The Risk in Speaking Up

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On July 09, 2013
  3. Tagged diversity equality activism allies ally

If you're familiar with me or my work, you know that I speak a lot about the issues surrounding the lack of diversity in tech. Sometimes this means sharing articles, social commentary, or giving talks at conferences. Other times this may mean speaking up about the bad behavior of a person or company to draw attention to the issue and educate the community.

I'm one of a growing number of people that are speaking out loudly and publicly about these problems. In doing so, we receive a lot of responses in the form of emails, tweets, and blog post comments concerning both the way we chose to speak up as well as the response they expect us to have to this -- a form of silencing. Comments range from thanks to sympathy to dismissiveness to rudeness to physically threatening. Most incidents that get a reasonable amount of attention will see the whole gamut repeated multiple times, predictably so. As an example, the responses to a set of ignorant tweets made last night by someone are nearly identical to the responses today about a completely separate incident that fell in the same ballpark of poor behavior.

This post has been a long time coming; with each incident the feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger swell up again. The energy I and others have to explain the complexity of these issues gets quickly depleted dealing with the same reactions each time. I'm writing this to help you understand a little about what it's like to speak up as well as the kinds of responses we hope to get when we do.

Risk and Reward

Why do we speak up?

There are a lot of social problems in technical communities and companies. Homogeneity fueled by the thinly veiled ideal of "culture fit" has allowed companies and conferences to discriminate in a way that's become socially acceptable. Attrition rates are on the rise, new entry rates into the field are falling. We're seeing many of the most intelligent, talented, and driven people around us being pushed out of the only career they've ever known because of constant harassment, discrimination, and inequity. 

We believe that the things many people are experiencing are not only unethical and illegal, but harm the industry and our ability to innovate. We want to see everyone have equal access and treatment in a field that is pushing the boundaries in every social context.

In speaking up about these things, we educate people about the reality of this behavior, why it's not okay, and what it's doing to people. Without people being exposed to this information, they may never realize it's a problem.

What do we risk speaking up?

Being a person in the minority and/or challenging the way things have always been comes with a lot of risks. We weigh these risks everytime we speak out: "choose your battles", "is this really worth it?", "what will I gain from this?", "how will this hurt me in the long run?" are all things that regularly go through our minds.

A taste of some of the risks we open ourselves up to include the following:

Financial and Professional

  • losing a job for views deemed controversial to your employer's customer base
  • failing to get a job because of the very thing you are speaking out against, for fear you may ruffle feathers, be difficult to work with, or will attract unwanted attention to yourself or the company
  • being labeled as a trouble maker, angry, or fringe
  • being seen as a risk to an employer, conference organizer, or any group that relies on the financial support of customers or members that do not hold equality in the same esteem that you do

Social Risk

  • distancing friends and colleagues who are afraid to be ostracized or seen in the light detractors may see you in out of fear for their financial, professional, and social safety
  • alienating people that otherwise enjoy your company because they'd rather not be exposed to the depressing reality of many people's lives

Physical and Emotional Risks

  • receiving physical threats of violence, whether or not the person would actually act on them
  • receiving threats toward your public, professional, or social image
  • physical assault or confrontation
  • receiving messages with abusive language
  • doxxing, DDoSing, etc
  • harassment of friends, family, and acquaintances in your name

Common Responses

"You should name and shame the people who harass you."

I see this most often when someone tweets or blogs about incidents while anonymizing the details of the event or person. The logic behind naming and shaming may seem simple - "tell us who this person is so we can put them into professional and social exile."

While this may sound like a great idea in the long run, doing this can expose yourself to even more harassment, especially if the person is a well-respected member of the community. Their voice - and "army" - can quickly overpower yours and you can be punished for daring to shed light on this person's poor behavior.

Of course the other thing to keep in mind about this is that the people who behave badly are free to then go on to continue doing it without reprisal. I commented yesterday on twitter that many of the women I know in the community talk to each other about bad experiences with individuals, companies, and conferences as a way of protecting each other and removing ourselves from potentially bad situations. The downside is that because many of us feel this has to be done underground to avoid the risks, this means you have to be in the trusted circle to get this information. We don't have a list we can share of bad things that have been committed by these people to keep everyone safe. 

"The people who do these things are young, friendless losers; they can't actually hurt you."

This comment tends to be made in an effort to console the person, as if to say "this is just one person and they're not worth your time." Unfortunately this isn't the case - the people who commit some of the worst acts are your coworkers and friends, they own and run companies, are in charge of hiring/firing, choose who speak at conferences, are core maintainers of popular open source projects, are popular authors, or are cult personalities for any number of other reasons. People in power who do these things are the absolute worst case scenario - it's more likely that they will be able to effect your life or the lives of people like you. Plus they have a large following of people which means that there are more people to agree with them loudly. Think of this person as the popular kid at school who no one dared cross.

Dismissing these issues and stating that the people saying or doing these things are fringe or 4chan/reddit/HN trolls who aren't actually in the community or friendless losers or otherwise unimportant, inconsequential people takes the obligation off of us to revoke their power. In reality, these are the thought leaders of bullies (all lols intended).

"We're not all like that."

Not only is this reponse not helpful or supportive, it's not news. Think hard about why you're responding this way.

As an example: if it happens to be a man that sends a sexist remark my way and I comment that I'm tired of that happening, what are you accomplishing by stating "not all men make sexist remarks"?

"Don't let a few bad apples ruin your whole career/experience/hobby/whatever" or "Stay and fight to show that they're wrong." or "There will always be jerks."

While meant to be encouraging, remember that many of the people that are on the receiving end of rampant harassment see this stuff constantly. To us, it's not "a few bad apples", it's yet another person that people respect saying terrible things, one more scary email in our inboxes, another person that is slinging slurs in our direction. How long should a person endure that kind of punishment simply for daring to exist in the same space as these "bad apples"?

What's more, is it ethical to guilt people into staying in a field to stand in the face of these horrible events?

How You Can Help

The best way you can help is to work on being an ally. An ally is someone who is outside of a marginalized group, but empathizes with the things they experience and want to help create change. An ally may have privilege that people in that group don't have. Remember: having privilege doesn't make you a bad person, it just means you have to educate yourself about what that privilege gives you while it takes away from other people. You can start by learning more about being an ally as a person with privilege.

Start removing problematic language from your vocabulary

This is an ongoing process and one that all of us need to be concious of. For instance, I've been trying to stop saying words like "crazy" and "lame" because they are exclusionary, offensive, and derogatory to some people. For others, it may mean starting lower on the ladder by removing generalizations, stereotypes, and slurs about marginalized groups of people.

Be humble; practice apologizing

To go along with the previous tip, you're going to screw up. I do it all the time and I feel I'm better versed in these issues than the average person.

For instance, I was speaking at a conference recently and I accidentally said the word "crazy" in a derogatory manner. I stopped myself and said, "I'm sorry, I'm trying to stop using that word. I actually meant 'ridiculous'." It's as simple as that and provides good behavior modeling for bystanders :)

Eventually it's going to happen where someone calls you out for something you say. The way you respond says volumes about you as a person. Stopping and sincerely apologizing allows you to not only save face, but to earn back the respect of the person who called you out. Level up this skill by not needing someone to call you out to correct yourself.

Create change however you can

If you're a marginalized person, it's understandable that you may not necessarily feel you can speak up. The risks for some are far greater than for others and no one expects you to be potentially further punished because you happen to fall into an underrepresented group. What you can do is not make the situation worse. Far too many times I've seen someone remark plainly that they've experienced none of this - which I wish more of us could say! - so therefore they believe it never happens. Empathize with the people who haven't been as lucky as you have. Nothing is harder to deal with than someone from a marginalized group you belong to telling people that "those other people are making it up/it's not so bad." That gives fuel to the people that are hurting others and you end up being used as a tool against people like you, which you don't want.

If you're a person with privilege (which most of us are) and power, your actions have far more weight. If you feel you can loudly speak up, do so. Understand that as a person with privilege, though, that you want to be advocating based on what people within that group have said they want and need, not what you think they want or need. It's not impossible that someone may help you correct the way you speak out to be better aligned with the group's needs and desires.

If you aren't ready to speak out against others to change things, don't worry! Start at home. Educate yourself about the kinds of issues facing people different than you and do your best to not exacerbate them. Remember that being an ally isn't a permanent state nor a label you get to choose for youself - your actions prove you to be an ally.

See something, do something

Someone getting harassed in person or online? Ask the person how they'd like you to help. For some people, like me, all that means is blocking or reporting that person for abuse. When it comes to twitter, I will quickly block abusive people and then have to deal with a barrage of @replies from acquaintances who are replying to that person and leaving my name in the tweet, so I have to continue to be upset by it. For others, they may want people to stand up loudly beside them so they feel they aren't alone. Each person has different reasons for their approach and remember that you are trying to minimize the impact on the person on the receiving end, so ask what they want done and respect that.

Be a good friend

Have a friend that regularly goes through this? Ask them how you can help them deal with the stress, anxiety, anger, or depression that are byproducts of the process. An offer to screen emails, tweets, or tag along with them to events to act as a buffer can greatly decrease their anxiety. Helping to keep their mind off of the issue by talking to them about something else or distracting them with funny movies and pizza may be just what they need. Maybe being a person they can vent to in private to dump the adrenaline out of their system is how you can help. Above all, ask them what they need and how you can be most supportive.

Further Reading

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