I recently got a chance to work with the wonderful Adria Richards, only later realizing that she’s friends with many of my tech heroes - Brianna Wu, Scott Hanselman, Coraline Ada Ehmke among others. We also had a chance to discuss the problem of sexism and bias in the tech industry - examples being Coraline’s year at Github, Sarah Mei’s thread about Uncle Bob, and Adria’s own traumatic experience.
That conversation brought up an important question in my mind, something I’ve been asking myself ever since: what have I absorbed as “normal”, as “locker room talk”, as harmless - that actually isn’t?
Let me illustrate with an example: Uncle Bob Martin. As a young engineer I idolized him. His bombastic and entertaining talks, his Clean Code book… he taught me a lot. One particular talk at RailsConf 2009, “What killed SmallTalk could kill Ruby, too” was one of my all-time favorites.
Recently, Sarah Mei (another person I idolize) tweeted about how horrible Uncle Bob’s sexist comments in that 2009 keynote had made her feel:
Mind you, Sarah was tweeting in 2017 about something that had happened in 2009. She had carried that burden all this time. Other women responded to her thread, echoing that sentiment, bringing up other examples over the years.
And thus my own blind spot was revealed to me: prior to Sarah’s tweet, I never felt offended by that talk. Going back now to watch the video, it’s clear how offensive Bob’s statements are. But at the time I didn’t even smell a whiff of the problem. Like the (majority male) audience I laughed and moved on without a second thought.
How can you tell?
Firstly, he played the “it was just a joke” card. This paints the complaining victim as feminazis (apologies for using that odious phrase) and brings a bunch of defenders out of the woodwork. Some sound reasonable, but others are just way out there:
Next, there’s a difference between truly asking for help, and putting the onus on the victims. The latter sounds like this: “Well I’m sorry if you were offended, I didn’t mean it that way.” That’s what his final paragraph sounds like to me:
So, if you see me making a mistake like this, you yell out and stop me. Or catch me afterwards. Or write me a note. And don’t let any of my peers get away with it either.
Finally, the best test of an apology is whether the offending action was repeated. And on that count he fails completely.
Let’s leave Uncle Bob behind now. I’ve used him to make a point, but here are the two key takeaways for myself:
- Be on the lookout for unwitting harm you may cause due to your biases. It must be your duty to engage with that fact if someone points it out. And instead of putting the onus on the victim (“I didn’t mean it that way, can’t you take a joke?”), it must be upon you to change your ways for good.
- Just because you admire someone’s ability in one field shouldn’t give them an automatic pass in your mind about everything.
Update: read someone who puts it much better than I ever could.