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Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy

Growing up with autism is a never-ending series of lessons in how people without autism expect the rest of the world to relate to them.

Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy


Growing up with autism is a never-ending series of lessons in how people without autism expect the rest of the world to relate to them. This goes double for those who — like me — went undiagnosed until adulthood: the instructions are far less explicit and the standards are higher. “Stop drumming your pencil, don’t you know you’re distracting people?” “Don’t be so direct, don’t you know you’re being insulting?” “Put yourself in her shoes — when are you going to develop a sense of empathy?” Invariably, the autistic behaviour is marked as less-than, called out as needing to change. So we adapt; we learn to keep our “abnormal” attitudes and behaviours to ourselves in the hope of blending in, and when we discover communities where, by chance, we fit in a little better without having to try so hard, we cling to those safe spaces like a drowning man clings to a lifebuoy.

I stumbled into my first such space when I was eight, and its name was FidoNet. I didn’t think of myself as a programmer back then, just a girl who liked fractals and science fiction and BASIC on my IBM PCjr, but the virtual world of BBS message boards made orders of magnitude more sense than the everyday world of classrooms, sports teams, church groups and grade-school social dynamics. On BBSes, nobody knew I was too young to see Adventures in Babysitting alone, but I could download text adventures and discuss my favourite books to my heart’s content. FidoNet led me to text files and the ANSI art scene and Usenet, long before I’d heard of UUCP or even Unix. I had only the most rudimentary understanding of the technology that created the FidoNet community, but it welcomed me all the same. The narrow bandwidth of text was a lot less intimidating than the high intensity of face-to-face interaction; it gave me time to compose my thoughts carefully, while the gentle pressure of dial-in session time limits helped me learn to translate those thoughts into language more quickly than my native hardware was accustomed to. In a very real sense, I did most of my growing up online.

Nobody on FidoNet ever told me “no girls allowed” — or even implied it, at least to an extent that I might have picked up on — and as a result, the assertion that “technology is a boys’ club” has always been foreign to me. Sure, I was always one of a scant handful of girls in the after-school computer or science club, but none of that mattered when there were NASA missions or flight simulator games to geek out on. I was well into my twenties before anyone of any gender thought to remark on the rarity of a woman being interested in the finer points of, e.g., C++ memory management; I’d come from the Midwest to my very first tech conference, and at the time I was far more amazed by the sheer concentration of people who were interested in C++ at all. I made friends largely by virtue of not knowing who I was supposed to be impressed by. I was there because I loved working with technology, and I gravitated to people who shared the same passions. Everything else was background noise.

I have since been made painfully aware that my experience is atypical. Every time, it has been a woman who has done so. Every time, it has been a lesson in how the woman I am talking with expects the tech world to relate to her and other people like her. This was pointed out with particular clarity in a conversation I had last year, face-to-face with a friend who, after patiently hearing me out about how comfortable I’ve always felt and still feel in the tech community, suggested, “Have you ever considered that most women don’t experience things the way you do?”

All I was able to say at the time was “That’s probably true,” because we were on our way down a staircase, and while FidoNet and LiveJournal and Twitter have taught me to translate my thoughts into English faster and faster over time, translation is still hard and it still isn’t realtime. What I didn’t have the processing speed to say in the moment was that of course it’s true, and furthermore that maybe other women would have a better time of things if they tried walking around in my shoes for once. Even if I had managed to put that into words at the time, though, I doubt I would have said it aloud, because those childhood lessons about not being so rudely direct have stuck.

Ironically, I have been discriminated against in the tech world because of my gender; I just didn’t notice until it was brought to my attention long after the fact. Several years ago, I posted an idea for a new feature to the developers’ mailing list for an open-source project I used. It got one reply — a few questions from another list member — and the thread ended there. Those questions helped me refine my thinking about the feature, and over the next few months, I implemented it. Much later — after I’d presented my implementation at a couple of user groups and conferences — one of the commit-bit holders for the project mentioned to me that there had been some additional discussion of my proposal, on the private commit-bit holders’ mailing list. There had been interest, but one of the committers had dismissed the idea out of hand because a woman had proposed it. It was the funniest thing I’d heard in months — I literally doubled over laughing at how nonplussed he must have been to see it not only implemented, but implemented to rousing success.

From the Associated Press in 1935:

“A snub,” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

Maybe that guy intended to make me feel snubbed, or maybe he figured the lack of discussion on the developers’ list said everything that needed to be said on the matter. Maybe he was thinking something else entirely; I don’t know, I’m not him. What I do know is that I didn’t take it as a snub at the time, and still don’t, because it was a damn good idea that I was passionate about and I knew I had the right combination of skills to implement it. I did what I knew I could do, and where in any of that is there anything to feel inferior about?

What does leave me feeling snubbed, however — not to mention “scapegoated for the endemic misogyny in our field” — is being told that talking about my overwhelmingly positive relationship with the tech community is nothing more than a callous announcement of “fuck you, got mine.”

Really? Spending more of my formative years interacting with text on a screen than I did with peers my age is “fuck you, got mine”? Being told that my experiences aren’t worthy of consideration because most women don’t relate to them is “fuck you, got mine”? There’s a noticeable empathy vacuum in the room, and for once it’s not coming from the direction of the sperglord. Or sperglady, if you prefer.

What I’ve got, and what I wish the rest of the “women in tech” community who rage against the misogyny they see everywhere they look could also have, is a blazingly single-minded focus on whatever topic I happen to be perseverating on at the moment. It has kept me awake for days puzzling out novel algorithms and it has thwarted a wannabe PUA at a conference completely by accident. It is also apparently the most crashingly successful defense against attempts to make me feel inferior that has ever been devised. When I’m someplace that says on the label that it’s all about the tech, so am I. I may have come by it naturally, but it is a teachable skill. Not only that, it’s a skill that transforms the places where it’s exercised.

The fact that Shanley Kane dismisses experiences like mine as “denial,” and regards them as “colluding in my own oppression,” both saddens and baffles me. I’m all too familiar with the prevalence of sexual assault in the tech community; in the past year alone, I’ve called the police in a foreign country to report an attempted rape at a conference, and argued with them when they told my friend that nobody would consider it assault since they’d both been drinking. Yet I’m told that being a poor target for others’ misconduct just makes me part of the problem, since “telling women to learn to defend themselves means telling them ‘make sure he rapes some other girl’.” Since I’m damned if I don’t deny my positive experiences, the implication is that I’d better shut up and start doing so.

I chafe at that, because I’ve been told all my life that the important social lessons are the ones that come from other people, particularly the ones that come by implication, and if I don’t understand a lesson then it’s safer to shut up and play along until I do — but I haven’t been eight for a long time, and in the intervening years I’ve learned some lessons all by myself about what kinds of places I feel comfortable in. With all its warts, the tech community is still one of those places. I wish there were someone, anyone I could talk with about why that is, and how it happened, and how to go about making that scale. So it disturbs me, deeply, to hear that I am a “human shield for entrenched misogyny” and that the experiences I cherish “must be challenged and ultimately dismantled.”

The “women in tech” experience is not monolithic — not for the women who feel uncomfortable in the tech community, and not for the women who feel comfortable in it, either. None of our stories are universal, but when we look at any landscape of stories from enough of a remove, we begin to see patterns. Right now, the dominant narrative about women in tech is overwhelmingly woven of antipatterns. We know a lot about how to go from problems to bad solutions, but if we’re going to make a tech community where people feel welcome, we have to figure out how to go from problems to good solutions — and disparaging women like me as gender traitors makes those of us who aren’t too socially thickheaded to know better far more reluctant to speak up so that there can even be a narrative about amelioration patterns. This isn’t “fuck you, got mine,” this is “damn you, why won’t you let me give you what I have?” It doesn’t mean shutting down the discussion about antipatterns — those discussions are important and necessary, and should continue — but it does mean not closing the floor to conversation about what positive patterns already exist.

If that narrative ever happens, I hope someone brings it to my attention. In the meantime, I’m going to stay in the places where I have experienced empathy: the same ones I’ve been all along. My compilers are coming with me, but you can borrow my shoes, if you want.