Discrimination by Design: Tech Business, Bias, and the Trolls

“The world of coding appreciates your vagina.”

My coworkers and I looked at it and other comments piling up under a video of iJustine, a perky, blonde haired, doe-eyed YouTube presenter, explaining how she coded her own bracelet which was 3D printed by our company.

It was 2014 and the 3D printing startup we worked for had teamed up with Google to work on their Made with Code initiative, which aimed to get young girls involved in technology and understand the basics of programming. Under the tagline “the things you love are made with code,” featured coding projects that included fashion designs, emojis, video games, and our 3D printed friendship bracelets were all packaged up in a pastel-hued, rah-rah girlpower website.

MadeWithCodeBracelets

The comments kept coming, “Proof that being a hot girl can make you rich, and allow you to talk about shit you have no clue about. Yet there’s this big push for feminism, claiming gender inequality in the West is a thing. LOL.”

“You don’t need ‘empowering’ at a young age, Let them be free and dont expose kids to externals ideas or some kind of gender agenda [sic].”

“I sure as shit hope this gets more girls into coding. So i can laugh at their extreme disappointment when they realize it’s nothing like they thought it would be thanks to retards like ijustine.”

Based on their screen names and avatars, all were written by adult men. L., our design education lead shook her head, “This video is for children. We’re going to delete these, right?”

No, our white male CEO insisted, we needed to leave the comments open to encourage dialogue and resist the urge to shut down free expression. Instead of deleting the offensive comments, or closing comments on the video all together, L. was instructed to politely respond to each one. We had just spent significant time and company resources to support a project that encourages girls to code and we were more concerned with protecting the “free speech” of YouTube trolls then ensuring the intended audience for the project, pre-teen and teenaged girls, felt safe watching it.

I shook with rage, as she too became trollbait and received responses such as, “Perhaps [your company] would be better served if they hired people to do this that actually cared to know things instead of just wanting to promote female supremacy.” Her intelligence and the mere fact that she dared to be a woman with a voice on the internet was ripped apart in the comments section.

She went home early, frustrated and demoralized not only by the comments of anonymous trolls, but that when she showed our leadership what was happening to her they again responded, “It’s an open forum. We don’t want to shut down expression, we just want to show them our response.” Almost three years later and the comments are still there, making me shudder to look at and enraged about who had to bear the burden of that “reasonable” response.

This incident is the mere tip of the Internet trolling and discrimination in tech iceberg. I began this piece last year and the recent memo a male engineer circulated at Google proclaiming that more women were not engineers because women were inherently incapable of the type of thinking required for coding and that Google was promoting a culture of “liberal bias” made me think about this story again. Google fired the engineer, but then white supremacists planned rallies in Mountain View, New York, and San Francisco, among other cities, this weekend to “protest” his firing (though fortunately, thousands more anti-racist counter protesters showed up and in most cases the white supremacists didn’t show up at all or quickly retreated).

I think about how the United States’ Troll-in-Chief has enabled and encouraged these more public showings of white supremacy and sexist violence, though this culture of violence and sexism has always been present in American society and in Silicon Valley.

Giant blow outs around harassment and discrimination happen so regularly in the tech world we have started to forget about them. And the culture doesn’t change. Remember how Twitter lost a possible purchase by Salesforce and Disney in 2016 because it is laden with trolls, white supremacists, and misogynists? Already seems like ancient internet history. Remember how Ellen Pao got driven out of Reddit when she tried to remove some of its trolliest elements? How the CEO of Uber had to step down after an unending series of legal and ethical “scandals,” which seem baked into the company’s DNA?

This is not by accident. All of these “incidents” of bias are by design. They are the result of conscious business decisions made by actual people.

Back to my small story above—what I learned on that day was not that the internet was full of nastiness—I knew that from the days of Aol chat rooms—but I saw first hand how our leadership made a distinct decision that privileged trolls over the young women who were our customers and women who were their employees.

Leadership may brush these comments off by “words that can’t hurt you,” but when I saw what happened to L. that day and think about the psychological damage caused by online harassment of outspoken feminists like Lindy West, game designer Brianna Wu, writer and speaker Anita Sarkeesian, and actor Leslie Jones, who have the audacity to think they can express themselves on the internet and have an opinion about comedy, video games, and nerd culture among other topics, I want to hold the companies that allow these behaviors to continue directly accountable.

Companies like Twitter, Google and YouTube, and Reddit are not bastions of democracy despite whatever their lofty missions. We need to remember they are for-profit companies. That means they can fully allow and decide how their platform gets used. As a for-profit corporation they are not a neutral platform. “Well, it’s a slippery slope to start regulating speech, and once you do so you create a dangerous precedence,” the argument at my old company went and seems to go at tech companies in general. Really? Let’s not forget about the “paradox of tolerance” outlined by philosopher Karl Popper and making its rounds on the internet lately – the idea that to create a “tolerant” open society we, paradoxically, must limit intolerance.

tolerance

Twitter leadership has admitted, and then readmitted, that they “suck” at protecting users from trolling and abuse, especially after extreme harassment temporarily drove Leslie Jones’s from the platform after Ghostbusters: Answer the Call came out last summer. They even went so far as banning “alt-right” aka white supremacist accounts from Twitter (so Troll-in-chief’s hasn’t been deleted how?) post-election. However, these mea culpas fall flat unless a user policy putting user safety first is not only created, but enforced.

From my own experience, it’s unambiguously clear that a comments such as “the internet appreciates your vagina,” calling a YouTube presenter a “retard” and griping about teaching young girls not to be afraid of computers as a promotion of “female supremacy” are not contributing to a productive, or interesting, dialogue about when and how to teach kids to code and how to engage young girls in STEM education.

If companies truly care about making tech more inclusive and diverse, as they claim to by supporting initiatives like Made with Code, they need to step up their user policies, invest in teams that can investigate and block abusive behavior on their platforms, and look hard at how they treat employees who are not white and male. Short of that, they are just protecting their investors, shareholders, and advertisers by keeping account numbers high and privileging harassment and trolling above real user engagement (no surprise).  

There also needs to be a lot more self-examination and investigation of bias, both overt and “unconscious.” The repeated incidents of harassment of women and minorities in tech and in the working world, and the world in general send a clear message: men in power do not want you here, do not want to rethink how they do business, do not want to give up their power.

Tech companies, and companies in general, justify the way they continue to practice discrimination in hiring by using ideas like “excellence” and “culture fit”. Until tech companies are able to have an honest, non-defensive conversation about why more women may work on their Customer Support or Marketing teams (or work cleaning their offices for that matter) than on their technical teams, they are not truly stepping up to create more equitable places to work and products that serve all of their users.

In the meantime, the burden of keeping one’s self safe online and sane at work falls to the most vulnerable communities. The onus is on those targeted by trolling and hate to keep themselves safe. Women and underrepresented groups in tech don’t need more mentoring and empowering programs, we need actual opportunities, fair hiring practices, and companies and products that are designed to protect their most vulnerable users on and offline.

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Where are the women in tech? Right here. And they’re organized and taking over.

PassionProjectTalksNotes

Illustrated notes from my talk at ELA Conf

“Not just to find your voice, but helping the woman next to you find hers,” said the organizers of the first ever ELA Conf during their opening remarks. ELA stands for “Empowerment, Leadership, Action” and it was organized by members of Girl Develop It! in Philadelphia this past weekend. This is the prevailing ethos that I have encountered ever since I timidly stepped into my first New York Tech Women meetup over two years ago. Back then I had the vague notion that I wanted to to shift from working in arts nonprofits to working in tech, but only knew about four people actually in the tech field. I felt like such an impostor walking into that first meetup, not knowing anyone. I thought, “No one is going to want to talk with me, I’m just in the arts.” The reaction was quite the opposite. I was welcomed with open arms and people commented that my arts experience was “cool.”

Two years later and I’m speaking at my first tech focused conference (not including SxSW, which I spoke at in 2014 just before I officially started working at a startup). While I’ve done extensive public speaking to artists, creative entrepreneurs and the handmade/craft community, since shifting to tech I’ve done very little speaking that isn’t directly tied to pitching my company. This fall I decided it was time to change that. I was excited about ELA Conf because it was not only offering women a platform to share their knowledge, but teach and encourage each other.

In short, ELA Conf was awesome.

Keynote speaker Saron Yitbarek, the founder of the Code Newbie podcast, talked about the importance of “punching your feelings in the face” when it came to fear around negotiating and asking for more. She reminded us that “Find your your power is a long and uncomfortable journey.” After years of education, work, negotiation, learning not to be afraid of negotiation or conflict (I’m still working on this), and pushing myself towards new opportunities, I can attest that, indeed, honing the ability to stand up for myself and trust that I am worth standing up for has been a long road.

Tracy Osborn, author of Hello Web App and founder of Wedding Lovely, captured a sentiment that I learned the hard way in my career, which is “Don’t wait until you are miserable [in a job] to inform yourself [about what other people at your company or in your industry are making and how much you are worth].” Every speaker was super on point. A panel of female founders talking real talk about how difficult it is to raise money as a woman and how they learned not to undervalue themselves and their businesses. I loved the femme power of Adrienne Lowe, who talked about being your authentic self in your tech talk and in tech, which for her means baking cookies and wearing her best dress.

PassionProjectNotes2

More great notes from my talk at ELA Conf

This conference resonated with me on a deeper level. Earlier in the fall I was lucky enough to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with my company. The Grace Hopper conference is a valuable asset to the tech industry, but aside from meeting the most bad ass game developer ever, Brianna Wu, I found the conference was interesting professionally and from an industry standpoint, but fell flat on a personal level. For me, it’s grassroots conferences like ELA Conf where women working in tech can cut through the corporate hype and forge real connections. ELA Conf I got to get over being star struck and got to forge meaningful relationships with other women in my field. There was also a push to broaden what “women in tech” means, which I felt especially grateful for. As someone who does not work as a developer I do find it interesting that, as Gloria Bell said on a panel about redefining women in tech, “Men who work in tech in non-tech roles still consider themselves ‘in tech.” Many women consider themselves ‘tech adjacent.'” I am completely 100% guilty of perpetuating this disparity and feeling like “the other woman in tech” and I promise that after this weekend I no longer will be.

We met Brianna Wu!

Brianna Wu, my colleagues and I at the Grace Hopper Conference

And what did I talk about? Concrete, tactical steps for leveraging your passion project, whether that’s contributing to open source or making beef jerky or writing, to sustainably enhance your career and help you grow and follow (and feel good about) your own, unique path. This is the path I followed to shoehorn myself into community management and marketing roles in the tech industry and I admit that even though I’ve spoken extensively I felt nervous and asked myself “What do I possibly have to share that has not already been shared?” To my delight, I was welcomed and participants found my talk useful AND hilarious. Amazing. If you are curious, here are my (minimal) slides.

Corinne of GDI and Grow

Corinne, of Girl Develop It! bought a copy of my book, Grow

What this conference really showed me was the power of the personal story and how many women in tech, who come from very diverse backgrounds, also have a lot of common ground, from determination and grit to break into and stay in this field, to learning the hard way how to speak up and value themselves. And for me, I feel like this is exactly why I wanted to be a part of this community and exactly what I hoped to find. A surprising side benefit was that many women came up to me after my talk and told me they were also working in the arts and had similar frustrations about lack of opportunities and the glass ceilings they had encountered there.

While the larger tech world, just like the larger world, is hardly a feminist utopia, it’s awesome to find a pocket of people who have your back and you can have theirs. That’s what motivates me to keep pushing myself forward and learning and growing in my career. It really reinforced my idea that community is power and when you talk frankly about issues and take steps together to be critical and develop strategies to address them things can, will, and must change.

In addition, my whole tech experience has been working with awesome, smart and powerful women. I know this is not the reality in many companies and teams, but if I’ve seen anything at both ELA Conf and Grace Hopper (and the many women in tech and diversity in tech meetups and workshops I’ve been to and sponsored and supported this fall) it’s that if your company feels it lacks gender and racial diversity it is simply not looking hard enough or working hard enough to address cultural issues that keep people from joining or staying. There’s really no excuses. I feel that if the current tech culture doesn’t change it will simply be surpassed. Move over, mainstream, we are awesome, we are organized, and we are the current and future powerhouses of this industry.

And what’s awesome mean anyway? In the words of Chanelle Henry, who gave the closing remarks, “Being awesome is being your authentic self.”

Mad Men, Women at Work and What (Hasn’t) Changed

I’m a casual watcher of Mad Men, and like most viewers, I’ve been drawn into the show’s compelling style, human drama, and a look at a bygone world of advertising on Madison Avenue where people openly smoked, drank hard liquor and let sexist and racist comments fly at work. As modern viewers, we can watch the show and wince uncomfortably and laugh because it’s not really like that any more, right? But for me, a big part of watching Mad Men is actually to see how much remains the same. Time and time again we see that bygone era really isn’t so bygone.

Recently the website Levo League, which is focused on career inspiration and advice for Gen Y women, published an article “9 Career Lessons from the Women of Mad Men” and, thanks to the click bait-ish nature of the title, I found myself drawn in. The article starts off well enough, with good, standard issue advice about asking for more, doing what makes you happy and not just what’s expected of you, and mentoring young women at the office. However, it soon verges into territory that made a more than a few feminist alarm bells sound in my head. The author of the article suggested that valuable career lessons for ambitious young women include, “Learn to play with the boys” (“Keep up and play nice” “plus men are fun!”) and “Dress for success” (“Stop dressing like a girl and start dressing like a woman”). I’m the first person to tell you that fashion communicates a lot about you and it’s important to dress in a way that makes you feel powerful, but I also feel that that is an individual choice. Also, would anyone ever encourage young men who are looking to strive and achieve in their career to “Play nice with the girls?” I don’t think so.

As much as I could spend this blog entry discussing just how problematic these pieces of advice are, this article points to a larger cultural phenomenon: sexism at work is still rampant for women. I touched on this in my last entry about the “feminine bias” in tech just being another way to say that tech is sexist. Mad Men’s run has also corresponded with the years I’ve been seriously focusing on and developing my career. While it’s true that overall women are a greater part of the workforce and that say overtly that women shouldn’t be educated and be in leadership roles is taboo, but the subtle and not-so-subtle sexist attitudes remain.

When I posted my piece about the “Feminine Bias in Tech is Sexism” on Facbeook my network responded that they saw the same thing happen in their workplaces, regardless of industry – and the industries represented by commenters included PR, finance, law, fashion, as well as tech. Sharon wrote, “I feel like every woman who’s been smart and successful and present feminine AND just don’t care about pandering to men would totally relate. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve come if you still get a door slammed in your face at certain levels of power. HAPPENS EVERYDAY.” Aileen wrote, “I work at a fashion company designing graphics for little girls’ clothes. Even though this company is 90% women and makes products geared towards future grown up women, men are ultimately in charge and address us as ‘ladies’ in a condescending way. Makes me sick.”

Two years ago I decided to leave my career in arts administration largely because of these kinds of sexist attitudes. Besides the low salaries throughout the industry, after nearly 8 years working in museums and a respected national artists services organization, I saw again and again that men remained in the top (and top paid) roles despite the accomplishments, credentials, and results of the women working around them, who often made up the majority of the organization’s staff. I would often look around the office at the artists services organization I worked at, surrounded by smart women with Master’s Degrees, years of professional accomplishments, and robust artistic practices, who were doing the hard, daily work of providing the services and delivering the programs that made up the organization’s mission. The office was organized as an open plan, with low cubicle walls, but with offices reserved for all male directors. As I typed away at emails and answered the phone fielding artists’ requests for funding, I thought, “I feel like I’m living in an episode of Mad Man”

I wrote an Op-Ed for the website Artsfwd, more deeply investigating the phenomenon of the glass ceiling in arts leadership and asking what it will take to move past it, and ultimately decided to recalibrate my career to work an industry that, despite its reputation for bad brohavior and ping pong games, is (in theory) less rigid, more innovative, and holds some promise of change. Not to mention better salaries.

I’ve heard other young women I work with claim there is “no glass ceiling in tech.” I think anyone who claims this is willfully closing their eyes. I felt first hand that as I consciously pushed my career forward I hit against it hard. I worked for nearly a decade to carefully gain experience at work, taking on projects and spearheading initiatives, creating results, and documenting them. I built my skills through extracurricular activities (blogging on arts policy, speaking at conferences like SxSW, mentoring younger professionals, working on freelance projects to build my network), getting a master’s degree in Public Administration to round out my skill set, and constantly excelling at work and talking about it in my performance reviews, only to see men around me be promoted while I remained at the bottom of middle management, just above entry level. While all of these things were important to my career (and my life) in the longer term, I saw women around me act similarly to me (and follow the advice we had been told about being assertive professionals) and encounter the same barriers.

In tech I work in a “non technical” role as a Marketing and Community Manager, though there’s a whole lot of science and quantitative skill that goes into marketing. So often women in positions like mine feel their accomplishments are minimized and diminished, in favor of their “technical” (often male) colleague’s achievements. Danielle wrote an awesome piece about this, describing women in these roles as the “other” women in tech. The dichotomy of how technical versus non-technical roles are valued is another discussion, but this is also about how women, working a technical job or not, are treated professionally.

As women I think it’s important to believe and act as if there is no limits to what we can achieve and to push back against anyone and any systems that would limit us. But we have to go further. We can’t just act for ourselves alone, but have to think about how to break this glass ceiling together, whether we work in “technical” or “nontechnical” positions – we’re all here to contribute to building a successful company right? #talkpay on Twitter did a lot to make more transparent how tech and other industries pay and Lauren Voswinkel’s manifesto around it brought the discussion of equality in pay front and center for May Day. This conversation was genuinely “disruptive” in a industry that prides itself on that overused trope. What would be more disruptive would be to see companies that structure themselves in a way that acknowledges and fights historic inequality.

It’s no surprise to those of us who pay attention that the Tech industry, and our culture as a whole, still has a long way to go towards equality. I think what makes a show like Mad Men so smart is that it is not only a exquisitely well researched period piece, but it actually sheds light on how subtle and not-so-subtle sexism still operates today. We wince and laugh at moments where women are routinely shut out and put down in the office environment because it’s still true.

So as you watch this last season, ask yourself, “How is this still true? And how can I help to change it?”

The Feminine Bias in Tech is Sexism

Sweetie Belle, my first new My Little Pony since circa 1989, joins the desk club

Somewhere in all of these memes lies a “woman in tech”

The other day I witnessed a conversation on Twitter where a woman who is a programmer commented on an admittedly girly and light hearted photo I had posted that I was unaware that there was a “feminine bias” in tech. The Tweeter quoted this excellent blog post exploring how the author, a programmer, is taken less seriously at tech conferences and in the tech world because she is feminine presenting than if she were masculine and androgynous presenting. For about two seconds I sat there in a huff and then fired off a note to my empathetic, techie, feminist, feminine coworker, “I think that nothing will help overcome the feminine bias in tech more than more feminine people in tech.”

A long time ago, back in the Riot Grrrl days when I was a teenager, I decided that glamor, femininity and fashion were powerful and could be tools that I could use to communicate my power to the world. Being both feminine and powerful was a way to reclaim power that is taken from women just because they are women. I decided that even if the world was not accustomed to reading feminine presenting people as “powerful” in ways that went beyond manipulative or overly sexual, I knew I was powerful and the world would just have to deal with me seriously, whether I was wearing a dress or jeans. Or a feather boa for that matter (though now my fashion choices tend towards Everlane basics, but I digress).

It's been awhile, but here's some awkward fashion documentation

Just another portrait of a woman in tech

Time out for two seconds: First of all, I don’t think “feminine presenting” needs to necessarily correspond with gender or sex. I am a feminine presenting person who also has a woman’s body and is very comfortable in that (this blog is called Killerfemme, after all), but who also understands that being a cis gendered person, as well as white and middle class, gives me a lot of privilege for how I can move through the world. Okay, that said, let’s continue.

To complain there is a “feminine bias” in tech and then to propose that the solution is to discourage women and anyone else who feels comfortable presenting as feminine from doing so is ridiculous. To propose that a way to reclaim power in a certain field where masculine presenting people are dominant is to play down one’s own femininity is gender policing and, quite frankly,sexism. Depending who the feminine presenting person is, it could also be homophobia or transphobia, and all of this certainly enforces a gender binary and the idea that somehow “masculinity” is more powerful than “femininity.”

If women are going to cut each other down for how they express themselves through clothes, makeup (or lack thereof), hair, shoes, attitude, and voice that’s just reinforcing the sexist cattiness that is expected of women. Solidarity does not mean silence, complicity, or bitchy critique. It means an honest dialogue and supporting people how they feel comfortable expressing themselves and their gender, no matter where on the spectrum that expression falls. In addition, if you are threatened by my skirts and heels, or dirty Converse and tech company t-shirt, I encourage you to examine your own perceptions of what a “woman in tech” “should be.”

The author of the Coding Like a Girl blog post, who goes by Sailor Mercury online (and makes some pretty bad ass zines, btw), discussed how her (male) partners assumed she was wearing dresses and makeup simply to please them. She wrote, “I was wearing them for me. And it was then, that I realized that continuing to wearing dresses just for myself was a totally valid way to say a big FUCK YOU to the patriarchy.” Right on, my sentiments exactly.

In so many ways this conversation so closely mirrors conversations I’ve witnessed and been a part of about “women in rock.” These conversations go on endlessly about how us ladies playing rock’n’roll are supposed  present to be powerful, cool, tough, and be taken seriously as musicians and it just sounds tired at this point. It does matter – do men in bands have to sit around and think carefully about what they will wear on stage so people will understand they are actually there to play music? Unless they specifically performing a certain kind of gender or character, probably not. Do men working in tech think all the time about what to wear to interviews or presentations so they will be taken seriously?

We have more to do than cut each other down and debate about what is the “appropriate” presentation – let’s take an honest look at all our own biases and get on with the real work here – eradicating sexism and injustice from the tech industry and from culture as a whole.

For extra inspiration, here’s a little Riot Grrrl snippet that reminded me that the feminine is powerful if we claim it as such…

(just substitute “girls who write” with “girls who code” for lyrics this song and you’ll get the picture… and maybe we’ll say “We are turning curly brackets into knives…”)