We Need To Talk About Sexual Harassment In The Tech World

(Thanks to Karolina Szczur for her invaluable help writing this.)
Shutterstock / Rawpixel
Shutterstock / Rawpixel

Let’s have a talk about objectification and harassment in tech. Ultimately, I don’t want to talk about the harassers or even the victims, I want to talk about everyone else.

Whenever I hear about another case of a woman being put down, insulted, or harassed simply because she wasn’t born a “bro,” I’m disheartened. And I know for every story I hear about, there are far more incidents that are never spoken of or never believed.

Why would anyone want to speak out? Anyone who does speak out is punished more severely and publicly than the offender. The default answer is still, “well, she had it coming.”

I’ve been part of the online/tech community to some degree for two decades and enjoyed it for the most part. But this pisses me off. It feels like this community is perpetuating ignorance and malice, and doing nothing about it. (To clarify: silence is doing nothing.)

Kathy Sierra shouldn’t have had to leave tech and the spotlight for years. Whitney Wolfe shouldn’t have been forced out of her job. Anita Sarkeesian shouldn’t be driven from her home with bomb and death threats. Julie Ann Horvarth (or anyone else) shouldn’t be personally attacked for speaking up about it.

The current state of tech is that there’s lip-service policy against harassment. It still happens in private—and should anyone speak about it—they’re publicly condemned, insulted, and threatened. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Speaking out means the following tend to ensue: gender slurs, vague allegations of being a whore and “deserving it,” discrediting of skills, threats, ostracization, and a future of being able to work in the mainstream of the industry is taken away. Sure makes it appealing to speak out, no? It makes standing up with people who speak out equally appealing… When someone does stand up, it invites a tremendous amount of negativity.

Which brings me to my point.

When one person stands up and speaks out, it’s just them doing so—alone. When a small group stands up and speaks out, they can still be separated and segmented from the larger, mainstream group as dissenters (or “whiners” or “feminists”).

So then, what may turn the tides here, is that most people need to get educated, stand up and speak about it. This needs to be the larger group.

I’ve spoken to many straight, white, middle-class, guys (SWMCGs) about this and we’re all disheartened when we hear about harassment happening again. But also, common sentiment is that we don’t know what to do about it.

It’s a sensitive topic and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So we don’t know how to speak up about it. Some SWMCGs—decent ones—are afraid of women in tech now. They fear of saying the wrong thing, making a joke that could taken not as it was intended, or being friendly. This leads to further segmentation and division. So kid gloves aren’t what is required here—real empathy and understanding is. And this comes through open, safe, and constructive dialoging.

To be honest, I have no idea what to do about this, but I know I’d like it to stop and talking about it is all I’ve come up with (so far). Because the more people talking about it, especially SWMCGs, the sooner we can start to build a culture in tech that’s vocally inclusive of everyone and vocally exclusive of harassment in any form.

We all need to be more vocal so that we don’t stand for the slippery slope of misogyny or sexism. Unacceptable behaviour needs to be called out, not only by the victim of it but also by anyone else who’s aware of it. We need to our homework on feminism and equality (here’s one video, here’s an essay and here’s a list of examples of objectification/harassment). We also need to be aware of any—however inadvertent they might be—of our own behaviors that perpetuate these biases. A little self-reflection never hurt.

While I’d love a more culturally and gender-diverse community, I don’t know how to get there from this current state, other than speaking up. I commiserate with women and other SWMCGs privately about it, and nothing changes because ultimately nothing happens. I may not have the answer here, but I’m willing to talk about it, openly, and try to figure it out.

Nothing in history has ever changed because the majority just sat back and did nothing. Silence is passive and to bring about change, voices must be heard.

Most of us left other industries because of rigid paradigms and inability to adapt. I just don’t believe that an industry so full of out-of-the-box intelligence and status-quo rejections can’t eventually figure this out and fix it.

The longer we sit by and do nothing, the longer the victims of harassment going to be ostracized for doing speaking out about it. And worse, the longer they will have to deal with any traumas inflicted on them by themselves.

So let’s all start talking. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Keep up with Paul on pjrvs.com

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