Starting with the man in the mirror

man in the mirror

Over the past few months, several women have gone on the record about their experiences with harassment in tech. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about horrific behavior at well-known companies, and it won’t be the last. The past few weeks have been like watching a slow motion multi-car crash.

And in the aftermath of these stories, there’s a common response that goes something like this:
These women are so brave. I applaud their bravery. I wish more women would come forward so things would finally change.

And I find myself pretty conflicted every time I see a new variation of it.

For one thing, it puts the onus of change on the women who are experiencing harassment. For another, tech has a terrible reputation for throwing up its hands, doing the “oops, sorry” mea culpa, and then returning to business as usual.

It takes real guts to speak up. It can be a career-breaking moment. For many of the women who spoke up about investors, the fear of retribution is real. Particularly when they have to continue to raise dollars from the same Sand Hill toads.

When we tell women that they are responsible for change, we leave out the one group critical to driving any real or lasting change. The people with the majority of money and power.

How often does this happen?

Recently, a reporter reached out to ask me how often this actually happens. A prominent VC asked something similar on Twitter. He took a stab at guessing what percentage of VCs would be implicated if we gave women in tech an anonymous way to report this stuff. His guess was about 20 percent.

I stared at that number and thought about my DMs, my inbox, my Facebook Messenger feed. No fucking way it’s that low, I thought. And then I wondered what his DMs look like. I wondered what shows up in his inbox or his Messenger feed.

Were these guys willfully ignorant about the frequency with which this happens? Or were they really not seeing it?

Shanley’s inbox

I’ve been thinking a lot about Shanley Kane and what her inbox must be like. What it must have been like when she was a loud and lonely voice. How many private messages and stories she must have seen both in her time as founder and editor of Model View Culture. But also before that — on the heels of her now fulfilled prophetic vision, What Your Culture Really Says.

We need a first line of defense on the rampant abuses in the tech industry.

We’ve been writing The Co-Pour for nearly a year. I’m doing more public speaking about what it means to be a woman in technology and how much bullshit is out there. And once you start talking about this stuff, more people want to talk to you about their own experiences. And more. And more. And more.

They share details about the awful interview when the interviewer propositioned them for a date. They want to know what they could have done to avoid unwanted advances while pitching their latest venture. They wonder when the meeting went from a discussion about ideas and opportunities to something more nefarious.

Every woman has a story

Every woman in tech has their own story. Many of these women are brave and badass and have never spoken about it publicly. Many of them never will.

Late last year I wrote a post about the gender divide in tech. In it, I included a story about a women in tech dinner I attended and the following:

Being a good ally to women in tech doesn’t just mean not harassing women. That is the lowest possible bar.

We explain that what she’s describing is so deeply prevalent in tech culture that it doesn’t even rank as bad behaviour. The worst, we explain, are things we still hesitate to say out loud because it’s difficult to reconcile that these things happened in professional workplaces. Even at a dinner full of successful, accomplished women.

We need a way to herald and champion the women who speak up that does not make a counterpoint about the women who don’t. The motivations for sharing these experiences are intensely personal. They stem as much from a desire to see real change as from the belief that the system can, in fact, be changed.

We put the burden of abuse and the burden of reporting on the shoulders of a single group of people. And then we ask them to be optimistic about tech’s ability to change. We need to stop wondering why these people keep leaving this industry in droves. The answer should be obvious by now.

Women aren’t the only ones capable of speaking up

Right now, every man in tech needs to take a hard look at his own role in either perpetuating or preventing this behaviour.

Being a good ally to women in tech doesn’t just mean not harassing women. That is the lowest possible bar. It means speaking up when inappropriate things happen. It means not putting the entire responsibility on women to report bad behaviour.

Related: Some garbage I used to believe about equality

We talk about how brave the women are who come forward because we know what they risk to do so. We need men to start coming forward too.

If you are a person of considerable privilege in tech. If you are a man. If you are a CEO. If you are someone with many years in leadership positions. If you manage people. If you hire people. If you fire people. And especially if you wonder why everyone thinks it’s such a brave thing to talk about this stuff in the first place.

If you are any of these things, then the onus for change is on you.

We are all in this together

In the wake of 9–11, the New York transit system wanted a message about optimizing for our collective safety. They put up posters all over the subway stations with the same simple message. The message was problematic for a bunch of reasons (racism and Islamophobia being two biggies).

But the idea is an interesting one. The NY MTA wanted everyone to feel like they had a role to play in preventing bad things from happening — both to the people they love and to total strangers. A few years ago, they put up a blog post describing the impact of the campaign:

“It is now a key piece of the region’s security infrastructure and a simple reminder that we are all the first line of defense.”

We need a first line of defense on the rampant abuses in the tech industry. We need one that doesn’t rely on women and people of colour to both endure the abuse and then risk their careers to report it. We need a simple response so people in power can act on behalf of the people they know and the people they don’t.

We need to empower the collective to report the dark side of the industry. We need more than a few brave souls working on reform. If you are watching the slow motion car-wreck and wondering if you have a role to play, you do. You can start today. You can start right now.

If you see something, say something.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is the Head of Creators at Wattpad, and co-editor of The Co-Pour. She's been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley and is gradually adjusting to seasons.