In the tech industry, alcohol is currency. It’s used to grow event attendance, to bribe participants, to reward employees and community members. Informal interviews are conducted in bars, to see if potential employees are likable in a social setting, or can hold up under heavy drinking with clients. Co-workers gather in pubs to bond and shed the day’s frustrations. Good performance is rewarded with shared whiskey, tequila parties, opening up the office taps. We drink to say thank-you, to seal deals, to bid farewell, to make new friends, to rant.
Except…not all of us drink.
When alcohol is currency, non-alcoholic drinks are considered valueless, and the interests and needs of people who don’t drink alcohol are easily forgotten. In a community so focused on alcohol, those who don’t partake are excluded. They may choose not to attend drinking events, missing key career and business opportunities. They may keep their choices to themselves, at risk of ridicule. They might drink a quick cup of water and say, sorry, I have to go home, something came up.
In an environment where companies and conferences use alcohol as currency to bribe or thank participation, there is a strong incentive not to question the myths crafted around alcohol. After all, if alcohol isn’t currency, then it can’t take the place of other compensation. Office perks wouldn’t make up for inadequate salaries or hostile working conditions. Free drinks wouldn’t be an acceptable payment for free labor. And worst of all, without a culture of drinking, would the startup world still be the hip bastion of partying that sets it apart from its corporate twin?
Confronting the assumed use of alcohol also forces an admission of other issues long swept under the tech industry’s collective rug. Tech events bill drinking as the headline activity even though their communities cite alcohol to excuse abusers and rapists and to victim-blame in the same breath. By forming an accepted myth that alcohol is currency, and then leveraging that myth at social events, tech companies also work to encroach on personal time and erode work/life balance. Refusing to go out for drinks, in preference of going home, is a nonsensical refusal to accept the dominant currency. In order to protect the status quo, those who refuse to partake in its structure are pushed out.
Non-drinkers and non-alcoholic drinks are a threat to some of the core illusions of the tech industry.
Why don’t you drink?
When I started working in tech, I was convinced I was the sole person at a startup of 80 employees who didn’t drink alcohol. I kept it to myself, embarrassed. I knew how important drinking from the keg on Fridays was; I knew how important after-work social time at the bar was. My kindhearted coworkers frequently offered me drinks, and I quickly found it wasn’t something I could hide. As I turned down each drink, people asked, “Why?”. It was years before I realized it wasn’t any of their business, and that I was far from alone.
There’s a myth that people who don’t drink are few and far between, because only teetotalers refuse alcohol, and they’re a rare bunch (we’re not). This myth ignores the multitude of reasons people avoid alcohol. People may not be drinking because they are pregnant — and for many, drinking culture puts them at risk of exposing their pregnancy in situations that could lead to professional discrimination. An increasing number of tech employees are underage, given the industry’s fetish for youthfulness, and the rampant use and abuse of interns. They may be on medications that preclude alcohol, and questions as to why they don’t drink put them at risk of disclosing their medical history. They might be recovering addicts, trying to avoid alcohol in an industry that places it everywhere without addressing alcoholism or providing adequate support. How about designated drivers, or simply people who are about to drive home? The illusion that “everyone drinks” has no space for the safety of commute.
People might not drink because they’re feeling unsafe – understandable in a space where others are increasingly drunk, harassment is common, and alcohol is frequently used to facilitate sexual assault. They might not drink alcohol for religious reasons, and by asking them why they don’t drink, you’re asking them to reveal their faith. Perhaps they’re working early the next morning, or they may be gluten-intolerant and you’re serving only beer. They might really be a teetotaler, someone who never drinks alcohol. Or, they may simply not be interested in drinking alcohol that evening.
The reasons don’t matter: What’s important is an understanding that there is a large range of rationales and circumstances around the non-consumption of alcohol, and the question of “Why aren’t you drinking?” is better left unasked.
After I began to be open about my choice not to drink, many people began to talk to me about their own choices around alcohol. Uncomfortable patterns began to appear. One theme was the stories of those who used to drink alcohol occasionally, and had a positive relationship with alcohol. After they began work at a tech startup, they’d start to drink much more frequently than they were accustomed to, because of parties, office taps, and expected team norms. “I’m no longer comfortable with my relationship to alcohol,” one person said to me, and others echoed the refrain.
This matches a common scenario in the tech industry, where attendees or employees wind up consuming more alcohol than they’d wished or planned for because alcoholic drinks are the most visible, best tasting, or only drinks available. Have we become a parody of hokey high-school peer pressure films, which warned that your “friends” and peers would ridicule you into imitating their behaviours, regardless of what’s best for you? Ultimately, our collective myths are peer-pressure; our practices and social gatherings are peer-pressure. The way that drinks are presented, advertised, or available at most tech events, alongside the overall atmosphere of presumed drinking, creates an expectation to enjoy alcohol.
5 Tips for Including Non-Alcoholic Drinks at Events
How can we, as individuals and as an industry, do a better job of supporting, including and welcoming people who choose not to drink at our events? As a Community Manager in the tech world, I regularly navigate conferences and parties searching for something delicious and non-alcoholic to drink. Including non-alcoholic options is about much more than “hey, we had Coke available!” Here are five guidelines that help balance alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks at events, make events more inclusive, and enable attendees to better choose for themselves what they’d prefer to be drinking.
Provide an equal number and quality of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink options
If it’s important to have several different beers for different palates, it’s also important to have different non-alcoholic options. I’ve looked down many a menu packed with fancy, tasty alcoholic options, only to find my choice is between Coke and Diet Coke. The usual lineup of brand sodas are great for mix drinks, and for some attendees, but they’re not equivalent in quality to the alcohol served. Try serving Ginger Beer, iced tea, craft Root Beer, local soda, or drinks that show value by being craft brewed, higher priced, or using cane sugar.
Display alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks together at the event.
When setting up the bar area, have both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic options prominently and equally displayed. Asking people to guess what’s under the counter adds stress, especially with long drink lines. Most people will pick what they can see. Even as an experienced non-alcoholic drinker, I get flustered frequently by event bartenders who don’t know the options.
Advertise alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks equally before the event.
If alcohol is being used on the event page or in the marketing material to advertise the event, include a mention of non-alcoholic options. This adds value to your event, as it expands the number of people who will be interested. A few examples: “We’ll have beer, wine, craft root beer, and ginger beer available!” or “Delicious alcoholic & non-alcoholic drinks sponsored by [company]!”
If listed cocktails are being served, list an equal number of non-alcoholic mocktails.
If something special is being offered, attendees will want one! Give non-drinking attendees an equal treat with specialty non-alcoholic mocktail or mixed drink options. If you’re printing a menu or a placard, print both options on it. Otherwise, you give an easily-ordered option for alcohol, but make inventing and ordering something non-alcoholic the attendee’s responsibility. For example, if you’re serving a specialty drink, have both an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic version advertised and available at the table.
Have water freely available, in clear sight, and easy to obtain.
If there’s a long line for drinks, don’t make attendees wait in it just to get some simple hydration. Put a separate, clearly visible, hydration station nearby the drink line. Too often, water is hidden behind counters or bars where it’s hard to find. At user groups I run, I fill a pitcher or two with water and ice, and put them next to the stack of cups. It’s simple to do, and helpful for attendees.
While these guidelines won’t fix a culture of pressure and abuse, they will help many attendees better enjoy the event while making their own choices. You’ll still need to have and enforce a good Code of Conduct. And you’ll need to be prepared for some people to choose not to attend your events, despite making these changes, because so many of the spaces that include alcohol (and plenty that don’t) are hostile to those underrepresented in tech. But having a variety of non-alcoholic options available and advertised is one step to building safer, more inclusive, and more interesting parties. After all, there are many things other than alcohol that can create an interesting evening: good conversation, a variety of viewpoints, mutual respect, and just a dash of orange juice in your Shirley Temple.
To be a woman in tech is to be asked to talk about being a woman in tech, regardless of the desires or knowledge of the individual, unique woman in tech in question (see The Unicorn Law). This is a frustrating part of being a member of a marginalized group in any field of endeavor: being expected to speak for, represent, and advocate for your group, regardless of your own personal inclinations. Even women in tech who actively embrace talking about women in tech want to choose if, when, and how they talk about women in tech, and not do so on command by others.
As a woman in tech activist, I’m here to to tell women in tech: it’s 100% fine for you to not talk about women in tech if you don’t want to! It’s literally not your job! Your job is to do tech stuff. If someone really wants you to talk about women in tech, they can darn well offer to pay you for it, and you can still say, “Nope, don’t want to.”
Here are the reasons for you not to feel guilty about not wanting to be an activist, followed by some coping strategies for when you are asked to talk about women in tech. But first, some disclaimers.
This post presumes that you don’t want to harm women in tech as a whole; if you don’t feel solidarity with other women in tech or feel fine harming other women in tech to get ahead, this post isn’t for you. Likewise, if you are a woman in tech and want to talk about women in tech more than you are now, I fully support your decision, speaking as a programmer who became a full-time activist herself. Doing this work is difficult and often unrewarding; let me at least thank you and support you for doing it. If you want to point out that the ideas in this post apply to another marginalized group, or to fields other than tech: I agree, I just know the most about being a woman in tech and so that’s what I’m writing about.
Reasons not to feel guilty
Men should do more for women in tech. Many women in tech feel guilty for not helping other women in tech more, despite the fact that equivalent men often have more time, energy, power, and influence to support women in tech. I once felt guilty as a junior engineer when an older, more experienced woman in my group left, because she had previously asked me to mentor her (!!!) and I refused because I felt unqualified. At the same time, my group was filled with dozens of more knowledgeable and powerful men who felt no personal responsibility at all for her departure. Men aren’t putting in their fair share of work to support women in tech yet. Until they do, feel free to flip the question around and ask what men are doing to support women in tech.
Women are punished for advocating for women in tech. Women who do speak about women in tech are often accused of doing it for personal gain, which is hilarious. I can’t think of a single woman in tech whose lifetime earnings were improved by saying anything about women in tech that wasn’t “work harder and make more money for corporations.” In reality, the research shows that the careers of women and other members of marginalized groups are actually harmed if they appear to be advocating for members of their own group. Feel free to decline to do work that will harm your career. (And if you do it anyway: thank you!!!)
Women in tech already have to do more work. Women in tech already have to do more work in order to get the same credit as an equivalent man. In addition to having to do more of our technical work to be perceived as contributing equally, we are also expected to do emotional labor for free: listening to people’s problems, expressing empathy, doing “office housework” like arranging parties and birthday cards, smiling and being cheerful, taking care of visitors, and welcoming new employees. We are also expected to help and assist men with their jobs without getting credit, and punished when we stick to our own work. Add on to that the job of talking about women in tech, which is not only unrewarded but often punished. While you’ll get pushback for turning down any of this free labor, feel free to wiggle out of as much of it as possible.
Activism is a whole separate job. Activism is a different job from a job in tech. It needs different skills and requires different aptitudes from most tech jobs. Some people have both the skills and aptitude (and the free time) to work a tech job and also be an activist; don’t feel strange if you’re not one of those people.
You can support women in tech in other ways. If you do want to support women in tech, but don’t feel comfortable being an activist yourself, there are plenty of other ways to support women in tech. You can give money to organizations that support women in tech. You can hire more women in tech. You can invest in women in tech. You can be a supportive spouse to a woman in tech. You can mentor women in tech. Feel free to be creative about how you support women in tech and don’t let other people guilt you into their ideas for how you should be supporting women in tech.
You are being a role model for women in tech. Women in tech can help women in tech simply by existing and not actively harming other women in tech. You can speak or write about your tech job. You can agree to interviews with the condition of not being asked about women in tech. You can get promoted and raise your salary. In other words, keep doing your job, and avoid doing things that harm women in tech in the long-term. Avoiding harm is harder than it sounds and takes some expertise and learning to get right, but some rules of thumb are: don’t push other marginalized folks down to give yourself a leg up, do recognize there are many different ways to be a women in tech, do default to listening over speaking when it comes to subjects you’re not an expert in (which may be activism).
Here are a few coping strategies for when you are inevitably asked to talk about women in tech. You can use these strategies if you never want to talk about women in tech, or if you just don’t want to talk about women in tech in this particular situation. I personally find talking about women in tech fairly boring when the other person thinks they know more than they actually do about the topic, so I often use one of these techniques in that situation.
Make a list of other people to pass requests on to. Sure, you don’t want to give the one millionth talk on What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Programming Community X. But perhaps someone else has started a Women in Programming Community X group and would love to give a talk on the subject. You can also make a list of books or websites or other resources and tell people that while you don’t know much about career advice for women in tech, you’ve heard that “What Works for Women at Work” has some good tips.
Suggest that men do the work instead. When you suggest men do the work to support women in tech, you’ll get some predictable pushback. Lack of knowledge: Remind them that the research exists and can be learned by reading it. Feel afraid/scared/out of place: Remind them that that is how women feel in male-dominated spaces. Don’t you feel guilty: No, but if had the power men did I’d feel guilty for not using it. After a few of these annoying discussions, many people will stop asking you to do women in tech stuff.
Point out your lack of expertise. There’s nothing about being a woman in tech that necessarily makes you an expert on how to support women in tech in general. People will often ask women in tech to do things or make statements in areas they don’t have expertise in; get used to saying “I don’t know about that,” or “I haven’t studied that.” Lots of requests to speak for all women in tech or to reassure people that they aren’t personally sexist can be shot down this way.
Change the subject. If people ask you about women in tech, you often have an easy subject change: your job! Tell them about your project, ask them about their project, ask about a controversial research topic in your area of tech – it’s hard to object to a woman in tech wanting to talk about tech.
Practice saying no. For many people, it’s hard to say no, and it’s even harder when you’re a member of a marginalized group and people expect you to do what they say. Practicing some go-to words and phrases can help with saying no in the moment. It can also help reduce the feelings of guilt if you imagine the situation in your head and then go over all the reasons not to feel guilty.
Some examples of putting these coping strategies into practice:
“Will you write a blog post for International Women’s Day?”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I’m focusing on other projects right now. Have you thought about writing something yourself?”
“We need a woman keynote speaker for my conference. Will you speak? We pay travel.”
“I appreciate the invitation, but I’m only taking paid speaking engagements right now.”
“What do you think about Susan Fowler’s blog post?”
“You know, I haven’t had time to think about because I’ve been so busy. Can I bring you up to date on my project?”
“We’re doing great on gender equality at our company. Right?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have enough information to say either way. If you really wanted to know, I’d suggest paying an outside expert to do a rigorous study.”
“Will you join this panel on women in computing for Ada Lovelace Day?”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m taking a break from non-technical speaking appearances.”
“I got approval for you to go to Grace Hopper Celebration! I assumed you wanted to go.”
“Wow, that was really kind of you, but I think other people on my team will get more out of it than I would.”
“Boy, that Ellen Pao really screwed things up for women in venture capital, don’t you agree?”
“That’s not really something I feel confident speaking about. I’ve got to get back to work, see you at lunch!”
“How does it feel to be the only woman at this conference?”
“That’s not something I’m comfortable talking about. What talk are you going to next?”
“We really want to hire more women, but they just aren’t applying to our job postings! What do you think we’re doing wrong?”
“I’m not a recruiting expert, sorry! That sounds like something you should hire a professional to figure out.”
“I’m putting together a book of essays on women in tech! Will you write a chapter for me for free?”
“Why are you so selfish? Why won’t you do more to help other women?”
“I’m doing what’s right for me.”
Marginalized people leave tech jobs in droves, yet we rarely write or talk publicly about the emotional and mental process of deciding to leave tech. It feels almost traitorous to publicly discuss leaving tech when you’re a member of a marginalized group – much less actually go through with it.
There are many reasons we feel this way, but a major reason is that the “diversity problem in tech” is often framed as being caused by marginalized people not “wanting” to be in tech enough: not taking the right classes as teenagers, not working hard enough in university, not “leaning in” hard enough at our tech jobs. In this model, it is the moral responsibility of marginalized people to tolerate unfair pay, underpromotion, harassment, and assault in order to serve as role models and mentors to the next generation of marginalized people entering tech. With this framing, if marginalized people end up leaving tech to protect ourselves, it’s our duty to at least keep quiet about it, and not scare off other marginalized people by sharing our bad experiences.
Under that model, this post is doubly taboo: it’s a description of how we (Susan and Valerie) went through the process of leaving toxic tech culture, as a guide to other marginalized people looking for a way out. We say “toxic tech culture” because we want to distinguish between leaving tech entirely, and leaving areas of tech which are abusive and harmful. Toxic tech culture comes in many forms: the part of Silicon Valley VC hypergrowth culture that deifies founders as “white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford,” the open source software ecosystem that so often exploits and drives away its best contributors, and the scam-riddled cryptocurrency community, to name just three.
What is toxic tech culture? Toxic tech cultures are those that demean and devalue you as holistic, multifaceted human beings. Toxic tech cultures are those that prioritize profits and growth over human and societal well being. Toxic tech cultures are those that treat you as replaceable cogs within a system of constant churn and burnout.
But within tech there are exceptions to the rule: technology teams, organizations, and communities where marginalized people can feel a degree of safety, belonging, and purpose. You may be thinking about leaving all of tech, or leaving a particular toxic tech culture for a different, better tech culture; either way, we hope this post will be useful to you.
A little about us: Valerie spent more than ten years working as a software engineer, specializing in file systems, Linux, and operating systems. Susan grew up on the Internet, and spent 25 years as a software developer, a community builder, an investor, and a VC-backed Silicon Valley founder. We were both overachievers who advanced quickly in our fields – until we could not longer tolerate the way we were treated, or be complicit in a system that did not match our values. Valerie quit her job as a programmer to co-found a tech-related non-profit for women, and now teaches ally skills to tech workers. Susan relocated to France and Australia, co-founded Project Include, a nonprofit dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion in tech, and is now launching a new education system. We are both still involved in tech to various degrees, but on our own terms, and we are much happier now.
We reject the idea that it is the “responsibility” of marginalized people to stay in toxic tech culture despite abuse and discrimination, solely to improve the diversity of tech. Marginalized people have already had to overcompensate for systemic sexist, ableist, and racist biases in order to earn their roles in tech. We believe people with power and privilege are responsible for changing toxic tech culture to be more inclusive and fair to marginalized people. If you want more diversity in tech, don’t ask marginalized people to be silent, to endure often grievous discrimination, or to take on additional unpaid, unrecognized labor – ask the privileged to take action.
For many marginalized people, our experience of being in tech includes traumatic experience(s) which we may not have not yet fully come to terms with and that influenced our decisions to leave. Sometimes we don’t make a direct connection between the traumatic experiences and our decision to leave. We just find that we are “bored” and are no longer excited about our work, or start avoiding situations that used to be rewarding, like conferences, speaking, and social events. Often we don’t realize traumatic events are even traumatic until months or years later. If you’ve experienced trauma, processing the trauma is necessary, whether or not you decide to leave toxic tech culture.
This post doesn’t assume that you are sure that you want to leave your current area of tech, or tech as a whole. We ourselves aren’t “sure” we want to permanently leave the toxic tech cultures we were part of even now – maybe things will get better enough that we will be willing to return. You can take the steps described in this post and stay in your current area of tech for as long as you want – you’ll just be more centered, grounded, and happy.
The steps we took are described in roughly the order we took them, but they all overlapped and intermixed with each other. Don’t feel like you need to do things in a particular order or way; this is just to give you some ideas on what you could do to work through your feelings about leaving tech and any related trauma.
Step 1: Deprogram yourself from the cult of tech
The first step is to start deprogramming yourself from the cult of tech. Being part of toxic tech culture has a lot in common with being part of a cult. How often have you heard a Silicon Valley CEO talk about how his (it’s almost always a he) startup is going to change the world? The refrain of how a startup CEO is going to save humanity is so common that it’s actually uncommon for a CEO to not use saviour language when describing their startup. Cult leaders do the same thing: they create a unique philosophy, imbued with some sort of special message that they alone can see or hear, convince people that only they have the answers for what ails humanity, and use that influence to control the people around them.
“Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight.” How often have you heard a Silicon Valley founder or CEO proclaimed as some sort of genius, and they alone can figure out how to invent XYZ? Nearly every day, there’s some deific tribute to Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg in the media.
“The group is closed, so in other words, although there may be outside followers, there’s usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy.” The Information just published a database summarizing how secretive, how protective, how insular the boards are for the top 30 private companies in tech. Here’s what they report: “Despite their enormous size and influence, the biggest privately held technology companies eschew some basic corporate governance standards, blocking outside voices, limiting decision making to small groups of mostly white men and holding back on public disclosures, an in-depth analysis by The Information shows.”
“A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you.” There’s an insidious reason why your unicorn startup provides you with a free cafeteria, gym, yoga rooms, and all night snack bars: they never want you to leave. And if you do leave the building, you can stay engaged with Slack, IM, SMS, and every other possible communications tool so that you can never disconnect. They then layer over this with purported positive cultural messaging around how lucky, how fortunate you are to have landed this job — you were the special one selected out of thousands of candidates. Nobody else has it as good as we do here. Nobody else is as smart, as capable, as special as our team. Nobody else is building the best, most impactful solutions to solve humanity’s problems. If you fall off this treadmill, you will become irrelevant, you’ll be an outsider, a consumer instead of a builder, you’ll never be first on the list for the Singularity, when it happens. You’ll be at the shit end of the income inequality distribution funnel.
Given how similar toxic tech culture (and especially Silicon Valley tech culture) is to cult culture, leaving tech often requires something like cult-deprogramming techniques. We found the following steps especially useful for deprogramming ourselves from the cult of tech: recognizing our unconscious beliefs, experimenting with our identity, avoiding people who don’t support us, and making friendships that aren’t dependent on tech.
We didn’t realize how strongly we’d unconsciously adopted this belief that people in tech were better than those who weren’t until we started to imagine ourselves leaving tech and felt a wave of self-judgment and fear. Early on, Valerie realized that she unconsciously thought of literally every single job other than software engineer as “for people who weren’t good enough to be a software engineer” – and that she thought this because other software engineers had been telling her that for her entire career. Even now, as Susan is launching a new education startup in Australia, she’s trying to be careful to not assume that just because people are doing things in a “non Silicon Valley, lean startup, agile way,” that it’s not automatically wrong. In reality, the best way in which to do things is probably not based on any particular dogma, but one that reflects a healthy balance of diverse perspectives and styles.
The first step to ridding yourself of the harmful belief that only people who are “in tech” or doing things in a “startup style” are good or smart or valuable is surfacing the unconscious belief to the conscious level, so you can respond to it. Recognize and name that belief when it comes up: when you think about leaving your job and feel fear, when you meet a new person and immediately lose interest when you learn their job is not “technical,” when you notice yourself trying to decide if someone is “technical enough.” Say to yourself, “I am experiencing the belief that only people I consider technical are valuable. This isn’t true. I believe everyone is valuable regardless of their job or level of technical knowledge.”
Experiment with your self-identity
The next step is to experiment with your own self-identity. Begin thinking of yourself as having different non-tech jobs or self-descriptions, and see what thoughts come up. React to those thoughts as though you were reacting to a friend you care about who was saying those things about them. Try to find positive things to think and say about your theoretical new job and new life. Think about people you know with that job and ask yourself if you would say negative things about their job to them. Some painful thoughts and experiences will come up during this time; aim to recognize them consciously and process them, rather than trying to stuff them down or make them go away.
When you live in Silicon Valley, it’s easy for your work life to consume 95% of your waking hours — this is how startups are designed, after all, with their endless perks and pressures to socialize within the tribe. Often times, promotions go hand in hand with socializing successfully within the startup scene. What can you do to carve out several hours a week just for yourself, and an alternate identity that isn’t defined by success within toxic tech culture? How do you make space for self care? For example, Susan began to take online writing courses, and found that the outlet of interacting with poets and fiction writers helped ground her.
If necessary, change the branding of your personal life. Stop wearing tech t-shirts and get shirts that reflect some other part of your self. Get a different print for your office wall. Move the tech books into one out-of-the-way shelf and donate any you don’t use right now (especially the ones that you have been planning to read but never got around to). Donate most of your conference schwag and stop accepting new schwag. Pack away the shelf of tech-themed tchotchkes or even (gasp) throw them away. Valerie went to a “burn party” on Ocean Beach, where everyone brought symbols of old jobs that they were happy to be free of and symbolically burned them in a beach bonfire. You might consider a similar ritual.
De-emphasize tech in your self-presentation. Change any usernames that reference your tech interests. Rewrite any online bios or descriptions to emphasize non-tech parts of your life. Start introducing yourself by talking about your non-tech hobbies and interests rather than your job. You might even try introducing yourself to new people as someone whose primary job isn’t tech. Valerie, who had been writing professionally for several years, started introducing herself as a writer at tech events in San Francisco. People who would have talked to her had she introduced herself as a Linux kernel developer would immediately turn away without a second word. Counterintuitively, this made her more determined to leave her job, when she saw how inconsiderate her colleagues were when she did not make use of her technical privilege.
Avoid unsupportive people
Identify any people in your life who are consistently unsupportive of you, or only supportive when you perform to their satisfaction, and reduce your emotional and financial dependence on them. If you have friends or idols who are unhelpfully critical or judgemental, take steps to see or hear from them less often. Don’t seek out their opinion and don’t stoke your admiration for them. This will be difficult the closer and more dependent you are on the person; if your spouse or manager is one of these people, you have our sympathy. For more on this dynamic and how to end it, see this series of posts about narcissism, co-narcissism, and tech.
Depressingly often, we especially seek the approval of people who give approval sparingly (think about the popularity of Dr. House, who is a total jerk). If you find yourself yearning for the approval of someone in tech who has been described as an “asshole,” this is a great time to stop. Some helpful tips to stop seeking the approval of an asshole: make a list of cruel things they’ve done, make a list of times they were wrong, stop reading their writing or listening to their talks, filter them out of your daily reading, talk to people who don’t know who that person is or care what they think, listen to people who have been hurt by them, and spend more time with people who are kind and nurturing.
At the same time, seek out and spend more time with people who are generally supportive of you, especially people who encourage experimentation and personal change. You may already have many of these people in your life, but don’t spend much time thinking about them because you can depend on their friendship and support. Reach out to them and renew your relationship.
Make friendships that don’t depend on tech
If your current social circle consists entirely of people who are fully bought into toxic tech culture, you may not have anyone in your life willing to support a career change. To help solve this, make friendships that aren’t dependent on your identity as a person in tech. The goal is to have a lot of friendships that aren’t dependent on your being in tech, so that if you decide to leave, you won’t lose all your friends at the same time as your job. Being friends with people who aren’t in tech will help you get an outside perspective on the kind of tech culture you are part of. It also helps you envision a future for yourself that doesn’t depend on being in toxic tech culture. You can still have lots of friends in tech, you are just aiming for diversity in your friendships.
One way to make this easier is to focus on your existing friendships that are “near tech,” such as people working in adjacent fields that sometimes attend tech conferences, but aren’t “in tech” themselves. Try also getting a new hobby, being more open to invitations to social events, and contacting old friends you’ve fallen out of touch with. Spend less time attending tech-related events, especially if you currently travel to a lot of tech conferences. It’s hard to start and maintain new local friendships when you’re constantly out of town or working overtime to prepare a talk for a conference. If you have a set of conferences you attend every year, it will feel scary the first time you miss one of them, but you’ll notice how much more time you have to spend with your local social circle.
Making friends outside of your familiar context (tech co-workers, tech conferences, online tech forums) is challenging for most people. If you learned how to socialize entire in tech culture, you may also need to learn new norms and conventions (such as how to have a conversation that isn’t about competing to show who knows more about a subject). Both Valerie and Susan experienced this when we started trying to make friends outside of toxic tech culture: all we knew how to talk about was startups, technology, video games, science fiction, scientific research, and (ugh) libertarian economic philosophy. We discovered people outside toxic tech culture wanted to talk about a wider range of topics, and often in a less confrontational way. And after a lifetime of socialization to distrust and discount everyone who wasn’t a man, we learned to seek out and value friendships with women and non-binary people.
If you are already in a place where you have the freedom to make a big career change, congratulations! But if changing careers seems impossibly hard right now, that’s okay too. You can make room for a career change while still working in tech. Even if you end up deciding to stay in your current job, you will likely appreciate the freedom and flexibility that you’ve opened up for yourself.
Find a career counselor
The most useful action you can take is to find a career counselor who is right for you, and be honest with them about your fears, goals, and desires. Finding a career counselor is a lot like finding a dentist or a therapist: ask your friends for recommendations, read online reviews, look for directories or lists, and make an appointment for a free first meeting. If your first meeting doesn’t click, go ahead and try another career counselor until you find someone you can work with. A good career counselor will get a comprehensive view of your entire life (including family and friends) and your goals (not just job-related goals), and give you concrete steps to take to bring you closer to your goals.
Sometimes a career counselor’s job is explaining to you how the job you want but thought was impossible to get is actually possible. Valerie started seeing a career counselor about two years before she quit her last job as a software engineer and co-founded a non-profit. It took her about five years to get everything she listed as part of what she thought was an unattainable dream job (except for the “view of the water from her office,” which she is still working on). All the rest of this section is a high-level generic version of the advice a good career counselor will give you.
Improve your financial situation
Many tech jobs pay relatively well, but many people in tech would still have a hard time switching careers tomorrow because they don’t have enough money saved or couldn’t take a pay cut (hello, overheated rental markets and supporting your extended family). Don’t assume you’ll have to take a pay cut if you leave tech or your particular part of toxic tech culture, but it gives you more flexibility if you don’t have to immediately start making the same amount of money in a different job.
Look for ways to change your lifestyle or your expectations in ways that let you save money or lower your bills. Status symbols and class markers will probably loom large here and it’s worth thinking about which things are most valuable to you and which ones you can let go. You might find it is a relief to no longer have an expensive car with all its attendant maintenance and worries and fear, but that you really value the weekly exercise class that makes you feel happier and more energetic the rest of the week. Making these changes will often be painful in the short term but pay off in the long term. Valerie ended up temporarily moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area to a cheaper area near her family, which let her save up money and spend less while she was planning a career change. She moved back to the Bay Area when she was established in her new career, into a smaller, cheaper apartment she could afford on her new salary. Today she is making more money than she ever did as a programmer.
Take stock of your transferrable skills
Figure out what you actually like to do and how much of that is transferrable to other fields or jobs. One way to do this is to look back at, say, the top seven projects you most enjoyed doing in your life, either for your job or as a volunteer. What skills were useful to you in getting those projects done? What parts of doing that project did you enjoy the most? For example, being able to quickly read and understand a lot of information is a transferrable skill that many people enjoy using. The ability to persuade people is another such skill, useful for selling gym memberships, convincing people to recycle more, teaching, getting funding, and many other jobs. Once you have an idea of what it is that you enjoy doing and that is transferrable to other jobs, you can figure out what jobs you might enjoy and would be reasonably good at from the beginning.
Think carefully before signing up for new education
This is not necessarily the time to start taking career-related classes or going back to university in a serious way! If you start taking classes without first figuring out what you enjoy, what your skills are, and what your goals are, you are likely to be wasting your time and money and making it more difficult to find your new career. We highly recommend working with a career counselor before spending serious money or time on new training or classes. However, it makes sense to take low-cost, low-time commitment classes to explore what you enjoy doing, open your mind to new possibilities, or meet new people. This might look like a pottery class at the local community college, learning to 3D print objects at the local hackerspace, or taking an online course in African history.
Recognise there are many different paths in tech
The good news about software finally eating the world is that there are now many ways in which you can work in and around technology, without having to be part of toxic tech culture. Every industry needs tech expertise, and nearly every country around the world is trying to cultivate its own startup ecosystem. Many of these are much saner, kinder places to work than the toxic tech culture you may currently be part of, and a few of these involve industries that are more inclusive and welcoming of marginalized groups. Some of our friends have left the tech industry to work in innovation or technology related jobs in government, education, advocacy, policy, and arts. Though there are no great industries, and no ideal safe places for marginalized groups nearly anywhere in the world, there are varying degrees of toxicity and you can seek out areas with less toxicity. Try not to be swayed by the narrative that the only tech worth doing is the tech that’s written about in the media or receiving significant VC funding.
Step 3: Take care of yourself
Since being part of toxic tech culture is harmful to you as a person, simply focusing on taking care of yourself will help you put tech culture in its proper perspective, leaving you the freedom to be part of tech or not as you choose.
Self-care means doing things that are kind or nurturing for yourself, whatever that looks like for you. Being in toxic tech culture means that many things take priority over self-care: fixing that last bug instead of taking a walk, going to an evening work-related meetup instead of staying home and getting to sleep on time, flying to yet another tech conference instead of spending time with family and friends. For Susan, prioritizing self-care looked like taking a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway for the weekend instead of going to an industry fundraiser, or eating lunch by herself with a book instead of meeting up with another VC. One of the few constants in life is that you will always be stuck with your own self – so take care of it!
Learn to say no and enforce boundaries
We found that we were saying yes to too many things. The tech industry depends on extracting free or low-cost labor from many people in different ways: everything from salaried employees working 60-hour weeks to writing and giving talks in your “free time” – all of which are considered required for your career to advance. Marginalized people in tech are often expected to work an additional second (third?) shift of diversity-related work for free: giving recruiting advice, mentoring other marginalized people, or providing free counseling to more privileged people.
FOMO (fear of missing out) plays an important role too. It’s hard to cut down on free work when you are wondering, what if this is the conference where you’ll meet the person who will get you that venture capital job you’ve always wanted? What if serving on this conference program committee will get you that promotion? What if going to lunch with this powerful person so they can “pick your brain” for free will get you a new job? Early in your tech career, these kinds of investments often pay off but later on they have diminishing returns. The first time you attend a conference in your field, you will probably meet dozens of people who are helpful to your career. The twentieth conference – not so much.
For Valerie, switching from a salaried job to hourly consulting taught her the value of her time and just how many hours she was spending on unpaid work for the Linux and file systems communities. She taped a note reading “JUST SAY NO” to the wall behind her computer, and then sent a bunch of emails quitting various unpaid responsibilities she had accumulated. A few months later, she found she had made too many commitments again, and had to send another round of emails backing out of commitments. It was painful and embarrassing, but not being constantly frazzled and stressed out was worth it.
When you start saying no to unpaid work, some people will be upset and push back. After all, they are used to getting free work from you which gives them some personal advantage, and many people won’t be happy with this. They may try to make you feel guilty, shame you, or threaten you. Learning to enforce boundaries in the face of opposition is an important part of this step. If this is hard for you, try reading books, practicing with a friend, or working with a therapist. If you are worried about making mistakes when going against external pressure, keep in mind that simply exercising some control over your life choices and career path will often increase your personal happiness, regardless of the outcome.
Care for your mental health
Let’s be brutally honest: toxic tech culture is highly abusive, and there’s an excellent chance you are suffering from depression, trauma, chronic stress, or other serious psychological difficulties. The solution that works for many people is to work with a good therapist or counselor. A good licensed therapist is literally an expert in helping people work through these problems. Even if you don’t think your issues reach the level of seriousness that requires a therapist, a good therapist can help you with processing guilt, fear, anxiety, or other emotions that come up around the idea of leaving toxic tech culture.
Whether or not you work with a therapist, you can make use of many other forms of mental health care: meditation, support groups, mindfulness apps, walking, self-help books, spending time in nature, various spiritual practices, doing exercises in workbooks, doing something creative, getting alone time, and many more. Try a bunch of different things and pick what works for you – everyone is different. For Susan, practicing yoga four times a week, meditating, and working in her vegetable garden instead of reading Hacker News gave her much needed perspective and space.
Even if you are certain you want to leave toxic tech culture, actually leaving is a loss – if nothing else, a loss of what you thought your career and future would look like. Grief is an appropriate response to any major life change, even if it is for the better. Give yourself permission to grieve and be sad, for whatever it is that you are sad about. A few of the things we grieved for: the meritocracy we thought we were participating in, our vision for where our careers would be in five years, the good times we had with friends at conferences, a sense of being part of something excited and world-changing, all the good people who left before us, our relationships with people we thought would support us but didn’t, and the people we were leaving behind to suffer without us.
Step 4: Give yourself time
If you do decide to leave toxic tech culture, give yourself a few years to do it, and many more years to process your feelings about it. Valerie decided to stop being a programmer two years before she actually quit her programming job, and then she worked as a file systems consultant on and off for five years after that. Seven years later, she finally feels mostly at peace about being driven out of her chosen career (though she still occasionally has nightmares about being at a Linux conference). Susan’s process of extricating herself from the most toxic parts of tech culture and reinvesting in her own identity and well being has taken many years as well. Her partner (who knows nothing about technology) and her two kids help her feel much more balanced. Because Susan grew up on the Internet and has been building in tech for 25 years, she feels like she’ll probably always be doing something in tech, or tech-related, but wants to use her knowledge and skills to do this on her own terms, and to use her hard won know-how to benefit other marginalized folks to successfully reshape the industry.
An invitation to share your story
We hope this post was helpful to other people thinking about leaving toxic tech culture. There is so much more to say on this topic, and so many more points of view we want to hear about. If you feel safe doing so, we would love to read your story of leaving toxic tech culture. And wherever you are in your journey, we see you and support you, even if you don’t feel safe sharing your story or thoughts.
My most miserable jet lag experience was the afternoon I struggled for over an hour to liberate my rental car from a tiny paid parking lot in Chamonix, a ski resort town in France. I distinctly remember the feelings of hopeless despair and confusion as I poked at the buttons on the parking machine and made a seemingly endless pilgrimage around the local shops, before I finally acquired the 5 euro bill I needed to effect my escape.
That trip was for “fun,” but nowadays I travel mostly for work: I teach a particularly complex and difficult workshop (the Ally Skills Workshop). Travel is also difficult and painful for me, so I like to spend as little time away from home again as possible. This means that, no matter what the time difference is between San Francisco and my destination, I need to be fully awake and mentally sharp during business hours within a day of my arrival.
About a year ago, I started changing my time zone before I left on my trip. Each day before the trip, I get up one hour earlier or later, until on the day I leave, I am already getting up at the same time I’ll need to be awake at my destination. So for a trip from San Francisco to New York, I’ll get up one hour earlier for three days before my trip. And if I can, I’ll start transitioning back to my home time zone during my trip. One hour a day is still too quick for a full adjustment – I can still feel my home circadian rhythm kicking in for about 10 days after this – but it feels like just a little bit of restless or tiredness a couple of times a day, not the overwhelming sense of doom and despair I remember from that parking lot in Chamonix.
“Get up one hour earlier or later each day” sounds simple, but as the jokes about Daylight Saving Time transition show, doing this for even one day can be difficult. If you live with other people, care for others, or have set work hours, changing your time zone while at home may be difficult or impossible. I set my own hours and I live with my boyfriend, who is incredibly tolerant of me banging around in the middle of the night, or going to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Even so, I just miss spending time with him and my local friends when I’m adjusting my time zone, and being awake alone in the dark is no fun. So, it is by no means a perfect solution even for me – just slightly better than staggering around confusedly at the nadir of my circadian cycle.
I have a collection of tricks that help me stick to my schedule; they might work for you or you might find something else that works better for you.
Taking melatonin: The ideal timing and dose of melatonin for going to sleep earlier is 0.3 mg (more is NOT better), one to three hours before you intend to fall asleep. Larger doses don’t help and can make you sleepy for an entire day.
Dimming and darkening: Closing the curtains and dimming the lights two hours before my goal sleep time helps. I aim for complete darkness one hour before goal sleep time. Even if I don’t feel tired when I do this, I’ll start feeling tired soon. I will also adjust my F.lux schedule to match my sleep schedule instead of local sunlight. You might also try blue-blocking glasses or sunglasses if you have to be out in the light.
Lying down: Again, if I don’t feel tired when I do this, I’ll start feeling tired soon.
Reading a familiar book: I’ve read and reread everyone Jane Austen novel multiple times, so I’m never tempted to keep reading after I start to feel sleepy. My Kindle has a built-in light which on the lower settings does not interfere with the effect of darkness. The key here is: low light, soothing distraction from your thoughts, no incentive to keep going after you feel sleepy.
Listening to a familiar book read by a computer: Even more soporific is listening to a computer read Jane Austen to me. I don’t like listening to new books this way because I get stressed about missing out on the words (I have a slightly hard time understanding spoken words) but if it’s something I know backwards and forwards, I find the emotionless robot speech very soothing, especially at a slow speed. Currently, I use iOS’s screenreader feature with the Kindle app; before that I used the Kindle with built-in text-to-speech (now removed from current versions). I suspect that most audiobooks are rather too well read to be as sleep-inducing as the computer-read version. I like switching up the voice occasionally, especially if they’ve got an accent from the country I’m traveling to.
Listening to sleep hypnosis: A friend gave me some sleep hypnosis recordings from Andrew Johnson and I love them. My absolute favorite time to use them is when I’m trying to sleep on a plane and I don’t want to be incapacitated in any way by taking supplements or drugs. I use them with my noise cancelling earbuds – earbuds so that I can sleep on the plane with them in, while listening to my sleep hypnosis recordings. But sleep hypnosis also works for going to sleep earlier when you’re stressed out or worrying.
Taking zolpidem: The side effects of zolpidem make me avoid taking it until I’ve been trying to sleep for at least an hour and failing. I’ll often bite the 10mg pill in half, take half now, and take the second half only if I’m still awake in an hour.
I used to take Benadryl or Unisom to help go to sleep, but the side effects are too negative for me, so I don’t do this any more. I haven’t tried marijuana edibles, but lots of my friends swear by them for going to sleep. Drinking alcohol makes me feel sleepy, but usually I wake up when it wears off, which doesn’t help. Sometimes watching a boring TV show will help me go to sleep when I’m sleeping at my usual time, but it doesn’t seem to work when I’m fighting my own body clock. The Bob Ross painting shows are a good choice for a lot of people.
Getting up earlier
Bright light: A sunrise lamp can really help with waking up if you sleep alone or if your partner doesn’t mind the light. If that doesn’t work for you, turning on the lights ASAP in the room you’re spending time in helps. I like to do a gradual increase of light that mimics the sunrise. This is a situation where you want blue light. I also adjust my F.lux screen temperature to mimic sunrise for my schedule.
Showering immediately: Taking a shower as soon as I get up is super helpful to distract me from the miserable sad feeling in my body. I like having minty-smelling soap and similar “refreshing” smells.
Listening to energetic music: I’m a techno/electronica girl; putting in the headphones and cranking Röyksopp makes my artificial “morning” a lot more bearable.
Taking a walk: As soon as it is light outside, I take a walk. There’s some kind of weird perverse pleasure to being up and about at dawn that helps with my energy, and the earlier I can get real sunlight in my eyes, the better. Physical exercise, bracing air, interacting with people, seeing new things – all of these things help in a way that isn’t as effective as going to a dark empty indoor gym.
Do annoying work: For me, I’m already grumpy and mad and there’s nothing fun I can do anyway because everyone I normally hang out with is asleep, so that’s the perfect time to do annoying tasks that make me grumpy or mad. This is often accounting or tax-related. An additional benefit is that I often get angry, which keeps me awake. Doing something fun and enjoyable will often result in me relaxing and feeling sleepy, so I save that for closer to bed time.
Communicating with friends in other time zones: If I have friends in other time zones who are awake, I send them pictures or chat or talk on the phone if they’re amenable. It helps to feel less alone.
Eating on schedule: Your digestive system is part of your circadian rhythm, and eating on schedule with your new sleep/wake schedule helps. It’s not fun to eat when I’m not hungry, but it helps with waking up as well as adjusting to the new schedule. It’s hard to sleep if my stomach has decided it’s time to eat, so I eat when I am awake to avoid waking up hungry later.
Eating dark chocolate: Eating 70% or higher cacao content chocolate gives me a little bit of sugar and the right kind of caffeine to feel a little more awake and happy. The taste is also interesting and complex and helps me feel awake and interested.
Drinking coffee or tea: Most of the time, coffee and tea make me nauseous and jittery while leaving my tiredness and depression intact. In extreme cases, I will drink a half-caff cappucino or mocha, but I usually avoid that unless I’m traveling 5 or more hours east.
Taking pseudoephedrine: I discovered quite by accident that, for me, pseaudoephedrine completely stops the feelings of depression and sadness I have when I’m getting up too early. When I’m up at 2am the day I fly to Europe, a 12-hour Sudafed makes an incredible improvement in my quality of life. An additional benefit of the 12-hour Sudafed is that I start to feel tired when it wears off, which helps with going to sleep earlier. None of this is surprising when you remember that pseudoephedrine is related to methamphetamine.
I’ve taken amodafinal before and it seemed to work fine with no side effects, but I haven’t tried it for jet lag. I assume it and modafinal work great since they were kind of invented to keep people awake with low side effects.
I don’t travel west as often, and usually it is much easier for me to adapt my schedule. But when I do, a difficult challenge is when I wake up just a few hours before I’m supposed to wake up, when I can’t take a sleeping pill because I’ll be groggy later on. Here are some tips for sleeping later and going back to sleep when you have to be up in a few hours.
Take melatonin a few hours before waking up: Melatonin can not only help you go to sleep earlier, it can also help you sleep later. I set my alarm for 1-2 hours before I suspect I will wake up (my usual wake time) and take 0.3 mg of melatonin, then read a book in the dark until I go back to sleep. The major downside of this approach is that it gives many people exceptionally vivid dreams. For me, this means I spend the last few hours of sleep having intense dreams in which I am determinedly trying to get some specific task done, like writing an essay or unpacking my suitcase, which I find exhausting and frustrating. It also means waking up at least once in the night. I haven’t tried time-release melatonin but it sounds like it would work better than this jerry-rigged situation.
Blocking light: Even a tiny shaft of sunlight between the curtains can ruin my attempt to sleep in. I cover not only my eyes but also my skin – sometimes it feels like the sun on my skin is waking me up, and apparently the skin has photoreceptors too?
Use any non-pharmaceutical going to sleep aid: Keep it dark, read a boring book, listen to sleep hypnosis, keep lying down, etc. When I’m having a bad night for anxiety, I’ll set up my iPhone with the screenreader and Pride and Prejudice and put in my earbuds and just leave it playing in my ears all night. (This is how I got through the two weeks following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)
Believe in stage 1 sleep: The first stage of sleep often feels like I’m still awake – I can sense what is going on around me, remember things that happen, feel the passage of time, etc. – but I’m actually technically asleep. This kind of sleep isn’t fantastic and no on can do well on light sleep alone, but it does serve some of the purposes of sleep and it makes me feel more rested and restored than not sleeping at all. I often get only stage 1 sleep when I’m trying to sleep on a plane. For me, knowing and trusting that stage 1 sleep is effective helps a lot with relaxing and continuing to get some sleep instead of none at all.
Staying up later
Does anyone really need advice on staying up later? I think most people get lots of practice at this. Short version: do interesting, exciting things, take stimulants, get bright light, listen to exciting music, talk to people, read thrillers, eat food. I will also do annoying frustrating work like accounting to keep me from getting too relaxed and feeling sleepy.
Do you have any tips for adjusting your time zone? Leave them in the comments!
Rumor has it that the remix of the Muslim ban is about to drop, and I’m betting a lot of you protesters want to get your march on this week. Here for your protesting enjoyment are three sign designs I’ve personally created and tested in the rain and wind of the San Francisco Bay Area: the Extremely Portable, the Reusable Whiteboard, and the Enormous Billboard.
But remember, the first rule of Protest Club is: You don’t need a sign to protest!!! You can just show up with your own bad self and that makes you a protester. Sometimes protests have more signs than people to hold them, so don’t feel weird about showing up empty-handed!
These designs are too expensive for some folks. I personally have more money than time, but you can substitute other materials if that works better for you.
San Francisco police don’t seem to consider sign poles as potential weapons but other police departments (notably the NYPD) do. Check your local ordinances and substitute cardboard tubes if necessary, or use the Extremely Portable sign design which doesn’t have a pole.
I include links to order stuff on Amazon, but some people are boycotting Amazon because it sells Trump-family related products. You can also buy the materials for MUCH CHEAPER at hardware stores, art supply stores, office supply stores, and big box retailers.
The Extremely Portable
It used to be that many protests were planned weeks and months in advance, on a regularly spaced schedule. No more! Thanks to our exciting and unpredictable executive branch, we often have protests organized with just a few hours notice, several times a week. The modern protestor may wish to be equipped with a sign small and sleek enough to carry everywhere, in a purse or a laptop bag. San Francisco Bay Area tip: you can text “RESIST” to 41411 to get text notifications of local protests – you might even see me at one with this sign!
Unfold the sunshade. Trace your message using the yardstick and pencil on the silver side, keeping in mind that you need thick letters if you want your sign to be readable from a distance. I suggest a fairly generic message, like “RESIST” or “Trump” with a ban symbol over it.
Once you’re happy with your design, fill it in with marker. You’re done! Fold that sign up and keep it next to your laptop or in your purse or in your trunk or in your desk at work – anywhere you might suddenly learn of a protest and want to go join it.
The Reusable Whiteboard
Many protests have specific purposes, and my tiny apartment started filling up with out-of-date signs I couldn’t use again. I created this sign so I could have an on-point message at any protest without a lot of time or cost, and improve and update my sign as I got feedback during the protest.
About 1/2 of the way from the bottom of the eraserboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark with your pencil about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each eraserboard.
This sign has a problem with the wind catching between the eraserboards and ripping them loose, so we will use zip ties to attach the four corners of the marker board to each other. Repeat the marking process you just did but in each of the corners of the eraserboard: make two marks about an inch apart, aligned in a way so that the zip tie will interfere the least with your sign’s contents.
Once you have all your marks made, place the eraserboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the eraserboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the marks on each eraserboard.
Now take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one eraserboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other eraserboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the eraserboard too much. Do the same for the holes in the 4 corners, though you don’t need to crank them so much – just enough that the edges of each eraserboard touch each other.
You are now done until you have a protest you want to go to. I often wait until I arrive at the protest to create my sign, bringing the markers and a paper towel to erase with (though I often just erase with my glove). I found that the standard dry erase markers are waterproof except for the black color, which washes off with water if you recently applied it. Don’t forget to erase your sign right after the protest – the longer the marker stays on the dry erase board, the harder it is to erase.
The Enormous Billboard
This design is visible from a long way away but heavy and relatively expensive. If you spend a few days workshopping your message, or investing in some quality art, reporters are more likely to talk to you and help you get your message out to a wider audience. Spend some time thinking about who your audience is, what your goal is, and how you can best reach them. (Yes, Trump does hate puppies.)
2 36″ x 48″ foamcore posterboard (do not buy online, go to an art store)
Use the yardstick and the pencil to trace out your message on the foamcore posterboard, drawing lightly so it is easy to erase major mistakes (don’t bother erasing all the pencil lines, no one can see them). Make your letters thick and easy to read from 30 feet away – on many signs, the letters are too thin to read. You can test readability by taking a photo of your sign on your phone and holding it at arm’s length: can you read it? Use as few words as possible. Once you are happy with the pencil tracing, fill in with the marker.
Do this for both posterboards – you will get tired of spinning your sign around so people can see your message from the opposite direction. If you put different signs on each side, you can A/B test which messages are the most effective (by counting how many people want to take photos of each side). (Note for painters: use acrylic paint and mix with a lot of non-translucent white such as titanium white.)
If you expect rain, cover the posterboard with clear packing tape, overlapping the strips by about 1/4 of an inch. Don’t be fussy about it, just tape quickly and avoid gaps between the tape. You don’t necessarily have to tape both sides.
Now you are ready to attach the posterboards to the wooden dowel – the pole. You are about to mark where the zip ties will go, so move them around so they fit between the words on your sign. About 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the posterboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each posterboard.
Place the posterboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the posterboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the 4 marks on each posterboard.
Now take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one posterboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other posterboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the posterboard too much.
Now tape the sides of the posterboards together – this prevents the wind from snapping them around and ripping the holes the zip ties go through. All you need is a strip of packing tape around the top, bottom, and middle of the signs. If the sign tends to slide around on the pole too much, add two more zip ties on the pole just underneath the bottom zip tie that threads through the sign. It should stop it from sliding down, but still make it possible to pull the pole out of the sign if necessary.
That’s it! Happy protesting, whether or not you have a sign!
Like many of you, I’m struggling to take care of myself in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election. My friends and I are having stomach pain, trouble sleeping, difficulty staying focused on work, and many more signs of fear and stress. To add to it, as activists many of us feel a sense of urgency and obligation to act now, to push ourselves to our limits in an attempt to avert the coming disaster. I find myself thinking irrational thoughts, like “Maybe I should start sleeping less so I can write more. Do I really need to keep doing my physical therapy? Why bother keeping tax records when I’m worried about mass deportations?” Then my rational mind points out that it’s hard to write if I’m tired, or in pain, or having my tax returns audited.
This post is a collection of tips and strategies for radical self-care in the time of Trump. It’s radical self-care because taking care of yourself is crucial to being able to resist fascism and injustice. But it’s also radical because the very act of self-care is a rejection of cruelty, injustice, and oppression. We are in the process of creating a world in which we recognize every individual’s right to love and care and respect; we must treat ourselves the way we want others to be treated if we are true to our beliefs.
This post starts out with general considerations and strategy, then gets into specific concrete recommendations you can do today. Some of the advice might accidentally trigger disordered thinking around food; we tried to write it in ways that avoid that, but if this is a concern for you, that section is last in this post and is prefaced by a separate trigger warning. If after you finish this post you’re looking for more self-care tips, try this interactive self-care guide. Thank you to the many people who contributed to this post, David Bacome, Kara Sowles, Molly Wilson, and several anonymous contributors.
General strategy and considerations
Stressful times can bring back old fractures – things like old mental habits you thought you fixed a long time ago, or disordered eating patterns you think you have recovered from. If you have these fractures, it helps to be vigilant for the signs of them coming back, and to take those signs seriously when they happen. Don’t be too hard on yourself for relapsing to old ways under stress, especially if excessive self-criticism is part of the old mental habits you are trying to get out of. The weird thing is that stress from external sources (such as an unjust and terrifying political climate) can be a motivation to get better and to work hard on your self-care. If it helps motivate you, you can tell yourself you need to take good care of yourself so that you can help others. (It happens to be true, too!)
Many of us feel a tension between self-care and activism. Many forms of activism are costly and difficult for some people (e.g., joining in-person protests that could result in violence, or simply making phone calls when you have social anxiety). Situations of fear and urgency about societal-scale problems may activate a pattern of martyr-type thinking that goes something like this: “If I make this huge self-sacrifice and harm myself deeply, the universe will notice and be fair and reward me by fixing the bad thing.” Unfortunately, this rarely works out in the way we hope, and the end result is too often only self-harm and a reduced ability to work for good in the future.
One way out of this trap is to make a conscious search for the kind of activism that works best for you. Here are some starting ideas: engaging political representatives, joining political parties, participating in street protests, joining or forming local organisations, donating money, amplifying news, correcting misinformation, writing, educating family and friends, beginning or continuing an activist career, reaching out to groups targeted by hate, connecting folks in need with resources (like lawyers or funds for documents or hotlines), and providing background support to other people doing these things.
Try a few different things and pay attention to which forms of activism you believe are effective, and which of the possibly effective things energise and nourish you, as those will be sustainable. Don’t worry about who will do the things that you don’t like; for example, if you are terrified of public speaking, remember that more people want to speak in front of a huge audience than there are audiences who want to listen to them. Or if crowds make you anxious and fearful, don’t join the street protest – plenty of other people feel comforted and happy in a crowd.
In a tough time or an emergency, you may not limit yourself only to sustainable forms of actvism, but you can at least pay attention to what they are for the longer term. Try to avoid criticizing others for choosing different forms of activism, unless the actions they are taking are actively harmful to the overall cause (such as the safety pin movement) or if they are seriously diverting energy and resources away from crucial goals. Diversity of tactics – both in its scholarly sense and in the general sense of many people doing many different things – is key to any successful social movement.
One of the major challenges to self-care is when you are caring for others who are dependent on you: children, or disabled family members, or other folks who depend on you. Carers need to take care of themselves if they want to continue caring for others over the long term, but often the needs of those we are caring for don’t change during times of stress for the carer.
When time and energy is tight, as in a time of crisis, it helps to think explicitly about what non-self care things you can stop doing, and where you can get more help or resources with caring for others. Society has trained us to go straight to self-sacrifice as a solution, especially for carers. Instead, explore a broader array of solutions: are there things you can stop doing without harming yourself? Maybe now is the time to call in the favors you’ve been saving up for when you need them. Are there creative ways to pool time and energy and resources? Fear is the enemy of creativity, and creativity is key to problem-solving. Don’t let your fear lock you into a sub-optimal solution.
If you suspect you might have something physically wrong and untreated that’s making you feel bad, take this time of great stress as extra motivation to go to a doctor and work with them on it. Small health annoyances can become big life problems under conditions of stress, so caring for your health should become more of a priority, rather than less. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and don’t ignore important signs because you’re too worried about world events.
Some health problems are not obvious. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to be low in vitamin D without knowing it, which can contribute to feelings of inertia and decision paralysis. If you might be low in vitamin D, B12, iron, or other vitamins and minerals, you can ask a medical professional for a blood test to check. Deficiencies can contribute to mental health difficulties, and they can be relatively simple to improve with food and supplements. (Note: vitamin D, like many other supplements, can be harmful to people with certain rare medical conditions – be thoughtful, do your research, and talk to a medical professional before trying any medical advice.)
For many people, regular physical activity is crucial to health and happiness – and it’s even more important during times of stress. Physical activity can be a good way to reconnect with your body, especially if stress weakens that connection for you. The right activity can also help you reduce stress and anxiety getting in the way of caring for yourself and taking action. Whatever your preferred physical activity is – walking, rock-climbing, deep breathing – keep making it a priority. Some ways you can do this is are: schedule a specific time each day for it, combine it with some other activity (grocery shopping, listening to podcasts, spending time with your family), make plans to do your activity with a friend, or make some kind of commitment (like paying for a nonrefundable class). When your body feels good, it’s easier to make good decisions, get important work done, and care for others.
If you use Twitter, following https://twitter.com/tinycarebot is a good way to get small reminders to check in with and care for your body throughout the day (or for a funny approach, try https://twitter.com/hydratebot). Tons of apps are out there to remind you to stand up, take deep breaths, drink water, stretch, or whatever works for you.
For many people, some kind of physical self-care that resembles grooming is really helpful. This might look like getting a massage, taking a long bath, getting a pedicure, doing your makeup, shaving or clipping a beard, going to the sauna, showering more often than usual, using pretty-smelling bath products, applying lotion, or anything else in that realm. Try not to let yourself feel guilty for doing these things – if they make you feel good and they don’t take an enormous amount of time and energy, it’s worth it. Small acts of self-care can often have outsize returns.
One of my irrational thoughts was “I should stop seeing my therapist so often, my mental health isn’t a high priority any more.” This is like saying, “I’m going on a month-long road trip driving through snow and mountains and sand, I should skip oil changes and ignore any engine warning lights during that trip.” Hopefully this sounds ridiculous!
If you are already seeing a therapist or mental health counselor of some kind, keep going to them. Tell them what you are feeling and ask for help with coping with stress and fear and anxiety. If you used to go to a therapist but stopped, consider restarting therapy with them. If you’ve been meaning to start therapy but never got around to it, now is a fantastic time to start. If your therapist isn’t helping, consider finding a new therapist. Here are some tips on finding therapists, figuring out how to afford therapy, and managing your relationship with your therapist.
Art is an important way of making sense of the incomprehensible, and of communicating it with others. If you have a creative practice of any kind, you may be surprised by the new meaning and value that it has for you in an uncertain and complicated world; creativity has a way of being both escape and engagement at the same time. You might try revisiting arts you left behind, or assigning yourself a creative routine. That said, don’t punish yourself if you don’t feel like doing anything creative right now.
One simple but highly recommended method is to stop and be aware of what is happening right now, right here, in this exact moment. Don’t think about the future, or things that aren’t right there, just use your senses to fully perceive what is around you for 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or longer if you are practiced at it. You should feel calmer and more relaxed at the end of this exercise; if not, don’t do it.
Keeping lists of things to do or that you have done may be helpful to ground yourself in reality instead of anxiety. For example, you might start keeping a personal list of what you’ve done to fight oppression. The feeling of “we’re not doing enough” probably won’t go away as long as the problem is still there, but keeping a list, and the act of updating it with each action, can help some people remember they’re taking what concrete steps they can – and can help distract from the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness. If keeping lists makes you stressed and anxious, don’t do it.
Different people react to stress in different ways. Sometimes we reach out to friends and loved ones and strengthen our support system. Sometimes we isolate ourselves and withdraw from our support system. Often isolating ourselves seems like the solution when really it just makes the problem worse. People mistakenly isolate themselves when they are in need for many reasons. One is the idea that you are the source of the problem, and you are hurting other people by bringing the problem to them. Another reason is overemphasis on self-reliance and independence, leading to the idea that asking for help or support is shameful and weak. Whatever the reason, times of stress are often a good time to reach out to your friends and loved ones more, not less.
In this case, many of your friends and loved ones are under stress as well and would welcome hearing from you. Pick which of these things you are most comfortable doing and do one or two per day: texting a friend, emailing a friend, calling a friend, inviting a friend to coffee, inviting a friend to your house, organizing a dinner with friends, organizing a party, offering to help someone else organize a meetup, or saying yes to an invitation you receive.
One thing that can help reduce stress around being around other people is to set some kind of structure around what you talk about or for how long. For example, you can suggest taking a walk for one hour and and agree to talk about politics only during the last 15 minutes. Or you can have a dinner and say that no one can argue about the history of fascism, only share information about what actions they are taking now.
While for many people at this time it is crucial to keep up with the news for safety reasons, this doesn’t have to mean reading the news at all time. For some, self-care means choosing to catch up on news and politics only during certain times – say, for an hour a day. This can enable you to prepare yourself before you learn about the news, and take care of yourself afterwards. For example, if you use Twitter, you might filter news about the election out of your Twitter stream for most of the day, and then turn that filter off during the set time in which you catch up on that topic. It’s not a perfect system, but it can enable you to skim past that crucial news article when you’re not in the right place for it — knowing you’ll be returning for it the next day. Or you could use a bookmarking service like Pinboard to collect links about upsetting topics to read during the 20 minutes you catch up on the news. Google Alerts are a good way to get a once a day roundup of news stories with certain keywords emailed to you.
You can also ask a trusted person to keep an eye on the news for you. You might ask them to tell you if anything happens that you need to know about – any major events, or anything that’s directly relevant to your safety.
[TRIGGER WARNING: Food-related advice below]
If you are reacting to stress by losing your appetite, it’s a good idea not to skip meals entirely. You don’t have to eat as much as you usually do – set some kind of achievable goal (like “half this bagel” or “one apple”) and let yourself stop after that. Look for tasty, nutrient dense foods that are easy to eat and make your stomach feel calm – this might look like smoothies, nuts or nut butters, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, chocolate, cheese, coconut, avocados, dried fruit, broth, etc. Keep easy to eat, easy to prepare foods around and available so you can take advantage of the times when you are hungry.
If you’ve internalized a lot of training (including training yourself) to only eat the “right” healthy foods, this can be unhelpful at times when you’ve lost your appetite and are low on calories (and possibly low on blood sugar). Eating a bit of anything that seems appealing to you (even if you ordinarily consider it not your preferred food to eat frequently or over the long-term) can help you bootstrap yourself back to your preferred eating style. This might not work for you depending on your eating habits, but in general this is a good time to be kind and forgiving of yourself.
If grocery shopping is overwhelming, consider a grocery delivery option. Consider stocking your freezer with appealing, easily-microwaved frozen foods, for times when it’s important to eat, but you don’t want to cook, order or shop. For example, supermarkets carry frozen vegetables that you can steam, in the bag, in the microwave. Trader Joe’s, if there’s one near you, is a haven of frozen, microwavable treats. If it helps, you can stock your freezer like you’re setting in for a long winter – so you know you’ll always have something to eat on hand.
Hopefully this gives you some more ideas for how to practice self-care during the months and years ahead. We’re in this for the long-term – learning to take care of yourself now will pay back today and for years to come.
This post originally appeared on Leigh Honeywell’s blog on June 21, 2016. I’m cross-posting here it because I am a co-author and I think my readers will enjoy it.
Content note for discussion of abuse and sexual violence.
In the last couple of weeks, threerespectedmembers of the computer security and privacy tech communities have come forward under their own names to tell their harrowing stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse committed by Jacob Appelbaum. They acted in solidarity with the first anonymous reporters of Jacob’s abuse. Several organizations have taken steps to protect their members from Appelbaum, including the Tor Project, Debian, and the Noisebridge hackerspace, with other responses in progress.
But Appelbaum isn’t the last – or the only – abuser in any of these communities. Many people are calling for long-term solutions to stop and prevent similar abuse. The authors of this post have recommendations, based on our combined 40+ years of community management experience in the fields of computer security, hackerspaces, free and open source software, and non-profits. In four words, our recommendation is:
No more rock stars.
What do we mean when we say “rock stars?” We like this tweet by Molly Sauter:
Seriously, "rock stars" are arrogant narcissists. Plumbers keep us all from getting cholera. Build functional infrastructure. Be a plumber.
Seriously, “rock stars” are arrogant narcissists. Plumbers keep us all from getting cholera. Build functional infrastructure. Be a plumber.
You can take concrete actions to stop rock stars from abusing and destroying your community. But first, here are a few signs that help you identify when you have a rock star instead of a plumber:
A rock star likes to be the center of attention. A rock star spends more time speaking at conferences than on their nominal work. A rock star appears in dozens of magazine profiles – and never, ever tells the journalist to talk to the people actually doing the practical everyday work. A rock star provokes a powerful organization over minor issues until they crack down on the rock star, giving them underdog status. A rock star never says, “I don’t deserve the credit for that, it was all the work of…” A rock star humble-brags about the starry-eyed groupies who want to fuck them. A rock star actually fucks their groupies, and brags about that too. A rock star throws temper tantrums until they get what they want. A rock star demands perfect loyalty from everyone around them, but will throw any “friend” under the bus for the slightest personal advantage. A rock star knows when to turn on the charm and vulnerability and share their deeply personal stories of trauma… and when it’s safe to threaten and intimidate. A rock star wrecks hotel rooms, social movements, and lives.
Why are rock stars so common and successful? There’s something deep inside the human psyche that loves rock stars and narcissists. We easily fall under their spell unless we carefully train ourselves to detect them. Narcissists are skilled at making good first impressions, at masking abusive behavior as merely eccentric or entertaining, at taking credit for others’ work, at fitting our (often inaccurate) stereotypes of leaders as self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and overly confident. We tend to confuse confidence with competence, and narcissists are skilled at acting confident.
Sometimes rock stars get confused with leaders, who are necessary and good. What’s the difference between a rock star and a leader? We like the term “servant-leader” as a reminder that the ultimate purpose of a good leader is to serve the mission of their organization (though this feminist critique of the language around servant-leadership is worth reading). Having personal name recognition and the trust and support of many people is part of being an effective leader. This is different from the kind of uncritical worship that a rock star seeks out and encourages. Leaders push back when the adoration gets too strong and disconnected from achieving the mission (here is a great example from Anil Dash, pushing back after being held up as an example of positive ally for women in tech). Rock stars aren’t happy unless they are surrounded by unthinking adoration.
How do we as a community prevent rock stars?
If rock stars are the problem, and humans are susceptible to rock stars, how do we prevent rock stars from taking over and hijacking our organizations and movements? It turns out that some fairly simple and basic community hygiene is poisonous to rock stars – and makes a more enjoyable, inclusive, and welcoming environment for plumbers.
Our recommendations can be summarized as: decentralizing points of failure, increasing transparency, improving accountability, supporting private and anonymous communication, reducing power differentials, and avoiding situations that make violating boundaries more likely. This is a long blog post, so here is a table of contents for the rest of this post:
Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone
Create a strong, specific, enforceable code of conduct for your organization – and enforce it, swiftly and without regard for the status of the accused violator. Rock stars get a kick out of breaking the rules, but leaders know they are also role models, and scrupulously adhere to rules except when there’s no alternative way to achieve the right thing. Rock stars also know that when they publicly break the little rules and no one calls them out on it, they are sending a message that they can also break the big rules and get away with it.
One of the authors of this post believed every first-person allegation of abuse and assault by Jacob Appelbaum – including the anonymous ones – immediately. Why? Among many other signs, she saw him break different, smaller rules in a way that showed his complete and total disregard for other people’s time, work, and feelings – and everyone supported him doing so. For example, she once attended a series of five minute lightning talks at the Noisebridge hackerspace, where speakers sign up in advance. Jacob arrived unannounced and jumped in after the first couple of talks with a forty-five minute long boring rambling slideshow about a recent trip he took. The person running the talks – someone with considerable power and influence in the same community – rolled his eyes but let Jacob talk for nine times the length of other speakers. The message was clear: rules don’t apply to Jacob, and even powerful people were afraid to cross him.
This kind of blatant disregard for the rules and the value of people’s time was so common that people had a name for it: “story time with Jake,” as described in Phoenix’s pseudonymous allegation of sexual harassment. Besides the direct harm, dysfunction, and disrespect this kind of rule-breaking and rudeness causes, when you allow people to get away with it, you’re sending a message that they can get away with outright harassment and assault too.
To solve this, create and adopt a specific, enforceable code of conduct for your community. Select a small expert group of people to enforce it, with provisions for what to do if one of this group is accused of harassment. Set deadlines for responding to complaints. Conduct the majority of discussion about the report in private to avoid re-traumatizing victims. Don’t make exceptions for people who are “too valuable.” If people make the argument that some people are too valuable to censure for violating the code of conduct, remove them from decision-making positions. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asking yourself if someone’s benefits outweigh their liabilities, recognize that they’ve already cost the community more than they can ever give to it and get to work on ejecting them quickly.
Start with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigate them thoroughly
Over more than a decade of studying reports of harassment and assault in tech communities, we’ve noticed a trend: if things have gotten to the point where you’ve heard about an incident, it’s almost always just the tip of the iceberg. People argue a lot about whether to take one person’s word (the alleged victim) over another’s (the alleged harasser), but surprisingly often, this was not the first time the harasser did something harmful and it’s more likely a “one person said, a dozen other people said” situation. Think about it: what are the chances that someone had a perfect record of behavior, right up till the instant they stuck their hand in someone else’s underwear without consent – and that person actually complained about it – AND you heard about it? It’s far more likely that this person has been gradually ramping up their bad behavior for years and you just haven’t heard about it till now.
The vast majority of cases we know about fit one of these two patterns:
A clueless person makes a few innocent, low-level mistakes and actually gets called on one of them fairly quickly. Signs that this is the likely case: the actual incident is extremely easy to explain as a mistake, the accused quickly understands what they did wrong, they appear genuinely, intensely embarrassed, they apologize profusely, and they offer a bunch of ways to make up for their mistake: asking the video of their talk to be taken down, writing a public apology explaining why what they did was harmful, or proposing that they stop attending the event for some period of time.
A person who enjoys trampling on the boundaries of others has been behaving badly for a long time in a variety of ways, but everyone has been too afraid to say anything about it or do anything about other reports. Signs that this is the likely case: the reporter is afraid of retaliation and may try to stay anonymous, other people are afraid to talk about the incident for the same reason, the reported incident may be fairly extreme (e.g., physical assault with no question that consent was violated), many people are not surprised when they hear about it, you quickly gather other reports of harassment or assault of varying levels, the accused has plagiarized or stolen credit or falsified expense reports or done other ethically questionable things, the accused has consolidated a lot of power and attacks anyone who seems to be a challenge to their power, the accused tries to change the subject to their own grievances or suffering, the accused admits they did it but minimizes the incident, or the accused personally attacks the reporter using respectability politics or tone-policing.
In either case, your job is to investigate the long-term behavior of the accused, looking for signs of narcissism and cruelty, big and small. Rock stars leave behind a long trail of nasty emails, stolen credit, rude behavior, and unethical acts big and small. Go look for them.
Make it easy for victims to find and coordinate with each other
Rock stars will often make it difficult for people to talk or communicate without being surveilled or tracked by the rock star or their assistants, because private or anonymous communication allows people to compare their experiences and build effective resistance movements. To fight this, encourage and support private affinity groups for marginalized groups (especially people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them), create formal systems that allow for anonymous or pseudonymous reporting such as an ombudsperson or third-party ethics hotline, support and promote people who are trusted contact points and/or advocates for marginalized groups, and reward people for raising difficult but necessary problems.
Watch for smaller signs of boundary pushing and react strongly
Sometimes rock stars don’t outright break the rules, they just push on boundaries repeatedly, trying to figure out exactly how far they can go and get away with it, or make it so exhausting to have boundaries that people stop defending them. For example, they might take a little too much credit for shared work or other people’s work, constantly bring up the most disturbing but socially acceptable topic of conversation, resist de-escalation of verbal conflict, subtly criticize people, make passive-aggressive comments on the mailing list, leave comments that are almost but not quite against the rules, stand just a little too close to people on purpose, lightly touch people and ignore non-verbal cues to stop (but obey explicit verbal requests… usually), make comments which subtly establish themselves as superior or judges of others, interrupt in meetings, make small verbal put-downs, or physically turn away from people while they are speaking. Rock stars feel entitled to other people’s time, work, and bodies – signs of entitlement to one of these are often signs of entitlement to the others.
Call people out for monopolizing attention and credit
Is there someone in your organization who jumps on every chance to talk to a reporter? Do they attend every conference they can and speak at many of them? Do they brag about their frequent flyer miles or other forms of status? Do they jump on every project that seems likely to be high visibility? Do they “cookie-lick” – claim ownership of projects but fail to do them and prevent others from doing them either? If you see this happening, speak up: say, “Hey, we need to spread out the public recognition for this work among more people. Let’s send Leslie to that conference instead.” Insist that this person credit other folks (by name or anonymously, as possible) prominently and up front in every blog post or magazine article or talk. Establish a rotation for speaking to reporters as a named source. Take away projects from people if they aren’t doing them, no matter how sad or upset it makes them. Insist on distributing high status projects more evenly.
A negative organizational pattern that superficially resembles this kind of call-out can sometimes happen, where people who are jealous of others’ accomplishments and successes may attack effective, non-rock star leaders. Signs of this situation: people who do good, concrete, specific work are being called out for accepting appropriate levels of public recognition and credit by people who themselves don’t follow through on promises, fail at tasks through haplessness or inattention, or communicate ineffectively. Complaints about effective leaders may take the form of “I deserve this award for reasons even though I’ve done relatively little work” instead of “For the good of the organization, we should encourage spreading out the credit among the people who are doing the work – let’s talk about who they are.” People complaining may occasionally make minor verbal slips that reveal their own sense of entitlement to rewards and praise based on potential rather than accomplishments – e.g., referring to “my project” instead of “our project.”
Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
Your organization should never have a single irreplaceable person – it should have a deep bench. Sometimes this happens through a misplaced sense of excessive responsibility on the part of a non-abusive leader, but often it happens through deliberate effort from a “rock star.” To prevent this, constantly develop and build up a significant number of leaders at every level of your organization, especially near the top. You can do this by looking for new, less established speakers (keynote speakers in particular) at your events, paying for leadership training, creating official deputies for key positions, encouraging leaders to take ample vacation and not check email (or chat) while they are gone, having at least two people talk to each journalist, conducting yearly succession planning meetings, choosing board members who have strong opinions about this topic and a track record of acting on them, having some level of change or turnover every few years in key leadership positions, documenting and automating key tasks as much as possible, sharing knowledge as much as possible, and creating support structures that allow people from marginalized groups to take on public roles knowing they will have support if they are harassed. And if you need one more reason to encourage vacation, it is often an effective way to uncover financial fraud (one reason why abusive leaders often resist taking vacation – they can’t keep an eye on potential exposure of their misdeeds).
Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
Total absence of hierarchy is neither possible nor desirable, since “abolishing” a hierarchy simply drives the hierarchy underground and makes it impossible to critique (but see also the anarchist critique of this concept). Keeping the hierarchy explicit and making it as flat and transparent as possible while still reflecting true power relationships is both achievable and desirable. Ways to implement this: have as small a difference as possible in “perks” between levels (e.g., base decisions on flying business class vs. economy on amount of travel and employee needs, rather than position in the organization), give people ways to blow the whistle on people who have power over them (including channels to do this anonymously if necessary), and have transparent criteria for responsibilities and compensation (if applicable) that go with particular positions.
Build in checks for “failing up”
Sometimes, someone gets into a position of power not because they are actually good at their job, but because they turned in a mediocre performance in a field where people tend to choose people with proven mediocre talent over people who haven’t had a chance to demonstrate their talent (or lack thereof). This is called “failing up” and can turn otherwise reasonable people into rock stars as they desperately try to conceal their lack of expertise by attacking any competition and hogging attention. Or sometimes no one wants to take the hit for firing someone who isn’t capable of doing a good job, and they end up getting promoted through sheer tenacity and persistence. The solution is to have concrete criteria for performance, and a process for fairly evaluating a person’s performance and getting them to leave that position if they aren’t doing a good job.
Enforce strict policies around sexual or romantic relationships within power structures
Rock stars love “dating” people they have power over because it makes it easier to abuse or assault them and get away with it. Whenever we hear about an organization that has lots of people dating people in their reporting chain, it raises an automatic red flag for increased likelihood of abuse in that organization. Overall, the approach that has the fewest downsides is to establish a policy that no one can date within their reporting chain or across major differences in power, that romantic relationships need to be disclosed, and that if anyone forms a relationship with someone in the same reporting chain, the participants need to move around the organization until they no longer share a reporting chain. Yes, this means that if the CEO or Executive Director of an organization starts a relationship with anyone else in the organization, at least one of them needs to leave the organization, or take on some form of detached duty for the duration of the CEO/ED’s tenure. When it comes to informal power relationships, such as students dating prominent professors in their fields, they also need to be forbidden or strongly discouraged. These kinds of policies are extremely unattractive to a rock star, because part of the attraction of power for them is wielding it over romantic or sexual prospects.
Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives
Having a reasonable work-life balance isn’t just an ethical imperative for any organization that values social justice, it’s also a safety mechanism so that if someone is forced to leave, needs to leave, or needs to take a step back, they can do so without destroying their entire support system. Rock stars will often insist on subordinates giving 100% of their available energy and time to the “cause” because it isolates them from other support networks and makes them more dependent on the rock star.
Don’t set up your community so that if someone has a breach with your community (e.g., is targeted for sustained harassment that drives them out), they are likely to also lose more than one of: their job, their career, their romantic relationships, their circle of friends, or their political allies. Encouraging and enabling people to have social interaction and support outside your organization or cause will also make it easier to, when necessary, exclude people behaving abusively or not contributing because you won’t need to worry that you’re cutting them off from all meaningful work or human contact.
You should discourage things like: semi-compulsory after hours socialising with colleagues, long work hours, lots of travel, people spending almost all their “intimacy points” or emotional labour on fellow community members, lots of in-group romantic relationships, everyone employs each other, or everyone is on everyone else’s boards. Duplication of effort (e.g., multiple activist orgs in the same area, multiple mailing lists, or whatever) is often seen as a waste, but it can be a powerfully positive force for allowing people some choice of colleagues.
Distribute the “keys to the kingdom”
Signs of a rock star (or occasionally a covert narcissist) may include insisting on being the single point of failure for one or more of: your technical infrastructure (e.g., domain name registration or website), your communication channels, your relationship with your meeting host or landlord, your primary source of funding, your relationship with the cops, etc. This increases the rock star’s power and control over the organization.
To prevent this, identify core resources, make sure two or more people can access/administer all of them, and make sure you have a plan for friendly but sudden, unexplained, or hostile departures of those people. Where possible, spend money (or another resource that your group can collectively offer) rather than relying on a single person’s largesse, specialized skills, or complex network of favours owed. Do things legally where reasonably possible. Try to be independent of any one critical external source of funding or resources. If there’s a particularly strong relationship between one group member and an external funder, advisor, or key organization, institutionalize it: document it, and introduce others into the relationship.
One exception is that it’s normal for contact with the press to be filtered or approved by a single point of contact within the organization (who should have a deputy). However, it should be possible to talk to the press as an individual (i.e., not representing your organization) and anonymously in cases of internal organizational abuse. At the same time, your organization should have a strong whistleblower protection policy – and board members with a strong public commitment and/or a track record of supporting whistleblowers in their own organizations.
Don’t create environments that make boundary violations more likely
Some situations are attractive to rock stars looking to abuse people: sexualized situations, normalization of drinking or taking drugs to the point of being unable to consent or enforce boundaries, or other methods of breaking down or violating physical or emotional boundaries. This can look like: acceptance of sexual jokes at work, frequent sexual liaisons between organization members, mocking people for not being “cool” for objecting to talking about sex at work, framing objection to sexualized situations as being homophobic/anti-polyamorous/anti-kink, open bars with hard alcohol or no limit on drinks, making it acceptable to pressure people to drink more alcohol than they want or violate other personal boundaries (food restrictions, etc.), normalizing taking drugs in ways that make it difficult to stay conscious or defend boundaries, requiring attendance at physically isolated or remote events, having events where it is difficult to communicate with the outside world (no phone service or Internet access), having events where people wear significantly less or no clothing (e.g. pool parties, saunas, hot tubs), or activities that require physical touching (massage, trust falls, ropes courses). It’s a bad sign if anyone objecting to these kinds of activities is criticized for being too uptight, puritanical, from a particular cultural background, etc.
Your organization should completely steer away from group activities which pressure people, implicitly or explicitly, to drink alcohol, take drugs, take off more clothing than is usual for professional settings in the relevant cultures, or touch or be touched. Drunkenness to the point of marked clumsiness, slurred speech, or blacking out should be absolutely unacceptable at the level of organizational culture. Anyone who seems to be unable to care for themselves as the result of alcohol or drug use should be immediately cared for by pre-selected people whose are explicitly charged with preventing this person from being assaulted (especially since they may have been deliberately drugged by someone planning to assault them). For tips on serving alcohol in a way that greatly reduces the chance of assault or abuse, see Kara Sowles’ excellent article on inclusive events. You can also check out the article on inclusive offsites on the Geek Feminism Wiki.
Putting this to work in your community
actually feeling physically sick now, just thinking about what Jake did to people. we waited too long to do something about it.
Odds are, your community already has a “missing stair” or three – even if you’ve just kicked one out. They are harming and damaging your community right now. If you have power or influence or privilege, it’s your ethical responsibility to take personal action to limit the harm that they are causing. This may mean firing or demoting them; it may mean sanctioning or “managing them out.” But if you care about making the world a better place, you must act.
If you don’t have power or influence or privilege, think carefully before taking any action that could harm you more and seriously consider asking other folks with more protection to take action instead. Their response is a powerful litmus test of their values. If no one is willing to take this on for you, your only option may be leaving and finding a different organization or community to join. We have been in this position – of being powerless against rock stars – and it is heartbreaking and devastating to give up on a cause, community, or organization that you care about. We have all mourned the spaces that we have left when they have become unlivable because of abuse. But leaving is still often the right choice when those with power choose not to use it to keep others safe from abuse.
While we are not asking people to “cosign” this post, we want this to be part of a larger conversation on building abuse-resistant organizations and communities. We invite others to reflect on what we have written here, and to write their own reflections. If you would like us to list your reflection in this post, please leave a comment or email us a link, your name or pseudonym, and any affiliation you wish for us to include, and we will consider listing it. We particularly invite survivors of intimate partner violence in activist communities, survivors of workplace harassment and violence, and people facing intersectional oppressions to participate in the conversation.
We would prefer that people not contact us to disclose their own stories of mistreatment. But know this: we believe you. If you need emotional support, please reach out to people close to you, a counselor in your area, or to the trained folks at RAINN or Crisis Text Line.