Monday, February 20, 2017

This isn't the most important thing you'll read about sexism in tech today.

If it has been so far, try this and this maybe? Anyway, it's important for guys to speak up about this stuff, and I am (as you all know) just some guy, so...

This story, in particular

Those articles linked above were the ones that prompted me to write this, covering Susan Fowler's account of working at Uber for a year, detailing specific incidents of sexual harassment, wider failures of culture and inclusiveness, and poor HR responses to them. I work for Google. Google shares, at least, a lot of jargon with Uber, so when I read Fowler's account I had a couple double-takes, before remembering I wasn't reading something written by one of my colleagues. While accounts of both specific harassment from superiors and general sexism in the culture aren't unheard of at Google, I think our HR and leadership response has generally been better. But then there's a lot that I see from the inside here that I don't see there. When Uber's CEO responds that this sort of thing is against what Uber “stands for”, it's hard to see what Uber does stand for if it only reacts to public allegations — if it has not taken proactive steps to make sure HR and other leadership are prepared when they come up internally. Every organization needs to be ready for these sorts of things to come up internally, because they will. They always do.

Everyone, every man working in tech needs to be ready for these sorts of things to come up, with themselves personally. We will make mistakes. Even if we don't do anything that's specifically worthy of getting called out, we'll do things that contribute to a culture that's really hard on women. So we all need to be ready to respond first with humility, not defensiveness.

Our whole selves, and nothing but our selves

Again, my perspective is not the critical one here, but ya gotta write what ya know, 'eh?

Google tries to take more responsibility for its employees' well-being and happiness than other companies I've worked for. When I started there, five years ago, there was a lot of discussion about work-life balance and employee surveys asked about our ability to detach from work in off-time. With answers looking alarming, people looked into the question and found that there appeared to be a spectrum of work-life styles. Some people are “balancers”, who separate their work and personal lives, while other people are “integrators”, who choose to blur the lines, sometimes socializing and taking down-time during the work day, sometimes getting good work done at home. We have a lot of “integrators” at Google, with a lot of official support, and it didn't just start five years ago. This was, perhaps, adaptive to Silicon Valley, where tech campuses are sprawling and isolated. It made sense to eat at work because there weren't restaurants around; it made sense to go running from work, because it would be dark by the time you got home. And it made sense for companies to provide employees, especially younger ones, some built-in, almost college-like social opportunities. I moved to the South Bay just after college to work for Nvidia, hardly knowing anyone on the west coast at the time, and the difficulty I had building a social life there is the main reason why I left after a year. In any case, now the surveys explicitly emphasize “bringing your whole self to work”, more than work-life balance.

When the idea of balancers and integrators came up at Google, I was sure I was a balancer. I truly value my independence, having an identity and a life that's set apart a bit from my career — these opinions are not the opinions of my employer, that goes without saying. But I've found over the last few years that, at least at Google (where there are some really strong “integrator” draws) I'm more of an integrator that I thought. This isn't always to my great credit, but I won't get into that here; doing stuff with colleagues has rekindled my interest in competitive running and cycling, allowed me to share knowledge and learn stuff about tea, and helped me develop a personal sense of style. If that's not the most world-changing stuff, well, working with people that care about my life a bit has made work a place I look forward to going when things are tough in my personal life.

This is much, much easier for me than it is for most people. I'm a skinny white dude with middle-of-the-road interests, tastes, and politics (by tech-industry standards). I almost never have to worry about not being accepted. I don't have kids, so I have the schedule flexibility to hang out after work. I don't drive to work, so I can drink if that's going on (surprisingly often at Google, and I'm not sure it's for the best, but that's another story). Introversion makes the volume of loud social events and conversations draining sometimes, but introverts in tech are common and fairly well understood. Would it be more equal if we brought less of ourselves to work, just the “professional” parts? My current thinking: what we call “professional” is full of exclusion, conflict, and discomfort, we just don't talk about it (it wouldn't be professional). The freedom to bring one's full self seems more critical to people that aren't so privileged in the status quo. Being able to openly discuss effectiveness of various bike tires at work is cool; being able to openly discuss the challenges you have being taken seriously at work, at work, seems a little bigger.

That means when we bring our whole selves we can't be selfish about it. If we're bringing our whole selves we have a responsibility to make sure that's meaningful, and not just a new veneer over the old exclusive professionalism (bikes are the new golf, IPAs are the new scotch, etc.). It means that we have to look out for our colleagues and make a point of being welcoming.


The leather jacket thing. Considering how much discussion there has been over how thoughtful you ought to be when giving clothes as swag, and how often women are left out or made uncomfortable when that thought is lacking, this should have been avoidable! When the status quo is so male-dominated, not every avoidable thing will be avoided. That's when the response matters, a lot. The ham-handed, defensive response suggests a culture problem — it's one of the things that suggests Uber hasn't actually stood for anything.

The performance review and transfer games. Again, these seem to show an organization that is desperate to retain women and is willing to try anything except admitting it has problems and working on them.

“The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making”. Keeping in mind that what's judged reasonable is usually a matter of the status quo, all progress depends on those unreasonable people that don't accept it.

I was trying to find a few more things to link in here, and couldn't find them. There was an article that went around maybe a year ago about some true excesses in culture-fit hiring among tech startups, which ties in with the idea of a new veneer over old exclusive professionalism, but I couldn't find it.