A Culture of (Potential) Assholes: Sexual Harassment in IT

On a recent trip I had my eyes opened to the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the IT industry. I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I was. It broke my heart to discover that friends of mine had to put up with treatment that I thought only occurred in bad HR training videos.

Before I unpack my thoughts on this issue I feel I must issue a disclaimer. I’m a man. I’ve been guilty of sexual harassment to some degree in my life. I do not want to give the impression that I am above this issue. I enjoy making comments laced with double entendre that are probably more than a little offensive at times. Only now, I am more aware of and sensitive to these situations than before.

Here is what I observed. I was sitting next to a female developer in a hotel lobby in the evening during a multi-day conference. We had just met that evening, and I was enjoying our conversation. We were both sober, while many of those around us were not.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a loud and drunken man, whom I had met briefly the night before, appeared. He made a few comments to the assembled group, then reached in his back pocket to pull out the envelope that the hotel gives you with your room key cards. Apropos of nothing, he hands the envelope, containing a key, to the lady next to me and says “my room number is written on there. I expect to see you in my room later.”

He then walked away while she tried unsuccessfully to give the room key back. After she sat back down, another male developer on her other side, in apparent sarcasm, said “you took somebody’s room key. You’re such a whore!” This pushed me past my tolerance and I yelled at him “Dude, over the line!”

While this brief scenario doesn’t indicate a trend, it did spark a series of conversations with several women in my circle of contacts. I discovered through these conversations that it is a nearly universal experience that similar inappropriate scenarios happen on a regular basis. What was especially disturbing to me was that the women couldn’t believe that I was surprised by this.

I consider the people I interact with professionally to be my community. I believe fundamentally that we have to take care of one another so that we can all succeed. To discover that members of my community were regularly tolerating treatment that I would not put up with for an instant was mind blowing to me.

I learned that rather than viewing men as neutral peers on first meeting, the women often view us with suspicion and caution. It is as though we are all potential assholes in their eyes, guilty until proven innocent. This led me to second guess many interactions I have had with women developers, wondering if they suspected my motives.

It seems to me that the women in our industry are swallowing emotional poison every time an harassing interaction takes place. They appear to have too high a threshold of tolerance for bad behavior. The lady involved in the situation that prompted this post told me that she couldn’t speak up because she would then be seen as a bitch and would lose business because people wouldn’t want to work with her. Here are some quotes:

I just shrug off certain comments/advancements, because being in IT I feel like I need to be “one of the guys”, so I take it and move on.

That’s what i hate – having to keep my guard up in order to respond professionally, because there’s this expectation that i have to respond in some way, either by being offended or going along with the joke and showing that i’m cool, etc.

I’ve been plenty naive, falling for “yeah sure we’re just friends” or “no I didn’t mean anything by that” lines. After enough lost trust in people, I’ve probably become more aware and/or suspicious.

Protesting too much gets you nowhere except labled in one of various negative ways. In which case, you HAVE to pick your battles, and figure out what is truly offensive and worth speaking up about, and ignore the rest. Otherwise you’re just the “boy who cried wolf.”

This condition frankly saddens me. In discussing these discoveries with my friend Dustin Campbell, he reminded me that as men, we have a tendency to fix and rescue. The issue at hand defies my attempts at immediate refactoring. I asked the women what I could do when I witness an incident of harassment. They suggested that I take the offender aside and talk to him rather than publicly reacting and potentially escalating an uncomfortable situation. One friend made it clear that I should say that I find the behavior offensive rather than come across like I’m sticking up for a “little lady.”

Henceforth, if I see anyone pulling any of this shit, I will take the person aside and have a discrete but direct conversation. If it continues, I will call the person out publicly. If it continues beyond that, I’ll take whatever steps necessary to inform vendors and clients of the individual’s character.

The day after my “awakening”, I went to a Women In Technology meeting to learn more. There I heard that retention of women in the industry is at least as big a problem as recruiting them in the first place. The three biggest causes of women leaving IT are sexual harassment, lack of role models and lack of mentors.

When it comes to role models and mentors, there may be fewer women than men, but they definitely exist. I know quite a few amazing women developers. Now, I am even more impressed with these women because of what they have had to put up with as they progress in their careers. I invite all of my peers to join me in making the profession of software development more welcoming to everyone by looking out for your neighbor.