On the Wadhwa Within, and Leaving

“We call this a battle but what are we fighting for?” —Step Up 2: The Streets

We Are Mad at Vivek. According to Amelia Greenhall, this is Vivek and what he’s done. And who are “we”? Ostensibly, we are “women in tech,” but since that term hides more than it explains I’m going to tell you who I am.

I’m Kelsey. I’m a backend software developer, which means I ensure the information websites and apps need to function gets to them correctly, but I don’t know how to make them usable by humans. I grew up in San Francisco during the first dot com boom, but the first time I ever wrote code was at age 20 in a “programming for non-majors” college class. After looking at my career options I transferred into a Computer Science degree program from my previous major of Cultural Studies with a focus on sexual education. Through a combination of random accidents and semi-informed choices I ended up in backend engineering working in a relatively niche programming language. It’s been 3 years, 2 months, and 18 days since I’ve had another woman on my team. I write a lot of code, but because my job is about creating systems, there’s a lot of analysis and collaboration with other coworkers involved. I find the technical parts of my job intellectually stimulating and have been paid well as a developer since I graduated college.

I’m telling you this because I think it’s important to be exact about Wadhwa’s stated goals when he writes books, articles and talks about women in tech. Specifically, he claims to want more women in executive and board roles at large tech corporations and more women successfully taking venture capital funding as founders of tech startups. Personally, I am profoundly, deeply uninterested in any of those things. I’d like to stay employed and (far secondarily) continue to work at jobs that don’t bore me too much. I’ve been known to joke around in favor of Full Communism, but the truth is I’m too bougie: I really just love my cable television, cozy house in the neighborhood I grew up in, dental insurance and twice a year vacations way too much to be a true revolutionary. While I guess abstractly I want more women in tech, what I actually want is far more people of all genders and especially of non-white ethnicities and non-wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds to have access to the comforts I’m able to afford via a tech career. I support policies, movements, and leaders who get us closer to that. I have no reason to believe that what I’ve taken to calling the Maggie Thatcher school of tech feminism—anything boy CEOs do, we can do pregnant—does anything towards that goal, so I focus my energies elsewhere.

I wouldn’t make a good magazine profile, let alone a CEO or founder. I don’t want Wadhwa’s assistance or room on the stages he takes up. I don’t usually pay much attention to corporate pinkwashing and VC-focused entrepreneurship—what even is a VentureBeat?—but on this one, I have to say I’m mad too. Like many of you, I have followed each new condescending and co-opting development with simmering rage. Each new offense is so blatant and familiar he almost seems to be working from a playbook of how to undermine and overshadow women while claiming to support them. To be honest, it feels fantastic to be able to publicly rage against his tactics. We can say, or watch others say, the things we could never say to our bosses, coworkers and professional contacts who pull the exact same tricks on us in meetings and on social media. My anger at Wadhwa’s endless hole-digging comes not from the outlandishness of his toxic “advocacy” but because of how damn common it is.

That’s where my anger is coming from, and I can’t speak for others. I want to be careful not to police other people’s reactions—anger is great, especially women’s anger! The best skin care routine is flushing your cheeks with rage at least once daily! I will say, though, that I have felt a sinking feeling as Wadhwa’s media meltdown has begun in earnest, especially as I see male allies who I know are not drawing on direct experience take up the mantle. I can’t help but think about the concrete realities of our workplaces and the names we can’t denounce. Stop Wadhwa, by all means—he has repeatedly offended and needs to be stopped—but you know what would actually help me and my friends at work? Stopping the following:

  • dismissing work done by women as soft skills or not done by them at all
  • not taking ideas seriously until they’re stated by a man
  • doubting certain classes of people’s technical experience by default
  • making hiring and promotion decisions riddled with implicit bias
  • labeling assertive behavior differently depending on who’s performing it
  • spreading rumors, insulting, and verbally abusing coworkers
  • building informal mentorship networks that only admit people who look like you
  • not anticipating and mocking our fear of the possibility of assault and harassment in professional situations

Those are just some of the specific individual actions that form the passive and pervasive hostile environment for women in tech. They’re actions performed by the people around us—by our bosses, our coworkers, and, yes, our allies.

That’s why I’m wary of the villainization of Vivek Wadhwa. For all that he is cartoonishly bad, going after him full force has the effect of drawing a bright line between Good People who see and crow over the error of Wadhwa’s ways and Bad People like Vivek. The very best case scenario I can imagine coming out of this public battle is that people will be inspired to not want to “act like Vivek.” What I fully expect to see, though, is for this latest episode to be incorporated into a pattern of aggrieved defensiveness—“Are you saying I’m like that monster?” “You must have misunderstood, Jeff’s a good guy”—when bad behavior is called out. Our mythologies revolve around 10x heroes so it’s no surprise that we rush to create villains as well—but as Betsy Haibel lays out, these just-so stories prop up toxic, discriminatory cultures. In reality, people around us — both the mostly-nasty and the mostly-kind— take actions that create, maintain, and fail to challenge systems of oppression all the time, because we operate in a world set up to perpetuate these dynamics.

To be clear, nothing I’m saying is meant to be a defense of Wadhwa. Expelling bad actors who repeatedly harm marginalized people is necessary to meet a minimum standard of community decency. But it’s just that—a minimum. I do hope to see that glorious day when all the worst tech assholes are sentenced to a lifetime of horror on Monster Island at once, but I know that still wouldn’t leave us with a safe and inclusive industry. The narrative I am sorely missing here is the one of relatable, respected people realizing their actions are hurting others and taking explicit action to stop that behavior and remedy the hurt.

As much as I try to avoid any life lessons communicated through yoga, I’ve been chewing on this phenomenal article by Eileen Webb for a month. She writes about the familiar patterns we fall into when faced with discomfort, and how one might “be present with [your] urges, and choose differently.” I see, in the pile-on over Wadhwa, the incredibly common instinct to jump to action—any action—when injustice is on display. I hope we can also sit with our discomfort and interrogate our own actions. I am using “we” here deliberately because it is emphatically not just men in tech who perpetrate inequity.

Nicole Sanchez asked us, last week, Which Women in Tech? This is a critically important piece for us white women in tech to read—bluntly, if you shared pieces about the Wadhwa controversy but not this, it’s time to reexamine your network and your priorities. We blithely call the potential beneficiaries of a humbled Wadhwa “women in tech”, and in doing so we evade the clear fact that the success, visibility, and voice available to women in this field is still strictly constrained by race, class, ability and age. As a young cis white woman with a CS degree I have had the privilege to get my foot in many doors that are completely shut to others. Once inside, the price of continued acceptance has often been to explicitly distance myself from and even disavow any empathy for those who are shut out. I’ve justified this in order to make an economically secure life in my hometown of SF which has been rendered unlivable for nearly everyone except my coworkers by the industry I generate money for. I don’t like who I’ve become and the things I’ve done in order to claw for the scraps we’re unevenly allowed.

So, this is a the Day I Leave The Tech Industry piece. I’m not quite living out the mic-drop-as-I-board-a-jet-to-tropical-climes fantasy that we all have, but I’m still doing something pretty awesome: next week, I’ll be joining Sexual Health Innovations as their Director of Technology. I’m not going very far away—it’s still a programming job, and one funded by Google no less—and I wouldn’t even begin to pretend that the non-profit world doesn’t have its own deep issues. I don’t know that I won’t be back at a tech company soon. This little lateral move is a big step for me, though, to get some distance from an industry that has problems far, far bigger than just one man’s misbehavior and a clearer view on cognitive dissonance that had me feeling close to burning out entirely.

I’ve got feelings of all kinds about leaving, particularly about leaving backend development, but that could fill several other posts. Mostly, though, I am feeling hopeful. I hope to take the perspective to examine my own place in the tech world, and I hope to find a way forward for myself that feels strong, and right, and fair. No matter where you’re coming from in regards to Wadhwa, I hope you can find that too.