions about what’s wrong and how to fix it. We need to mull these ideas around until we come to some combination of hard data and cultural consensus before we can get meaningful change.

Making a personal commitment means forming an opinion on more than just the broad concepts. It also requires learning about specific instances of harassment. Spend enough time reading material from both sides to develop a well-informed opinion, or be honest about not knowing enough. Don’t defend an opinion that isn’t well thought through. Then, use that opinion to make sure whistleblowing is taken seriously. When we fail to engage whistleblowing in our own lives or in institutions we deal with, we’re hanging the whistleblowers out to dry. At best, we allow them to be marked as “liabilities”; at worst, we leave them to suffer from enemies we don’t care to protect them against.

For clarity, I’m going to now state my three specific requests:

  1. Make sure the systems to handle malicious abuses of power against women have teeth, and that they seek to let the disenfranchised blow the whistle, rather than simply “keeping stuff under control.”
  2. Help your well-intentioned peers who are still making mistakes do better without threatening them or humiliating them.
  3. Make a public commitment to taking potential whistleblowers seriously. Commit to educating yourself, to having an opinion, and, if you believe the whistleblower’s claims might have merit, to helping. Live up to that commitment.

Sure, if I wake up and there are some #Whistleblower hashtags tomorrow, that will be cute. But I’d prefer we get some meaningful, lasting change. I hope we decide we are ready to listen with the sort of radical honesty that will make change possible. I hope we’re ready to commit to spending the time helping our culture figure this out, so that people who care won’t be left looking like liabilities. Above all, I hope we’re ready to promise people that talking about this is worth the risk, and then to make good on that promise. I want us to promise that if we see something wrong we’ll say something instead of looking away again and leaving the would-be whistleblower vulnerable.

I chose not to make this a personal piece, because the message is universal. Still, I can’t help adding one personal note, if you’ll bear with me:

If you’re not ready to make a commitment to being part of the solution, don’t ask me to speak publicly about sexism in tech. It’s not that I’m scared (though I am), it’s because you’ll be asking me to take serious professional risk for no purpose at all.

Katy Levinson is a human, and doesn’t think naming all of her previous employers in a bio is the appropriate thing to do in this article, so she’s going to thank everybody who edited this instead and has chosen to be named here: Ali Sajid Imami, Xe, Joe Mathes, Stephen Weeks, Matt Arnold, Karol Kuczmarski. Katy writes sporadically for random places, but normally links to them on her crappy wordpress blog, and has a twitter.

This essay was later added to Lean Out, an intersectional anthology of essays from LGBT, minority and women writers about the “state of women in tech.” It could be argued that the author has now “benefited from” whistleblowing in that she has been promised $200 for the book and she spent a few hours on on the front page of minor websites, but she feels that this is still a net loss considering the attacks on (and loss of control of) her personal retirement account which stemmed from the public response to this essay. Here is another essay from the Lean Out book which is available online for free and totally badass.

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