As of today, I am certain Double Union is no longer a space that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. This is because I have been permanently banned from Double Union for refusing to prioritize the inclusion of people who do not identify that way.
Some background: In 2013, I co-founded the feminist hackerspace Double Union. At that time, we envisioned a tiny space where the constant hurricane roar of sexism was damped down to a gentle breeze while we worked on our funky art and science projects. We decided to restrict membership to people who identified as a woman in a way that was significant to them for many reasons, one of which was to make sure we always prioritized that group of people.
This year, Double Union changed its membership criteria to “identifies as a woman or non-binary in a way that is significant to you.” To explain what happened next, I need to talk a little about gender and privilege and society.
As any trans person can tell you, the mere act of identifying in your own mind that you are a particular gender does not automatically result in society treating you as that gender–that’s one reason transitioning is so significant. Telling other people that you’re a man won’t make society at large treat you like one–that is, grant you male privilege–you’ll also have to look and act in certain stereotyped ways to get that male privilege from others. At the same time, because we define masculinity as fragile and easily destroyed, when someone publicly identifies as a woman–even partially–they pretty quickly lose most of any male privilege they previously had.
The problem for me personally with the change to the Double Union membership criteria is that some non-binary people are granted significant male privilege by society despite being non-binary, and that has repercussions for a group that, until recently, only included people with relatively little male privilege. It’s possible to be non-binary and receive more male privilege from society than someone who is a cis man–masculinity is complex and fragile. All non-binary people are the targets of transphobia and cis-sexism (the idea that your gender is determined by certain bodily features), but only some non-binary people are the primary targets of sexism (the systemic oppression of women).
After this change, an open question in my mind was: what happens when the interests of members who do identify as women in a way that is significant to them come into conflict with the interests of members who do not? Who will be prioritized?
Last week, I sent an email to the Double Union members list talking about how the Kavanaugh hearings reminded me of one reason why I want a space that, by default, does not include people with significant male privilege. I want a break from the constant background threat of violence–violence that will be covered up and swept under the rug because the person committing it has significant male privilege, the way Kavanaugh’s assault of Dr. Ford was swept under the rug. I talked about how Double Union was no longer that space, and asked if anyone else had experience dealing with this problem, specifically in a group only for members of a marginalized group that includes people who can pass as the privileged group.
The code of conduct committee let me know that I could not even discuss this topic on the members mailing list because it violated the code of conduct by making people who did not identify as women in a way that was significant to them to feel excluded and harmed. I told them I would not agree to this restriction. They banned me.
Whatever Double Union is now, it’s no longer an organization that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. That’s fine; change happens and groups evolve. Double Union is now a place for women and all non-binary people and when the interests of those groups clash, they’ll probably continue to prioritize the inclusion of people who don’t identify as women in a way that is significant to them. I hope they will update the code of conduct to make this clearer; I certainly didn’t understand that my question broke the code of conduct, despite writing a good chunk of it.
Double Union is dead, long live Double Union! It was a fun experiment, and now it is a new, different experiment.
Post-script: Here are a few common criticisms, along with my response:
“You think non-binary people who present as masculine aren’t non-binary. ” Nope, I believe non-binary people are non-binary regardless of their presentation. I also observe that our society grants privileges to people based on a wide variety of signals, and someone’s gender identity is only one of those signals. I wish it weren’t so.
“Non-binary people are more oppressed on the basis of gender than women, all other things being equal. So when the interests of women and non-binary people conflict, we should prioritize non-binary people to fight oppression.” I definitely don’t agree with this. When it comes to gender, the less you are perceived as a woman, the better off you are, roughly. (“Woman” is the “marked” state of gender and “man” is the “unmarked” state–think of a cartoon character, unless it is “marked” female, it is assumed to be male, not female or non-binary.) Some but not all non-binary people experience more oppression than women, all other things being equal. Non-binary people who are granted a lot of male privilege are less likely to experience more oppression on the basis of gender than women.
“Even talking about non-binary people with significant male privilege reinforces the oppressive idea that those non-binary people are really male.” I don’t understand this. Some trans people can pass as cis; talking about that doesn’t reinforce transphobia. Some people of color can pass as white; talking about that doesn’t reinforce racism. This sounds similar to the idea that talking about oppression reinforces oppression, which I also disagree with.
“Non-binary people with significant male privilege don’t have the same experience as men because the privilege doesn’t match their gender identity, which can be oppressive to non-binary people.” I agree, it’s not the same experience and it can be oppressive. That doesn’t stop society from prioritizing their needs over those of people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them.
“All women’s groups should include all non-binary people.” I disagree. I think there are a lot of valid groupings of people along the lines of gender or features we currently associate with gender. I am in favor of groups only for trans women, people with uteruses, non-binary trans masculine people, people assigned female at birth, people questioning their gender, and people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them, to name just a few appropriate groupings.
“Some Double Union members are afraid of people with white privilege or cis privilege, but they don’t get to exclude all white or cis people. Therefore we should not exclude people because they have male privilege.” I don’t get this one; as far as I can tell the argument is that you can never eliminate differences in privilege between members of a marginalized group, so… you should never create a group that excludes people based on any element of identity? If one person is afraid… the group can’t have any boundaries at all? By this argument, Double Union should start including people of all genders. Personally, I’d rather put more effort into stopping racism and cis-sexism and other forms of oppression at Double Union, which is why I budgeted a significant fraction of our income for that when I was on the board of directors. I support groups for people at the intersection of oppressed groups, such as Black Girls Code. Double Union already has events only for members who are people of color and other marginalized groups; I want more of those events. My best guess for why this argument keeps coming up is that many people are socialized to think it is wrong for people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them to prioritize themselves as a group.
Tomorrow I’m going to a protest against the forcible separation of immigrant children from their families. When I started thinking about what sign to make, I remembered my sign for the first Women’s March protest, the day after Trump took office in January 2017. It said: “Trump hates kids and puppies… for real!!!”
While I expected a lot of terrifying things to happen over the next few years, I never, never thought that Trump would deliberately tear thousands of children away from their families and put them in concentration camps. I knew he hated children; I didn’t know he hated children (specifically, brown children) so much that he’d hold them hostage to force Congress to pass his racist legislation. I did not expect him and his party to try to sell cages full of weeping little boys as future gang members. I did not expect 55% of Republican voters to support splitting up families and putting them in camps. I’m smiling at the cute dog in that photo; now the entire concept of that sign seems impossibly naive and inappropriate, much less my expression in that photo. I apologize for this sign and my joking attitude.
I remember being terrified during the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration. I couldn’t sleep; I put together a go-bag; I bought three weeks worth of food and water and stored them in the closet. I read a dozen books on fascism and failed democracies. I even built a spreadsheet tracking signs of fascism so I’d know when to leave the country.
I came up with the concept of that sign as a way to increase people’s disgust for Trump; what kind of pathetic low-life creep hates kids AND puppies? But I still didn’t get how bad things truly were; I thought Trump hated kids in the sense that he didn’t want any of them around him and wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. I didn’t understand that he—and many people in his administration—took actual pleasure in knowing they were building camps full of crying, desperate, terrified kids who may never be reunited with their parents. In January 2017, I thought I understood the evil of this administration and of a significant percentage of the people in this country; actually, I way underestimated it.
At that protest, several people asked me if Trump really hated puppies, but not one person asked me if Trump really hated kids. In retrospect, this seems ominous, not funny.
I’m going to think very carefully before creating any more “joke” protest signs. Today’s “joke” could easily be tomorrow’s reality.
In 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.
White supremacists are really, really hoping that you don’t keep reading this article. They don’t want you to learn about the Paradox of Tolerance, because then they’d lose a powerful weapon in their fight to make society more racist. Ready to make a white supremacist mad?
Fortunately for us, the Paradox of Tolerance is easy to understand and remember. The “paradox” part makes it sounds complicated and hard, but it’s really just a rule with one exception. It goes like this:
A tolerant society should be tolerant by default,
With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.
To give a specific example, a tolerant society should tolerate protest marches in general, but it shouldn’t tolerate a white supremacist march advocating for the oppression and killing of people of color – like the march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 that ended with white supremacists beating and killing people who were opposed to their message of intolerance.
So that’s one form of tolerance: tolerance of everything except intolerance itself. But the version of tolerance that white supremacists really want you to believe is this one: you should not only tolerate their march to advocate removing human rights from people of color, but you, as a tolerant person, should even fight to protect their right to march – in the name of tolerance! The specific idea here is that a tolerant society should tolerate all intolerant speech – including protests, marches, and assemblies – as long as it falls short of the established legal limits of free speech in the United States (which are many and include incitement to violence, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, defamation, child pornography, etc.).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes in protecting intolerant speech right up to the U.S. legal limit. That’s why the local branch of the ACLU went to court to force the Charlottesville government to grant a permit for the march to take place in a location the white supremacists chose for its potential for intimidation and violence. The ACLU’s reasoning? People marching to increase tolerance (e.g., civil rights marches) could be blocked by intolerant local governments if intolerant people planned to attack them – which was a real problem during the civil rights era in the U.S.
What the ACLU discounted is that a white supremacist march differs from a civil rights march because allowing it to go forward would reduce free speech overall by intimidating and silencing people of color and their advocates. Our worst fears came true during this march: when a white supremacist protester killed Heather Heyer, he took away her right to speech (and life) forever. The Paradox of Tolerance acknowledges that some speech should not be protected precisely because allowing it to go forward promotes the destruction of the basis of free speech – in this case, it normalizes the idea that people of color should have fewer rights than white people. [Updated 2017-08-17: On August 16, 2017, three California branches of the ACLU issued a statement saying they believe armed white supremacist marches are not protected speech. Progress! Updated 2017-09-01: On August 21, 2017, the director of the ACLU said they would no longer defend marchers with firearms.]
To many people, the Paradox of Tolerance may seem like heresy! Especially if you’re a U.S. progressive, you’ve probably been taught your whole life that tolerance is paramount, free speech must be protected regardless of its content, and the ACLU is always on the right side of history. Yet your heart is crying out that the Charlottesville march was wrong, that it should have been prevented, and that it left our society less free and fair.
Your heart is right. It’s the people teaching you that you must always tolerate intolerance who are wrong.
Here’s another way to think about the Paradox of Tolerance: a tolerant society must protect its own existence if tolerance is to exist in the world. If tolerating intolerance results in the destruction and disappearance of tolerant society, then that tolerant society has a right to self-protection – in the form of refusing to tolerate intolerance. The Paradox of Tolerance suggests that we should view advocacy of intolerance and persecution as a criminal behavior in and of itself. Many European countries do have specific laws making advocacy of white supremacy illegal, in contrast to the United States.
Consider World War II: The more intolerant fascist Axis powers wanted to destroy more tolerant societies completely, and the Allied powers had to fight back – be intolerant – in order for more tolerant societies to exist today. In fact, the Paradox of Tolerance was formulated and named in 1945, as World War II was winding down. The effects of fascism, including World War II, were much more devastating in many European countries, which may be one reason free speech laws in European countries tend to specifically outlaw marches by neo-Nazis and similar forms of pro-fascist speech, in line with the Paradox of Tolerance.
To be clear, the Paradox of Tolerance doesn’t imply that we should completely suppress or silence every single intolerant opinion. If expressing an intolerant opinion is unlikely to endanger the existence of a tolerant society, the more everyday forms of defense such as criticism, disgust, and natural consequences are a better way of protecting tolerance. It’s when society is favorable to bigoted and intolerant ideas – such as when an openly white supremacist president who was elected with 46% of the vote is using presidential power to enforce racist government policies in a country with a long record of white supremacy – that we should stop speech that threatens to tip our entire society into a vast increase in intolerance.
One more thing: we’re in no danger of impoverishing the “marketplace of ideas” – the majority of bigoted and intolerant opinions already get plenty of exposure. They are the opinions we have heard over and over again from people in power throughout history. We don’t need to fight to amplify the voices of the already powerful.
Your heart knows when unlimited tolerance is the wrong answer. Listen to your heart. And then memorize the Paradox of Tolerance, so your head and your heart can act in concert.
Thank you to several anonymous activists who contributed to this article.
We’re thrilled with the recenttrendtowards sexual harassment in the tech industry having actual consequences – for the perpetrator, not the target, for a change. We decided it was time to write a post explaining what we’ve been calling “the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment.” (We can’t remember which of us came up with the name, Leigh or Valerie, so we’re taking joint credit for it.) We developed the Al Capone Theory over several years of researching and recording racism and sexism in computer security, open source software, venture capital, and other parts of the tech industry. To explain, we’ll need a brief historical detour – stick with us.
As you may already know, Al Capone was a famous Prohibition-era bootlegger who, among other things, ordered murders to expand his massively successful alcohol smuggling business. The U.S. government was having difficulty prosecuting him for either the murdering or the smuggling, so they instead convicted Capone for failing to pay taxes on the income from his illegal business. This technique is standard today – hence the importance of money-laundering for modern successful criminal enterprises – but at the time it was a novel approach.
The U.S. government recognized a pattern in the Al Capone case: smuggling goods was a crime often paired with failing to pay taxes on the proceeds of the smuggling. We noticed a similar pattern in reports of sexual harassment and assault: often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing, or stole credit for other people’s work. Just three examples: Mark Hurd, the former CEO of HP, was accused of sexual harassment by a contractor, but resigned for falsifying expense reports to cover up the contractor’s unnecessary presence on his business trips. Jacob Appelbaum, the former Tor evangelist, left the Tor Foundation after he was accused of both sexual misconduct and plagiarism. And Randy Komisar, a general partner at venture capital firm KPCB, gave a book of erotic poetry to another partner at the firm, and accepted a board seat (and the credit for a successful IPO) at RPX that would ordinarily have gone to her.
Then we realized what the connection was: all of these behaviors are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property – regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body. Another common factor was the desire to dominate and control other people. In venture capital, you see the same people accused of sexual harassment and assault also doing things like blacklisting founders for objecting to abuse and calling people nasty epithets on stage at conferences. This connection between dominance and sexual harassment also shows up as overt, personal racism (that’s one reason why we track both racism and sexism in venture capital).
So what is the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment? It’s simple: people who engage in sexual harassment or assault are also likely to steal, plagiarize, embezzle, engage in overt racism, or otherwise harm their business. (Of course, sexual harassment and assault harms a business – and even entire fields of endeavor – but in ways that are often discounted or ignored.) Ask around about the person who gets handsy with the receptionist, or makes sex jokes when they get drunk, and you’ll often find out that they also violated the company expense policy, or exaggerated on their résumé, or took credit for a colleague’s project. More than likely, they’ve engaged in sexual misconduct multiple times, and a little research (such as calling previous employers) will show this, as we saw in the case of former Uber and Google employee Amit Singhal.
Organizations that understand the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment have an advantage: they know that reports or rumors of sexual misconduct are a sign they need to investigate for other incidents of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. Sometimes sexual misconduct is hard to verify because a careful perpetrator will make sure there aren’t any additional witnesses or records beyond the target and the target’s memory (although with the increase in use of text messaging in the United States over the past decade, we are seeing more and more cases where victims have substantial written evidence). But one of the implications of the Al Capone theory is that even if an organization can’t prove allegations of sexual misconduct, the allegations themselves are sign to also urgently investigate a wide range of aspects of an employee’s conduct.
Some questions you might ask: Can you verify their previous employment and degrees listed on their résumé? Do their expense reports fall within normal guidelines and include original receipts? Does their previous employer refuse to comment on why they left? When they give references, are there odd patterns of omission? For example, a manager who doesn’t give a single reference from a person who reported to them can be a hint that they have mistreated people they had power over.
Another implication of the Al Capone theory is that organizations should put more energy into screening potential employees or business partners for allegations of sexual misconduct before entering into a business relationship with them, as recently advocated by LinkedIn cofounder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman. This is where tapping into the existing whisper network of targets of sexual harassment is incredibly valuable. The more marginalized a person is, the more likely they are to be the target of this kind of behavior and to be connected with other people who have experienced this behavior. People of color, queer people, people with working class jobs, disabled people, people with less money, and women are all more likely to know who sends creepy text messages after a business meeting. Being a member of more than one of these groups makes people even more vulnerable to this kind of harassment – we don’t think it was a coincidence that many of the victims of sexual harassment who spoke out last month were women of color.
What about people whose well-intentioned actions are unfairly misinterpreted, or people who make a single mistake and immediately regret it? The Al Capone theory of sexual harassment protects these people, because when the organization investigates their overall behavior, they won’t find a pattern of sexual harassment, plagiarism, or theft. A broad-ranging investigation in this kind of case will find only minor mistakes in expense reports or an ambiguous job title in a resume, not a pervasive pattern of deliberate deception, theft, or abuse. To be perfectly clear, it is possible for someone to sexually harass someone without engaging in other types of misconduct. In the absence of clear evidence, we always recommend erring on the side of believing accusers who have less power or privilege than the people they are accusing, to counteract the common unconscious bias against believing those with less structural power and to take into account the enormous risk of retaliation against the accuser.
Some people ask whether the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment will subject men to unfair scrutiny. It’s true, the majority of sexual harassment is committed by men. However, people of all genders commit sexual harassment. We personally know of two women who have sexually touched other people without consent at tech-related events, and we personally took action to stop these women from abusing other people. At the same time, abuse more often occurs when the abuser has more power than the target – and that imbalance of power is often the result of systemic oppression such as racism, sexism, cissexism, or heterosexism. That’s at least one reason why a typical sexual harasser is more likely to be one or all of straight, white, cis, or male.
What does the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment mean if you are a venture capitalist or a limited partner in a venture fund? Your first priority should be to carefully vet potential business partners for a history of unethical behavior, whether it is sexual misconduct, lying about qualifications, plagiarism, or financial misdeeds. If you find any hint of sexual misconduct, take the allegations seriously and step up your investigation into related kinds of misconduct (plagiarism, lying on expense reports, embezzlement) as well as other incidents of sexual misconduct.
Because sexual harassers sometimes go to great lengths to hide their behavior, you almost certainly need to expand your professional network to include more people who are likely to be targets of sexual harassment by your colleagues – and gain their trust. If you aren’t already tapped into this crucial network, here are some things you can do to get more access:
Seek out opportunities to meet, socialize with, and sponsor targets of oppression
These are all aspects of ally skills – concrete actions that people with more power and privilege can take to support people who have less.
Finally, we’ve seen a bunch of VCs pledging to donate the profits of their investments in funds run by accused sexual harassers to charities supporting women in tech. We will echo many other women entrepreneurs and say: don’t donate that money, invest it in women-led ventures – especially those led by women of color.