WE CAN BE BETTER THAN THIS

17 Jul

TLDR: This blog post tackles what some people might call “political correctness”. I don’t believe that “political correcness” exists – it’s called “treating people with respect and decency”, and I don’t think that can ever be a bad thing.

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I’ve spoken at a wide variety of events – and a common vein I tend to weave into all of the talks I give is my pride in this industry. I’ve long harboured a firm belief that this is a diverse, accepting, amazing industry to be a part of. A place to feel proud, and be part of something wonderful. I even blogged about those exact things a couple of years ago. In my post “Peace, Love, and Wireless Controllers” I talked about how accepting and diverse a particular convention experience was. I took pride in my industry, my friends, and what I saw at the time as a world moving forward.

I feel like an idiot.

Over the past 18 months I’ve witnessed a staggering number of incidents and situations that have severely shaken my pride and belief in this industry, country, and planet. To steal a quote from Fox Mulder’s favourite poster, I want to believe – but I’m finding it harder and harder to take pride in the collective awesomeness of an industry full of people who can’t treat fellow human beings as equals. People who see women as objects. People who see homophobic humour as ‘just banter’. People who have – being honest about it – no place in decent society.

PROGRAMMERS BEING DICKS

I have a penis. I don’t generally use my penis during the working day, but it’s part of who I am. I identify as a man. Should this small (ahem) factor have any bearing on my participation in the ‘amazing’ tech industry that I talked about earlier? Apparently so.

Anna, a front-end developer, received an email from a male software engineering student that said “Man, you are hot. I want to bang you. You are lucky I’m in the U.S.A.” after she wrote an article on testing webpages for games consoles. See the screenshot below.

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Yes – I know what you’re thinking. Testing webpages for games consoles gets us all a bit hot-under-the-collar. But a vile, rape-suggesting, creepy email like that belongs in a phychiatrist’s textbook, not in the inbox of someone who writes great quality content from an expert point of view and – oh – happens to be a woman.

There are many more shameful examples well captured on the Programmers Being Dicks blog – from tales of booth babes and stereotyped advertising to the women who speak up about the deplorable shit that goes on at tech conferences, events, and meetups up and down the country. These stories are important, real, and you need to know every single one of them. Read them all.

THAT’S SO GAY

A while ago I tweeted about a website called NoHomophobes that scans things like Twitter and Facebook for a few key words and phrases and presents you with a number. I pledged to unfollow anyone similar language. I got replies from people saying “wow, I hadn’t thought of that phrase as offensive”, and a few “It’s just a joke, lighten up” style replies.

I unfollowed 143 people within the space of a week.

It’s not just social media, either. As Tom Morris points out, a simple search on GitHub – a tool for managing code repositories – shows, at the time of writing, over ten thousand mentions of the word ‘faggot’ used in code.

Let me assure you that ‘faggot’ is not a technical term. It doesn’t refer to a language, a library, or some kind of developer short code. It’s nothing less than offensive. I’ve been on the recieving end of homophobic comments in the workplace, things like “you’re bent as a nine-bob note”, “trust the gay guy to compare this to a musical” and “are you still gay then?” – and, much like the creepy email above, none of the people to whom those quotes belong had any idea what they were doing was wrong.

NO OFFENCE, BUT…

This stuff isn’t a one off. It happens every day, all over the world. Some people just don’t get why it’s an issue. Others don’t get why they should apologise. Some are even sorry that we get offended by some of these things in the first place. ”I’m sorry that what I said offended you” is the same as saying “I’m sorry that you have feelings” or “I’m sorry that you can’t take a joke”. It isn’t an apology. It isn’t putting things right. It’s ignorance summed up in a sentence.

Try pulling someone up on this kind of BS and often you’ll see the same non-apology every time. In case I hadn’t laboured the point enough, saying that you’re sorry someone got upset or offended or anything similar is not apologising. Not even close.

As much as I enjoy larger-than-life characters in shows like How I Met Your Mother, I’m not a bro, a brogrammer, or any such combination of male stereotypes. I’d like to say that the majority of the men I know don’t ‘bro’ either, but I’d be lying.

There seems to be a ridiculous trend towards men acting like a cross between Jeremy Clarkson, Barney Stinson, and Glenn Quagmire – and it has to stop.

AND THEN THEY CAME FOR YOU…

I remember reading the brilliant and provocative poem “First they came…” in a history lesson at school and feeling inspired and empowered – if we are to make the world a better place, I thought, we must all stand together and make it so. We must all speak out, and remind ourselves of what happens when we don’t. This isn’t a job for managers, conference organisers, or any one group of people alone. It’s something we all need to challenge.

1. Think. We’re all responsible for our own words and actions – and ignorance isn’t an excuse. We can’t keep living in a world where “no offence meant” means we can get away with speaking first and thinking later. You own every word you utter.

2. Challenge Expectations. This isn’t a fight for campaigners or picket lines – we all need to challenge the status quo. See a conference with a woeful underrepresentation of women? Ask the organisers about it.

3. Speak Out. It might put you out of your comfort zone to pull someone up on their use of language, derogatory imagery, or inappropriate behaviour - but think about how much more uncomfortable it is for the people who have to live in a world where they are on the recieving end of that kind of thing every single day. Grow up – stop using peer pressure and shyness as an excuse – and we all walk a little taller as a result.

I want to be proud of the industry I love. I want to be able to stand up and talk ad nausium about the diversity and equality within tech communities the world over. I want a day to go by where I don’t see or hear a harrowing tale of racism, sexism or homophobia in the workplace.

It’s down to you. We can be better than this - all of us. Let’s do one another proud.

  • Leonie

    Brilliantly put. We must be the change we want to see.

  • http://www.canyonstech.org Cody Henrichsen

    Ben, Thank you for your very important post. I am working to address this problem with the students I teach. Teaching students to understand that there are people besides themselves and with different backgrounds is part of learning the importance of communication in computer science. If we can address this problem early I believe that it will get better.

  • http://brianlagunas.com Brian Lagunas

    I travel a lot and give talks all over the US. As a sponsor I also run a booth at various events as well. Due to the time I spend away from family, I often bring my wife with me to help manage a booth at an event to spend a little more time with her, as well as get an extra hand. She is a very attractive woman who likes to look her best when in public, so she spends the extra time to do her hair and makeup. At one event, DevIntersection, a guy asked my wife if he could take a picture with her. She politely agreed to the picture, and after it was taken, the man made the comment “I had to prove there were booth babes at DevIntersection”. I immediately confronted the guy asking, “did you just call my wife a booth babe?”. He quickly apologized realizing the trouble he was about to be in.

    Men… and women… if you see a woman managing a booth at an event, that doesn’t make them a “booth babe”. One more thing guys, a woman at a booth isn’t an invite to come try to pick her up for a date.

  • Kieron Lonergan

    Ben, you are so right sometimes I think I work in a profession that is stuck in the 50s. The otherday I got an advert for a tool for a complier that had two half naked women on it. Why, and how the hell does that encourage people join our profession.
    So if we all take small steps in time we will have joined the human race in treating people as people

  • http://missdirt.net MissDirt

    Ben, this post is brilliant, and I love that you do it in your own sweet, understated style. You are the kind of gentleman I wish to see more of in the world. Thanks for writing this.