Note: While this post includes a recap of this year’s Open Source Bridge conference, it’s also heavily about gender-in-tech issues and negative experiences I’ve had outside of the context of this conference. I will be moderating comments as a result; see the Geek Feminism comment policy if you aren’t sure about what’s appropriate.
Open Source Bridge is one of the local gems that makes me proudest to be a Portlander in the tech industry. The conference, created in response to OSCON’s one-year departure to San Jose back in 2009, manages to be unconventional in all of the right ways, from running on a home-brewed open source conference platform, to being entirely volunteer-run, to placing a strong emphasis on building community and a welcoming environment for all throughout the event.
When I go to Open Source Bridge, I’m expecting to leave a better and happier developer, due to:
- Exposure to new technologies, or special insights on technologies I already know
- A reinvigorated return to my day job after being around people who are intensely passionate about what they do
- A strong sense of community, that I feel like an intrinsic part of, during the conference, and persisting in smaller degrees in the social media sphere (Twitter) post-conference
- A handful of quirky, entertaining, hilarious “only in Portland” conference anecdotes.
This year was weird for me because a lot of that experience was either missing or diminished. A big part of that was caused by being extremely distracted by events tangential to the conference – and “recovering” from said events meant that I ended up missing about half of the sessions. It also seemed like the people I most wanted to connect with were equally distracted and tired. I don’t think the warm fuzzies or awesome talks were missing, but this year we were ships passing by. So while this summary is going to seem like a bit of a downer, I want to make it very clear that I don’t think it reflects on Open Source Bridge overall, bur rather some of the larger and more pervasive issues within the technical community (in Portland and beyond), finally creeping their way into a little gem of an event that has managed to avoid a lot of that nonsense in the past.
But, before getting to the heavy stuff, I want to make a note of the good things:
Things That Were Awesome at Open Source Bridge 2011
- “Third Time’s the Charm”, and in this respect the conference organizers were really on top of their game this year. Along with continuing strong with the things that have worked in years past (excellent website, beautiful and clear conference guide, ever-hopping conference lounge, a great balance between number of sessions, the length of sessions, and breaks, etc.), they refined things that were already pretty good for the better (all-in-one conference guide and attendee badge, clear and proactive messaging like daily conference emails, an onsite hacker lounge that was hopping all conference long) and added some fantastic new amenities (in particular, three lunches that were friendly to people with vegan and gluten-free dietary restrictions, while still being delicious for those with less restrictive diets, as well as some simple merchandising – I *love* the soccer-inspired Open Source Bridge scarf).
- The Eliot Center is definitely the best venue for the event yet (after years one and two at the Oregon Convention Center and the Portland Art Museum, respectively). It allowed for an intimacy that suits the conference really well, something that the large and sterile layout of the Convention Center, or the dark chasms of rooms at the Art Museum, hindered a bit. The venue seemed a little too small at times, due to a couple talks that were surprisingly packed (I never expected such a healthy turnout for more human-focused topics like technical management and women in open source, especially given attendance at similar presentations during prior years, but both were very well-attended), and a hacker lounge that was frequently on the cusp of being a little *too* cozy. But the intimate, well-lit and casual space that the Eliot Center provides was very well suited to the overall culture of the conference.
- There were tons of great talks put on by women this year, many of whom I hadn’t met before. Women in tech are so rare that I tend to see anyone who identifies as a woman in tech and also has the guts to give a presentation as a bit of a role model, and I had several more to add to my list this time around. I also met a couple of fantastic male allies.
- While I personally ended up in a pretty low place midway through the conference, the attendees that I reached out to once I’d had a little time to myself to recover were able to pull me out of my hole and get me engaged again – thanks in particular to the Code N Splode BoF and the Privilege / Identity unconference session (productive despite being too short and chaotic for all that needed to be discussed). Reaching out and finding an anchor – many anchors, really – when I feel like I am drowning is not an experience I’m used to yet, but one I’m glad to be growing familiar with.
- Attending for the first time while working for a company that I was not only happy to talk about and recruit for – but also sponsored the event – was really cool. I helped out with arranging the Gilt-branded lanyards this year and was happy to hear that they were well-received, since choosing one lanyard style from about 30 with no prior expertise is an odd task. Apparently organic cotton is the softest choice!
- The job board was PACKED with companies that are hiring. Very exciting to see.
Things That Were Less Awesome at Open Source Bridge 2011
- I didn’t feel like the technical talks I attended really paid off this year. I went in expecting a more nuanced discussion on an element of a technology I was already pretty familiar with, and instead got a handful of beginner-level talks. Afterwards I read through the synopses, and although they weren’t totally misleading, my expectations hadn’t been unreasonable. I think entry-level talks are useful, but the stuff that struck my interest this year often seemed to be pretty superficial, which meant that I left feeling like I hadn’t been exposed to anything new. By the end of the second day, I started choosing the less technical and more human-centered talks because I knew they’d have a greater payoff than someone recapping things I mostly already knew. (I’m not sure of a good way to fix this, either: if the synopsis looks compelling but the talk doesn’t deliver, I see that as more of an issue with the speaker than the organizers.)
- I felt like I had fewer opportunities to make connections and network with people – something I was actually eager to do since Gilt is actively hiring for its Portland office. I think this was due to a mix of random events, from the talks I attended leaving less room for discussion than in the past, to the events of the week making me less comfortable with meeting new people. Since I had a far more rewarding social experience at BarCamp (located at the same venue), I’m inclined to say that it was mostly circumstance and not anything obvious that led to this lack of connection, but I still feel sorry for missing it.
- The entire Strip Club Crawl debacle (these are just a subset of the tweets):
While I know this is a conference that successfully had an unconference session titled “NSFW” that included ChatRoulette (and its accompanying masturbators) last year, being able to carry those things off successfully is very difficult (and while NSFW was very funny, so was the side-splitting “Troll University”, which didn’t step into any of that territory). Even as a Portlander who has attended strip clubs and has friends in the industry, and enjoys making inappropriate jokes in the correct environment, I don’t think that there is ever going to be an occasion where attending a strip club in conjunction with the conference is going to be appropriate. And hearing about a lot of sex-positive people being told that they needed to be more open-minded was pretty laughable. While I hate to think that something like “NSFW” was a one-time thing, I suspect in the future I’ll recommend that people avoid sex altogether if they’re trying to cultivate a whimsical and lighthearted culture; there are just too many other things to choose which circumvent these messes, and too many individuals who think they “get” how to do salacious topics in a nuanced way but fail (hint: 140 characters will never be enough space for nuance.)
Finally, The Tough Stuff
My Open Source Bridge week was full of conflict. Just one of these conflicts would have been enough for me, but the grand total came to something more like four instances of conflict in two days, with more minor prickliness sprinkled in elsewhere. To be clear: I dislike conflict, I dislike confronting people, and I don’t find “debates” to be interesting or fun. I really enjoy discussions, in which a group of individuals are sharing their knowledge or experience to expand each-others’ awareness about a given issue, but I think debates or intellectual arguments are unpleasant and often immensely personally disrespectful (treating someone’s reality like it’s an abstract concept to be played with is incredibly dismissive).
I want to admit that some of the unpleasantness and conflict that happened this week was due to others calling me out on insulting or privileged things I’d said – both while attending the conference and in one instance a few months ago. In both cases I felt really crappy about having done such a thing, and pretty frustrated with myself – but I also acknowledged where I’d messed up, and apologized. I have the tendency to either get a bit obnoxious or a bit oversharish when I feel my most comfortable, and I’d rather have people call me out on my mistakes than be paranoid about saying the wrong thing and shutting myself off entirely. But I make that exchange with the intention of always taking the person who calls me out on my mistakes seriously. They usually have a point. And I try to learn from those experiences.
But the meat of this is that I had two conversations – in the same 12-hour period of time – that I found pretty brutal and disappointing. Both were with people I have known only within the last year but nonetheless expected better of, and the experience has left me a bit shaken and confused about where I go from this point. I had to take an entire day off from the conference because I felt so floored by the whole experience, and am only moving on from that space now due to the amazing support of the women and allies also attending the conference.
I’m combining these two conversations for the sake of anonymity and because it’s easier to discuss them that way. One resulted in me terminating the relationship entirely, but with the other one I don’t have that option (and I’m not sure if I’d want to follow through even if I did). One was with a conference attendee, one was not. One conversation took place via Twitter, one took place in person. In both cases I get the impression that my male counterpart thought he was having a harmless, albeit spirited debate, while on my end the discussions were enormously distracting, on both a physical and emotional level. They could return to their code afterwards and I still haven’t. And I’m pissed about that.
If I were to boil down the bulk of my interlocutors’ comments, the real pain point would be this idea: “I like you just fine, and I think it’s great that you’re a woman in tech, but can you please stop talking so much about being a woman in tech?”
I don’t know how to be in tech and not be female – I live in a world where the majority perspective in the tech sphere is not my own, and I’ve never been able to adopt it with any degree of confidence. I’ve never not been aware of my presence as one of the few odd people out in any given space (except for the rare case, like Code N Splode, where that latent anxiety is able to drop a bit). Asking someone to cut off something that is intrinsic to their identity and existence is impossible. It is an immensely cruel thing to say. And the worst part is that the person making the complaint is merely annoyed or inconvenienced; the person receiving the complaint is left feeling worthless. It’s not okay.
When I’m told “Why does so much of this have to be about being a woman in tech? Why can’t we just focus on the code?”, the last thing I am capable of doing after that is writing code. Because I’ve just been asked to stop being myself, to somehow separate from something that is intrinsic to all that I know. And while I’m aware that there are little bad behaviors that we all exhibit and could stand to correct, my being female is not one of them – not even close. (Maybe if the other person agrees to unpack an equal amount of their gendered socialization in equal measure – but I don’t see that happening.) I am just as incapable of doing away with the number of negative experiences I’ve had while I’ve been in tech (whether or not I’m a woman); I didn’t ask the people who participated in those negative experiences to treat me so poorly. Nobody wants to be infantilized, dismissed, bullied, or abused. So if someone tells me to stop talking about being a woman in tech, and I know nothing else, it feels an awful lot like being told to leave altogether.
And this is why women leave tech at greater rates than men at all stages of the pipeline.
Before I was more open about my experience as a woman in tech I lived in constant fear of people telling me that I was obsessed with it or making a big deal of it or otherwise trying to dismiss or diminish my points. I had battles in my head about a way to somehow justify my experience while still meeting the impossible, unspoken needs of my peers to not challenge them on this level. This fear kept me from connecting with people, and it left me feeling pretty crappy about myself. Even though it was “all in my head” at the outset, this was exactly the response I started getting when I did start feeling more open about my experience, and it turns out that no amount of comeback prep ahead of time will appease a person who would prefer to discredit your experience altogether.
If your response to the issue of sexism in tech is “I haven’t seen any” or, “You’re blowing it out of proportion / being overly negative / being overly angry,” or, “You’re seeing sexism where it may not actually exist,” or, “Why can’t you just get over it already so we can get back to coding,” you don’t actually care about having women in tech. You may think you do, but you don’t. If you can come up with a counter-argument that can’t be labeled as a Derailing for Dummies category or a silencing tactic, I’d love to hear it. But I don’t think it’s possible.
When I started working in industry and dealt with managers who insisted they knew what was best for me as a developer, even when I was adamantly insisting otherwise, I was willing to write it off as not sexist. But it still left me with a healthy suspicion of management, that they wouldn’t take me seriously no matter how intelligent I am or how much information I try to offer up about myself.
When I joined a team that had the best gender representation I’ve seen in a company but had all of the women doing the less “glamorous” work and occupying none of the managerial positions, I was willing to believe it was a fluke and had nothing to do with sexism. It still left me deeply unsettled.
When I got past the neglectful and dismissive managers and moved on to the bullying and abusive managers, I was willing to admit that they were each just individual assholes, even when I’d dealt with a couple in a row. When one of them called me a “bitch” in a public forum and likened managing me to babysitting, I was willing to say that those comments weren’t coming from a place of sexism but rather one of deep personal instability.
All of these things are experiences I’d be willing to write off as “not the result of sexism”, but listen: they’ve still made a huge portion of my time in industry an enormously negative experience, they’ve still made work and community events a place where I never feel completely safe, and they still mean that my guard is vigilantly and exhaustingly up almost all of the time. They’re still things we should care about fixing overall as an industry, because negative interpersonal experiences like that suck for everybody, suck for business, suck for innovation, and keep anybody exposed to such experiences from being capable of being their best. And these things all have nothing to do with writing code, but they certainly have distracted me from it, which means that although I’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years, I’m also nowhere near where I’d be if I’d had the luxury of just being able to focus on the code.
Nobody asks to be treated disrespectfully.
This last January my boss of two and a half years displayed a total change of character during what should have been a routine email conversation. He employed verbally abusive language in a way that was incredibly similar to a manager I’d had at the same company a year and a half prior. The emails were unsettling on their own, but having to relive the trauma of the first abusive manager made the experience outright terrifying. When I returned to work the next week my boss revealed that the email exchange had been part of an effort to get an emotional response (of such a severity that I’d have to stay home from work) out of me. He believed that he needed to show me that I couldn’t allow emotional outbursts to interfere with my work (as part of a role change I hadn’t discussed with him or consented to), and since I didn’t have a history of being overly emotional on the job, he had to create such a response artificially, by recreating a past trauma.
I’m willing to write off the past bad experiences I’ve had in industry as merely unpleasant. But being lied to, and manipulated, by an employer so he could prove to himself that I was just as emotional and in need of guidance as he thought I was, despite having no prior evidence to support this theory – is sexist. He may not have said “I need to test you emotionally because you are a woman,” but I can promise that none of the men promoted to the role he was hoping to see me in had to participate, non-consensually, in such a sadistic exercise ahead of time.
When I let my co-workers know that I no longer felt safe being in the same room as my boss, they tried to say I was being unfair because he had been only verbally abusive, not physically abusive, and “unsafe” implied physical abuse and I was therefore crossing a line and hurting my boss’ feelings. My boss cared very deeply about not being perceived as physically threatening, and here I was, someone he’d never hit, saying that I didn’t feel safe around him. These are the sentiments of people who do not understand what it feels like to be unsafe, who can’t comprehend the chasm between “looking bad” and being abused or violated.
As of this January I was done with being silent about my experiences, done with writing things off to mere coincidence or a string of bad luck. I have had too many adult men with some degree of power over me, be it at work or in a business context outside of my job (for instance, a former landlord) treat me like a child after I’d interacted with them as an intelligent adult for months, if not years. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to contact a lawyer before getting these individuals to take me seriously. I’m done pretending that this all has been no big deal. It has been intensely traumatic, and it’s human for me to be left with a very different approach to my career than the typical programmer as a result of it. I have legitimate reasons to trust slowly and feel unsafe by default. This is not a case of me needing to “get over it” or have a more optimistic outlook, this is a matter of me protecting myself. I’ve always been passionate about issues of gender and technology, but a lot of my mouthiness about the issue in the last 6 months has had a lot more to do with self-perserverance. I want to thrive as a developer, and I’m hyper-vigilant about making sure that anything that gets in my way is taken care of as soon as possible.
My new job has been great. I intend to write an entry on the specifics of why it’s been such a good fit for me, but it’s safe to say: I haven’t experienced the managerial issues that I have at all of my former companies, and I hope I never do. Even so, I’ve dealt with so much negativity up until this point that even if all of the people I deal with are awesome, I’m still highly cautious.
I discovered one of my post-traumatic triggers as a result of January’s incident a month ago, when my team undertook a managerial shift. I had to choose a new manager, and I hadn’t actually met one of the individuals that was available to me. Just that bit of uncertainty left me feeling like a total wreck for nearly a week. I felt like a shell of myself. Of course, once I met the manager in question, we got along great and had no issues to speak of, and that continues to be the case. I expressed my issues with trust and authority and received nothing but support in return. But I feel frustrated that my past experiences have turned every work experience, whether it’s deserved or not, into a potential minefield of threats. Of course, that’s the impact traumatic experiences can have. I don’t expect people to bend over backwards for me as a result of these experiences, but I do expect some effort at understanding, and just a little compassion.
Ultimately, that’s all this really is about. I don’t really understand why so much of tech culture is so invested in being politically incorrect at the expense of compassion, kindness, and openness. Compassion and friendliness can only help our community, and if you love the community aspect of OSB, creating a more welcoming, inclusive and compassionate environment should be the top thing on your list of priorities. Sure, many of us are introverts, or we’re wrapped up in the minutae of our day-to-day, so being mindful of the feelings of those around us and showing some compassion is often really difficult. I certainly fail at it quite a bit – I tend to get quite obnoxious when I’m feeling my most comfortable, and I can say things gracelessly, or in a way I don’t really mean. But when called on these things I can show my true colors by swallowing that gut defensive response that we all have and looking at the situation with a kind heart. (Indulging the defensive response reinforces that you really meant it – go ahead, keep digging.) Showing compassion can be uncomfortable at times; hearing about another person’s pain is often exhausting, and we only have so much capacity for dealing with the ugliness of the world before we need to shut it out for awhile. That’s normal. But your brief discomfort is nothing in comparison to the pain you cause a person by dismissing their experience or asking them to be “themselves, but without that [insert minority group experience here] part.” That hurts, distracts, and derails more than I can express, and quite frankly, I want to get back to writing code.
Here’s some additional documentation related the issues I’ve raised here – there’s an extensive library on these topics on the Interwebz, putting words and strength behind sentiments that I, and others, have had for quite awhile but haven’t been able to articulate so clearly.
- On why I’m justifiably angry
- On why, seriously, I’m not looking out for things to be upset about
- On why the minority *really does* have a better understanding of discrimination in a given area than the privileged group (aka “sexism is not subjective”)
- On why I may keep working and existing in this toxic environment, despite it often hurting like hell
- And finally, helpful hints for dudes.