A startup or tech company produces a flyer, presentation, or recruiting piece reeking of explicit or implicit sexism; somebody notices and calls them on it; the initial offender digs deeper into sexist/derailing defensiveness, which triggers much wider notice. Finally, someone they care about — a sponsor, funder, or critical Twitter mass — joins in, the initial offender makes a sharp turn toward apology mode (sincerity may vary), and the internet delivers a verdict on whether they deserve forgiveness (results may vary).
We’ve seen this little pattern a lot lately, as young men grasp for credibility and cache in a woefully male-dominated niche. It’s hardly surprising that they often turn to casual sexism (or, as I propose we call it, male-pattern bonding).
There are two problems here, and I think it’s worth teasing them apart, because they need different solutions.
First, the tech industry has a culture problem.
This sexist or objectifying shit happens because someone thinks it’s going to fly — and it does, sometimes. Whether it happens in public or in private, it all contributes to driving women out of tech or deterring them from the field altogether. Also, normalizing the objectification of women creates a problematic expectation that when women are around, they’re window dressing instead of experts.
For the culture problem, the shaming routine is a pretty good solution. Last week’s Mother Jones article was actually heartening, because it sounds like sexism is starting to be a liability. It’s embarrassing, and can damage relationships, sponsorships, and trust.
After reading the Mother Jones piece, I deleted the Path app. Each user’s relationship with a new social product hangs by a thread of social connections and trust. I was on the fence about Path — only two of my actual friends use it — and when I have a choice, I’d rather not trust carelessly sexist people (or the companies that hire them) with my data, attention, or time.
Making sexism (either explicit or casual) a business liability is progress. As startups and their orbits realize sexism can be damaging, we’ll start seeing a little more restraint. The gratuitously sexy slides will land on the cutting-room floor long before presenters go on stage, and self-censorship will nix the rape jokes before they make it to anyone else’s ears.
Second, we have a person problem.
The culture problem is only part of it, and restraint isn’t a long-term solution. A fully equitable, mutually respectful world isn’t built on restraint — it’s built on respect and understanding. Making people stop saying sexist shit is only the first step. The goal is that they stop being sexist.
Actual humans write those hackathon flyers. The rape-culture-y jokes come from the mouths of actual humans. Several actual humans review those big presentations before they make it to the projector screen. The derailing attacks and defensive tweets are typed by fingers belonging to actual humans in front of keyboards. Each time I see this happen, I feel angry, but I also feel very sorry for those humans.
Those humans are tired. They are probably very stressed. They likely feel like impostors, and some may be making negative incomes while they try to prove themselves as leaders and builders of stuff. They, like all of us, want to be good people.
I’m not validating the “but I’m a good person” defense. If anything, sexism seems like a solid indicator that — while you may be a good person, whatever that means — you are not very good at being a person.
Some of them have families who are supporting them while they try to make it. Many of them are watching their friends achieve almost unbelievable monetary success and wondering if they’ve already missed the boat. They’ve all been told it’s about selling yourself and selling your team by convincing everyone, and especially investors, that you have what it takes.
But mostly I’m sorry for them because it’s genuinely shitty to be told you’re sexist or insensitive — but it’s even shittier to actually be sexist, because it means you’re missing out on a tremendous wealth of shared humanity.
For humans, shaming is terrible. Nobody responds well to shame. Even when the cycle of recrimination forces perfunctory groveling or a performed reformation, the deeper emotional response is likely to be defensive.
I worry about them. After the groveling, after the verdicts on perceived sincerity, after the event is cancelled or some money is donated: do they actually think differently about women in their industry? Or do they carry on making the same jokes and comments whenever they think there are no women present?
The shaming-and-groveling routine is doing its work culturally, but it’s not sustainable. To make it stick, we need more people on our side; we need to let them in, instead of locking them out. How can we make the people better instead of just making them better at hiding their asshattery?
We’ve all said dumb, offensive shit. This is what friends are for: they help you be a better, kinder human. They let you know when you’ve said something ignorant or idiotic. They point out that “gypped”, “retarded”, and “gay” are dumbass, hurtful things to say, and they keep pointing it out until you break the habit.
Maybe the most powerful small things are how you interact with the people you know:
- Don’t laugh uncomfortably at misogynist jokes, no matter how awkward the silence.
- Talk with friends about judgment calls influenced by sexism (“Ugh, he tweets misogynist comments — let’s not hire him;” “I’m going to skip that app, their ad was super skeezy”).
- Keep walking out of talks with offensive content.
For startups, designers, recruiters, and writers, it’s time to start assuming there are women in your audience. Include female user personas. Assume (or pretend) that at least one of the VCs you’re pitching to is a woman. Double-check “culture fit” assessments when you interview potential developers who are women.
Maybe this will make it a little easier for women to stay in tech. Maybe eventually the answers to a question like this one won’t be so discouraging.
In the long run, the main thing that makes us better at being human is simply this: getting to know other humans — and learning to respect them enough that it’s not even a little bit tempting to say shit that will hurt them.