Brianna Wu, Nine ways to start helping and stop hurting women in tech
Business of Software Conference 2014
In September I travelled to Boston, MA in the USA for the 2014 Business of Software Conference. As conferences go I think Business of Software is quite simply the best software conference in the world. The speakers are carefully selected by the organisers – they don’t just throw them together and hope for the best. It’s single track, which means everyone has the same shared experience. So no awkward “oh I didn’t go to that talk, I was in the talk about snail protogenesis protocols” moments. And the speakers – well they are human beings – approachable, no ego, no attitude. There are no sponsor-advertis-talks, and no panels. Fantastic! There are sponsors, it’s very low key what they do. It’s a great conference. And worth every penny you spend attending.
Each year I’ve attended there are usually some speakers that don’t do much for me, some which are useful and a few that change and/or challenge what you thought you knew about a particular topic. Last year Greg Bauges spoke about Depression and people felt able to talk about the untalkable subject for the first time. Great and inspired topic choice.
This year the conference did it again. This time with Brianna Wu’s talk about Women in Technology and the issues women face day to day working in the technology world. Brianna works at Giant Spacekat, producers of Revolution 60. Giant Spacekat is a mostly female game dev team. They work with Unreal.
Brianna gave a passionate, in some places angry, talk. Often pausing as she tried to come to grips with the right way to communicate some of the issues she wanted to talk about. Despite the nature of the some of the subject matter there is also humour in the delivery (which I’m sorry, doesn’t come over in this writeup).
I was going to try write up the main points of the talk but given the nature of the talk I’ve been reluctant to try to condense some of this material for fear of materially, if unintentionally changing the intent. As such it’s not a straight transcript, but it’s also not super condensed. Some of this is straight quotes, others paraphrased and some bits skipped because they rely on graphics for context. Unfortunately I didn’t take photos of the many slides Bri used in her talk. A such some of this transcript misses data only displayed but not described by Bri in her talk. You’ll need to watch the video when it’s realised to grok those details.
In a few days time the Business of Software Conference will be making a video and full transcript of the talk available. When that happens I’ll include a link to the talk here.
“I’d rather be talking about anything else. Entrepreneurship. The exploding role of women in game dev. We women have same aspirations as you. We want to build cool stuff, start companies, work with tech, etc. No different. So why do we have to be here today talking about this? The sad reality is these issues make or break our careers.”
“How many gamers in the audience? How many of you have been following Zoe Quinn and #gamergate? How many people know what I’m talking about? Pornography spam, hate mentions, 1000s of times, bank account hacks, restraining orders over gamergate. Bubble of anger over women in gamergate. Losing women over fear of being the next target of angry mob: Samantha Allen, Jan Frank, Matty Brice. This isn’t superfluous stuff, this is about careers, it’s very important. So that’s why I’m going to be talking about this today.”
Bri then briefly lists a few women in tech issues
- Julianne Horvath leaving github.
- Tech Millionaire beating his girlfriend 117 times.
- Codebabes sexualizing stuff
- Poor diversity numbers for Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc
“These are things that women know (ask any woman here and they’ll confirm it). But apparently most of the rest of you don’t know this stuff.”
- “Myth: Women in tech need to grow thicker skins.”
- “Truth: Women in tech receive a lot more scrutiny than men. So for any given issue there are more hurdles to cleared to be accepted.”
Bri has to scrub this story. Too raw to turn into words.
#2 Nicole Tanner, IGN
- “Myth: Women get special treatment in the industry (‘our looks get us ahead, our feminine wiles’).”
- “Reality: Celebrated journalist. Starts podcast that is really successful. Gets on a discussion panel at PAX East. but if you examine the comments they are only about the women’s physical appearance, not about their ability, etc. These are women at the top of their field and the only comments are about their appearance.”
“Good looking woman in her 20s. Game writer for a major studio. Guy become sexually obsessed. Writes a fan fic. about her. Graphic, pornographic about her. She is reading it having to deal with it and it starts infecting the rest of her life. She goes to game dev events and wonder if the person she is talking to is the person writing all this stuff about her. Causes her to start distancing herself from everyone else. This has a long lasting effect on her personally.”
#4 Bri’s own story
“One of the things about game dev is that we’re constantly told ‘if you don’t like women being represented in video games, as bimbos, as the eye-candy, the girlfriend, the reward, just go make your own game’. That’s exactly what I did! The amount of blowback, harassment, anger, threats, people calling me, garbage I get is crippling. I’m just trying to do the same thing that every single male in this room is trying to do today. Build a career, build cool stuff, make a product I believe in, give my team jobs, build a company and to do that I have deal with an avalanche of BS on a daily basis. It’s exhausting to have to deal with.”
What guys tend to do
“Guys tend to think that talking about the subject of the latest women in tech issue is simple. But if you’re a woman it’s not – it’s personal. If I’m standing up here to get this taped to go up on the internet, talking about the harassment I get – or the people that write me, or spam me pornography, or I had one person that wrote a spambot that did nothing but spam my phone… it’s personal. It’s not easy to talk about.”
“So even if you don’t get what women are dealing with, but a woman expresses a personal opinion, countering that with logical arguments why it isn’t so – that isn’t fun, it’s basically invalidating that woman’s experience”. (which if you think about it is crazy, she really did experience that). “When you’re starting a conversation and basically saying ‘I’d like to not get beaten up so much in my job’ and you’re coming up to me and saying ‘Yeah, well I kinda agree with that, but have you considered this other stuff…?’ it takes a toll on me. It sends me a message that you don’t consider me a person. And what you maybe don’t realise what you are doing is when you have a conversation like that you are dismissing my experiences.”
What guys could do better
“Don’t argue with us. Don’t say ‘That’s a great point, but…’. Just show basic humanity that you would to anyone talking about something difficult they went through.”
“If you had a friend getting a divorce would you really say ‘you know that’s a really good point but did you really try your best to make it work with her?’. If you had a friend giving up a child for adoption would you say ‘I support you no matter what.’ or would you start lecturing her? Amazingly this is what happens to women all the time when we voice our opinions. We are constantly told our perception of reality is wrong. It’s amazing.”
“Even if you disagree with the woman factually on what we should do these issues in tech about diversity just know that her own emotion about that is true. Speaking to that emotion is basic human respect.”
“Would you tell a black person, or a gay person their perception is wrong? No. What amazes me is how freely people feel able to do this to women. It happens to us all the time. The best explanation I can come up for it is I think there is an unconscious bias that men have that is inculcated into them very early on and that everything they say has value and that woman needs their input to kind of make up her own mind about things. I think you see this everywhere in our culture. It’s simply not true.”
“When you respect our points of view, when you let us talk, when you let us be emotionally accurate and honest about what we are feeling. Respecting that is respecting us.”
“If we are having a conversation about promoting women or promoting women or talking about more diversity and instantly some guy jumps into the conversation ‘yeah, no we must hire the best person for the job, it must be this, it must be that, how is it going to affect me if more women get a job, is it going to be fair to me?’, it’s not respectful. This view is the status quo, it doesn’t need to be so over represented as it is in the discussion.”
“This is good for any issue, not just women in tech issues. It’s called The Ring Theory. In this theory I would be in the centre of the circle, the aggrieved person being spammed, harassed etc. The next layer out would be people affected by this, say my Husband and friends. The next circle out would be my team, etc. As long as you follow this formula you’re never going to say the wrong thing.”
“I don’t have kids. I had no idea about women in tech with children. A few years ago my cofounder came to me and told me she was pregnant. The result of this is I’ve had my eyes opened to the problems in this area and the solutions to this. This is a huge subject you could do a whole talk on. Generally speaking networking in tech is setup for men, by men. Asking a woman with a child to go to a bar at 9pm on a weekday for a networking event isn’t going to work out so well for them. Networking events in general are not very structured to help women with children. My cofounder having a child gave us a much deeper perspective on this whole issue.”
When you need help you turn to your friends and peers in your network. For men these are probably men and for women these are probably women. One of the problems is that guys are not so well networked with women that are engineers or entrepreneurs etc. How to fix? You have to make a deliberate effort to network with women. It takes conscious effort.
“I think that another thing that guys don’t understand is the double standards that women are held to. For instance my company, Giant Spacekat… there is this drastic change in the market, adult women now play more games than teenage boys. For a company like Giant Spacekat that produces games with strong female characters this is a huge opportunity. But one of the big problems that happens is guys see our game and pop it into the mental box of ‘girls game, that’s that company of chix over there’. We’re mentally put in another category. So when I go to talk to bigger players, Sony, Microsoft.. we are discounted in some way. And because of that we face a lot of intertia that guys don’t. It’s a barrier to entry. There’s these structural barriers to keep us out that guys don’t really think about.”
“It’s not that you’re a bad person or that you’re an outright sexist. It’s just these systems – you don’t realise you’re doing it. So if there is one thing I’d ask you to take from today is if you could raise your conciousness about it.”
“One thing that has never happened when I give one of these talks is that I’ve never had someone come up to me afterwards and say ‘I’m part of the problem’. It’s always these other guys. Always someone else doing this stuff. Everyone is awesome, they support women, they really would stop those other people. It doesn’t work like that. I promise you, there are people in this audience today, with all respect they are part of the problem in ways they don’t realise. And as best as I can tell with guys, you put this label on yourself as being a nice person, it’s very painful mentally, psychologically there are mental blocks to admitting there is room for improvement, you’re a nice person. What this does, labelling yourself as a nice person, it stops you from taking any criticism, changing any behaviour. This is a huge barrier women face. What we need from guys it to put away just a little bit of that defensiveness.”
“We can’t change anything if no one thinks they are part of the problem.”
“We all agree that sexism is part of the industry. We all agree that women face barriers. But how can we all agree that this is all here but that no one is a part of it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We all have a part to play in making this better. I have a part to play. I try to keep an open mind to other people’s experiences in this industry. We’re talking about women but there are more women in tech than there are black people. There are all kinds of concious biases that keep people out of this area.”
Bri shares an anecdote about a black engineer being left out of tweets streams, so he created a new account with a picture of a cat rather than his face and now he gets more credibility. That’s a real problem.
“We all have a part to play at getting better at understanding the problems other groups face whether they are parents, black people, etc. You’re an entrepreneur, you should know there is no shame in making mistakes. They are inevitable. The problem is not learning from mistakes.”
Death by a thousand cuts
“People think of sexism in tech as like Mad Men, two guys in an office drinking bourbon talking about how ‘Chix can’t code’. That’s not the way it is. But if it were this simple we could solve that. It’s a much more insidious, darker problem than that. A recent New York Times article referred to women leaving tech as death by a thousand cuts. Women do leave the industry at rates 3 times higher than men do. Sexism in tech is not some horrible moment in Mad Men, it’s constantly being told that your opinion about your own life is wrong, it’s being told “you are included, if you get more inclusivity it will affect me”, it’s these little things all day long. If you want to see what I deal with look at my mentions stream on twitter after this. I have a lot of awesome support from a lot of people, but I get harassment non-stop. Every single one of those things is a cut. And I think that what guys may not realise in this field is that in tech very often feels like you are a child again and the boys are in the club house with a big sign up saying ‘nobody else is welcome’. It’s very much what it feels like. It’s like all these little things in the culture that like, push you away.”
“I was playing a really good game this weekend. And what we found after playing it some time and getting emotionally involved in some of the characters is that the game would reward you with some lingerie. And what that sends to women playing the game is “you’re not supposed to be here”. It’s assumed that the player is male. This is told to you all the time in this industry.”
“A friend of mine works at Harmonix” (may not be correct spelling), “and she was sitting in on an interview and the team lead, someone who thinks they are very for women kept on using the male pronoun all the time. My friend call him on it and he still wouldn’t back away from it. That’s just another small thing that says you’re not welcome here.”
Bri shows a slide from WWDC illustrating another problem.
“One of the things is that when we start talking about this I get mansplained to all the freaking time about this stuff. Example: I was at a party this year. Apple had just announced their Metal API. This is something as an Unreal expert I am extremely qualified to talk about. So I had written an article about Apple’s Metal API which basically bypasses the OpenGL layer to do things like particle effects much more efficiently. So I had written this very technical article. I’m sitting there at a party with someone and we having this chat about Metal and this guy starts explaining to me all this stuff about Metal and literally as I am doing this he is quoting the article I have written at me at this party. I call him on it, trying to stop him talking over me. And there’s this awkward bit where he stops, looks at me then keeps on going. It’s a funny story but it’s demoralising when this happens to you all the time. As a woman who leads an entire software engineering team on this it’s often assumed I don’t understand this stuff and it’s very frustrating.”
“Right now we’re on a precipice. We’re about to start seeing big change. More women, more black people, more gay people, more minorities. It’s happening in US startup culture. It’s going to get very different from here. As best as I can tell, and this is my theory about this, I gave a talk at MIT a while back and a friend of mine told me what the reaction after the talk was afterwards. And there was this really introverted MIT engineer was there, he was talking about how scared he was the culture would change. He enjoyed his beers at the bar and was scared that more women would destroy what he liked about the culture. What that guy didn’t understand is the absence of his privilege, the absence of him not having an all male group to hang out with, the absence of his comfort was not oppression, that is equality. It is going to change in ways that make men in this industry have to be more inclusive. But that’s just making it more equal for everyone. That is not oppressing you.”
“I wonder all the time how many guys would last in this industry if they had my job. I had a meeting with a high level person at a company I can’t name a while back and it came up that I was going to be giving this talk and he, literally, someone at a major copmany, starts laughing at the fact that I speak out on Women in Tech issues. That really hurt me. It made me wonder how many guys would last in this field if they had to deal with this all the time.”
“The truth is that tech has been built for men by men from the beginning. This is what my inbox looks like. Shows image of an email with very insulting abusive language of the worst kind you can imagine (Possibly toned down for the conference.) This is a day of the week people. How many of you would truly be able to stay in this field if you had stuff like this hitting you every day? Do you know how demoralising that is? ”
“It is to your benefit to raise your conciousness on these issues. It is to your benefit to get a wider perspective. In 2014 it’s no longer cool to be a homophobe, for instance. If you have a real problem with gay people, that’s going to hurt your career. It’s going to make people not want to work with you. Tech is changing right now. There will be more women here. There will be more inclusivity. It is to your benefit to raise your conciousness on this and get with the times.”
“I used to work with a guy and on the day I’d been threatened with rape and my team had been threatened with rape we had this discussion and he said ‘who do I need to beat up?’ and I said that the best course of action was to add his voice to mine. Speak out, say this isn’t cool. He laughed and said that I don’t think I’m any louder than you are. I understand that some of men just want to bow out of this issue and not touch it, it doesn’t personally affect you, but if you have daughters it may make you feel distantly connected, but the truth is if I speak out on this stuff people just disregard me as ‘that angry feminist’. But if guys talk to other guys about this you have a power that I don’t, you are a peer. You are taken more seriously. ”
Martin Luther King preferred outright racists to the “moderate white man” because with a racist you know what you are dealing with. But the moderate white man was happy to accept a slow simmering injustice rather than justice. “I’m telling you right now that the biggest challenge women face is we need guys that are decent people that understand this stuff affects all of us to stand up and help us. Because if you just bow out and say ‘this is not my problem, this doesn’t affect me, I don’t want to get involved, this is going to get anger sent at me’, it’s just perpetuating all this stuff.”
“We run into this all the time. It just makes me crazy, because if you talk about this stuff then you very often get men who come and paternalisticly, they feel like they are in charge of this. It’s so lukewarm. It really hurts.”
“We’re going through #gamergate right now. So Anita Sarkeesian does a talk at X0X0 this weekend. She’s basically saying the most radical thing you can do to support women in game is to simply believe us when we talk about our experiences. And the response is people not getting it and going after her in the Verge article. This is going on all the time. So the bonus thing you can do to stop hurting and start helping is simply don’t feel like a noble warrior on the other side of the keyboard putting down the women talking on this. And don’t do it online. Every conversation you have on this gets hijacked really quickly.”
Question and Answer
Bri’s talk concluded with 15 minutes of question and answer.
#1 (Peldi, Balsamiq). Should conferences have a code of conduct?
Bri: It’s not important to me. If something happened here I’d go talk to Mark. But many women do feel strongly about it. Just having it and pasting it on the website would get more women at your conference. That’s a better outcome.
#2 (Jonathan, Axosoft). What is gamergate? Could you talk about gamer culture?
Bri: Long story short there is a developer called Zoe Quinn and an ex boyfriend of hers got very jilted at her and created a website with the sole purpose of discrediting and attacking her. What you have is this blowback from this. Gamers feel their identity is under attack. But the reality is that they are attacking and harassing women until they leave the industry. The underlying thing is that as women play more games and women like slightly different games than men do, you have this portion of the gaming market that sets their entire identity as being gamers and they feel like that’s being taken away and they are very defensive about it.
#3 (Speaker is a black man, didn’t provide his name). Thank you for your talk. What I found amazing about your talk is literally every point you mentioned applies to being black. When I talked about that twitter experiment I did it’s amazing at least 10 people told me it had nothing to do with your being black or whatever. People sending me direct messages asking me what’s wrong with me. People sending me emails, people sending me the same type of emails you were showing except with the word nigger, etc, I get pretty much the equivalent of that. So thanks for giving this talk.
Bri: Yes, it’s the same playbook. It is frequently the same people. It’s the same structural issues that black people face in this field. I think we can say it’s at least double digit women in this field but we can’t say that of black people. It’s hard for women, but it’s harder for black people. To get your foot in the door of this tech culture. This is a systematic thing that affects absolutely everyone.
#4 (Austin Dimmer, Effective Computing). Where is you dividing line between the nice understanding guy and making a difference?
Bri: I would suggest that just asking this question means you are not part of the problem. The Supreme Court quote about pornography: “You know it when you see it”. If you are thinking actively about what you need to do to change things you are probably cool. If you’re “I’m perfectly OK, I know what I’m doing, thanks” you’re probably not. That to me is where the line would be.
#5 (Mark). Hi, two daughters. My wife is a physician. She was staying in a residency in Boston. Someone was looking at pornography. She spoke out about it. Everyone else shrugged it off. Now we’re in San Francisco. That “bro” attitude doesn’t exist in SF. Is there another industry with a pattern we can look to to move forward?
Bri: From what I’ve seen of the industry my husband works in I’d say Hard Science is almost half women, half men. It seems me that in that industry women are taken seriously. I don’t have a better example.
#6 (Jo, from Australia). It was Madeleine Albright who said “there is a special place in hell for women how don’t look after other women”. Could you comment on your experience in tech, women against other women?
Bri: I’d love to. This is a difficult issue to tackle. Just because you have a vagina does not mean you are an ally to women. It’s very socially rewarding to be like “oh I’m not like those other women, I’m not gonna cause a problem, just go do your boys thing, and talk about women in graphic detail, I don’t care I’m just one of the guys.”. That is so unbelievably rewarded socially. So it’s very understandable that you have women in this field that disdain this and don’t look out for other women. One of the biggest sexists I know is actually a woman in my field. She’s older, she has literal disdain for other women in the field. Her approach is “I’ve got mine, you’re not getting yours. I’m gonna kind of protect this”.
We’re very programmed to go after each other. If you look at the war between stay at home moms and moms that work it feels that we’re culturally programmed to go after each other. Parents and non-parents, I think we go after each other for these scraps of the pie.
I have a few specific policies that I do because I really believe in supporting other women in this field.
i) Unless its crazily egregious I do not talk smack about other women publically in my field. If I have a problem with them I take it privately. I don’t want to tear another women down in public.
ii) I look to network and introduce other women to opportunities whereever I can. I just started a podcast called isometric on 5×5. Last week we did this thing on how diversity is a literal market demand and how it’s good for you. Our show has exploded. It’s super popular.
#7 (Greg, Bendiworks). One suggestion I have is follow more women on twitter.
Bri: If you listen to different voices you are going to be more informed. You may change your opinion.
#8 (Amy, Techsmith). I’d like to give some examples of things that don’t help. It the subtle thing. It’s being in a meeting and making a valid point and watching it be dismissed. But just speaking up and reinforcing our point is supporting us. That’s what we need more of. Even more infuriating if made the point, it got dismissed then a guy makes the point an it’s accepted.
Bri: I agree. Raise you hand if you’re a woman and had that happen to you. (Lots of hands go up).
A great talk. Made people think. We need more talks like this.
You may be thinking to yourself “I’ve never witnessed such awful behaviour to women, or blacks… is this really happening?”. I’m in the same place. I’ve never witnessed such behaviour. Wonderful. That’s a sample size of one. It’s meaningless. It’s effectively an opinion formed by your own experience. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening elsewhere.
When we hear of world events (competitions, elections, wars…) we don’t react with “I’ve never seen that, that isn’t happening” do we? I know people that I’ve met in this industry that are affected by these issues. It’s very much real. And that hurts me a great deal. The fact that Kathy Sierra, a top of the tree expert in her domain can’t be a part of the community on twitter is, well, words fail me.
The people that discriminate, harass, troll etc. They aren’t just ruining that one person’s life, they aren’t just damaging that one person’s career, they aren’t just damaging that one person’s family, they damage the entire community because that person, their knowledge, their input is lost to the community, to the industry. That feeds out into lack of input on real world projects, commercial and non-profit. And ultimately retards the progress of our world.
I care about this stuff. It matters. And it should matter to you to. Just because you haven’t witnessed it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Or, of course, you can pass and say this isn’t happening. Know this, if you do that you are wilfully ignorant.
(Kathy has posted an article today about trolling and harassment which you can find on twitter. I’m not linking to it here as the post won’t be up for long and is not linked to from her own blog. You can find it using #seriouspony).
Follow some women devs on twitter.
Not all women post a lot. Some don’t want the aggravation it may bring. But some women do post a lot. Follow them. You don’t have to interact if you don’t want to. Just pay attention to what they tweet. Quite often it’s a precis of what’s happening to them right now. You’ll be shocked and appalled by it. And that will educate you. Then come back and re-read this. You’ll have a deeper appreciation of the problem. I’ve learned more about the problems transexuals face by following a friend on twitter than any other method. This applies to any topic you want to know about – follow people involved in that topic.
I’m not going to tell you who to follow, but if you want some suggestions, take a look at myself (@softwareverify) and Mark Littlewood (@marklittlewood) on twitter and see who we follow. Mark follows many more people than I do. Both of us follow some outstanding women.