On Trying to be Better Men
I am a middle class, straight, white, European, 30 year-old man with a steady job in information security. I tick all the boxes on the privilege list. I studied in an almost all male environment, and never asked myself why. Women were always the exception, and I never thought I had anything to do with that. I was wrong. Duh. I am part of the problem. Re-duh.
I don’t know how to fix anything. This piece is as much questions as answers, a request for suggestions as much as a call to action. This is where I am now in, trying to deal with the bigotry of my industry, as someone who has never directly experienced it.
Don’t be mistaken, I’ve been one of the people blaming women for not being more present. Why would it be any different? I didn’t meet more than half a dozen women in computer science before I was 22. It took me even longer to notice people of color weren’t present. To me, this seemed natural, because it was the way it always was.
What changed? Hanging out with women speaking English, when I barely spoke it. That’s a good way to listen, and not say a word, even asking questions, which is good. The first questions you’re going to ask are stupid. Women in the field who are cool being visible, and talking in this crowd, have already answered your questions, or heard your comments, dozens of times. If you just let them finish their point, you will often realize you had nothing to contribute to the conversation.
This is probably the first thing we, white males, need to learn: to not hijack every space we’re in, and quietly listen.
The second one is to stop thinking everyone lives life like a white dude. For example: “but she could simply propose a talk to my conference, we’re open to everyone” may mean for her: “I need to figure out if this conference I’ve never heard about is run by a creep who may try to grope me, and I’m on a deadline, who knows when I’ll have time to research that”.
That’s not a thing most, if any, of us dudes have to figure out before submitting a paper.
The same way we’re always saying things like “think like the attacker”, we need to think like the people left out of the room. Try to imagine what it’s like to be a person of color in an overwhelmingly white environment, or a woman walking up the center of a room with 3000 people, including over 2800+ men, looking on the whole time you’re walking up.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen many friends evolving from saying things like “but we’re open to everyone”, to quietly listening. The new trend I’ve seen this year is some men unironically asking out loud if they are assholes. (Spoiler: yeah.)
It only happens in small mostly male crowds, in environments they trust. It is an interesting thing to observe. Looking back at their behavior in the past 20 years, picking up moments where they’ve been inappropriate, and slowly understanding it.
At this point, they’re rightfully freaking out, and not defending their actions. They’re just having a meltdown.
Why am I not giving names? These men are having legit meltdowns, in rooms they trust, because they are sexist. They are realizing they’ve made women uncomfortable in the past, and maybe worse. That realization may be the best chance right now to make this environment less toxic. It is not a free pass. They don’t get a cookie, and they are still dicks. But it’s not just about them, or me, it’s about the future of the environment.
I believe, I hope, these moments are the most effective way to have a productive conversation. And they are best kept between the people who need to get the work done: The White Dudes. Because nobody else needs to hear that crap again. You’ve heard all of it, you’ve read it in the comments, you’ve seen it in the workplace, way too many times. This is literally our problem, and we need to fix it.
Those conversations are not the most pleasant ones, because depending on the context, the social position of the participants, and the amount of booze consumed (because of course there’s booze), the come-to-Jesus conversation can go many different ways. It can be anything from quietly listening to someone threatening to beat the shit out of you on the sidewalk in front of the bar if you’re not saying he’s a good guy after all. Or a man could try to get the only woman at the table to agree with him. That can be super awkward, when said woman is an employee or coworker.
This is why I don’t necessarily call out my sexist peers immediately when they are being obnoxious in open environments. Context matters. I don’t want to be in a position where a female employee has to pick a side between me confronting her boss, and her day job. I’m not the one at risk, she is. Those situations need to be diffused, and it’s not my place to decide when a woman should have to confront a sexist workplace.
Right now we’re not in a position where we can seriously imagine having a black woman, fresh out of school, joining a group of white infosec dudes at an after party (even though that’s where the most interesting conversations really happen). It would be a disaster, and I’m ashamed and angry about that. The only women who will come back are used to the environment, or often shielded by friends. Why would they come back? I’ll only feel comfortable inviting women to an after party if I make sure they realize what is going on, and that there will be sexism and/or racism. But that also means I struggle with leaving women out of where the real community is.
How do I invite more people I want to see in my community without endangering them? How do I take responsibility, when I can’t be sure they will be safe? I want to see my community become diverse, and we need it, because we need more people in the field, because cyber cyber is a shit show and we need more competent people building the infrastructure of security. Because diverse people have diverse answers to diverse problems, and we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. No matter how you cut it, excluding more than half of the workforce is just plain stupid.
But just putting them in contact with the community without any change in how we socialize will be a disaster.
Yes, I am still hanging out with sexist dudes, including the unapologetic types. Why? Because they are a huge part of the community. They are a bad part, but they see me as one of them. I can stay in the room, and I’m not at risk. It is unpleasant, but not dangerous. Spotting the small fish, like a man a few years back who suggested to me that we organize a wet t-shirt contest because he found the speaker sexy. I made sure he wasn’t welcome at our conference anymore.
This is generally my approach: if I feel like the person won’t fix their behavior real fast, I will do my best to exclude them. They won’t speak at events I manage, I won’t send work their way, I won’t help them when they come to me with questions, I’ll warn other people to stay away from them, and I’ll keep an eye on events they participate in and people they work with. But I don’t know if that’s enough to fix the environment.
I’m cool being that white dude in the room getting the other white dudes to agree we have a problem with sexism and racism, calling them out. And I want to be able to stay in the loop enough to hear about abusers, and be able to help women in the future. But that means walking a knife’s edge. I don’t always know how to walk that edge. I’ve made mistakes, and will probably make more. If that happens, please tell me, be certain I won’t dismiss you.
I’m trying to find a balance that allows me to figure out who the abusers are, who is safe to introduce around, and who is not. I think this is an okay position to be in, but a hard position to keep. It sometimes seems like the more I try to help women, the less information I have to do it with.
I can publish this article without worrying about losing my job. I’m not worried about it damaging my career or reputation, or that I’ll be stalked or threatened. That is thanks to white male privilege, and I hope I am making decent use of it.