I wasn’t planning to blog about the recent events involving Julie Ann Horvath and GitHub, partially because my little corner of the tech world is pretty far removed from that corner, so I didn’t feel like I had anything to add, and what I would say, I’ve said before. I am also working very hard to deal with the fallout from my very bad day a week and a half ago and put all of this messy “woman in STEM” stuff back in the mental box in which I usually contain it. From a purely selfish standpoint, I just want to lock that box back up and move on with my own life plan.
But then someone I know made an offhand comment about how maybe the reason tech has these periodic high profile “diversity fails” is because there are so many guys- and I am quoting here- “on the spectrum” in tech.
And that got my ranty juices going, because I think it does a huge disservice to people with autism spectrum disorders as well as to women and other marginalized groups in tech. I have managed someone with an autism spectrum disorder and while that presented some different challenges, a prevalence of misogynistic asshole-ish behavior was not among them, because guess what? He wasn’t a misogynistic asshole. In fact, he was one of the least likely people I have ever worked with to say something that was even borderline sexist. So can we please, please, please stop with the lazy stereotypes about people with ASD and just acknowledge that being sexist and having ASD are two distinct things, which may overlap in individuals much like having brown hair and being sexist may?
Also, there is a HUGE difference between having an autism spectrum disorder and just being socially awkward, and people should not self-diagnose ASD to avoid owning up to their social challenges. And they certainly shouldn't use an ASD diagnosis, whether from a doctor or from their own analysis, to justify being an asshole, because that just makes them an even bigger asshole. (For the record, I have never seen anyone with an actual ASD diagnosis do this, but since they are a large and diverse group, I'm sure there are some assholes among them, just like there are in any large group.)
Furthermore, I cannot think of a single person in a marginalized group with whom I have EVER worked who was not capable of distinguishing between social awkwardness and sexism, racism, and other discriminatory speech and behavior. It is, in my experience, extremely rare to come across someone from a marginalized group who will NOT give people a giant benefit of the doubt with respect to this. I am sure a few people with a hairline trigger on reporting harassment are out there, but your chances of running into them are quite small. (Particularly when compared to my chances of running into someone who makes sexist statements, but let’s not go there…)
I think there is a misconception that there are no negative impacts to reporting abusive or discriminatory behavior. This is laughable. There are huge impacts. I've witnessed people put up with unbelievable behavior because to report it is to risk destroying their career. I have personally put up with wildly inappropriate behavior because reporting it would (1) make it worse and (2) have negative impacts on my career. It is almost never a good thing for your career to raise these issues. It just isn't.
I think a lot of the angst around this topic amongst more privileged groups is related to the fear of “accidentally” saying or doing something wrong. I get that. It certainly gets a lot of hype. But I think it is entirely unfounded. First, as I discussed above, most people in marginalized groups are likely to give you a lot of chances and the benefit of the doubt. Second, I’ve come to think that most “accidentally” racist and sexist speech isn’t really accidental. It comes from a place of ignorance, and what is your excuse for being ignorant? It is easier now than ever to learn about these issues. Diversify your Twitter stream and read some of the links that your new tweeps post and you’re already off to a great start. If you won’t do that, it isn’t an accident. It is lazy.
The trick to not being viewed as a racist or a sexist is pretty simple, really. Just don’t be a racist or a sexist. I mean REALLY don’t be one of those things. Don’t just say “hey, I think everyone is equal so it is all fine.” Learn about your privilege and implicit bias. Learn to give other people the benefit of the doubt that you hope they will give you. I.e., don’t make people earn your respect . Assume people- even women and Black people!- who are in technical roles know a decent amount of tech, and if they ask a question, answer it with respect not condescension. In short, treat people- even people who are not straight white men just like you!- in the manner in which you would like to be treated.
(And hey, fellow cis straight white women- we don’t get to skip this step! We need to examine our implicit biases and learn how to really not perpetuate a discriminatory system, too. Extrapolating from our anger at how we are treated is only the start, and sadly a lot of us seem to fail to do even that.)
You’ll still make some mistakes, but they will be less common and most people will overlook them, or perhaps, if you’ve really earned some trust, gently correct them. Apologize sincerely (this is so rare, that it is likely to render the person to whom you are apologizing speechless), learn from the mistake, and move on, with your career trajectory completely unharmed. In fact, if you really, honestly do this- apologize for your mistakes, learn from them, and improve- your stature is likely to increase.
Or, you could be lazy and continue to do nothing and to tell yourself that you believe in equality so everything is fine. You’ll continue to make “accidental” mistakes. But that’s OK. 99% of the time, the person on the receiving end will decide that she isn’t in the mood to blow up her career today and will let it pass. She’ll pack your mistake into her mental box of stupid, discriminatory things she’s dealt with and you’ll both move on. Maybe you’ll notice that something wasn’t quite right, but hey, you believe in equality, so it can’t have been anything you did. If your career is long enough, you might eventually hit that 1% case where someone is just so sick of this shit that your “accidental” mistake blows up in your face and does you some damage. In that case, I think you got exactly what was coming to you.