Our industry doesn’t respect women. It’s 2020—by now we should all recognize the ways misogyny shows up in the workplace. Gender inequity isn’t at all specific to tech, but it’s especially egregious in our white, cis male-dominated industry. And the evidence is everywhere.
According to a 2015 survey titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” two hundred senior-level women in Silicon Valley were surveyed, and the results demonstrate the pervasive and persistent gender inequality in their industry:
Eighty-four per cent of the participants reported that they had been told they were “too aggressive” in the office, sixty-six per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and sixty per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. A large majority of those advances came from a superior, and a third of the women said that they’d been worried about their personal safety. Almost forty per cent said that they didn’t report the incidents because they feared retaliation.
- The Tech Industry’s Gender-Discrimination Problem By Sheelah Kolhatkar
Men can do better
As a part of my own internal reflection, I’ve recognized that some of the first steps men can take to combat misogyny in the workplace are to:
Listen to women.
Observe and sit with moments where internalized sexism arises, both in myself and amongst those in my field, and
Call out or call in the behavior, in an attempt to disrupt biases.
I recently came across a tweet from Emily Freeman, the author of DevOps for Dummies and the modern operations team lead in cloud advocacy at Microsoft. In the tweet, she shares an email a man sent her after he watched one of her conference talks. His unprompted email is incredibly offensive, in my opinion.
In the replies, several people show their support for Freeman by outlining some of her accomplishments. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that—compliments are nice, but noting her achievements doesn’t address the problematic email. She’s a person, and she deserves more respect. Period.
This email, in the scheme of horrible instances of sexism in the tech world, is an example of micro-aggressions that happens every. single. day. I’m making an assumption that the author didn’t intend to belittle Freeman, that maybe he even thought he was being complimentary. But impact outweighs intent — and the impact here was 🤢
How men can take accountability
In order to take accountability, we need to be adept at recognizing gender inequity in our industry on both macro and micro levels. Let’s use the response Freeman received as an example of a micro-aggression.
I’m going to breakdown why the email is offensive before sharing a revision to demonstrate it could have been done better. I hope this helps well-meaning men do better—emphasis on the action. We need to hold each other accountable for our words and our actions, instead of simply relying on our intentions. I also hope this helps men recognize some of their previously-unchecked, problematic behavior. We all have some.
Breaking down the email:
“I was watching your session at the Build online conference last week”
“I didn’t know what to expect and thought, well, let’s see which sessions there are in parallel in case it’s yet another blah session about how to make things right in a DevOps world.”
Right off the bat, the respondent expressed doubt in Freeman’s competence. No matter how much context we throw at this, it’s almost certainly rooted in misogyny. Beyond that, “yet another blah session” exposes that he doesn’t value her work.
“Then after the presentation started I must admit, my first impression was ‘well, ok, since when do such hot women work in tech, let’s keep watching.”
NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. It’s never okay to email a complete stranger and comment on their appearance. It doesn’t matter if you intend it as a compliment—it’s not.
“So while I was listening, I found the content wasn’t too bad either. Quite the opposite, with this angel-like voice, you brought it precisely to the point of what DevOps is about and what it isn’t.”
AHHHHH! “[T]he content wasn’t too bad either,” and “angel-like voice” further indicate the responder wasn’t focused on the content, but on judging Freeman’s attractiveness. He also continues to reveal he’s surprised when a woman’s work isn’t inferior to that of a man’s.
“And it seemed you were either well prepared and didn’t have this talk for the first time, you knew what you are talking about, or it was a recording which took a gazillion of takes till it was that perfect ;).”
So many assumptions here. He assumes that she may have not prepared for leading a presentation at a conference. He assumes that she isn’t an expert in DevOps. (She wrote a book for Dummies!) And he assumes she may have needed a gazillion takes to get it perfect. Whatever way you slice it, he’s incredibly condescending.
“Regardless, I liked your presentation and got confirmation in my assumption of what a “DevOps Transformation” should look like.”
….aka, you didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.
“The first reason why I’m sending you this mail is that I would like to take you out. Unfortunately, I’m sure you are married and have tons of kids as well as a dog and therefore isn’t an option. Then, I’m also from Germany, so not really around the corner (not even knowing where you would be from) and of course, you’d never go out after such a somewhat creepy mail :P”
What?! It’s not “somewhat creepy,” it’s very creepy. …was everything before this negging? Why would you make all these gross assumptions about someone you’re interested in dating? He readily admits he doesn’t think this tactic will work, but he still had the audacity to send backhanded compliments before asking out a total stranger.
You’d think it might end here, but he goes on:
“So this leaves us to the second reason why I’m sending this mail, which is to pick your brain a little bit on the DevOps transformation topic. Did you ever come across a “DevOps Transformation” in the mainframe area, where you want to build SaaS offering with people that have worked their life long on firmware or waterfall released long supported code? For me, it’s challenging even to get them to think about taking end-to-end ownership of what they are building.”
Wow, buried here is a…legitimate, professional question? If this was the whole email, this might be fine, if not asking someone you don’t know to do labor for you. He could have been more courteous, but at least it’s not pumped full of sexism.
“BTW: sorry for the wall of text, just noticed how long this mail has become :)”
This is a bit off-topic, but it’s a peeve of mine, so I’m including it. If you know what you’re sending is a wall of text, simplify it. Especially if you’re sending it to a stranger. You’re asking the recipient to do the hard work of parsing whatever it is you want. Also, you’re not sorry. If you were, you’d have fixed it.
Revision: How to be better
If the goal is simply to avoid being offensive, removing everything except the respondent’s ‘second reason’ might be sufficient. However, given that his objective was to extract more from a stranger who had already spent a ton of time and effort preparing a talk he found helpful, it wouldn’t hurt to be more polite.
Open with a greeting, some context, and a compliment. Your compliment needs to be specific and about the content. Remember, nothing you say should have anything to do with the fact that Freeman is a woman.
My name is _____, and I’m a DevOps engineer. Thanks for giving your talk at _____, I really appreciated it. I particularly liked what you had to say about _____. It helped me think differently about _____.
After introducing yourself and demonstrating you paid attention to her talk, it’s okay to ask a follow-up question. (I have near-zero knowledge about this subject, so my wording may not make total sense. That’s okay. You’ll know how to phrase your question.)
I’ve found it challenging to get experienced mainframe engineers to take end-to-end ownership of their work. Based on your expertise, I’m curious if you have any advice?
At this point, you’ve just asked for free consulting work. It’s best to either offer to pay or acknowledge that fact. Don’t expect free work.
I’m sure you’re busy, and I don’t expect you to work for free. (I’m happy to pay you for your time. [OR] Unfortunately, I can’t afford to pay you for your time. I understand if that means you can’t help me out.)
Remember: Tech conferences aren’t for dating — they’re for learning about the subject matter and professional networking.
Beyond calling out and calling in
In “The Elephant in the Valley,” researchers found that almost half of the women who get tech jobs eventually leave tech, more than double the percentage of men who do so.
In order for change to truly happen, men need to be leveraging their positions of power to uplift women’s voices, to organize for fair workplace policies, and to advocate for equal pay. We must consistently amplify women’s accomplishments, and share the influence, knowledge, and resources that have historically been reserved for those in the boy’s club. Disrupting the status quo by calling out ingrained behaviors is only the first step in dismantling the gender divide in the tech industry.