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A Better Conversation about Tech

04.08.2014
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Celebrate Diversity

I am a support a more inclusive high technology industry. I put my money where my mouth is. And I spend my time making sure that there is a good mix of people and conversation at conferences.

But I am really dismayed by the way the tech industry is handling both the inclusion of under-represented folks as well as the way the industry gets into mob mode when someone is "outed" for funding a non-mainstream view.

What the Underlying Issue is About

The underlying issue is tribalism vs. inclusiveness. Do we work hard at empathizing with others and trying to include them or do we settle into a new tribe that aligns with some short term goals? Sadly, most of what I'm seeing in tech these days is simply a realignment of tribalism. This is not what I support.

I support inclusion of a broad group of people in technology and I support creating an environment where people speak and people listen.

Background

I was born in the Woman's Liberation era... 1964. I was born when being a lawyer meant being a white man. And when I went to law school in 1988, admissions where nearly balanced. Women and people of color from my law school graduating year have gone on to be President of the United States as well as joining the board of directors of one of the top 20 law firms in the world. It took two+ generations of supporting women and people of color for the changes to percolate through the system. And the work in the legal world continues.

As an aside, the lack of representation of women and people of color in tech is something that I think can and should be substantially remedied in less than 10 years because in tech, we have a much shorter career and company cycle.

I was born before legalized birth control, legalized abortion, and legalized inter-racial marriage.

I went to college in a relatively liberal Providence Rhode Island in the early 1980s. Most of my friends were gay and much of my socialization was in the Providence gay subculture... which meant mostly closetted. Specifically:

  • Stonewall was still very real, and very fresh in most of 30+ year olds' minds
  • None of my gay friends openly admitted being gay in company that was not known to be gay friendly
  • There was an underground industry of gay travel information that mostly catered to safety (hotel X is a safe hotel for two men to rent a room)
  • You always were careful leaving clubs because gay-bashing was a weekly event and the police didn't really care (guys would cruise outside gay clubs, follow a car with a single guy to some quiet dark street, and beat the shit out of him)
  • Even Boston and New York were places to be careful if you were gay... and San Francisco outside the Castro

I actively and openly supported and continue to support gay marriage. Any two people who love each other and are 17+ years old should have the right to every legal right and responsibility. Period. I did pro bono technology and strategy consulting for Marriage Equality USA as well.

I worked at a law firm in the 1980 that reflected the patriarchy that was (and to a certain degree still is) the norm in the law. I have seen sexism in the workplace that makes today's tech industry sexism seem nominal. I am a person of a former era compared to most of the readers of my blog and most of the people I work with and the former era's treatment of woman, gays, and blacks was far more brutal than today. This is not to excuse what is happening today or minimize it, but to point out to some detractors that I'm not some straight white dude who's been living in a bubble for the past 50 years.

Or put another way, how many readers have had to, in an era before 911 was a cell phone call away, had to look some thugs in the eye outside a gay club and say, "if you're going to start something, you better finish it because I have your license plate number and you don't know who you're dealing with"? The "you don't know who you're dealing with" piece had meaning in Providence. In my case, it was a bluff... but in other cases it wasn't.

I was the primary parent

When my kids were born, their mother and I had a long discussion about the relative flexibility in each of our schedules. Given that she was a lawyer that dealt with huge, complex litigation who worked at a law firm where face time was important and I was a consultant who worked mostly remotely and could throttle my hours pretty easily, we decided that I was the "stay at home" parent. Yes, we had a full time nanny, but on the weekends, on the nights when my ex worked late, on the days that the nanny was out (she had two pregnancies and various medical issues during her 7 year tenure with us as well as the normal sick/vacation time), I was the one who took care of the kids.

I could go on at length about my parenting role. But simply put, I was the parent who was always on call for emergencies and I was the parent that took care of the kids on nights and when their mother was away on business... and business trips lasted days, weeks, and in one case 4 months.

Sexism and the Angry Mob

First, I want to cover the Brendan Eich mob attack.

Burning down Eich

Yeah, he gave money to oppose what, in a generation or two, will be seen by almost everyone as the wrong path just as today discrimination against blacks is almost universally decried. Yes, I think that any form of discrimination against gays is bad and denying the right to marry is discrimination. But...

In 2008, and even today, the issue is still a matter of legitimate political debate. And everybody should have a right to engage in political discourse including personal funding (at a reasonable level, fuck you supreme court) a political position.

Yeah, I hate Illinois Nazis but a Jewish lawyer at the ACLU defended the Nazis' right to march.

Having the tech mob attack Eich was really sad. It is not the tech industry that I want to be part of.

I also think the way Eich handled the issue was not CEO-worthy and I'm glad he's not running Mozilla. Why?

First, he should have been clear that he has a personal life wherein he does not wear the Mozilla CEO hat. A political contribution 6 years ago is part of that life.

Second, he should have asked both the people in Mozilla and the people who care about Mozilla (I'm one... Firefox and Thunderbird are primary avenues onto the Internet for me) judge him by what he has done at Mozilla and what he has done wearing the Mozilla hat. He's got a 16 year history at Mozilla we can look at.

I don't think Eich was CEO material. But I do not hold his Prop 8 contribution against him in relationship to his contributions to the Internet. Just like I don't hold the ACLU supporting Nazis against the ACLU.

Everyday Sexism

I've seen plenty of sexism in lawyering and in tech. Nothing I've ever seen, nothing that well known ranters have told us about in tech come close to the sexism against men when it comes to being a primary caretaker.

My experiences

As a man, every time I walk onto a playground, I'm asked where my kids are just to make sure I'm not a child molester. And if I'm sitting alone reading while my kids are playing, it's pretty common for a woman who was not on the playground when I entered to come over and ask which kids are mine ("just checking" is the tip-off that it's not a conversation starter). I've never seen a woman questioned about who her kids are.

I never take pictures of my kids at the playground. I will ask women to use my phone to take pictures of the kids playing. A man taking pictures of kids on a playground is assumed to have ill intent.

Before you start on the "most child molesters are men" thing, keep in mind that most men are not child molesters and using gender as a proxy is sexism, plain and simple.

Every place I went with my toddlers, I received unwelcome, condescending advice from women.

If I let my kid run and fall down, I was a bad father. If I didn't get up and cuddle my kid after a boo-boo, I was a bad father. As parents, my ex and I made the decision that we'd let our kids explore, skin their knees, and make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. That was the parenting choice we made. And every time I stuck to that parenting choice in public, I was verbally condemned. Mothers did not come over to my ex and "point out" that our kid had fallen down and was crying.

At preschool, mothers would often not make playdates for the kids directly with me. They would ask for my wife's email/phone to make the playdate. When I pointed out that my wife was in depositions for the next week and not handling the kids' social scheduling, I lost playdates. I lost social opportunities for my kids because I was a man. Oh, in case you are wondering, I tried all forms of eye contact, not eye contact, looking at the floor, cc'ing the dads on email, adopting a slight gay affect, etc. to see if there were variables I could tune to get playdates for my kids. The only variable that made a difference was if the playdate scheduling was done mom-to-mom it worked and in most other cases did not it work.

None of these behaviors are abnormal. They are common and worse yet, accepted. In tech, almost everyone agrees that there are issues related to diversity... that women are less than optimally represented. At least a plurality agrees that there are things we can do as an industry to make the balance better and the make the working environment better. The kind of sexism I've seen being a dad is normal, accepted, and pointing it out is entirely unwelcome.

I could go on...

The bottom line is that sexism is alive, well, and particularly nasty when it comes to kids. This is codified by states with "Best Interests" custody standards rather than joint custody defaults. Don't believe me? Talk to any divorced dad where the kids are resident in Florida.

But more importantly for the purposes of the "sexism in tech" discussion, sexism is not equal to/isomorphic with patriarchy. Both men and women engage in sexism. Sexism is not men dominating women. Sexism is using gender as a proxy for decisions about an individual's ability/worth. And just because parenting is traditionally a woman's role doesn't mean that sexism towards male parents is patriarchy or somehow justified because of history. It's sexism.

The Sexism in Tech issue

Yes, there's sexism in tech. Yes, tech is white straight male dominated. Yes, people who don't look like straight white men have a harder time. Yes, this is all needs to change. However...

I do not believe that "women have a different perspective" is a valid argument for having diversity in tech. In fact, I think is de facto sexist. Those that use the "women are different" argument for why women should be included is being no less sexist than a man using the "woman are modal" argument. Same meanings... we lump people together by sex... and that's sexist.

Every person has a different perspective. My perspective was shaped by being a first generation, half-Jew who wouldn't exist but for having a grandmother who used her physical charms on a Nazi to get an exit visa after my grandfather's sporting good store was stolen by the Nazis on Kristallnacht. But being a first generation half-Jew son of a Holocaust escapee doesn't define me (in fact, how many of my friends reading this even knew about my history?). My perspective is no more or less valid/unique than anyone else's in tech... woman, man, gay, straight, white, black, etc. Although, I've put a lot of my personal background out for public consumption in this post to proactively deflect the various criticisms about "if you haven't lived it, you have no right commenting on it."

Our goal in tech should be inclusivity because the larger the talent pool we draw from, the better overall talent we'll have. The larger the pool of perspectives we draw from, the more perspectives we'll have to explore.

I discuss how to make tech better in a separate post.

Adopting a hostile, sexist, negative attitude from either side will just lead to different sexist lines being drawn.

Let's talk about language. Each time a phrase like "Brogrammer" and "Frat Boy" is used, it reduces the speaker to the same sexist, name-calling, that makes women in tech feel uncomfortable. It reinforces the tribal lines. Yes, it redefines the lines to the "progressive" side, but it does not increase the inclusion... it just changes who is included, who is on "our side"... and simply refining the "in crowd" and "others" does nobody a service... although if your "team" is wining it feels like a service to you.

Or, a woman wearing a #ladyboss t-shirt as a caption to a story on sexism in tech is sexist. What if the t-shirt said, "#manboss", "#blackboss", "#gayboss"? Yeah, we'd all have a WTF moment. If you can't substitute another classification into a phrase and have it seem okay, then it's not okay.

So, What do I Suggest?

Let's stop with the divisions and bait for our tribe/cohort.

Let's focus on the individuals and what they bring to the table. How much of Mozilla is Eich's vision and drive? Burning him down does not move any cause forward except perhaps keeping a bad CEO out of the helm at Mozilla.

Let's not make men the bad actors. There are plenty of individuals who need improvement in their approach to making tech more inviting for women and people of color. Reducing it to, "men in tech are bad" costs everyone.

Let's focus on inclusion rather than realigning tribalism. Let's include more people and focus the discussion on what can make things better in terms of including more people.

Let's choose language that reinforces inclusion.

Let's spend our time and our effort making tech a place where the transaction costs to sharing ideas goes way down... for everyone.

Let's celebrate diversity, embrace diversity, and make the tech world better because it's got a most excellent talent pool to draw from.

 

Published at DZone with permission of its author, David Pollak. (source)

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