In conversations about sexism (in the tech industry or elsewhere), men are often surprised to hear how bad the situation is for some of their women coworkers and friends. We often are tempted to say “this wouldn’t happen in my company.” If you are an expatriate or travel abroad, there is also the variant “in my country, we treat women fairly!” I would like to share something that made me think twice about this.
A few years ago, I was invited to talk about “the future of the cloud” at a tech event in Paris. This would be a 15-minute talk, with a very wide audience (both technical and non-technical folks). That was something very different from my usual mandate: back then, half of my talks were “Introduction to Docker and containers” and the other half consisted of more advanced topics revolving around containers (containers and security, containers and microservices, containers and immutable infrastructure, containers this and that, you get the idea).
Just a few days before, one of my coworkers had published a gut-wrenching blog post where she was describing the daily harassment that she was facing. That woman was (and still is) one of the best open source developers of my generation, and back then, she was working on a very popular open source project. And as a result, she was receiving a constant stream of horrible emails and other messages containing death threats, photoshopped pictures, and more.
Of course, not all women in the tech industry have to deal with behavior as extreme; but sexism and bias is rampant in our industry. Women have to work harder to get the same amount of credit; we collectively have biases that push women out of scientific disciplines (as illustrated by the story of this transgender man who suddenly found himself way better considered at work than when his name was Barbara). The software industry, and open source in particular, is no better: far from the “meritocracy” often advertised, open source communities don’t welcome women and studies show that women write code that is at least as good as men, but will be rated lower if their gender is known.
I’m French and spent the first 30 years of my life in France. I became aware of the extreme sexism in tech only when I moved to the US. Let me clarify: I am not stating that the US is more (or less) sexist than France. I’m merely saying that I was blissfully ignorant of the issue before. Obviously, I was aware that in my CS degree, only 10% of the students were women; but it never crossed my mind that women could have a lower proficiency than men in the field. My mother was a math teacher who used LaTeX to typeset the assignments that she handed out to her students. My sister knew her way around a Linux system (text mode, back then) to access IRC and copy CDs. My girlfriend in University floored me as we were debugging code together because she could instantly spot which pointers were on the heap or on the stack. The (few) women in our class back then were also in the top tier of our alumni. And yet.
And yet, when I started to become aware of how rampant and ubiquitous sexism could be, a little voice in me kept whispering silently: “Not all men are like that. Look, in France, you never saw anything like this happen.” To be honest, I didn’t know – because I had never investigated sexism in tech in France.
Until that talk.
I hadn’t prepared anything for that talk. A few hours before, I realized that I was completely unable to talk about Docker for a non-technical audience. And as I tried to chalk out ideas, to come up with colorful metaphors, I kept thinking about my friend’s blog post; about what she (and possibly many other women) were facing.
So when I climbed on stage, I spent a few minutes babbling not very convincingly about Docker, containers, and DevOps. And then I tried to talk about sexism in tech. I don’t know if this was very convincing; honestly I don’t even dare rewatching that talk again because I had slept two hours that night and my performance was probably very poor. The only thing I remember clearly is that I finished the talk by saying, “my vision for the future of the cloud is as follows: in ten years, on this stage, there should be 5 men and 5 women, instead of 1 woman and 9 men like today.”
You Will Never Guess What Happens Next.
After my talk, a lot of women came to thank me for “talking about it.” That was quite surprising, especially given the small number of women attending the event. Statistics were at odds. A few hours later, when I left the venue, somebody who was sitting at a café across the street even hailed me to chat about it.
I think it’s about that time that the little voice telling me “not all men” died in my head, because this experience made me understand that even in France, where we’re all about “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” sexism is just as bad as in the US, and men shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.
Next time you hear someone pretend that in their school, university, country, region … sexism is “not as bad,” think about this. Think about the fact that women cannot talk about sexism without facing negative consequences. So let’s try at least to change our discourse. If you say, “this doesn’t happen in my community,” you are basically silencing anybody who would like to say otherwise. Next time, try this instead: “I’m sorry that this happened to you. I wasn’t aware of this problem. How can I help?”
One thing you can do is to fight against your own biases. One of my favorite techniques is to deliberately apply reverse bias. At a tech conference, never ask a woman, “so you’re a recruiter?” but try “so, are you rather in dev or ops?” If you are attending a meetup full of dudes, and before the presentation starts, you are striking conversation with one of the only women in attendance, don’t ask her if she works here. Instead, ask her if she’s the speaker. (I did once, and she was. True story!)