There’s Leaning In, and then there is Telling It Like It Is. About two weeks ago, nine women in tech penned an open letter addressing the field’s entrenched sexism and called on the industry to, frankly, cut the shit. Their document debunks the idea that feminism is a dirty word, shares examples of sexism faced these women in their tech workplace, and calls on men to listen to women on how they should end misogyny. What the authors want most is “for people to read and understand what death by a thousand cuts feels like, and then understand why we feel sad and angry at the tech industry. We also want you to understand that more still needs to be done.” (Mic drop)
As evidenced by Google’s announcement that their work force is only 30% women and less than five percent black and Latino, it’s frustratingly unsurprising that tech at large is frequented by discrimination like asking a woman about her relationships status in an interview, having one’s authority in their field questioned because of their gender, or being “pranked” with sexually explicit content by one’s direct superior.
What really excites me about this open letter (particularly in comparison to other “women in the workplace” texts like a certain Lean In) is that the authors make no attempt to soften or reshape their explanation of the root cause of this misogyny. As evidenced in their letter, it’s going to take structural change, not discrete individuals, to shut down this problematic culture. As they write, “We are not the ‘nice feminists’ of this community. We’ve been nice. Some of us that wrote these have even been paraded around by men in the industry for how nice we’ve been in trying to address the social problems in tech as a way to discredit more vocal, astutely firm feminist voices. We don’t like this, we’ve never liked it, and it needs to stop.”
I’m grateful for these authors for speaking now and hope that more feminists in any industry find courage and resolve to call out sexism in their own office, wherever it may be.
We were thrilled to be able to speak with three of the nine signers of the letter: Jessica Dillon, a software Engineer at Bugsnag’ Ellen Chissa a Project Manager at Kickstarker, and Sabrina Majeed, an iOS developer at Buzzfeed.
And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with the authors of “About Feminism!”
Suzanna Bobadilla: So great to be able to speak with you all today. To get things started, could you share with us what prompted you to author this open letter?
Jessica Dillon: Our mutual friend is Divya Manian and she reached out to a group of women in tech after a bunch of events happened. These events are the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were all feeling really frustrated in the tech industry as feminists. She got us together and suggested that we should say something and we agreed.
One of the events was after Julie Ann Horvath quit GitHub and she talked about some of the abuses that she had faced there. Another was the ex-CEO of Radium One, where he was on tape hitting his partner. The Internet was like “Oh we want to see this tape,” without consulting the woman who was hit which was a huge issue. These were before the recent shooting, which happened about a week before our article coming out.
SB: What has the response been so far?
Sabrina Majeed: It’s actually been very overwhelmingly positive for the most part. I’ve had a lot of women reach out to me since it became public, thanking all of us for writing and for saying what a lot of people were afraid to say. So we are happy that is resonating with people . . . I’ve also had a lot of male peers reach out and ask questions because they want to learn more, but are afraid to say anything publicly. People want to talk about it, so it’s a huge step forward.
Ellen Chisa: In agreement with what Sabrina said, I had a lot of male friends and colleagues from the industry reach out to me and said that they felt like it’s the first time someone they knew published something that both said this is a really big problem but also we want to work with people on fixing it. That made them feel a lot more welcome in the conversation.
SB: One of the phrases of the letter that struck me the most was your referral to the sexism that you experience as “death by a thousand cuts.” In regards to these micro aggressions, what have been some techniques that you have used to combat this discrimination?
JD: I think that talking about our personal experiences has been one of the most effective things. In the article we wrote we have an experiences section where we each collected with our individual experiences into a paragraph. It is slightly anonymous but each of those experiences happened to one of us. People are definitely more receptive when something actually happened to someone that they know and they respect.
SM: I want to add onto that there is this myth that for successful women in tech like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer that these little cuts don’t hurt or affect them. They ignore it and it’s like, if you are so talented it doesn’t matter. I think that the fact that a lot of us have strong careers and we are relatively successful, being able to say that, “no, we are affected by these things,” is a message that people haven’t heard yet.
SB: What’s one excuse for sexism in tech that you just don’t want to hear any more?
JD: I don’t like hearing that people just dismiss diversity. I have heard that “diversity doesn’t matter” or that “the company is just as good without diversity, they are getting their work done and they have employees that they need.”
EC: One of the things that I’m sick of hearing is that this sexism is because of biology. And that we can never fix it so we shouldn’t bother trying. People are very quick to say, “Oh, women are less good than men at math. Maybe women are less biologically inclined to doing this type of work where you sit at a computer all day.” Or that women will always leave the field because they are going to want to have kids and then leave. It’s just like things that feel excuses rather than trying to get at the problem.
JD: Another thing that some women have heard is that hiring women is a liability in case anyone does anything sexist. Well how about you just don’t hire horrible people? That should do it.
SB: How can men in tech do a better job of being allies?
SM: The biggest thing for me is not being afraid to speak up when they hear something. At my old work place I would actually hear stories from my male co-workers that my boss had done or said about other women. It was so funny because I was like, “Why are you telling me this? Why didn’t you say anything while it happened?” I’m not a guy, but I bet there are ways where you could calmly interject and say, ‘That’s not cool.” A lot of time women aren’t there when something is said but those guys are.
SB: What makes you proud of your work?
JD: I’m a software engineer and I really like that my work is visible by a lot of people. I’m contributing to an Open Source community with my work. This is kinda related to the question, but especially doing stuff in Open Source, when you have your code visible like that — it’s really nice to have a community that is friendly towards diversity so that you don’t have such aggressive commends on your code.
SM: I’m a designer and something that makes me very proud is finding problems that users have and being able to fix that and seeing their reaction like when you fix this thing or when you make a change that they have been wanting for a very long time. Personally I think design is still a very old field, so it’s great been great to give advice to the ones who followed me and helped them to get into the career.
EC: One of the things that I really like about working at Kickstarter is that I am a product manager so I get to work on a project where people make things and I get to get my hands dirty which is really fun.
You are stranded on a desert island. You get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you take?
JD: The food I would bring would be sushi. The drink I would bring would be an allspice brew, that would be great as it’s a bit tropical. The feminist would be Ashe Dryden, she is fantastic and does great work.
SM: The food would be Indian food, but that wouldn’t be to great on an island so I’ll say ice cream. Drink would be white wine, my other guilty pleasure! For a feminist, I’d say Amanda Hess the writer at Slate. I think everything she writes is spot on, like she’s reading inside my brain!
EC: The feminist I would bring would be Ellen Swallow Richards, who was the first woman admitted to MIT. My parents also named me after her. I like that she worked within the then current system of science education to help give women ways to do science when it wasn’t socially acceptable. Because she called her field “home economics” people often look down upon it now, but it actually was pretty progressive thing for her to do. For food, I’d pick a baked potato which is my favorite comfort food. For drink, I don’t know if it’s the Project Manager in me, but all I can think about is water. I’m on a desert island so is there water? I don’t want to die because it’s so important!
Suzanna Bobadilla would like to say thanks to all those who have rolled their eyes whenever she asks, “What about the feminists?”