I work in a tech company and started talking about feminism — this is what happened

It all started with our HR manager suggesting a new knowledge sharing format on our intranet. The aim was not to talk about our daily work or our products but to discuss non-work-related topics we know and care about. Always a supporter of knowledge as well as sharing, I listed everything I thought I had at least some meaningful insight on in the provided spreadsheet. One of my topics was the German election system. Another one was “Feminism 101”.

Busy with my day-to-day I didn’t think much about it and forgot to check the thread for a few days. Then came our office summer party where two of my female colleagues, whom with I had mainly interacted through video-chat until then, approached me and said that they would really want me to do this talk about feminism.
There have been no incidents of harassment or open discrimination against women in our company ever. Quite the opposite, when I was hired I was 5 months pregnant and everyone was just happy about it (This should be normal but unfortunately it is still the exception, in tech and elsewhere).

Still, we are a young company in a patriarchal society, in a very male-dominated industry. We built and distribute the world’s most popular browser extension, Adblock Plus. All our executives, our investor, almost all our developers are men. Many of them are gamers. One of our now ex-colleagues, who previously worked in the gaming industry, once commented on a woman “she is really cool, even though she’s a feminist.”
I was witnessing Gamer Gate mostly from the sidelines but it had still left me with a profound worry and scepticism about men that identify as gamers.

So I braced myself while considering doing this talk.

Luckily, not only women were interested in discussing feminism. One of our most senior (let me remind you, we are a tech company, he is probably 26!), definitely the most loved and respected colleagues approached me at the summer party dinner and told me that he really wanted me to give that talk and learn more about feminism. At a recent event, a friend had called him out as sexist for suggesting “Ladies first!”. Instead of being mad at her and dismiss feminists all together as it happens way too often, he asked for my opinion and a possible explanation for this. Maybe one of the reasons why everybody really likes him.

I agreed to do the talk under one condition: He had to make sure that other male colleagues joined as well. I jokingly said I would have a quota for the participants. Unless at least 50% were men, it wouldn’t happen.

It did happen.

And a lot of my male co-workers showed up. Even those who were outspokenly sceptical. Actually half of the company showed up, which is not only remarkable because of the topic but also because our team is spread all over the globe, from Yekaterinburg to San Francisco. Did I mention this happened after work? (At least in the time zone of our main office.)

When putting together the slides, I was anxious to make them helpful and relatable for a presumably mostly novice audience without oversimplifying or getting too soft on important issues.

I had less than 10 slides that span the historical background and achievements of feminism, the difference between equal rights and equal opportunities and current challenges. I touched on abortion, equal pay, unconscious bias and gendered language. I even managed to throw in “homosocial reproduction”, one of my favorite academic buzzwords.

I realised that I sometimes was at the edge of becoming apologetic. These were my colleagues and as as important as the feminist agenda is to me, I was worried about burdening functioning work relationships.
I made the case for why feminism is important to men too and why they should support it. After about 15 minutes, I was done with my slides and we started into the discussion.

I had no idea what to expect. At the end, I was almost shocked.

We had a extremely civilised discussion, probably even more polite and considerate about others talking than in our day-to-day work meetings.
People asked all kinds of questions.

“Should men not have a say if a woman wants to abort their child?” (1)
“Is “Ladies first” truly sexist?” (2)
“Do quotas for women not discriminate men?” (3)
“Why is the generic male in the German language a problem, doesn’t it fit for all?” (4)
“Wouldn’t it be more important to fight for girl’s and women’s rights in places like Afghanistan than to further advance privileges in the “western world”?” (5)

Amazingly, I didn’t have to answer all of the questions that kept coming. One after one, colleagues jumped in. Male colleagues. With some of them I had previously talked about the awesomeness of Elizabeth Warren, so I knew where they stood. With others, I had made the assumption that they are most likely feminists based on their social media posts, their hobbies, their overall habitus. With some others, based on the superficial knowledge I had, I braced myself for some anti-feminist comments. Some of them gamers, some of them the stereotypical developer who would fit perfectly into (a) Silicon Valley (episode).

What happened is that they did not make one single misogynistic, anti-feminist or otherwise questionable comment. Some of them turned out to be the most educated about feminism in general and in tech specifically.

The discussion about feminism continued on IRC and our intranet. All of a sudden, I got a notification that one of our founders had posted about it. A man who is so privacy-concerned he sometimes seems to be more a ghost in the matrix than an actual living person. The super-nerd of our company. I opened the thread. I was stunned. There it was, a fierce, lengthy statement on why everyone and every man should work on changing stereotypes, through their language and through their actions.

Having talked about biases just minutes earlier, I felt caught. And a little ashamed. After years as an outspoken feminist, I had become so suspicious of certain characteristics, based on negative experiences. They were terrible experiences, public insults, rape threats, exploitation of private data… But they came from very few men, compared to the number of men (or gamers, or developers) in general. Judging a group based on the behaviour of a few is the very exact definition of discrimination. I scolded myself.

And I was happy to do so! Happy being reminded about my own stereotypes and biases. And extremely happy to work with and for such great people. Sexism and discrimination in the tech-industry is real and it is cruel. In Silicon Valley, in Berlin and anywhere else.

How amazing to not only believe but to have proof that it doesn’t have to be this way!

So here is a big fat feminist Thank you to all my colleagues at Adblock Plus!
Thank you for being that living proof that tech companies can truly live and foster diversity.
Thank you for busting some of my own biases.
Thank you for making and taking time to reflect on social issues.
Thank you for being awesome!

To the questions above:

(1) No. Depending on circumstances, it could be seen as a good thing to discuss it with them, but a woman and a woman alone has to decide about her body and her life.

(2) It certainly has a sexist background of men allowing women to do something, go through a door, sit down… Also, lady might not be fitting for women as they might not want to behave “ladylike” but just as a regular human being. Today it is mostly just meant to be polite. So let’s just try to be polite to men and women alike! If you can, always ask someone why they think you are saying or doing something sexist. They might have a good reason.

(3) First of all, every quota law in every country is about a gender quota, not a quota for women. It ensures, that when searching for candidates, not only men are seen as potentials for powerful positions. While this might take away some existing advantage from men, this is not discrimination.

(4) In German and many other languages such as Spanish and French, every noun is gendered. There is no “developer”, there is only “shedeveloper” or “hedeveloper” with “hedeveloper” being the standard. A gender-mixed group of developers would be addressed as “hedevelopers”. This standard is by some regarded to be neutral. But it isn’t. Many studies show that this gendered language has a profound impact on the thinking and thus the life of people, especially children. If I am a she and all developers are “hedevelopers”, it is less likely that I see myself in the role. Language is about representation. Also, it is scientifically proven that ways to improve (written) language as in “s*hedeveloper” is not more complicated to read. Language does and should change. How else did “to google” become a word?

(5) If you try to make the world a better place, there is no point in finding the most important cause first. Of course women in Afghanistan face much, much bigger problems than women in the USA. If you have money to spare you should absolutely donate it to organisations that support girls and women there. But this does not mean that fighting for equal opportunities where you live is not important. Especially when trying to reflect on your own stereotypes and your own language is a relatively easy task.

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