Tag Archives: guest post

Ally Smells: Boundaries

This is a guest post from Julie Pagano. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and user experience. When she’s not working at her day job, she focuses on championing diversity in tech and building the Pittsburgh tech community. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her army of feminist firebees. This post is crossposted to her blog.

This post frankly discusses issues related to boundary violations. It may be difficult to read. I recommend reviewing the content warnings below before deciding to proceed.

Content warnings: boundary violations, predatory behavior, ableism, *ist language, sexual assault, and possibly others

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these “ally smells” in more detail.

Today I am digging into a pretty sensitive topic: boundaries. This can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. In this post, I am going to focus on boundary violations from people who want to be or claim to be allies. Additional discussions of boundary issues are important, but that’s another post for another day.

Do you push or disrespect their boundaries (e.g. continuing a conversation when asked to stop, touching someone without permission)?

Some of the content of this post may make you upset or angry. I strongly recommend giving yourself some time to sit and think on it. If you want to be a good ally, learning to respect boundaries is critical.

Boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.

Boundaries can be small or huge. Seemingly inconsequential or horrifyingly important. They all matter to the people who set them. They all should be respected, when possible**.

It does not matter if a boundary makes sense to you. It does not matter if it seems inconsequential to you. Boundaries are the prerogative of the person who sets them. You do not know that person’s story, and they are not obligated to justify their boundaries to you. That touch that seems insignificant to you may be uncomfortably intimate for someone else. That interaction that is fine with others may trigger someone’s PTSD. You do not know more about someone than they know about themselves. Trust that they know what they are doing when they set a boundary with you, even if you do not understand why.

When someone sets a boundary with you they are saying “no.” No means no. Do not push people on their boundaries or ask for explanations that are not readily given. Doing these things indicates that you do not respect their boundaries. For many people, saying “no” once, setting a boundary, is difficult enough. Do not put them in a position where they must repeatedly do so. No means no the first time. Pushing them on it suggests a hope that you can wear them down, which is problematic at best and predatory at worst. No means no.

** I say “when possible” here because there will be situations where you cannot avoid violating a boundary (e.g. you trip and accidentally touch someone without permission). However this should be the exception, not the rule. Do not use this language to try to rules lawyer your way around respecting boundaries.

Below are some examples of boundaries. All of the items below have happened to myself or people I know (often repeatedly) from people who claimed to be or wanted to be allies. They are not theoreticals. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Examples: Physical

  • Hugging someone without permission (many people give close friends implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in potentially intimate locations (e.g. small of the back, leg, neck) without permission.
  • Touching someone intimately without permission (many people give their partners implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that form of touch is normal for others (e.g. handshakes, hugs).
  • Touching someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to touch someone when they have asked you to stop.
  • Invading someone’s personal space. A common case is standing very close to someone (appropriate distance may vary by situation and cultural background).
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a physical boundary with you.

Examples: Language (verbal or in text format)

  • Saying sexually suggestive things to or about someone unless you have a relationship where that is considered appropriate.
  • Speaking to someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that type of speech is normal for others (e.g. rape jokes, sexist/racist/ableist/*ist language).
  • Speaking to someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to engage with someone on a specific topic when they have asked you to stop.
  • Continuing to engage with someone when they have asked you to cease contact.
  • Asking someone you do not know very well about sensitive or private information (e.g. genitalia, sexual assault). This includes digging for details when they provide some high level information on a sensitive topic.
  • Using slurs directed at a group that person is a member of.
  • Being verbally abusive and/or threating to someone.
  • Bringing up private information about someone, such as where they live. This can easily be perceived as a threat.
  • Disclosing private information about someone without their permission.
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a language boundary with you.

Examples: Third Parties

  • Sending a third party to speak to someone after they have asked you to stop speaking with them.
  • Contacting someone’s friends and acquaintances to try to get them to speak with you when they have asked you to cease direct contact with them.
  • Encouraging third parties to push boundaries someone has set with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from setting boundaries with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from calling out boundaries you have violated.
  • Attempting to discredit someone to others for setting boundaries with you.
  • Trying to get third parties to make someone feel bad for setting a boundary with you.

Examples: Potentially Subtle Boundaries

  • Interrupting a semi-private conversation between people you do not know well, particularly when they are discussing a sensitive topic. This works in person and online. Yes, they are in a public space, but that doesn’t mean you are invited if you don’t have a context with the people involved.
  • Regularly contacting someone who never engages with you. This is common on places like social networks and email. If you contact someone with great regularity and they never (or almost never) respond to you, there is a good chance you are pushing a boundary, and they are trying to ignore you.
  • Fixating on someone who you do not have a close relationship with (e.g. writing blog posts about them without asking first, regularly mentioning them on social media).
  • Asking someone if they’re talking about you when they say something vague. Most of the time, if someone wanted to call you out specifically, they would have done so. Vagueness is usually intentional and pushing someone to be explicit is often pushing a boundary.
  • Complaining about spaces you are not allowed at or attempting to enter those spaces anyway.

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a huge part of pushing boundaries. Boundaries are often different when power imbalances are involved. When you have a position of power over someone, it is more difficult for them to set clear boundaries with you or reassert those boundaries when they are crossed for fear of repercussions. If you care about respecting the boundaries of others, it is critical for you to pay attention to and be aware of power dynamics. This is especially critical for you to be sensitive to when you are more likely to be in a position of power. As an ally, there is very likely to be a power differential because you are in a privileged position.

Below are some examples of power dynamics. Some power dynamics are obvious and explicit. Others are less clear. They all are important and matter. Predators often prey on more subtle power dynamics because they are easier to get away with. Take the steps to draw a clear distinction between yourself and them by paying closer attention to these dynamics. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Note: many of the examples below mention the potential for harm. The power dynamic exists because you could do those things, even if you think it is clear that you would not.

Examples: Work & School

Do you have an explicit position of power over them codified in your work/school relationship?

  • You are their boss, their boss’s boss, or even higher up the chain of command at their job. You directly have the power to punish or fire them.
  • You are a professor, teacher, or other educator and they are a student. You directly have the power to negatively impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have a position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are their team lead, supervisor, mentor, or something similar at their job. You are not their boss, but you have the ability to negatively impact their work environment. You may be close with their boss (or higher ups) and be able to indirectly impact their chances of being punished or fired.
  • You are a teaching assistant, mentor, or something similar in an academic/educational environment. You cannot directly impact their achievement and performance, but you can negatively impact the environment for them. You may be close with their professor, teacher, or others with more direct power over the student and be able to indirectly impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have an implicit position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are a colleague, peer, or something similar at their job. Your power over them may come from things like seniority at the workplace, more years of experience, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their work environment.
  • You are another student or colleague in an academic/educational environment. Your power over them may come from things like higher achievement, seniority in school, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their academic/educational environment.

Examples: Community

Do you have an explicit position of power?

  • You are a known organizer of a conference, user group, open source project, or other community group. You have the ability to make someone unwelcome at these groups or even explicitly ban them.

Do you have an implicit position of power?

  • You are a speaker at a conference, user group, or other event. You have the ability to use your platform and celebrity to make events uncomfortable or unwelcoming for someone.
  • You are a well known member of a community through work, speaking, open source contributions, or other means. You have the ability to use your celebrity to discredit others or make them uncomfortable.

Examples: Characteristics

Do you have any characteristics that may give you a position of power?

  • Are you much larger and stronger than the other person?
  • Are you a member of a privileged group that has historically oppressed a group the other person is a member of?
  • Are you a member of a group that is in the majority in your work or academic environment while the other person is a member of group that is in the minority?
  • Are you a member of a group that is statistically likely to harm the other person?

Why Is It Important?

You may be asking yourself why are boundaries so critical? Why am I making such a big deal about this? In the opening of this post, I mentioned that boundary violations can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. Boundary violations are a big deal, even when they are small, because they are often a sign of things to come. A symptom of something more sinister than an accident. A red flag.

Am I saying that everyone who violates a boundary is a dangerous predator? No, I am not. Definitely not. Plenty of good people I know and trust have made mistakes with boundaries. I have made mistakes with boundaries. Not all people who violate boundaries are predators, but all predators violate boundaries. It is often impossible for the person on the receiving end of the violation to tell the difference and guessing wrong can have dire consequences.

Predators often start with small boundary violations that might seem inconsequential in isolation. Seeing what they can get away with. Slowly escalating. Others have referred to this as The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation. This is why even small mistakes can be seen as a red flag, particularly if they happen repeatedly.

There’s a popular post titled Schrödinger’s Rapist that explores some of these interactions.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Boundary violations are exhausting, especially for people at an increased risk of being targeted by predators. Dealing with these issues regularly means having to be on guard and evaluate safety most of the time. A constant white noise of evaluating risk and hoping your assessment is correct. Mental energy that could be spent elsewhere if boundaries were not regularly being violated. Allies can take on some of that load by being mindful and avoiding boundary violations.

Boundary violations can reduce comfort and access to certain resources and spaces for people. For example, someone may no longer feel comfortable attending events with someone who has violated their boundaries because they are concerned it will continue or escalate. Someone may lose a mentor who can help them professionally because they push boundaries, and it makes them uncomfortable. There can be very real personal and professional consequences of boundary violations.

Steps to Improve

Remember how I said at the beginning that this post may upset you? Your first step here is to sit with this. Give yourself some time to think on it. Maybe read it a few times. Push past the potential upset you have about this information. If you want to be a good ally, you need to work on respecting boundaries. It is ongoing work that is not necessarily easy, but is very important. This is something I try to work on regularly.

First off, recognize that you are going to fuck up. We all do. Take responsibility for your mistakes. See my post about making mistakes for suggestions on how to respond when called out on pushing or violating boundaries.

Be thoughtful. Be empathetic. If a little part of your brain says “this might be inappropriate” or “this might make someone uncomfortable,” err on the side of not doing that thing. Erring on the side of asking explicit permission is usually going to be better than erring on the side of violating someone’s boundaries. It can be awkward to ask if you’re not used to it, but practice makes perfect and people will appreciate the effort.

Be ok with hearing a “no.” Make it easy for people to tell you “no.” When you are told “no,” respect it. If possible, learn to pay attention to more subtle boundary setting from people who may have difficulty explicitly saying a clear “no.” If not possible to pick up on these cues, be clear with people that you need more explicit feedback. If someone’s boundaries are in conflict with your own boundaries, state your boundaries and, if possible, work with them to find a compromise that is amenable to both of you. If it’s not possible for you to respect someone’s stated boundaries, avoid them.

Lastly, if you have a problem with violating boundaries, decrease your access to situations where you are likely to violate them. It is your responsibility to decrease the problem, not of those on the receiving end to try to avoid it. If you find yourself regularly violating boundaries, get help. Consider getting help from a friend with a better understanding of boundaries. If you think it is a serious problem related to mental health concerns (e.g. addiction, social anxiety, being non-neurotypical), consider getting help from a mental health professional. They are trained to assist with these sorts of things and help you work on it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is committing yourself to improvement, so you do not harm others.

On being geeky, disabled, and also kinda smokin’

This is a guest post by Cecily Kane. a writer, business professional, and sci-fi and fantasy geek. She blogs at Manic Pixie Dream Worlds , where she reviews books, talks speculative fiction, and rants regarding intersectional feminism, sometimes even coherently.

I am a geek, and a writer, and was born with a mild disability — thumb hypoplasia, type II/III.

Effectively, on my right hand, I have five fingers and no thumb. I possess a digit that looks quite thumb-like but has no thenar muscles, no flexor tendons, and an undeveloped joint — in short, it is devoid of all of the manual characteristics that make our species more highly evolved than other mammals.

There are many jokes in my household about my primate status. I make most of them.

I am also right-handed. This makes life awkward at times.

I began to disclose my disability regularly about a year ago, with the new knowledge that birth defects which limit one’s physical functions are, in fact, disabilities. Medical professionals are always curious; this defect only occurs in about 1 out of every 100,000 live births, so meeting me is often their only opportunity to see it. This curiosity does not bother me. I compare myself and my gimpy hand to Nemo and his flappy fin.

When I disclose this disability to men who are not in the medical profession, however, I almost invariably get the exact same response:

“Well, you don’t look disabled. You’re very pretty.”

Given that most of the men in my social circles are other writers, you would think the existence of a writer who is physically unable to write longhand would merit a mention, that there is something more to discuss here than my aesthetic qualities.

You would even think, perhaps, that there’s a smidge of a heroine’s story in there, a narrative of someone who overcomes a serious roadblock in order to pursue her dreams and do what she loves, a protagonist who has a dragon to slay daily.

You would think that authors would pick up on this.

They don’t.

I realize there is some confusion about the difference between a disfiguring disability and one like mine, one that limits my body’s functionality but is invisible unless one knows to look for it. Not that disfiguring disabilities make someone unattractive; I grew up with a beauty pageant queen who was born with half a left arm and half a hand. But it’s easy to see how these well-intentioned dudes who say this exact same thing are trying to reassure me that I’m, you know, bangable or whatever.

For me, it’s brain-jarring. Level of physical ability and level of physical attractiveness are not in the same registers. A dude thinking I am good-looking — well, that’s nice to hear, especially on a day I’m feeling bloated, or when the humidity levels make my hair do strange and awkward things.

But it’s not a consolation for an inability to hold a coffee cup without discomfort, perform common household repairs, use sharp tools safely, write longhand…

And given that this aspect of my life typically arises during discussions of  writing  with other writers , this response — “You don’t look disabled. You’re pretty” — clearly manifests the male gaze, and derails the nature of the conversation:

I transform from subject, writer , to object, she whom  the writer finds pretty .

And it’s not like this agency-removing comment comes from the mouths of unapologetically sexist douchecannons that I’d be better off not knowing. It comes from colleagues, friends, a boss I had once who added “intelligent” to the mix, since I’d just found him a rather substantial tax credit for hiring the disabled. Several of them are even male feminists and allies. However, I’m pretty sure it’d take an entire Women’s Studies 101 class to give any of these dudes the beginning of a clue about why “You’re pretty” is a head-spinning non sequitur and not, despite its good intentions, an appropriate response to a disability disclosure.

And so my response to these guys is, likewise, always the same. I smile and say:

“Thank you.”

Quick hit: FOSS Outreach Program for Women internships

This guest post is from the Outreach Program for Women (OPW), and is edited from their outreach materials.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is software that gives the user the freedom to use, copy, study, change, and improve it. FOSS contributors believe that this is the best way to develop software because it benefits society, creates a fun collaborative community around a project, and allows anyone to make innovative changes that reach many people.

In an effort to improve the gender diversity in FOSS, a number of organizations are offering Outreach Program for Women internships through a program organized by the GNOME Foundation. These internships are open to women (cis and trans) and genderqueer. The internships have the same structure, the same stipend and similar program dates. The application deadline for the Outreach Program for Women is March 19 and the program dates are May 19 to August 18. Unlike in Google Summer of Code, participants do not need to be students and non-coding projects are available. In addition to coding, projects include such tasks as graphic design, user experience design, documentation, bug triage and community engagement. Internships are typically remote and available worldwide. The stipend is $5500 (USD).

More information on the May to August 2014 round of OPW is available, including a list of participating organizations such as GNOME, Linux kernel, Wikimedia and OpenStack, and application instructions. Remember, applications close March 19, and you need to have made a contribution to a participating project before the application deadline.

In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at sheldon-hess.org/coral and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.

It is easier now that I look like a guy

This is a guest post by Fortister, who prefers to remain otherwise anonymous.

This was inspired by a question on Twitter by Dr. Kortney Ziegler: “so much energy focused on women in tech — rightfully so — but for trans men or other non binary gender identities…crickets…”

It is easier now that I look like a guy.

I think of myself as a shapeshifter, and with that comes shifting perspective. I am non-binary identified. I’ve kept my expressive voice and use female pronouns out of political stubbornness, because in this place, at this time, being a woman is exceptional, and I didn’t want to disappear. I spend enough time as the second woman in the room that it would feel like leaving my community to leave that role. Even as a woman, though, it is still easier now that I look like a guy. Masculine privilege is a powerful thing.

In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.

There was a time my long hair and I were assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend or HR rep. Now HR reps walk up to me. I know when it is time for a haircut because people start questioning my tone or dismissing my opinions. There was a time when I wondered how much makeup to wear, and which shirts were too thin. Now my clothes come from Amazon and I dress just like everyone I work with and I wake up fifteen minutes before rolling out the door.

It’s easier now.

The usual downsides of my identity don’t even seem to apply. No one questions my pronouns; after all at times I am the only example of a “woman” in the room. Neither do I feel misgendered as simply “woman”; just being a programmer queers my gender. It is convenient for the men around me to appropriate my presence and ignore the distinction. My boss doesn’t even blink when I get “Sir’ed” at a business dinner.

The women’s bathroom is nearly empty and the women there are unsurprised by my presence. We usually know each others names and at least half them are as grateful for the lack of gender police as I am. I still glance down with a self-deprecating smile, because I don’t want to make anyone any more uncomfortable than we already are.

Just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is easy. So much of my effort has gone to things that have nothing to do with tech. I choose my company for culture and the possibility of being promoted as a woman, even one who looks like a man, instead of for the technical problems that I would like to solve. I don’t move around as much because I would have to establish myself all over again. I’ve wasted countless hours to men who find it easier to ask questions of me than my colleagues, though I value the opportunities to mentor as well. At meetings I’m distracted from the topic at hand when the only other woman is ignored. “What was that?” I ask, interrupting the interrupter, but in the same moment I’ve lost the technical thread in a rush of adrenaline. At technical conferences men ask me what I think about women in tech, or guiltily admit their discomfort with our culture, instead of inquiring about my work. I’ve given up on Hacker News after yet another vicious round of misogyny and had abandoned Slashdot years before, and so my coworkers talk about things I have no energy to seek out for myself. I limit my conferences to ones where I will not be an oddity. (In the rest of the world my masculinity makes me an oddity. Here it is the vestiges of womanhood.)

Instead of spending my weekend hacking open source I spend my weekend figuring out how to defend the notion of my humanity. How to explain, just a little more clearly, why the oblivion of the men around me is harmful and destructive. How to make it about them, so that maybe finally they will care. I’m glad I’m not job hunting; instead of a github I have a portfolio of blog posts I’m too afraid to share (they are all insufficient for the impossible task of changing my world.) When people talk about wanting to only hire the most passionate, the most committed programmers I want to tell them that if I weren’t I would have never made it this far. Merely being a mid-career woman programming is a demonstration of passion the privileged men around me will never have an opportunity to display.

I can smell their fear, the possibility that their mediocrity is merely covered by privilege. When they protest that women aren’t interested, it is with the fear that their house of masculine cards might come toppling down. There is nothing manly about typing, about understanding systems, about communicating with humans and machines to create useful tools. Our work is not white-collar networking and control. It is not blue-collar physical strength. It is not pink-collar emotional labor. It is something new, beyond the gender binary. A huge amount of political work has gone into turning this profession masculine, but that distinction is precarious and some of us seek to actively undermine it. There is nothing masculine about what we do, and so the masculine performances that accompany it are beyond ridiculous. To need pictures of naked women to prove that we are all Straight Men here, we must know it isn’t true. Some of us are so anxious that if we can not use “he” in our job postings and documentation we might, what, forget that we are men?

I have no sympathy; some of us didn’t have this option. If you rely on your profession to validate your gender identity, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as well as acting like an exclusionary jerk.

The capitalists exploit men’s fear of being unmanly, offering them paltry rewards relative to the value they produce in exchange for brutal hours, insulting treatment and the inevitable eventual betrayal of their values. “Do no evil” becomes “evil is hard to define”, and if men admit they care they are considered soft. Organizing for working conditions or caring about missing your children’s childhoods would be womanly, not ruggedly individualistic. When there is any pushback, it is cloaked in the most masculine language possible, of “life hacking”, of seeking time to lift heavy objects or get trashed to cover for the lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in our work-dominated lives. The only alternative to the capitalist-driven workplace is the even-more masculine world of VC and the near-certainty of failure, with egos protected by the knowledge that they are at least not women. They are doing something women cannot do, they assume, rather than doing something no one with any self respect would be willing to do, woman or man.

It is easier because I merely look like a guy. I do not need to protest my manliness, because I know in my womanly education and upbringing I was taught skills that are valuable here. “He” is not as valuable a programmer as “they” are, since “he” is artificially limited. The competence of women is no threat to my self-image; it is patently obvious to me that women can code because I have met good programmers who are women in the spaces where we congregate, reassuring each other of our existence when the people around us deny it. I do not need to believe that I am special, that my profession is exclusionary, in order to feel whole, nor am I willing to write off the millions of potential programmers who have never had the set of happy accidents that led me to the profession. I seek to prove neither my relevance nor masculinity, since I am confident of both. That confidence comes from having to fight for them; it is impossible to know what we are capable of if we never reach our limits.

Men still tell me openly that they think women are better at “that people stuff” than “technical things”, as though their opinion outweighs my experience and citations and as though technical problems were not caused by people. They say that boys are better at math, as though they don’t turn to StackOverflow any time they need an equation. A few brave and very ignorant men suggest that it’s my masculinity that enables me to code. I tell them the best software development class I took was Introduction to Writing Poetry and I am the only one in it who became a programmer. I tell them a story where our insistence on masculinity is bankrupting our profession. I say that there are millions of women who have been driven from the field by the ignorance and sexist behavior of people like them. Each time, I blush in fear at my audacity, but my masculinity protects me. Before the shift, they laughed at my protestations of belonging or mocked my supposed naivete. Now in person the worst they do is walk away or change the subject uncomfortably.

Online, of course, is a different story. I am either assumed male or dismissed, belittled and told to make sandwiches if I make a point to be read female (I use sex here purposefully, for lack of better terminology: online I’ve found read sex more important than identity, voice, tone or gendered behavior. That reading of sex, of course, is fraught.) The area for us shifters is erased; there is no true self for me to show because there is no space in people’s expectations for me. I am presumed to not exist.

Online it’s easy to be a man. It is also deeply uncomfortable; it feels like a lie to erase my other life. However, going out of my way to be read a woman is to cut away a part of myself as well. This is perhaps part of why I keep to the shadows, the private forums, the feminist hideaways. Among the geeky feminists, I have found a story that allows my existence. Things can be more complicated.

Editor’s note: We welcome and encourage guest post submissions from trans women, and from non-binary-identified, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and/or agender people who were coercively assigned male at birth, about their experiences in geeky communities, professions, or subcultures — as well as any other geek feminist or social-justice-related topic. We would love to feature more guest posts about the experience of being gender-non-conforming in tech, from people with a variety of lived experiences.

More TRUCEConf

This is a guest post by Meagan Waller. Meagan Waller is a Ruby developer and resident apprentice at 8th Light. She tweets at @meaganewaller and blogs at Meaganwaller.com

TRUCEConf is a two-day conference with the purpose of setting aside differences and creating an inclusive and open place where we can put an end to the gender war in tech. TRUCE stands for trust, respect, unity, compassion, and equality, which are elements to a healthy community.

http://truceconf.com/

I really don’t doubt that the Truceconf organisers have good intentions, however I think that when you think of feminism in tech as a war between the genders you’re missing the point. It’s not a war, and it’s not right to pit the two sides against each other like there is an equal playing field and like we can just talk it out.

Frankly, I’m insulted by the conference. The organizers need to reconsider: whether that is changing the scope of project, bringing on people who actually have experience and education in dealing with this, and can we please talk about how the people who are most educated on this are saying this is terrible, and the majority of the people who are on board with this are male. I don’t ever want my activism to make my oppressors comfortable, and I’m not sorry about that. And like I said, I’m sure Elizabeth and the organizers have good intentions, I have no doubt that they do, but this screams “White-Lean-In-Feminism” that caters to the patriarchy instead of dismantling it, it’s “fuck you, I got mine” feminism, and it’s toxic and harmful. However, good intentions don’t always yield positive results, as we’ve seen.

Starting with the Tone Arguments and the way TruceConf’s message statement, and their writing on their page seems to trivialize the importance of this. They continue talk about anger and how we’re striving to have conversations without anger, and even how dangerous anger is. Justified anger isn’t dangerous, and yes, it makes people uncomfortable, it makes people aware of their privilege and it’s hard, but ignoring that and even saying it’s bad is just the straw man angry feminist argument that gets thrown in our faces, and it’s so frustrating. Criticizing people who are working for equality, who get angry sometimes, how can you look around and not be angry? I’m pissed off constantly, I am tired and fed up of being kicked when I’m already down and being told I’m lucky for the experience. This is tone argument derailing 101, and it distracts from the real issue, it really does.

TruceConf, however good intentioned it is, trivializes and dismisses the work that’s been done, it’s insulting to me because they think I’ve failed because of how I’ve gone about it. As if no one has ever thought of just being nice, as if we could just talk this out and everything would be okay. If it wasn’t for Ashe Dryden and Julie Pagano’s and many other of the influential feminists in the tech world I would’ve never became a feminist. I felt uncomfortable by their anger, and I remember even unfollowing both of them within a week when I first started following them because of all my unexamined white privilege, but I’m fundamentally changed now, and anger, real justified anger, did that.

When we set this up like it’s a war, we are missing the entire point. That’s a false equivalence, a space with abusive victims and abusers and abuse apologists, and a space with rapist apologist, and rape victims, and maybe even rapists, does not make for a safe space. To say that those who speak out against oppression, and rapists, and abusive have equal platforms, and should have an equal voice in the discussion as those who work to perpetuate and do the harassing, and abusing, and raping is wrong. Plain and simple. How can you say that speaking out against abuse is the same as abusing? How can you say they should have an equal voice in that discussion.

There is no way that will go okay. I am SCARED for this to happen, I am scared for this to become a thing. I am scared that the organizers won’t listen to the feedback from those who actively work to dismantle the current structure. This isn’t a war between two equal, consenting sides, this is about the systematic oppression of women, PoC, LGBTQIA folks, disabled, and all the intersections that exist in those realms. Why would the people with privilege sit down and talk it out, and just agree to give up their privilege? The culture is purely invested in maintaining the status quo, and this conference doesn’t break any barriers, it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, or anything that society doesn’t already do. This conference caters to the status quo, this conference is something the patriarchy can (and has) gotten behind.

When we don’t acknowledge this systematic and institutionalized imbalance we are just a cog in the machine. The idea of a truce isn’t realistic, as awesome as that could be. The only way to rid tech of sexism, racism, ageism, ableism is to dismantle the system that’s stacked against equality.

On TRUCEConf

This is a guest post by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. Jacob is the co-BDFL of Django and Director of Security at Heroku. Jacob helped create Django while working at the Lawrence Journal-World, a family owned newspaper in Lawrence, KS. He lives outside of Lawrence and spends his weekends playing at being a farmer.

This post originally appeared on Jacob’s blog.

Friday brought news of TRUCEConf.

It’s a terrible, dangerous and insulting idea. The organizers should reconsider, either canceling the event or changing its scope and mission radically. I have no doubts that the organizers have good intentions, but good intention don’t always yield positive results. As is, TRUCEConf’s very existence runs counter to the vision of equality in tech.

Tone arguments and trivialization

It’s hard to read the verbiage on TRUCEConf‘s home page as anything other than an extended tone argument. The page continually talks “anger”: citing the need for “discussions without… anger”, or the danger of continuing “on the path of anger”.

It’s hard to read this as anything other than buying into the myth of the “angry feminist”, criticizing people working for equality who have the temerity to occasionally get angry. This is a classic tone argument at its best: distracting from the actual issue at hand by focusing on the tone.

Here’s the thing, though: as Melissa McEwan points out, “to a subjugated person… anger is perfectly rational.” Indeed, “how can you look at a cultural landscape of institutionalized inequality and not be angry… because you know that the opposite of anger, for a progressive, is complacence.”

TRUCEConf, on the very face of it, trivializes and dismisses the work that’s already been done, implying that the reason it failed is because it was somehow done wrong. That’s incredibly insulting to everyone who’s been working on this problem.

What exactly are “both sides”?

TRUCEConf continually mentions “both sides”. What exactly are these two sides? (Spoiler alert: they don’t exist.)

Men and women?

Maybe they mean “men” and “women”? If so:

  • It ignores the fact that some men are as uncomfortable with the status quo, as well as the sad truth that some women have a deep investment in keeping the system in place.
  • This buys into the myth of the gender binary, sweeping trans*, gender questioning, and gender nonconforming people under the rug.
  • Indeed, it implies that the only problems facing tech is sexism, when in fact our community is also racist, ableist, ageist, etc. etc. etc.

All of this comes down to a lack of understanding of intersectionalism – the way different forms of oppression interlock and interrelate. There’s not “two sides”; there’s a deep and complex interlocking set of oppressions. Put succinctly:

When you enter a feminist space and you are only concerned with sexism, you are missing the full story. It’s like listening to music but only hearing the melody…without the harmony, percussion, and bass line, you aren’t actually hearing the song.

(From Intersectionalism 101. Read the rest of it, please!)

Sexists” and “non-sexists”?

OK, maybe they don’t mean “men” and “women”; maybe they mean “sexists” and “non-sexists”?

If so, that’s even worse. We’re not talking about two equal groups here; one “side” is comprised of harassers, abusers, and rapists. Take a moment to peruse the history of sexist incidents in tech. Is TRUCEConf seriously suggesting that we invite people from “both sides” of those events?

Do they really believe that the solution is to invite abusers and their victims to “work together in an open environment to solve our problems collaboratively”?

Both sides” implies false equivalence

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what these supposed “two sides” are. The very
discussion of these “two sides” sets up a damaging an untrue false equivalence
between bullies, abusers and rapists on one “side” and people speaking out
against harassment on the other.

This implies that speaking out about abuse is somehow equivalent to abuse itself.

It’s hard even to articulate how insulting and damaging this sort of false equivalence is.

This is an appropriation of the language of oppression by the oppressing class. Having your privilege challenged isn’t bullying. Saying that is the worst kind of privilege. If the worst thing that’s happened to you is having someone on Twitter call you sexist, well, you’ve lived a pretty incredibly lucky life so far, don’t you think?

This isn’t a war

Fundamentally, TRUCEConf fails because this isn’t a “war.” A “war” implies some sort of struggle, with equivalent atrocities on both sides. When it comes to our tech industry, nothing could be further from the truth.

This isn’t a “war” between equals; it’s the systematic oppression of women, people of color, LGBT folk, and other minorities. The people with privilege are not going to just sit down, talk it out, and suddenly agree to give up that privilege; there’s a massive culture deeply invested in maintaining the status quo.

Refusing to acknowledge this systemic imbalance implicitly endorses it. The concept of a “truce” is laughable; the only solution is to dismantle the system that’s so stacked against equality.

Why I Keep Coming Back to Mentor with TechWomen

This is a cross-post, written by Larissa Shapiro, from the TechWomen blog. Larissa Shapiro is the Head of Contributor Development at Mozilla.

TechWomen is an initiative of the US Department of State, administered by the Institute of International Education. TechWomen brings professional women in STEM fields from the Middle East and Africa to the SF Bay Area for month-long mentorships with women in industry and academia here. The “Emerging Leaders” are paired with a “professional” mentor (I have been honored to hold this role three times for the program) – who has the Emerging Leader with her at her workplace for a month, and a “cultural” mentor who shares the local culture and her own community and family life. The Emerging Leaders and their mentors also have the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC together in a delegation to the State Department and to other meetings with political and social movers and shakers in the capitol. Some mentors are also able to travel to the Middle East and Africa on delegations, as I was privileged to do in 2011 to Morocco. If any readers of Geek Feminism are interested in more information about the project, please visit the TechWomen page or reach out to me directly

I came across TechWomen by chance. A former colleague forwarded me a note from a local Women in Tech newsletter calling for mentors for a new State-Department-sponsored mentoring program. I thought… hmm…. am I ready for that? I’d gotten tremendous benefit from the mentors in my own life (I still do). I wanted to “give back” but felt terribly… green. I’d been in tech for about 15 years at the time, yet I felt unsure. I took a deep breath, filled in the application and sent it off, thinking there was no way I’d be accepted! In retrospect, I had Impostor Syndrome about becoming a mentor. What I did not realize then was how much mentoring would change my life, and change what I do with my life.

I was honored to be chosen for the first mentor cohort of TechWomen. I remember the first mentor meeting, and the incredible caliber of the women I met – I knew right away that this community of mentors would be a critical part of my TechWomen experience. Through mentoring, I have met and become friends with a network of amazing technical professional women with similar goals; all of us are dedicated to supporting each other and women in STEM around the world. Lifelong friendships have been built.

When my Emerging Leader arrived, I was impressed with her skills, talent, and intellect right away. It was not shocking – the women selected for this program are less than one out of ten of those applying. In 2013, 2000 women applied and 78 were selected. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to know every Emerging Leader well, and that we would never get enough time together.

Sanae and I dove into her mentorship, in which she studied project management techniques. We spent a lot of time at the French bakery down the road over coffee, learning how much we had in common. As much as I know I passed on wisdom to her about specific technical matters, she gave me her deep insights into my work relationships, and our friendship has continued. One of the biggest realizations for me in my first year as a mentor was that the technical mentorship is a container for work, but it is filled with deep international perspective, caring relationships, growth, and connection. The official “work” of the mentoring project turns out to not be the real “work” at all – not that it is not important.

As part of the program I was able to travel to both Washington, DC and to Morocco. Washington, DC was a wonderful trip – sharing both a city and a national heritage I love with new friends – that first year we happened to be in DC over the 4th of July and got to watch the fireworks from the top of the State Department. I felt like the luckiest American of all. Even more deeply meaningful for me was joining the TechWomen mentor delegation to Morocco – we travelled to Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat. One day we visited a house that provides care for girls who move to the city to attend secondary school – which they cannot do in their villages. The girls spoke mainly Berber, Arabic and French, but a few also spoke English and we talked with some of them. One told me of her determination to become a doctor and return to her village to improve healthcare for women and girls. At twelve years old, she spoke with an adult understanding of the world. I see the same fire in many girls who want to go into STEM – to change their circumstance – to change the world. She inspired me.

TechWomen moved into its second year, and expanded into more countries. I was thrilled to apply again – and my company wanted me to as well, having seen what an outstanding networking opportunity it was. I was matched with a brilliant emerging leader – an IT instructor from Tunisia. She chose a technical research project, studying the penetration of the IPv6 address protocol in Tunisia. She was also engaged in politics in her home country following its “Arab Spring” and taught me so much, giving me ever more respect for the work that goes into fighting for and building democracy.

I am now in my third year with TechWomen. I changed jobs during this year, and I was so determined to mentor again that I made my participation a criterion of my hire. I’m loving every minute with my newest Emerging Leader, Imen Rahal, who is very excited about the mission and projects of my present employer, Mozilla. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She has jumped in with both feet and is exceeding my expectations, taking on our modified Agile development process in the FirefoxOS project. I am very lucky that Imen’s Cultural Mentor is my friend (and Mentoring Process Architect) Katy Dickinson, and we have made cultural excursions together already, most recently to the redwoods near my Santa Cruz home.

Why do I mentor? Why wouldn’t I? For me, mentoring has become an emotional, networking, and perspective-building bank account where what I get back in “interest” is much more than what I put in. These women inspire me, bring my “game up” and become deeply cherished friends. If you have the chance to Mentor… I cannot recommend it enough.

Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.

First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.

Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:

The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.

Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:

Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?

Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.

However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.

Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.

I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.

I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.

You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.

Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:

These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.

It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.

I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.

I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.

However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!

Three red flags in a stiff breeze

I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community

This is a guest post by Julie. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and cares passionately about diversity. She co-organizes and teaches classes for the Pittsburgh chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that helps teach women how to code. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her Roomba-powered cat army. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear her screaming the catchphrase, “my technology will be intersectional or it will be BULLSHIT!” (inspired by the awesome @redlightvoices)

This post originally appeared on Julie’s Tumblr.

I have been feeling some burnout this year as a programmer. It’s not coming from my job, which I enjoy and is a great balance of challenging and supportive. No, it’s the rest of it. The community. The part that in theory is optional, but in reality helps build the relationships and knowledge that can be critical to one’s development and career.

It’s not just me. I see this in other programmers, both in person and online. There’s a whole group of us just barely making it. Regularly running on fumes, refueling just enough to stave off the burnout for another week. Every now and again, I see one leave the community (and sometimes programming altogether) because they ran out of energy.

This week, I think I finally figured out what it is. I noticed the symptoms – what some might refer to as “red flags.” I think we’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

How did we get here? Why is it this bad? Why are we staying?

There’s always been the microaggressions. I didn’t always notice them, but eventually they accumulated enough that I was buried. I couldn’t ignore them any more. Recently, a new symptom finally hit the point where I couldn’t pretend it isn’t there. Gaslighting (or at least something very akin to it).

Gaslighting is a symptom of emotional abuse, so it was a disturbing discovery. Out of curiosity, I looked up other symptoms of emotional abuse. An upsettingly long list of them were all too easy to identify with. Fuck.

Am I imagining things? Am I being hyperbolic? Have I finally lost it?

Blaming yourself and thinking you’re crazy is one of the symptoms of emotional abuse. The whole point of gaslighting is to convince the victim and those around them that the victim is irrational and making things up. Scary part is that it makes it hard to speak out and tell others what’s going on. You probably won’t believe me.

Do they belittle your accomplishments, your aspirations, your plans or even who you are? Do they have unrealistic expectations?

We’re often accused of whining on the internet, of not doing enough. How dare we ask for diversity unless we’re willing to fix it? Our attemps to do so are never enough.

Many work for free trying to help, missing out on the income they so desperately need to live and thrive, but it’s not enough. Many try to help with the pipeline problem by teaching, but it’s not enough. Others provide support and mentorship, but it’s not enough. Others help with outreach, but it’s not enough. We speak at conferences, but not enough of them, even though the travel and expenses can be quite costly.

On top of this, we have to be great programmers – average just won’t do. We’re expected to do ALL THE THINGS, but even when we try, we are belittled. We can seemingly never do enough to get an equal seat at the table.

A guy suggests doing something many have been doing for years and receives support and accolates.

Do they constantly correct or chastise you because your behavior is “inappropriate?”

If we had a dollar for every time someone told us our behavior was inappropriate, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this. We’d be so rich we’d never have to work again. We could buy our own private island and sail away. Sadly, nobody pays us for this. They just ignore our comments and chastise us for saying things in a way that many others get away with.

“If only you were nicer.” “This isn’t how you talk to your ‘allies’.” “Stop being a bitch.”

Do they continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect your valid requests? Do they try to turn everyone against you?

Just recently, friends and I had someone in a position of power ignore our boundaries. Despite requests to the contrary, this person insisted on attempting to talk about something I had explicitly made off limits. Going so far as telling mutual acquaintances about the situation in an attempt to get their assistance in forcing the discussion. Going so far as telling others the story in an attempt to paint us in a negative light.

It didn’t stop when we asked for it to. My understanding is it only eventually stopped because a male friend asked. Our boundaries don’t count until someone else asserts them for us.

Do you feel helpless, like you’re trapped in the relationship? Do they limit your access to work, money or material resources?

As I said before, the community is theoretically optional. However, the reality is that it can be critical for networking, learning, finding resources, and attaining jobs. Many feel obligated to stay for our careers – terrified of speaking up for fear of retribution. Most feel they don’t have the skills to leave and find a job in a different field. They’re trapped in this emotionally abusive relationship. Leaving would mean giving up their livelihood.

Do they have trouble apologizing? When you complain do they say that “it was just a joke” and that you are too sensitive? Do they treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see? Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not going to elaborate on all these for the sake of brevity and my tired brain.

Are they physically abusive?

Sometimes, yes. The community often protects physical abusers and sexual assaulters in our communities. The information is often hard to find because part of the emotional abuse is feeling unsafe discussing it.

Why am I so tired all the time? How much longer can I do this? What’s the price I’ll have to pay?

I am making the hard decision to remove myself from as much of the situation as I can. I plan to focus my time and efforts largely on my awesome job and my work on Girl Develop It. I’d love to speak a few times next year, but I will be limiting myself to conferences that are committed to encouraging diversity and include policies that create a safe space. I’ll be avoiding ones that continually include toxic people and behaviors.

I’m not advocating this as the right decision for everyone in this situation. It’s just what I feel is needed right now for me. My only recommendations are to find the support you need and make sure to prioritize self care.

I’m sad I have to pull back, to do less, but my health and sanity is more important than networking and my cred with the community. This is the price, and it is too high.

Comments are moderated on this post. If this angers you, you’re part of the problem. If you’re sad about what you read and have the energy, please try to shape the community into a space that looks different. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Note: As I’ve indicated on twitter, this is not a criticism of the conference I was at this weekend – the timing is unfortunate. The organizers hosted a lovely conference, and I was honored to speak at it. They did an awesome job at having a great diverse lineup (my fave is still the 11 year old young woman who loves ruby and dancing) and a code of conduct.