So, first things first, Shanley Kane wrote an essential guide to the steps that men in tech can take to address systemic sexism. You should read it. [EDIT: That post has been removed from Medium, but there’s a lot of great stuff on similar subject matter at Model View Culture.]
I’d like to chime in with my own, less thoughtful suggestion: Men in tech, myself included, can grow the fuck up.
Men: If your response to that is “BUT I AM TOTALLY GROWN UP I MAYBE EVEN HAVE A WIFE AND SOME KIDS AND STUFF HOW DARE YOU,” then you fell into my devious trap because that is not a very grown-up response, is it? Growing the fuck up means being able to admit that you still have learning to do. It means opening yourself up to narratives in which you are not the expert or the hero. If you believe that your exceptional smarts make you an authority on other people’s experiences and perspectives, then you have some growing the fuck up to do.
If your response is “BUT I AM SOCIALLY AWKWARD AND MAYBE PROBABLY HAVE ASPERGER’S,” then I’m sorry that you are dealing with that particular set of challenges—but when it comes to armchair diagnoses, I usually see “he has a social disorder” used to excuse men, and “she has a mental illness” used to attack and discredit women. If you are not an expert or clinician, and you gossip and speculate about the mental state of others to selectively reinforce your own worldview, then you have some growing the fuck up to do.
If your response is “WHY ARE YOU ATTACKING MEN? THIS HURTS ME PERSONALLY BECAUSE I AM A NICE GUY AND I TRY REALLY HARD AND I AM IN NO WAY PART OF THE PROBLEM,” then you might be me! Because, honestly, that is where my brain often goes when I encounter any kind of criticism that isn’t couched in a pillowy mattress of contextual praise.
What the hell is my problem? Why am I often so bad at handling completely reasonable criticism? Here I yield to Ashe Dryden, who in what has deservedly become a canonical text on gender relations in tech, describes a common characteristic of men working in technology: “Many of them were bullied as kids for being geeks and believe that makes them incapable of bullying or oppressive behavior.” Dryden pretty much nails my type: I am a well-educated white dude who likes computers and was bullied as a child. Bullied badly. Bullied to to the point of not wanting to be alive.
It follows that the once-bullied would grow up to be “sensitive” adults, but I often find myself shocked by the lack of empathy displayed by folks who have been through such harrowing experiences. Why are “nerds” who once felt threatened and excluded now actively threatening and excluding others—especially those who dare to point out the systems which now give those “nerds” power and privilege they once ostensibly lacked? Why are dudes who hated “jocks” now enacting this grotesque and unconvincing masquerade of “bro” culture? Come to think of it, why are many of the actual jocks I know way more patient and welcoming than self-professed “nerds” when it comes to describing their hobbies and interests? Why are people who were hurt by fucked up gender expectations as children now actively perpetuating those expectations as adults?
It’s easy enough to call out brogrammers and fedora-clad MRAs, but the truth is that I too often feel “attacked” when someone simply disagrees with me, or points to a way in which I could stand to improve myself. If I’m being horrifically honest, I am more likely to feel “attacked” when these things are voiced by women.
So why do I overreact more egregiously to criticism from women, when all of my childhood bullies were boys? The answer, I think, has less to do with the boys who bullied me, and more to do with the well-intentioned adults who tried to “help” me through that bullying: When I was a nerdy kid, adults regularly assured me that the abuse I suffered was acceptable because one day I would be entitled to constant positive sexual attention from women.
If you were a computer-loving male child who took a lot of shit from your peers, I suspect you heard something similar from the adults in your life. Maybe it was “Sure, things are bad now, but when you’re a little bit older, women will LOVE guys like you!” Or maybe it was “That kid who makes fun of you now will be working at a gas station when you run a big fancy computer company and marry a supermodel!” If you were once young, nerdy and male, it is not unlikely that your future sense of self-worth was funded with a non-consensual IOU from the world’s women.
It’s taken me a long time, but at this point I genuinely believe that much of this “GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH” rhetoric is little more than patriarchy’s bespectacled wingman. It excuses the pain that systems of power exert on children by promising little boys future dominion over little girls. It is deeply and massively fucked.
Are computer-loving female children fed these same lines? Are they told “SOME DAY YOU WILL HAVE ALL THE MONEY AND POWERS AND MEN WILL FLOCK TO YOU LIKE AUTONOMY-DEPRIVED MAN-ZOMBIES?” If you insist that the presence of enough computers magically transforms the world into a meritocracy, you might want to think about that one for a second.
I think about this when I read Julie Ann Horvath’s harrowing account of being pushed out of GitHub’s codebase when she refused to date a coworker. The kind of “you must coddle my unwanted special feelings for you or else you are a horrible she-beast” bullshit she describes is juvenile and pathetic, but I’d be lying if I said it weren’t familiar to me. There have been too many times in my life when I’ve bought into that toxic mythology, when I’ve said to myself, “Well, grown-ups told me that girls would like me some day so any girl who does not like me is compounding my childhood trauma and MUST BE DESTROYED.”
But here’s the great news: I’M NOT A CHILD ANY MORE! Odds are, you’re not a child any more, either. Nobody is breaking your limbs because you’re a doofus with a rock collection who reads “DOS for Dummies” during recess. And — here’s the kicker — your experience of being bullied or picked on or excluded entitles you to absolutely nothing from anyone ever. It is yours and yours alone to deal with. If you find yourself constantly, pathologically seeking validation from others — as I still often do — this can be as liberating as it is terrifying. It is hard, ongoing work, but it is good work.
“Grow the fuck up” is not an attack—it’s an invitation.