Double Union is dead, long live Double Union!

As of today, I am certain Double Union is no longer a space that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. This is because I have been permanently banned from Double Union for refusing to prioritize the inclusion of people who do not identify that way.

Some background: In 2013, I co-founded the feminist hackerspace Double Union. At that time, we envisioned a tiny space where the constant hurricane roar of sexism was damped down to a gentle breeze while we worked on our funky art and science projects. We decided to restrict membership to people who identified as a woman in a way that was significant to them for many reasons, one of which was to make sure we always prioritized that group of people.

This year, Double Union changed its membership criteria to “identifies as a woman or non-binary in a way that is significant to you.” To explain what happened next, I need to talk a little about gender and privilege and society.

As any trans person can tell you, the mere act of identifying in your own mind that you are a particular gender does not automatically result in society treating you as that gender–that’s one reason transitioning is so significant. Telling other people that you’re a man won’t make society at large treat you like one–that is, grant you male privilege–you’ll also have to look and act in certain stereotyped ways to get that male privilege from others. At the same time, because we define masculinity as fragile and easily destroyed, when someone publicly identifies as a woman–even partially–they pretty quickly lose most of any male privilege they previously had.

The problem for me personally with the change to the Double Union membership criteria is that some non-binary people are granted significant male privilege by society despite being non-binary, and that has repercussions for a group that, until recently, only included people with relatively little male privilege. It’s possible to be non-binary and receive more male privilege from society than someone who is a cis man–masculinity is complex and fragile. All non-binary people are the targets of transphobia and cis-sexism (the idea that your gender is determined by certain bodily features), but only some non-binary people are the primary targets of sexism (the systemic oppression of women).

After this change, an open question in my mind was: what happens when the interests of members who do identify as women in a way that is significant to them come into conflict with the interests of members who do not? Who will be prioritized?

Last week, I sent an email to the Double Union members list talking about how the Kavanaugh hearings reminded me of one reason why I want a space that, by default, does not include people with significant male privilege. I want a break from the constant background threat of violence–violence that will be covered up and swept under the rug because the person committing it has significant male privilege, the way Kavanaugh’s assault of Dr. Ford was swept under the rug. I talked about how Double Union was no longer that space, and asked if anyone else had experience dealing with this problem, specifically in a group only for members of a marginalized group that includes people who can pass as the privileged group.

The code of conduct committee let me know that I could not even discuss this topic on the members mailing list because it violated the code of conduct by making people who did not identify as women in a way that was significant to them to feel excluded and harmed. I told them I would not agree to this restriction. They banned me.

Whatever Double Union is now, it’s no longer an organization that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. That’s fine; change happens and groups evolve. Double Union is now a place for women and all non-binary people and when the interests of those groups clash, they’ll probably continue to prioritize the inclusion of people who don’t identify as women in a way that is significant to them. I hope they will update the code of conduct to make this clearer; I certainly didn’t understand that my question broke the code of conduct, despite writing a good chunk of it.

Double Union is dead, long live Double Union! It was a fun experiment, and now it is a new, different experiment.


Post-script: Here are a few common criticisms, along with my response:

“You think non-binary people who present as masculine aren’t non-binary. ” Nope, I believe non-binary people are non-binary regardless of their presentation. I also observe that our society grants privileges to people based on a wide variety of signals, and someone’s gender identity is only one of those signals. I wish it weren’t so.

“Non-binary people are more oppressed on the basis of gender than women, all other things being equal. So when the interests of women and non-binary people conflict, we should prioritize non-binary people to fight oppression.” I definitely don’t agree with this. When it comes to gender, the less you are perceived as a woman, the better off you are, roughly. (“Woman” is the “marked” state of gender and “man” is the “unmarked” state–think of a cartoon character, unless it is “marked” female, it is assumed to be male, not female or non-binary.) Some but not all non-binary people experience more oppression than women, all other things being equal. Non-binary people who are granted a lot of male privilege are less likely to experience more oppression on the basis of gender than women.

“Even talking about non-binary people with significant male privilege reinforces the oppressive idea that those non-binary people are really male.” I don’t understand this. Some trans people can pass as cis; talking about that doesn’t reinforce transphobia. Some people of color can pass as white; talking about that doesn’t reinforce racism. This sounds similar to the idea that talking about oppression reinforces oppression, which I also disagree with.

“Non-binary people with significant male privilege don’t have the same experience as men because the privilege doesn’t match their gender identity, which can be oppressive to non-binary people.” I agree, it’s not the same experience and it can be oppressive. That doesn’t stop society from prioritizing their needs over those of people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them.

“All women’s groups should include all non-binary people.” I disagree. I think there are a lot of valid groupings of people along the lines of gender or features we currently associate with gender. I am in favor of groups only for trans women, people with uteruses, non-binary trans masculine people, people assigned female at birth, people questioning their gender, and people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them, to name just a few appropriate groupings.

“Some Double Union members are afraid of people with white privilege or cis privilege, but they don’t get to exclude all white or cis people. Therefore we should not exclude people because they have male privilege.” I don’t get this one; as far as I can tell the argument is that you can never eliminate differences in privilege between members of a marginalized group, so… you should never create a group that excludes people based on any element of identity? If one person is afraid… the group can’t have any boundaries at all? By this argument, Double Union should start including people of all genders. Personally, I’d rather put more effort into stopping racism and cis-sexism and other forms of oppression at Double Union, which is why I budgeted a significant fraction of our income for that when I was on the board of directors. I support groups for people at the intersection of oppressed groups, such as Black Girls Code. Double Union already has events only for members who are people of color and other marginalized groups; I want more of those events. My best guess for why this argument keeps coming up is that many people are socialized to think it is wrong for people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them to prioritize themselves as a group.

Hiring a facilitator for the Ally Skills Workshop

Frame Shift Consulting is getting so much business that I need another facilitator to help me teach Ally Skills Workshops! Short version: We are searching for a second part-time facilitator to help teach the popular Ally Skills Workshop at tech companies, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as around the world and online.

I’m especially interested in interviewing people who have some significant personal experience as a member of a marginalized group (person of color, queer, disabled, etc.). If that’s you and you’re even a little interested in the job, please consider spending 5 minutes slapping together an email with a link to your out-of-date typo-ridden résumeé. What’s the worst that could happen, you end up with a part-time gig being paid lots of money to teach people ally skills?

Here are the basic requirements:

  • Software experience, broadly defined (infosec, data science, testing, design, UX/UI, etc.)
  • Teaching experience, broadly defined (speaking at conferences, volunteer teaching, etc.)
  • Strong grasp of research and terminology around multiple axes of oppression
  • Residence in the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Work rights in the U.S.

If you’d like to learn more, including how to apply, check out the detailed job description.

Something is rotten in the Linux Foundation

When I agreed to talk about the management problems at the Linux Foundation to Noam Cohen, the reporter who wrote this story on Linux for the New Yorker, I expected to wait at least a year to see any significant change in the Linux community.

Instead, before the story was even published, the Linux project leader Linus Torvalds suddenly announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his leadership role. He also instituted a new code of conduct for the Linux kernel community after resisting years of requests for one.

I was (and am) astonished. So is everyone else. Now that I’ve read the New Yorker story, I am even more surprised–everything in it is public knowledge. Here’s why I don’t think the story explains why he stepped down.

Torvalds has been in charge of Linux for 27 years, and he’s been verbally abusive most of that time. I know, I personally spent more than 15 years struggling to change the Linux community for the better, first as a Linux kernel developer for more than 7 years, then as co-founder and executive director of a non-profit working to make things better for my fellow kernel developers. In 2016 I sent a letter to the Linux Foundation board of directors detailing pervasive mismanagement at the foundation. Nothing I or anyone else did changed the culture of Linux.

I finally realized why the Linux community was enduringly toxic and resistant to change: because Torvalds likes it that way, and he can inflict millions of dollars of losses on anyone who tries to stop him.

How? Well, if Torvalds’ employer, the Linux Foundation, pressures him, he can quit and they will lose millions of dollars in revenue, because paying Torvalds is the main reason sponsors give the foundation money. If a Linux Foundation sponsor tries to make Torvalds change, he can retaliate by refusing to integrate the sponsor’s code into the Linux kernel, forcing that sponsor to pay millions of dollars in software maintenance costs. If an individual Linux developer confronts Torvalds about his abusive behavior, their Linux career will end.

Torvalds also fostered a cult of personality whose central tenet is that Linux will fail if Torvalds is not its leader. In this system, Torvalds has little incentive to stop doing anything he enjoys, including verbally abusing other Linux developers.

My hope was that if a news story exposed this underlying power structure and showed how Linux Foundation sponsors such as Google, Intel, and HP are paying millions of dollars to fund toxic harassment of their own employees, the sponsors would act in concert to force some change, hopefully sometime in the next year. Instead, the usually intractable Torvalds abruptly stepped down before the story was even published.

I can’t think of anything I told Cohen that would result in anyone risking millions of dollars to confront Torvalds this quickly and forcefully. Maybe it’s a coincidence; when the New Yorker reached out for comment, Linux developers were also angry about another issue. It’s possible Torvalds took other developers’ feedback about his abusive behavior seriously for the first time–in 27 years. But the announcement seemed weirdly rushed even to the developers asking for change.

I don’t know what the real explanation is. I suspect the foundation’s board of directors doesn’t know either; a 22 person board is usually purely ceremonial. (Did you know that the larger a board is, the less likely it is to fire the CEO?)

But you know who probably does know the explanation? Senior former Linux Foundation employees, and with the recent high turnover rate at the foundation there are quite a few.

Here’s what I suggest: Linux Foundation sponsors should demand that the Linux Foundation release all former employees from their non-disparagement agreements, then interview them one-on-one, without anyone currently working at the foundation present. At a minimum, the sponsors should insist on seeing a complete list of ex-employee NDAs and all funds paid to them during and after their tenure. If current Linux Foundation management balks at doing even that, well, won’t that be interesting?

If you’d like to support people working to fix harmful workplace conditions, please donate to BetterBrave, which helps employees fight workplace harassment, including sexual harassment and discrimination. Thank you!

If you’re being abused at work, I hope you will keep meticulous documentation, pay attention to statutes of limitation, talk to a lawyer, and reach out to a reporter sooner rather than later. As the stories about Uber, CBS, and The Weinstein Company show, many boards of directors just rubber-stamp the abuses of the CEO and upper management until someone talks to a reporter. I’m also happy to listen to your story, confidentially.

Living in a collapsing democracy

The thing I did not expect was how helpless I would feel during the end of U.S. democracy. I read so many books and articles on what it is like living in a collapsing democracy, but I thought that since we all knew about how that worked now, we’d be able to stop it this time around.

I can’t stop it, and no one else seems to be able to either.

My last specific update on the growth of fascism in the U.S., back in January 2017, was a little hopeful. During the last year and a half, I was often encouraged and heartened by the role the courts played, opposing Trump’s various unconstitutional actions.

Then July 2018 happened.

After a series of horrifying Supreme Court decisions including upholding Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the supposedly moderate Justice Kennedy announced his retirement. The GOP made it abundantly clear they have been the party of power for power’s sake for at least a decade, maybe two, when they refused to authorize federal funding to improve election security while our voting systems are actively being attacked by Russia. Current polls show about a 75% chance the Democrats will take the House, and 25% that they’ll take the Senate – when the Democrats have +7 to +10 advantage on the generic ballot. The second largest political party in the U.S. and the one that currently controls all three branches of government is not just willing but eager to destroy our democracy as long as they can stay in power.

The most helpful book I read in this time is “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (short summary here). Short version: our only chance to retain a functioning democracy in the U.S. is for the Democrats to win the 2018 elections, both House and Senate (there’s a tiny chance a Republican senator or two will caucus with the Democrats to save U.S. democracy but I’m not holding my breath). All of the other routes—mass protests, general strikes, various forms of violence, any funny business around changing constitutions or votes or similar—will just end up with a strongman of one sort or another and the end of democracy in some other way.

The odds of U.S. democracy making it through the next year intact are low and dropping (33% seems optimistic to me). My personal decision is to work hard on winning the 2018 elections. I’ve already donated thousands of dollars to various swing elections, and I’m planning to do phone banking or other forms of volunteering for the same campaigns. I encourage others to do the same.

It seems awfully likely that the 2018 elections will be stolen one way or another, in addition to the already existing systemic biases in districting and representation that give the Democrats such an enormous disadvantage. The simplest way will be to use the technique that the Republicans are already using and that it appears Russia may have adopted as well: stop likely Democratic voters from voting, by purging the voter rolls, voter ID laws, or spreading lies and disinformation. I’ll be thrilled if the Democrats take the House and the Senate, but I am in no way planning on it.

During the rise of Nazi Germany, there was a period of time around 1933 or so when a lot of people who had studied history left Germany voluntarily, years before the really startling violence began. Hannah Arendt, author of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and “Origins of Totalitarianism,” among many other works, was one of them. In 1932, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo for eight days, and in 1933 she left Germany for Switzerland and later France. In 1937, Germany stripped her of citizenship. She escaped an internment camp in France in 1940 and came to the U.S. in 1941, spending a total of 13 years as a stateless Jewish refugee before being granted U.S. citizenship in 1950.

Right now, my best guess is that 2019 will be our 1933. My passport expires in 2019. I’m renewing it next week.

Bryan Cantrill has been accused of verbal abuse by at least seven people

It sounds like Bryan Cantrill is thinking about organizing another computer conference. When he did that in 2016, I wrote a blog post about why I wouldn’t attend, because, based on my experience as Bryan’s former co-worker, I believed that Bryan Cantrill would probably say cruel and humiliating things to people who attended.

I understand that some people still supported Bryan and his conference after they read that post. After all, Bryan is so intelligent and funny and accomplished, and it’s a “he said, she said” situation, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen, etc. etc.

What’s changed since then? Well, at least six other people spoke up publicly about their own experiences with Bryan, many of which seem worse than mine. Then #metoo happened and we learned how many people a powerful person can abuse before any of their victims speak up, and why they stay quiet: worry about their careers being destroyed, being bankrupted by a lawsuit, or being called a liar and worse. If you’re still supporting Bryan, I invite you to read this story about Jeffrey Tambor verbally abusing Jessica Walter on the set of Arrested Development, and re-examine why you are supporting someone who has been verbally abusive to so many people.

Here are six short quotes from other people speaking about their experiences with Bryan Cantrill:

Having been a Joyent ‘customer’ and working to porting an application to run on SmartOS was like being a personal punching bag for Bryan.”

I worked at Joyent from 2010 through 2013. Valerie’s experience comports with my own. This warning is brave and wise.”

All that you say is true, and if anything, toned down from reality. Bryan is a truly horrible human being.”

I know for sure Bryan’s behavior prevented or at the very least delayed other developers from reaching their potential in the kernel group. Unfortunately the lack of moral and ethical leadership in Solaris allowed this to go on for far too long.”

Sun was such a toxic environment for so many people and it is very brave of you to share your experience. After six years in this oppressive environment, my confidence was all but destroyed.”

Having known Bryan from the days of being a junior engineer…he has always been a narcissistic f_ck that proudly leaves a wake of destruction rising up on the carcasses of his perceived foes (real and imagined). His brilliance comes at too high of a cost.”

This is what six people are willing to say publicly about how Bryan treated them. If you think that isn’t a lot, please take the time to read more about #metoo and consider how Bryan’s position of power would discourage people from coming forward with their stories of verbal abuse. If you do believe that Bryan has abused these people, consider what message you are sending to others by continuing to follow him on social media or otherwise validating his behavior.


If you have been abused by Bryan, I have a request: please do not contact me to tell me your story privately, unless you want help making your story public in some way. I’m exhausted and it doesn’t do any good to tell me—I’m already convinced he’s awful. Here’s what I can say: There are dozens of you, and you have remarkably similar stories.

I’ll be heavily moderating comments on this post and in particular won’t approve anything criticizing victims of abuse for speaking up. If your comment gets stuck in the spam filter, please email me at valerie.aurora@gmail.com and I’ll post it for you.

Yesterday’s joke protest sign just became today’s reality

Tomorrow I’m going to a protest against the forcible separation of immigrant children from their families. When I started thinking about what sign to make, I remembered my sign for the first Women’s March protest, the day after Trump took office in January 2017. It said: “Trump hates kids and puppies… for real!!!

trump_hates_puppies
My  protest sign for the 2017 Women’s March

While I expected a lot of terrifying things to happen over the next few years, I never, never thought that Trump would deliberately tear thousands of children away from their families and put them in concentration camps. I knew he hated children; I didn’t know he hated children (specifically, brown children) so much that he’d hold them hostage to force Congress to pass his racist legislation. I did not expect him and his party to try to sell cages full of weeping little boys as future gang members. I did not expect 55% of Republican voters to support splitting up families and putting them in camps. I’m smiling at the cute dog in that photo; now the entire concept of that sign seems impossibly naive and inappropriate, much less my expression in that photo. I apologize for this sign and my joking attitude.

I remember being terrified during the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration. I couldn’t sleep; I put together a go-bag; I bought three weeks worth of food and water and stored them in the closet. I read a dozen books on fascism and failed democracies. I even built a spreadsheet tracking signs of fascism so I’d know when to leave the country.

I came up with the concept of that sign as a way to increase people’s disgust for Trump; what kind of pathetic low-life creep hates kids AND puppies? But I still didn’t get how bad things truly were; I thought Trump hated kids in the sense that he didn’t want any of them around him and wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. I didn’t understand that he—and many people in his administration—took actual pleasure in knowing they were building camps full of crying, desperate, terrified kids who may never be reunited with their parents. In January 2017, I thought I understood the evil of this administration and of a significant percentage of the people in this country; actually, I way underestimated it.

At that protest, several people asked me if Trump really hated puppies, but not one person asked me if Trump really hated kids. In retrospect, this seems ominous, not funny.

I’m going to think very carefully before creating any more “joke” protest signs. Today’s “joke” could easily be tomorrow’s reality.

In praise of the 30-hour work week

I’ve been working about 30 hours a week for the last two and a half years. I’m happier, healthier, and wealthier than when I was working 40, 50, or 60 hours a week as a full-time salaried software engineer (that means I was only paid for 40 hours a week). If you are a salaried professional in the U.S. who works 40 hours a week or more, there’s a pretty good chance you could also be working fewer hours, possibly even for more money. In this post, I’ll explain some of the myths and the realities that promote overwork. If you’re already convinced that you’d like to work fewer hours, you can skip straight to how you can start taking steps to work less.

A little about me: After college, I worked for about 8 years as a full-time salaried software engineer. Like many software engineers, I often worked 50 or 60 hour weeks while being paid for 40 hours a week. I hit the glass ceiling at age 29 and started working part-time hourly as a software consultant. I loved the hours but hated the instability and was about to lose my health insurance benefits (this was before the ACA passed). Then a colleague offered me a job at his storage startup, working 20 hours a week, salaried, with benefits. I thought, “You can do that???” and negotiated a 30 hour salaried job with benefits with my dream employer. I worked full-time again for about 5 years after that, and put in more 60 hour weeks while co-founding a non-profit. After shutting the non-profit down, I took 3 months off to recover. For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked for myself as a diversity and inclusion in tech consultant. I rarely work more than 30 hours a week and last year I made more money than any other year of my life.

Now, if I told my 25-year-old self this, she’d probably refuse to believe me. When I was 25, I believed my extra hours and hard work would be rewarded, that I’d be able to work 50 or 60 hours a week forever, and that I’d never enjoy anything as much as working. Needless to say, I no longer believe any of those things.

Myths about working overtime

Here are a few of the myths I used to believe about working overtime:

Myth: I can be productive for more than 8 hours a day on a sustained basis

How many hours a day can I productively write code? This will vary for everyone, but the number I hear most often is 4 hours a day 5 days a week, which is my max. I slowly learned that if I wrote code longer than that, my productivity steeply declined. After 8 hours, I was just adding bugs that I’d have to fix the next day. For the other 4 hours, I was better off dealing with email, writing papers, submitting expenses, reading books, or taking a walk (during which I’d usually figure out what I needed to do next in my program). After 8 hours, my brain is useless for anything requiring focus or discipline. I can do more work for short bursts occasionally when I’m motivated, but it takes a toll on my health and I need extra time off to recover.

I know other people can do focused productive work for more than 8 hours a day; congrats! However, keep in mind that I know plenty of people who thought they could work more than 8 hours a day, and then discovered they’d given themselves major stress-related health problems—repetitive stress injury, ulcers, heart trouble—or ignored existing health problems until they got so bad they started interfering with their work. This includes several extremely successful people who only need to sleep 5 hours a night and were using the extra time that gave them to do more work. The human body can only take so much stress.

Myth: My employer will reward me for working extra hours

Turns out, software engineering isn’t graded on effort, like kindergarten class. I remember the first year of my career when I worked my usual overtime and did not get a promotion or a raise; the company was slowly going out of business and it didn’t matter how many hours I worked—I wasn’t getting a raise. Given that my code quality fell off after 4 hours and went negative after 8 hours, it was a waste of time to work overtime anyway. At the same time, I always felt a lot of pressure to appear to be working for more than 40 hours a week, such that 40 hours became the unofficial minimum. The end result was a lot of programmers in the office late at night doing things other than coding: playing games, reading the internet, talking with each other. Which is great when you have no friends outside work, no family nearby, and no hobbies; less great when you do.

Overall, my general impression of the reward structure for software engineers is that people who fit people’s preconceptions of what a programmer looks like and who aggressively self-promote are more likely to get raises and promotions than people who produce more value. (Note that aggressive self-promotion is often punished in women of all races, people of color, disabled folks, immigrants, etc.)

Myth: People who work 40 hours or less are lazy

I was raised with fairly typical American middle-class beliefs about work: work is virtuous, if people don’t have jobs it’s because of some personal failing of theirs, etc. I started to change my mind when I read about Venezuelan medical doctors who were unable to buy shoes during an economic recession. Medical school is hard; I couldn’t believe all of those doctors were lazy! In my first full-time job, I had a co-worker who spent 40 hours a week in the office, but never did any real work. Then I realized that many of the hardest working people I knew were mothers who worked in the home for no pay at all. Nowadays I understand that I can’t judge someone’s moral character by the number of hours of labor they do (or are paid for) each week.

The kind of laziness that does concern me comes from abuse: people using coercion to extract an unfair amount of value from other people’s labor. This includes many abusive spouses, most billionaires, and many politicians. I’m not worried about people who want to work 40 hours a week or fewer so they can spend more time with their kids or crocheting or traveling; they aren’t the problem.

Myth: I work more than 40 hours because I’d be unhappy otherwise

When I was 25, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do other things with the time I was spending on work. With hindsight, I can see that’s because I was socially isolated and didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety other than by working. If I tried to stop working, I would very quickly run out of things to do that I enjoyed, and would end up writing some more code or answering some more work email just to have some positive feelings. It took years and years of therapy, building up my social circle, and developing hobbies before I had enough enjoyable things to do other than work.

Working for pay gives a lot of people joy and that is perfectly fine! It’s when you have few other ways to feel happy that overwork begins to be a problem.

Myth: The way to fix my anxiety is to work more hours

The worse the social safety net is in your country, the more anxious you probably are about your future: Will you have a place to live? Food to eat? Medical care? Clothes for your kids? We often respond to anxiety by shutting down any higher thought and focusing on what is in front of us. For many of us in this situation, the obvious answer seems to be “work more hours.” Now, if you are being paid for working more hours, this makes some sense: money contributes to security. But if you’re not, those extra hours bring no concrete reward. You are just hoping that your employer will take the extra work into consideration when deciding whether to give you a raise or end your employment. Unfortunately, in my experience, the best way to get a raise or keep your job is to be as similar to your management as possible.

If you can take the time to work with your anxiety and pull back and look at the larger picture, you’ll often find better ways to use those extra hours to improve your personal safety net. Just a few off the top of my head: building your professional network, improving your resume, learning new skills, helping friends, caring for your family, meditating, taking care of your health, and talking to a therapist about your anxiety. The future is uncertain and only partially under your control; nothing can change that fundamental truth. Consider carefully whether working unpaid hours is the best way to increase your safety.

Myth: The extra hours are helping me learn skills that will pay off later

Maybe it’s just me, but I can only learn new stuff for a few hours a day. Judging by the recommended course loads at universities, most people can’t actively learn new stuff more than 40 hours a week. If I’ve been working for more than 8 hours, all I can do is repeat things I’ve already learned (like stepping through a program in a debugger). Creative thought and breakthroughs are pretty thin on the ground after 8 hours of hard work. The only skills I’m sure I learned from working more than 40 hours a week are: how to keep going through hunger, how to ignore pain in my body, how to keep going through boredom, how to stay awake, and how to sublimate my healthy normal human desires. Oh, and which office snack foods are least nauseating at 2am.

Myth: Companies won’t hire salaried professionals part-time

Some won’t, some will. Very few companies will spontaneously offer part-time salaried work for a position that usually requires full-time, but if you have negotiating power and you’re persistent, you will be surprised how often you can get part-time work. Negotiating power usually increases as you become a more desirable employee; if you can’t swing part-time now, keeping working on your career and you may be able to get it in the future.

Myth: I can only get benefits if I work full-time

Whether a company can offer the benefits available to full-time employees to part-time employees is up to their internal policies combined with local law. Human beings create policies and laws and they can be changed. Small companies are generally more flexible about policies than large companies. Some companies offer part-time positions as a competitive advantage in hiring. Again, having more negotiating power will help here. Companies are more likely to change their policies or make exceptions if they really really want your services.

Myth: My career will inevitably suffer if I work part-time

There are absolutely some career goals that can only be achieved by working full-time. But working part-time can also help your career. You can use your extra time to learn new skills, or improve your education. You can work on unpaid projects that improve your portfolio. You can extend your professional network. You can get career coaching. You can start your own business. You can write books. You can speak at conferences. Many things are possible.

Real barriers to working fewer hours

Under capitalism, in the absence of enforced laws against working more than a certain number of hours a week, the number of hours a week employees work will grow until the employer is no longer getting a marginal benefit out of each additional hour. That means if the employer will get any additional value out of an hour above and beyond the costs of working that hour, they’ll require the employee to work that hour. This happens without regard for the cost for the employee or their dependents, in terms of health, happiness, or quality of life for their dependents.

In the U.S. and many other countries, we often act like the 40-hour working week is some kind of natural law, when the laws surrounding it were actually the result of a long, desperately fought battle between labor and capital extending over many decades. Even so, what laws we do have limiting the amount of labor an employer can demand from an employee have many loopholes, and often go unenforced. Wage theft—employers stealing wages from employees through a variety of means, including unpaid overtime—accounts for more money stolen in the U.S. than all robberies.

Due to loopholes and lax enforcement, many salaried professionals end up in a situation where all the people they are competing with for jobs or promotions are all working far more than 40 hours a week. They don’t have to be working efficiently for more than 40 hours a week for this to be of benefit to their employers, they just have to be creating more value than they are costing during those hours of work. Some notorious areas of high competition and high hours include professors on the tenure track, lawyers on the partner track, and software engineers working in competitive fields.

In particular, software engineers working for venture capital-funded startups in fields with lots of competitors are under a lot of pressure to produce more work more quickly, since timing is such an important element of success in the fields that venture capital invests in. The result is a lot of software engineers who burn themselves out working too many hours for startups for less total compensation than they’d make working at Microsoft or IBM, despite whatever stock options they were offered to make up for lower salaries and benefits. This is because (a) most startups fail, (b) most software engineers either don’t vest their stock options before they quit, or quit before the company goes public and can’t afford to buy the options during the short (usually 90-day) exercise window after they quit.

No individual actions or decisions by a single worker can change these kinds of competitive pressures, and if your goal is to succeed in one of these highly competitive, poorly governed areas, you’ll probably have to work more than 40 hours a week. Overall, unchecked capitalism leads to a Red Queen’s race, in which individual workers have to work as hard as they can just to keep up with their competition (and those who can’t, die). I don’t want to live in this world, which is why I support laws limiting working hours and requiring pay, government-paid parental and family leave, a universal basic income, and the unions and political parties that fight for and win these protections.

Tips for working fewer hours

These tips for working fewer hours are aimed primarily at software engineers in the U.S. who have some job mobility, and more generally for salaried professionals in the U.S. Some of these tips may be useful for other folks as well.

See a career counselor or career coach. Most of us are woefully unprepared to guide and shape our career paths. A career counselor can help you figure out what you value, what your goals should be, and how to achieve them, while taking into account your whole self (including family, friends, and hobbies). A career counselor will help you with the mechanics of actually working fewer hours: negotiating down your current job, finding a new job, starting your own business, etc. To find a career counselor, ask your friends for recommendations or search online review sites.

Go to therapy. If you’re voluntarily overworking, you’ve internalized a lot of ideas about what a good person is or how to be happy that are actually about how to make employers wealthier. Even if you are your own employer, you’ll still need to work these out. You’re also likely to be dealing with anxiety or unresolved problems in your life by escaping to work. You’ll need to learn new values, new ideas, and new coping mechanisms before you can work fewer hours. I’ve written about how to find therapy here. You might also want to read up on workaholics. The short version is: there is some reason you are currently overworking, and you’ll need to address that before you can stop overworking.

Find other things to do with your time. Spend more time with your kids, develop new hobbies or pick up new ones, learn a sport, watch movies, volunteer, write a novel – the options are endless. Learn to identify the voice in your head that says you shouldn’t be wasting your time on that and tell it to mind its own business.

Search for more efficient ways to make money. In general, hourly wage labor is going to have a very hard limit on how much money you can make per hour, even in highly paid positions. Work with your career counselor to figure out how to make more money per hour of labor. Often this looks like teaching, reviewing, or selling a product or service with low marginal cost.

Talk to a financial advisor. Reducing hours often means at least some period of lower income, even if your income ends up higher after that. If like many people you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, you’ll need help. A professional financial advisor can help you figure out how to get through this period and make better financial decisions in general. [Added 19-June-2018]

Finally, we can help normalize working fewer hours a week just by talking about it and, if it is safe for us, actually asking for fewer hours of work. We can also support unions, elect politicians who promise to pass legislation protecting workers, promote universal basic income, support improvements in the social safety net, and raise awareness of what working conditions are like without these protections.