Making tech survivable: What can men do?
I recently read Patricia Aas’ heartbreaking, but pertinent blog post “Survival Tips for Women in Tech.” Go read it, do share it, and come back afterward. It resonates well with what I’ve learned from talking to other women in tech and their experiences, and my own observations of how these unfair structures allow for exclusions of people who are not white men. There’s a lot of implicit advice for us in Patricia’s blog post, but I wanted to complement it because I hope it can be useful if “one of the guys” joins this conversation.
I also sincerely believe that the field is changing and that there’s a lot of us that has to re-evaluate our perspectives if we want to be taken seriously at one of the future’s attractive workplaces. So this is my attempt at a guide for men in tech. Know that I’m writing this knowing that there are things I may have not considered or have enough knowledge about. And consider it a fork of Patricia’s post, and an open source project where pull requests and code reviews are welcome from all who care to. I know that this text smells of a narrow heterogeneous gender dichotomy (men vs. women). Even though these tips are directed at a stereotypical sense of men — whatever your definition is, they are obviously not restricted to them.
1. A team’s success doesn’t rely on being a fraternity, it relies on different people’s ability to work together
It’s time to retire the idea that success in your team requires that all of its members are “in on the jokes,” like the same type of past time activities, or should tolerate shitty behavior because it’s supposed to be a sign of sibling-like love. Don’t take women’s adversity to join in on certain activities to mean that they “aren’t any fun” or that “that they look down on you.” People always have their reasons, there’s no harm in questioning if how you act at work can be unpleasant for others.
2. Give credit to and honor other’s work
For all its flaws, the academy has one system going for it: the practice of citation. It’s generally anathema to steal ideas or research of others without giving it credit (not saying that it doesn’t happen). In tech, we are entirely dependent on each other’s capacity to great work, because despite what some may opine, you can’t write all the code yourself. And I’ll let you in on a secret: It feels way more powerful to be part of making sure that another person’s good idea comes into fruition. Chances are that this person has more good ideas on the way, and you may have the privilege to work with that person.
We know that women are often talked over in meetings. We know that ideas are easily stolen by the most eager and outspoken in these settings. You can be the one that reminds the group who was its originator and place that person back in the narrative. Be conscious about this in your written communication also.
3. Don’t think that it’s other people’s job to ensure that the workplace is safe
If the advice for women is that they can’t trust Human Resources, not even if they’re women and apparently say the right things, the responsibility falls on you to set expectations from leadership. It’s perfectly OK for you as a man to request the strategy for making sure that people are given equal treatment in the workplace. You can require that there are safe ways to report abuse. Often this role falls to women, and they are immediately categorized as “troublemakers” or “pissy.” Relieve those women of that role, I doubt you’ll risk any consequences, and if you do, it lends only legitimacy to what you did.
4. Women in tech are first and foremost technologists
We have different roles and different times in our lives. We are sons, fathers, brothers, employees, coders, front-enders, project managers, strangers, friends, colleagues, but very seldom we are reduced to “the man” in the workplace. Women in tech are often reduced to, well, women in tech. Trust me, most of them don’t want to be. They want to do interesting work and be recognized for it. Sounds familiar? We all play an array of different roles, sometimes gendered or not, but I don’t know any male programmers that want to be celebrated for writing manly code. Don’t go looking after “a woman programmer”, but make sure that you have been in contact with and considered people of all genders.
5. Don’t use alcohol as an excuse for bad behaviour
I’m ambivalent about alcohol at the workplace. It can obviously be a fun social lubricate, and wine, beer, and drinks can be a joy for the senses. But too much of it, or for some, any of it, are often destructive, and drunkenness is used as an excuse for douchebag behavior. You should be aware if you’re able to behave yourself when you drink. If you’re not 100% sure that you can behave when you drink, get feedback from someone, ideally a woman. I doubt it’s feasible to quit alcohol on functions altogether, but make sure that you request that there are good alcoholic-free drinks as well, and make alcohol a complementary thing, not the main activity of the evening.
6. You’re a nice guy, but you’re probably part of the problem
I’m guilty of this. Just because I care about gender equality, it doesn’t mean that I’m not failing to work against it or take advantage of my privileged position at the cost of others. Being circumspect and self-conscious of this doesn’t mean that you have to be self-flagellating or feel like a bad person, it just means that you’ve to put a little work into being a decent person to others. You’re no use if you don’t contribute by calling out abusive behaviour, or don’t make sure that people are given a fair chance to succeed and evolve.
7. Give women space
Both literally and figuratively. Be mindful that people who are constantly reminded of being of and in the minority needs space to be themselves, as coders, nerds, or whatever. Your input or presence isn’t always required. Statistics show that many of the women you will work with have experienced physical harassment in some way. People respond differently to these experiences, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if one would like the door open or closed if you have a one-to-one meeting, or let them choose the location.
8. If you’re given a cake, take that as good feedback
Patricia’s tips are to bake a cake for great people. This cake is not a lie. If you succeed in being a good person for your colleagues, chances are that you’ll get rewarded for it. If you are like me, this can feel a bit unpleasant, because chances are that you behaved like a decent person, which shouldn’t qualify for special treatment. But eat the cake and appreciate the gratitude. And remember, you can bake cakes too.
9. Eat lunch with women in tech (but not as a date!)
If you follow these tips, you may get the chance to talk and learn about other people’s experiences in the field. Much of what I have learned, has been over a lunch, where I have tried to listen. You may feel the urge to argue or get defensive. Save that for later if you must. You’ll be surprised that even female colleagues that you recognize as “strong” and “outspoken” have bad experiences.
10. Help out documenting women’s work
Patricia advice women to make slides and document their work to not lose credit. That sounds like a lot of work. The least of what you can do is to volunteer as meeting secretary and make sure that the work is documented and credited where credit is due. This is significant at a higher level: It’s important that we make sure that women take part in a team’s success story. The book Broad Band: The Untold Story (which is a great book on its own right) by Claire L. Evans shows how many essential and important inventions and practices has been made by women in the history of digital technology, only to be forgotten when men write its history (looking at you Steven Levy).
11. Save your criticism of later
It’s so easy to shoot down ideas. It’s harder to come up with them. Sure, you have insights, experience, and valid points, but more often than not, it’s better to let people explore and make their ideas more concrete. It will also give you a chance to chew it over, and if they make a proof of concept, you’ll both have a more informed and fruitful discussion.
12. Question team-building activities, especially where women have to dress differently
Hell, I don’t feel very comfortable bathing with anyone. I don’t get the appeal of strip clubs. I don’t see how themed parties are very useful in building good teams. Sure, people may find all these things great fun, and that’s ok. But they should be voluntary and complimentary. If the work isn’t team building of itself, you should probably find some more interesting problems to solve.
13. Be wary if women quit your workplace
People quit for boring and legitimate reasons. But sometimes they leave because they can’t bear it anymore. I have many times been caught surprised when I have after the fact learned that some past colleague has gone through some shit at the workplace. Many of these things never hit the surface.You cannot assume that people will automatically recognise you as an ally (you probably look exactly the same as the people who are the reason your colleague is leaving). Again, it’s a good time to ask leadership about how we ensure a safe workplace.
14. Your criticism is least useful in the form of public barrage
I’ve been a part of groups where harsh feedback has been given openly, but I have always found this behaviour in myself and others a bit weird: Some men tend to be obtuse when giving critical feedback. We rationalize it as “being honest” and “not bothering dressing it up nicely,” but honestly, it makes us feel as shitty both as the giver and receiver. So there’s no reason to jump on the dogpile. Good, useful criticism comes with empathy. If you want your feedback to have lasting effects, it has to come from an understanding of the position the work comes from. Also, there are just so many hills you can die on. Give people a chance to learn from own mistakes.
15. Be the one chosen for code review
Patricia have great advice for doing code reviews. It’s mostly about how to do good programming work. Some men have the impression that women generally are not as good at programming, and use code reviews to remind everyone of that. They are wrong. We all make stupid programming mistakes. We’re all learning the craft, and that process never ends. People solve things differently, and that can be a learning opportunity. And seriously, if you find yourself criticising style choices, your team either need to choose a linting standard, or you shouldn’t do the review in the first place.
16. Be generous with your knowledge. Teach those who want to learn from you
If you can be part of making someone a better coder than you, that’s a privilege you want to be a part of. Teaching what you know to others, is also an excellent way to improve your own skills. Remember that teaching isn’t the same as telling or explaining. Good teaching comes from learning what your student needs to increase her expertise or knowledge. It requires a lot of listening.
17. Demand diversity
Make sure that your job ads are read and vetted by different people, including women. Remind recruitment that women often have to be contacted directly. Ask conference hosts what they’ve done to ensure diversity on the stage because then you are taking a place that could have been held by a woman. Be open that a new colleague’s role isn’t to be your new buddy, it’s to set your team up for being able to solve problems. And don’t just demand it, offer to help in any way you can.
18. Don’t tolerate locker room talk
I don’t think there’s much more to say. It’s dumb and unnecessary, and you should call it out.
19. Be a powerful ally
If you gain someone’s trust because you manage to behave like a decent human being, use that trust and your privilege to support that person be heard in meetings and workplace processes. Be prepared and willing to let others shine.
20. You probably don’t need to put a sexy lady on your slides
If your work isn’t sexy enough of itself, it won’t certainly help to augment it with something that makes some people uncomfortable. You may find this prudish, but that’s probably because you haven’t experienced being reduced to a body to any extent. Being an ally also means calling out colleagues and peers who still think this sort of behaviour is fine.
21. Don’t assign non-technical work to women that you don’t also do yourself
If a woman is hired as a programmer, coding is probably what she should be working with. If you find yourself in need of a secretary, project manager or user researcher, you should probably hire one. If you have a small team, which require people to cover more roles, be circumspect of which roles you give whom. Just because you recognize that women may be “good with people,” it doesn’t mean she should be doing all the user research. Perhaps the most talkative person in the meeting should take the role as a notetaker and be forced to listen.
22. Educate yourself
Read books like Brotopia, and Broad Band. Follow women programmers on twitter. Read blogs. Listen to podcasts. Watch conference talks that deal with social issues in tech. Learn something about discourse analysis and literary criticism. Think about how words and language tie in with power. Be open that knowledge can be acquired in different ways, and be skeptical to people who claim that they possess a scientific objective truth about how gender is supposed to work. If they claim scientific superiority they should be able to host a colloquium where you review and discuss published research. Take the time and read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and reflect on all the cognitive biases that are in effect every day, for us all. There’s some good meeting advice in there as well.
23. Think about the fact that Survival Tips for Women in Tech has to be written in 2018, in Norway
Official reports from 2017 have shown that 1 in 12 women have experienced sexual abuse at the workplace in Norway (so that’s not counting what may have happened on school, or at home). Think about it. Norway is one the world’s top countries concerning gender equality. Still, chances are that one of twelve women that walks through the door at your workplace, has experienced some sexual transgression in some way, and almost certainly, have had shitty experiences that comes from her merely being a women and in the minority.
There are situations that may seem completely harmless for you, that may for people that have experienced abuse, feel is unsafe and unpleasant. It’s impossible to account for this at every turn, but be at least open and understanding if someone hints to that may be the case. This affects their ability to do good work. This affects people’s opportunity to be… people.
I know I risk very little writing this, even though I imagine some of my fellow male technologists may call me out as a social justice warrior, or roll their eyes for me being politically correct. Well, I hope they get over themselves. I will still be recognized for the other work I do, and not just “an angry feminist.” I may also be accused of virtue signaling. Be that as it may, I’m not saying I have succeeded in following these tips myself. But I think it’s vital that people like me, also join the conversation. For ultimately, it’s about figuring out how we all can make room for everyone to go explore in this short time we spend in existence, in a way we find fulfilling. And that’s a hill I want to die on.
(Thanks to Patricia for writing the article that inspired this one, and for her feedback on this text. And thanks to Chris Atherton for her helpful comments.)