We Need Critique in Tech

Many see the critiques of tech culture and get defensive, not realizing this is a compassionate act.

by Ashe Dryden on January 13th, 2014

I’ve been a programmer for 13 years. For the most part, I love my work. It’s interesting and different enough every day to keep me from getting bored. I have the freedom to be inventive, push the boundaries of what I know, and make mistakes. Few other fields would have allowed me to not only get by without a degree, but to be successful enough to start my own business at 23.

The parts that I don’t like, though? It’s much more emotionally draining to make that list.

Over the past year I have worked to increase the visibility of the issues marginalized people face in tech. I talk about the negative experiences people have with businesses, conferences, and the community. I educate people about what they may be doing – intentionally or otherwise – to contribute to these problems. Because of that, my email inbox has becomes a safe space for people to reach out for help; it’s an unordered list of harassment, discrimination, and bias. I get between 75 and 150 emails a day from people all over the world. A woman new in her career who was sexually harassed, but her company has no HR department and the harasser is a close friend of the founder, so she still has to work beside him every day. An Indian man who dealt with months of racial slurs and stereotyping before he left his office over lunch one day and didn’t come back. A trans woman who suffered through a day-long interview where the interviewers intentionally misgendered and humiliated her. A woman who reported a sexual assault at a conference and was told to prove it or they wouldn’t remove the assaulter from the venue. A woman who found out she was being paid thousands less than her less qualified male colleagues and feels too afraid to confront her boss about it, because she can’t afford to lose her job. A man whose company quietly stopped providing same-sex partner benefits once the founder figured out it was in their policy. And then there’s the emails from people who were fired in the 3 months following their report of sexual harassment at work.

Tweet that reads 'I asked people who had reported harassment or assault to their employer to tell me what happened after. 23 of 25 were fired within 3 months.' by user ashedryden.

The Current Landscape

I’ve done this for so long that I don’t know what I’ll do with myself when I decide to leave. That’s the killer part: with so many of us leaving in droves – 56% of women within 10 years, twice the rate of men – it’s not an “if”, but a “when”. After suffering through particularly nasty incidents of harassment, abuse, and indifference to the treatment many of us receive, I’ve thought to myself “is this the thing that will finally make me leave?” I’ve talked to so many marginalized people from different parts of the industry that tell me they lie awake at night thinking about the same thing.

Those decidedly deemed “outsiders” – women, people of color, LGBTQs, the people who don’t speak English as a first language, people who can’t look back on their childhood computer use with nostalgia – end up in a constant battle to continue occupying a space that’s so aggressive toward them that it becomes a job in and of itself. The lack of diversity is so stark, the homogeneity so common – women and African Americans make up less than half of what we’d expect them to in tech, Hispanics less than ⅓. Discussion of any of these problems invariably brings out crowds of people who are either shocked this kind of thing happens regardless of how vocal we are or who deny our experiences so strongly that the battle to be believed amplifies the hostility.

After every public report of sexual assault in the tech community, the responses alone are enough to scare a lot of people away from reporting themselves. The situation has gotten so dire that the sheer act of speaking up is enough to create a tidal wave of hate mail, death and rape threats, petitions to get targets fired or otherwise ruin their public image – and these are the people who’ve already been once victimized by others in our communities.

Why tech?

I’m often asked why tech is where I focus so much of my energy. Why this above other industries or areas of society?

Tech is where I am – my job, my friends, my view of the world are all affected by being in tech.

Focusing here means I’m forced to confront not only how I benefit from the mistreatment (intentional or otherwise) of others, but also how I contribute to it. Not recognizing the roles that each of us plays in this problem means allowing it to perpetuate. We naively believe that because sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad, the people who do them are bad people. This gives us an easy out mentally: we don’t see ourselves as bad people, so how can we do sexist, racist, or homophobic things? We don’t have to intend harm for our actions to be harmful. We don’t have to have to use slurs or physically hurt people to be complicit. I’ve found this to be the hardest thing for people to understand. Having good intentions doesn’t make every act you perform righteous.

On top of that, in the most clichéd of ways, tech is the future. We’re changing the way the world does business, provides education, understands space, and improves medicine every day. We play an important role in what will be the re-shaping of future economic class structures and we have to take that far more seriously than we are now. Tech has helped us reimagine the way society should function. Few other industries can say they have that much power. Software is eating the world, which means we are going to see a huge influx of people from many other industries over the next 20 years. Fixing this problem before too many people are negatively affected is extremely important to making tech the egalitarian industry we all hope it can be.

People in tech are knowledgeable and well-connected to disparate industries in ways that others aren’t necessarily. Because many of the people who run companies, conferences, and organizations tend to be younger and more forward-thinking, I have a high hope that they’re more easily able to make positive, progressive changes that can affect far more people. As we’re always looking for a better way to do things, too, talking about why we’ve made changes and what it’s done for us means others are likely to follow suit.

We need someone to be honest with us

I haven’t always seen these issues or understood the gravity of them. I still make really horrendous, hurtful mistakes more often than I’d like to admit, but I’m getting better with accepting criticism and being called out. I may have never realized the things that were happening to me were so widespread until I saw other people’s stories and read tech culture critique.

Many see the critiques of tech culture and get defensive, not realizing this is a compassionate act. We’re given the opportunity to assess the roles we play in oppressive structures in an effort to learn and encourage change. After all, one of the most difficult things about being treated so poorly in this industry isn’t the acts themselves, but the denial that they happen or that we contribute to them.

Those that deconstruct our actions, analyze our relationships with power structures, and attempt to provide more context around why we do the things we do are working to create a dialogue that encourages critical thinking about how we could be and do better.

Culture isn’t dissimilar from software. We improve our code by reverse engineering how someone else’s works. We read books and articles about best practices. We read through issues that teach us more than we could have contributed to solving, but that’s okay. We know that this is how software is made – through making mistakes, learning, correcting, and providing that environment for people who aren’t yet to the same level we are. Culture is the same way – it’s an accumulation of effort, education, adjusting, and showing others how to be better by being better ourselves. The role of critique is essential in this process, providing needed feedback and pushing us harder than we’d push ourselves.