Tech sexism and co-creation of the community

by Rob Martin on

Highly readable version

There is so much to say on the subject of tech sexism, and I am not the person to say it. Instead I can talk about my struggle, including concerns about my own culpability and ongoing responsibilities.


In my first draft of this blog post, I started by listing what I do to support women in tech. But the reality is, I have no authority in this area, so I'm skipping that.

White people in the 1950's accepted that black people were disadvantaged. Today, not so much. A suprisingly large number of middle class white people believe that they have it every bit as bad as any black person. As a result, it's more difficult for many of these white people to recognize the advantages and privileges they have that others do not.

I believe this is also true for men and women. When oppression of women was practiced (even more) openly, there was no stigma in recognizing it. It was the norm. Now we accept that this form of oppression is wrong, and the result is that we can no longer see it in ourselves. Seeing it means accepting we are not the men we think we are.


There was an incident at PyCon. A woman chose to speak up about inappropriate behavior in violation of the conference Code of Conduct. She has my complete support. I will not for a moment second guess her handling of the situation. The conference leadership also has my complete support. They (specifically the PyCon chair) were deliberate in their actions and consistent with the code of conduct.

Both the woman who asked for support, and the conference chair, have received vitriolic messages. I've seen these. I've heard that the conference chair has received death threats at home. I don't know that is the case. I have seen threats against the woman that scare me.


I have a friend in San Jose. We dated in high school. To be perfectly honest I still have a crush on her.

She visited me at the PyCon hotel bar. Among other things, we discussed booth babes. She's been laid off from a Silicon Valley startup in the hospitality industry. They also did a big annual trade show, in Vegas. To save money they asked her to work the company's booth. There was no question about whether she would be a booth babe. They openly discussed her chest size as an unfortunate compromise. She did not accept their offer to go to Vegas.


At about that point in our conversation, a woman came up to the bar near us. This is the same woman who later would ask the conference for support. I commented on her in the context of our conversation about booth babes. I said I found her very attractive, and this made me suspicious that she may be more "babe" than "tech".

I texted with my friend yesterday and got her recollection of what I said. Her memory of our conversation did not treat me as kindly as mine did.

[me] Hey remember the woman at the bar with the awesome hair that we talked about being tech or booth babe? That I didn't know who she was, just that she worked for a company I know? She's definitely a tech. ... She's been interviewed by Rachel Maddow. She's invited to speak all over the place, and is apparently amazing to hear. She is in the middle of a shitstorm right now because she called out three men for sexist comments in the closing session at PyCon.

[my friend] Oh my!

[me] She wrote about the incident. She's catching a lot of idiots I guess but also getting, and got a lot of support from PyCon and the Python community. She is going to be one of my heroes very, very soon.

[my friend] Well good thing she didn't hear your comments about booth babes.

[me] Did I accuse her of being a booth babe? I thought I said she was attractive but I had no idea whether or not she has tech skills. That I hoped she wasn't a booth babe. In part because I like the company she works for, and I want to respect them.

[my friend] Ah, I thought you suggested she was a booth babe.

[me] It sucks that the question is relevant to me at all though. It'd be better if people assumed, and I trusted, that any attractive female rep at a vendor booth is technically competent. Not that I assume the men are either. I try to ask who is able to discuss technical details regardless of whom I'm speaking with.

[me] I suspected she might be [a booth babe], so that's close enough.

[me] Anyway having learned who she is and the incredible work she does both in the tech and black communities, I thought I'd share this with you. You may find her post interesting. I knew I had mentioned her attractiveness and questioned whether she was there for those qualities.


"Smile but don't be creepy."

"Don't make sexual advances towards women."

These are two of the instructions given in teacher training for Railsbridge. It's good advice. The point is to create an environment where women can feel safe participating. I've taught only one Railsbridge-style course, and I don't think these guidelines were a problem for me.

There is an interesting side-effect though. It should come as no surprise that a geeky guy, especially one who wishes to help create an environment where people feel safe and are treated equally, might find a geeky woman who believes the same things really quite attractive.

A Railsbridge session is absolutely not the right place to bring up that attraction. It's quite possible that, having worked with a woman in such a session, there is never an appropriate way to approach the topic. I really don't know.


I once saw author Derrick Jensen speak. I was particularly troubled by his assertion that men have a responsibility to announce and prove on every occasion that they are not a threat to women. That I must be presumed dangerous, and that I have responsibility to demonstrate definitively otherwise.

After I started writing this post, I saw yet another threat against the woman from PyCon. This one was posted on Twitter, and it contained her home address and phone number with a photograph that I would find disturbing even in a horror movie. It seems that Derrick Jensen was living in the real world, and I'm still learning how sheltered I've been. "Check your privileges."

Being male is only one of my advantages. I'm white. I'm heterosexual. I'm big - tall, strong, imposing. I'm married. I have children. I have some advanced education. I have a white collar job. I live in a house. I have a car. I have connections. I come from a "decent family". I'm sure the list goes on.

To be perfectly honest, I have trouble living with the messages I get. Sometimes my depression over just being who I am is debilitating. This depression is informed in large part by the degree of truth in the message.

I am the oppressor. Believe me, I can probably overpower you, male or female. Mentally I'm quick-witted and argumentative, and in an argument I can cut you down. Physically I am powerful. My hands alone are twice the size of most - my pinky, for example, is bigger and stronger than my wife's thumbs. My wife tells me I should include here that she is neither small nor weak.

I am the patriarch. I have tried to be a loving husband and nurturing parent, and I've been very successful in many ways. And yet I will power-over my children to get done what needs done.

I am entitled. Not only do I have all of these advantages, not only have I used all of these advantages, but I believe at various times that it is my right to use all of these advantages.

I'm Hulk in a kindergarden. Sometimes I can't turn around without hurting someone vulnerable.


I've never worked with a woman developer.

I'm not the only one, either. I've been collecting stories about this, asking hundreds of people in real life and online how many women developers they've worked with, and in comparison, how many male developers they've worked with.

These stories will become a blog post eventually. Maybe even a presentation, if I can figure out how I, a privileged heterosexual white man, can get up and talk about the position women hold in the tech community. So far the best I've come up is this: I can call for us to throw our hands in the air and reject the premise that a small number of (mostly) white men should be responsible to create our society and our culture.

But even there, I have looked in the mirror and recognize the enemy.

So then I wonder if I can just go to teach coding in some predominantly minority neighborhood, to anyone who wants to learn. I imagine maybe they won't notice I'm white, and hope that someone from the community quickly takes over and I can play only a supporting role.


No one has solicited my help to solve the issues around minorities in tech - at least not beyond speaking up in support. I do not expect to be drafted in the future to solve these question either.

So far as I can tell, I have two responsibilities:

  1. I have privilege and power, which puts me in the class that is considerably better able to create change without violence.
  2. I have children who are dependent on me, and responsibility to bring them into the community better prepared and with fewer hangups than I have.

I have four children, two from my first marriage and two from my wife's first marriage. Two of them are adult women. Two of them are young men. All of them are dependent in part on me to help them learn how to check their privilege. I continue to try to teach them by example, even as I'm learning this myself.


I'm going to put it out here for discussion, not because it's enough: "The role of women in tech is relevant to men because we have wives and daughters."

I've heard it many times. I've said it myself. It even has some truth to it (especially if you ignore the patriarchal way it defines a whole group of people by their relationship to some man). I want my wife and daughters to be recognized and valued for who they are, and for their contributions rather than their potential as sexual partners.

I started getting closer, I think, when I realized I want the role of women in tech to improve because I have two sons, also. I want them to have the experience of working with women as equals, to get the benefit of different perspectives and experiences. I want all of my children to live and work in a world that treats women as people.

The homogenous tech environment we have now has not only limited the opportunity for women, it limits opportunity for all of us. The role of women in tech is not relevant to me because I'm a man, it's relevant to me because I am a person. Each of us lives fuller lives when our communities include, and are built by, all kinds of people.


I don't think the woman who asked PyCon to enforce their Code of Conduct intended to be brave. She is brave, and she's proving it repeatedly, but her courage should never have been necessary.

I was at PyCon, and I'm not one of the people she called out. But over a period of three decades, I've contributed to her dilemma. I'm trying to do better. I've undoubtedly been one of the jokers, inappropriate and unprofessional, at points in my career. I've never been one of the people threatening to rape or murder. Sometimes it takes the latter to even notice the former, if you're one of the privileged. I understand women and other minorities find it much easier to recognize our biases.

This hurts me. I've spent two and a half days half-broken in a depressed funk over this specific situation at a conference I just left. I was just there. I was with these people, beautiful and kind and caring for each other. It wasn't all unicorns and rainbows, but I do prefer my peak experiences stay where I put them.

Sexism in the tech community hurts me. I go to work and to tech meetups and I see variations of myself - white men, many of them younger than me these days, building the products and services that I put my heart into. We can't do this by ourselves. We need the diversity of women, of people who weren't raised in the same way I was, thinking many of the same things. When I look at this community, I don't want to see myself. I want to see us all.

Some sexual banter between these guys at a tech conference ended up hurting us all, but none more than this one woman at PyCon it seems. The situation continues to develop. As if threats of rape and murder were not enough response to her request that the conference enforce their code of conduct, she lost her job about ten minutes ago. SendGrid's announcement.

We not only share this world, we co-create it. This means that you and I are responsible for how it has turned out. I've done my share of damage, in spite of my best efforts. I try to do my share of construction too. I'm still looking for my role, and I'm afraid it will ultimately only be clear when it's become my legacy.

Thank you to @KuraFire, @zspencer, @angelaharms, and my wife @senvara for her help in editing this post, and to my friend in San Jose for allowing me to share our conversation. While my post has been improved by their input, I don't speak for them or anyone but myself.

I've decided not to use footnotes or name names in this post since it is not my intention to focus yet more vitriol on the people involved in this story.

On March 24, 2013 I edited sections VIII and IX based on feedback I received in order to better communicate my ideas.

Talk back to me

You can comment below. Or tweet at me. I'm always open to a good conversation.