Sexual Harassment in Tech - Cucumber Podcast
On the podcast this month we discuss sexual harassment in tech. It's a subject that's been broadly covered in the news and we wanted to explore the experiences of women in tech and practical things we can all do to combat sexual harassment in our own communities.
Your host Matt Wynne is joined by Sal Freudenberg, Arti Mathanda, Liz Keogh and Melissa Perri.
Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter
Full transcript below.
Sexual Harassment Podcast
Matt: Welcome to the Cucumber Podcast! It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so I can’t really remember what I’m supposed to say in the introduction. I’m Matt Wynne. I’m one of the founders of the Cucumber Company and one of the early members of the Cucumber OSS project and I’m here with Liz Keogh, Sallyann Freudenberg, Arti Mathanda and Melissa Perri. We’re here to talk about the topic of sexual harassment, I think specifically within the context of the software industry because that’s where we’re all from, but maybe a bit more broadly than that. I asked these four friends of Cucumber onto the podcast to talk about this subject because it’s been a lot in the news recently and I think that it’s important to hear the voices of women who’ve either been through these things or just hear the experiences of women. I think there’s a lot of talk from men on this podcast and it’s probably about time to turn the microphone around. Hopefully, you’ll hear as little as possible of my voice and as much as possible of their voice and their perspective on this topic. I wonder if we should get a little introduction so everybody knows who each of you are. Would that be alright? Arti is shaking her head at me. Just say your name and what your favourite film is or something.
Arti: Hi! I’m Arti. My favourite movie right now is “Serenity”.
Liz: Hi! I’m Liz. My favourite film is “Watership Down” which is a film about rabbits and it’s a cartoon and you definitely should not show it to your kids or they’ll all become goths.
Sal: Shall I go next because mine is the least “Watershippy Down”. I’m Sal Freudenberg. My favourite movie is “Ichi the Killer”.
Melissa: Hi! I’m Melissa. I’m a Product Management Consultant and my favourite movie is completely not in their realm. It’s “The Godfather”.
Matt: Right! Thanks everyone! So, everybody knows who’s who. Actually, I think, Melissa, it was probably your post – was it on Twitter – a couple of months ago and Chris of Lean Agile Scotland that prompted me to start thinking, “We should do something about this and have this topic covered on the podcast.” Where’s a good place to start? We could talk about this event that was in the news fairly recently when there were female dancers as the entertainment, not wearing very much. Have any of you been to a tech event where that’s happened? What does it feel like as a woman to be in a room when that’s going on, on stage or anywhere else?
Arti: I don’t know whether to mention this because it feels like I am throwing my sub-community under the bus. I went to this tech conference recently called “Lesbians Who Tech” and I thought, “This is great. It’s going to be all women and they’ll know better than to do what people – not all people, but a lot of people – do at conferences,” but on the first day, the intro day or warm-up or whatever it’s called, they had a drag show kind of thing and I was like, “If we can’t expect better from our own community, from women who know – well, should know better – then what hope do we have?” While I was there, I didn’t know whether this was appropriate. I’m not comfortable, but a lot of people seemed to be comfortable with this. The more I talked about it to other people, they were really uncomfortable as well. There is a time and a place for those shows and I don’t think tech conferences are that time or place. Sorry, queer community. I didn’t mean to throw you under the bus, but I wasn’t happy about what happened there.
Sal: This is Sal. I went to an XP-related conference, but really quite some time ago and one of the dinner presentations was by an organization and they did a presentation about the XP values, but “courage” was drinking beer and I can’t remember exactly, but all the other ones were very covetous, scantily clad women that the team wanted to approach. That was the theme of the whole thing and I just remember firstly being in sort of a disbelief that that could even still be a thing that anybody would do. Secondly, feeling like I really didn’t belong in the room. The nice bit was thirdly, they became this gaggle of women who supported each other through it. Some people were saying, “I really wouldn’t feel comfortable working with them in future.” We were kind of, “Should we leave? Should we stay?” That was quite nice and that was kind of a nice side-effect – it did bring women together to voice their consensus which made me feel a little bit less alone in my not belonging, I guess.
Matt: There’s the strength in adversity thing.
Sal: Yeah, but I’d still rather that it just hadn’t happened at all.
Matt: It’s interesting that you talk about the drinking beer thing. Probably that whole presentation had just been put together by a group that either just was only made up of men or the voices of the women in that group were so quiet and poorly listened to that they didn’t get their input into that presentation. That kind of thing, I guess, ties into this topic of what people call “micro aggression” where you might be, in lots of little ways, degraded or disrespected or disregarded or dismissed. I think this is quite an interesting topic because I think it’s something that some people may just not see at all, not notice them, or maybe think they’re not that important like, people should just be a bit thicker-skinned. What’s all of your take on that? Do you think that’s right? Should people just be thicker-skinned? Maybe we should start with some examples of what we mean by micro aggression. What are some times when you’ve witnessed it?
Liz: I’ve honestly not worried about the microaggressions since the big ones. We get micro aggressions all the time, but randomly getting my ass grabbed at the bar, at a conference bar, at a conference party, where we’ve been having a fantastic conversation about large-scale transformation in bugs and suddenly, this guy, instead of having these conversations, has his hand on my ass. For goodness’ sake! His wife was standing right next to him and I’m like, “What are you thinking?” It was in Lean Agile Scotland and they’re very good at enforcing their code of conduct and I knew the organizers had my back, so I was able to just turn around and snap at him immediately. He did apologize and he apologized more soberly again the next day. That’s not micro. That’s not a micro aggression. I’d worry about microaggressions if we got rid of the big ones.
Melissa: Luckily, mine didn’t escalate physically like yours did, Liz, but I was invited when I was just starting out to go speak at a conference by a pretty well known organizer and big part of the Kanban community and I was told before I went – this was my tweet storm, I guess, that prompted you, Matt – I was told by two friends who I trusted that this guy was a known lech who was organizing the conference, but they also said, “You have to go because it’s very good for your personal development.” I had just started speaking. I had only spoken at two conferences – Lean Agile Scotland and Lean NYC. This was my third one. It was a really big deal and they were like, “Wow! You got invited already! That’s really awesome! People don’t get invited to this. You really need to go, but just watch out for the conference organizer, because he’s known to sexually harass women.” I’m like, “Okay, so what do I do if that happens?” One of them said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be there. If you don’t feel comfortable, come and talk to me.” I get there and the guy never touched me, but I got messages every single night on Twitter asking me to come to his room, to come up and eat dinner with him in his room.
Matt: These are private messages, Melissa. This isn’t in front of anybody else?
Melissa: Yes, and I’m now blocked on his Twitter, so I can’t show you the messages because they all got erased as soon as he blocked me. They would be private messages, “Come have dinner in my room. Come have a bottle in my room,” at like, ten o’clock. I’d be like, “No, I’m going out.” I was also told not to piss him off, very blatantly, by my friends. They said, “Do not get on his bedside. He will ruin your reputation. He will ruin your entire career.” Here I am, just starting out, very nervous about overstepping my bounds with him, worried about speaking up about it and trying to be like, “Ha-ha, thank you, but no, I’m out. I’m with some other people,” and I just felt the whole time like I was dodging him. I saw other conference speakers going out to dinner and I’d run up to them and be like, “Can I join you?” like, “I don’t feel safe here by myself,” and they were like, “Yeah, come on.” I showed a couple of people what was going on and they were like, “That’s screwed up.” Nobody did anything and then, I realized after the conference, talking to so many more people, that this was a routine behaviour of his that crossed into physical assault as well, whereas mine was just him trying to get me up to his room all the time. He would be talking about my appearance all the time. It was very inappropriate and I didn’t know what to do because when the conference organizer is the one doing that to you, who do you go to? Who is there to enforce it? There was no code of conduct. When I did complain, the other conference organizers were like, “That doesn’t happen. That’s just him. This is just boys being boys. That’s just what he does.”
Arti: I think it speaks volumes. Melissa, you said a few times now, “He didn’t touch me,” almost like, “Oh, it wasn’t that much to put up with.” That’s horrible that you had to put up with that and the fact that we, as women, have these degrees of just verbal harassment or just stalker-ish behaviour.
Melissa: It is true. I hear sometimes people debate. For me, it was personally traumatizing even though it was just verbal, but we do do this! We go, “Thank God it didn’t go physical! Thank God he didn’t assault my body!” At the same time, it’s such a mental toll where I’m just there to try to do my best in my presentation and meet people and network and grow and learn from them, and here I am dodging the most powerful person in the room. I felt like it was like a cat and mouse where I was just running around the hotel trying to get away from him and everywhere I went, he would show up. I’d be eating lunch; he’d sit down next to me. I was sitting in a keynote and he came and he sat on the table in front of me, that I was sitting at, cornering me and told me to read some of the stuff he wrote in his book because he invented UX before the UX invented it. He literally said that. I’m like, “How do you get away? How do you feel comfortable?” As much as you say no, he just kept coming back like, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to watch the keynote.” “It’s my conference. Don’t worry!” It’s not respectful to other people and it’s not respectful to me. There was no getting out of it. There was no way I could feel comfortable, being incredibly firm and also, I’m worried what people told me, “Don’t piss him off. He’ll ruin your career. He’s a very vindictive person.” That’s weighting on you as well.
Sal: I think what’s telling for me about this, Melissa, is I am pretty sure I know who you’re talking about. I’m pretty sure a lot of other people in the industry know who you’re talking about. I’ve had a bad experience with that person as well, as have many other people that I speak to and yet, we all whisper about these and I’ve been hearing that phrase. A whisper network of people can kind of say, “Be a bit careful about that person,” or, “Don’t spend time with that person,” or, “That person is a known lech.” Yet, for some reason, it’s not okay to say that out loud. We have to whisper to each other, which is just awful. I had a similar experience, possibly with the same person, where they corned me during dinner. I was sitting down and nobody helped. That was the thing for me. “I feel trapped and nobody is helping.” In fact, I ended up saying, “You do know I’m a kickboxer,” pretty blatantly at one point, because he kind of brushed against me and made a joke about nearly touching my breasts and I was like, “You do know I’m a kick boxer,” and he just disappeared and it went okay, but that’s not an approach I would like to have to take ever with anybody.
Arti: And it’s not an option many of us have either. Not everyone is a kick boxer.
Matt: You have a rare set of skills that gave you the ability and the confidence to say that in that situation as well which is lucky for you, but other people might not have been so confident.
Melissa: It makes you really reconsider which events you go to as well. I would never go back to one of the events hosted by them, although everybody has told me. One of the other ones they run in Europe. I wanted to go so bad, but knowing that he’d be there, I didn’t even apply, I didn’t even think about it. People asked me to come and I was like, “No, I don’t want to put myself in that situation again.” Removing yourself from that, which feels like the safest option and is the safest option, you remove yourself from opportunities to go out and speak, so it sets you back.
Liz: Yeah, and similarly, I’ve said no to events for similar reasons. I’ve also started saying no to events now if they don’t have a code of conduct.
Matt: Do those events that you’re talking about have a code of conduct, Melissa, nowadays?
Melissa: I think they did implement one last year. I think they did. I saw that come up. I still don’t trust it, knowing who is going to enforce it. I wouldn’t go either way. Even without a code of conduct, if somebody comes to you with a problem and you’re organizing a conference, you should feel like stepping in. It’s just words otherwise. They put that up there to make people feel better, but they didn’t talk about how they would change it and I wouldn’t trust them to change it.
Matt: A code of conduct is no use unless it gets enforced.
Arti: I think coming back to Matt’s original question about microaggressions, I agree with you, Liz. We definitely have to fix the bigger aggressions. I think microaggressions kind of give people the permission to escalate the aggression to bigger levels. I don’t think it’s a question of getting a thicker skin. I think it sets the tone and it sets the culture of where you are and the space you’re in. If it’s okay to make jokes about women’s appearance or the hotness ranking of women or anyone else in room, you might make those jokes with people you’re close to because you know it’s a joke and it’s funny because you know it’s ridiculous and you don’t actually think like that, but when you’re in a public space, not everyone knows that you actually don’t believe in those things or you are strictly against those things and it’s only a joke because it’s so ridiculous and might take that as permission or behave in ways that go beyond, “Get a thick skin and learn to take a joke” kind of thing.
Liz: I agree with you, Arti. I agree with you completely. The one joke that I mentioned on my “Me too” blog – I don’t want to hear my name and “rohypnol” in the same sentence ever. There is no circumstance in which that is funny, just none. I told him it wasn’t funny and he doubled down on it and now, I go around and I make sure that there is a code of conduct any place I’m likely to meet him. He actually didn’t turn up to the last conference where he was meant to be speaking and I was like, “Ah, brilliant! I can just go out and have a good time.”
Sal: I think the other thing that I wanted to add about microaggressions is some of them might seem so tiny that they’re almost not hurtful or almost not making you feel like you don’t belong, but you’ve got to put that in a bag of micro aggression on micro aggression on micro aggression. I don’t think you can treat them as separate things. They’re part of a whole culture of that being okay that just makes us feel invisible or belittled or that we don’t belong. This is in an industry that’s crying out for more women. There are plenty of wonderful people trying to make that happen and yet, there’s a kind of death from a thousand cuts that you get from micro aggressions. Although, I completely agree with Liz. The big stuff is terrible, awful. We shouldn’t be saying, “Oh, but these micro aggressions…” They do build up and they create in themselves a culture that’s pretty toxic.
Melissa: It’s funny though because the reaction when you talk about microaggressions to the world is like, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” It’s exactly what you said, Sal. It’s the compounding effect of all the microaggressions that really get there. It’s interesting to see how people respond to this. A micro aggression happened to me last year as I was keynoting a talk and I had a man introduce me. I didn’t know him, but he was the head of one of the companies that was sponsoring it. He’s reading my bio, introducing me for my keynote in front of 2000 people. He’s going through it and he’s like, “Melissa is the CEO of Produx Labs. She’s worked with these companies,” he’s listing them up, “And it seems like she is writing a book,” and he’s going through this kind of disengaged, so I’m like, “This is already off to a fun start.” At the end, he goes, “Looks like she’s done a lot of stuff, but she doesn’t really look that old, so here she is!” I was like, “Great!” I’m kind of just dumbfounded and I get on the stage and now, I’m trying to kick off a keynote and be all peppy. It’s one of those things where you don’t kind of process it right away, but it knocks you down a little bit. I’m young and I do get some really weird remarks from people who go like, “You don’t look like you’re in tech,” or like, “You are too young to be accomplished.” It’s like these little pieces that pick you down and I’ve seen men my age meet the cover of Forbes and I’ve seen other men be in the same type of conferences where they never get the same kind of comments that the younger women do. It was one of those things I kind of forgot about and got off because it goes into the background like, you get jarred by it and then, you just forget about it and then, I was having dinner two nights later with some of the other speakers from the conference and somebody was an attendee said, “How do you feel about your keynote?” I was like, “I felt like it was pretty good.” They’re like, “What about the introduction?” There was a woman and I said, “Now that you remind me about it, that was really screwed up. I just got caught up in the world of the conference.” She was like, “Yeah, I felt really uncomfortable.” She was like, “I did not like the way that he introduced you and I saw him introduce a couple more women across the conference and he did the same thing to them and I never saw him introduce a man that way.” It is one of those things. I tweeted about it and I got a lot of different reactions. There were a lot of people who said, “He probably just didn’t know what he was doing,” and I hear that a lot. “He probably just didn’t realize he was hurting you.” To me, it’s what Sal says. It’s ingrained in the culture. A lot of people just don’t think and it comes out of their mouth and because it’s ingrained in the culture, that’s the way they think. I think it’s acceptable to call that out and re-educate people and make them think about it. “Hey, this isn’t really okay.” I got so much backlash from people who were like, “It wasn’t his fault,” or, “It’s not that big of deal.” To me, getting up there, was a bigger deal. It made me feel like I couldn’t perform at my best. I always feel like I have something to prove after that, which takes a lot of mental energy. I’m like, “I’m going to get up here and do the best damn keynote,” but I’m already slightly jarred when I get up there. I had a different reaction, too, where some people took it to an extreme. They were like, “You should’ve just gotten off the stage and not keynoted that.” I’m like, “I’m not going to do that. It’s my keynote. I want to tell people what I know. That’s why I’m here. I’m not going to throw a fit, but I am going to tell people about it later and approach that person and say, “Hey, next time you introduce somebody, can you please not do that?”
Matt: It’s interesting. It seems like there are labels. I don’t know whether there is a grade in here, but there are labels. You could talk about sexism which is what you’re talking about, Melissa. That was probably sexist behaviour from that guy, whereas harassment has another name. I think all of us know there’s a difference when we’re experiencing something that was probably unintentional, but hurtful, versus something that you suspect probably is intentional like, it’s been thought about. Even if it’s by a drunk, they decided to violate what is probably a social norm about touching someone else’s body or contacting them in private. There’s a difference in there. One of the things I am wondering about… I had no idea how much this went on. I’m sure many other men didn’t.
Arti: You’re lucky, Matt.
Matt: Yeah, well, what should I have been doing? What do you wish I have been doing? What could I start doing now? What can other people who care about this do now? You were already talking about it, Sal – befriending the person you can see is getting approached by somebody. I think Anna Shipman shared this thing on Twitter once. It was a story about seeing somebody who was a Muslim woman on a tube train being harassed by an angry white guy. What she did is just went over and instantly tried to make friends with this person and asked her about herself and where she was from and what she was doing, engaging in a conversation, so there wasn’t any space for this horrible man. I thought it was a brilliant story and it kind of reminded me about what you were just saying there, Sal, but I guess that’s just one idea. I’d really like to know what else can we do. I think boycotting people who are being whispered about is one thing that we can do, as long as we get to be on in the whispers. What else can we do? Practically, what can people like me do, who are in the privileged position of not being on the receiving end of this stuff?
Liz: Be an exemplar of good behaviour. That’s one thing. If you see that not good behaviour happening, say, “I don’t think that’s okay,” or just go ask the lady, “Are you alright? How are you doing? I’m Matt. Pleased to meet you.”
Matt: So, speaking up.
Liz: That’s it.
Sal: Absolutely! That’s what I was going to say. That’s the biggest thing. I’ve had people talk about my body in front of a group of people at a work thing. Nobody stood up and said, “Actually, mate, that’s not alright.” It had to be me who was the one who was feeling terrible and out of place and embarrassed and horrified by everything that’s going on. It had to be me the one to say, “That’s not okay,” and that’s the real shame I think.
Arti: Often, the onus of protecting quote, unquote women falls on other women or ourselves and we get labelled shale or thin-skinned. It helps if male allies, who are more powerful allies, speak up for us or with us.
Melissa: Just grabbing somebody or pulling them aside and being like, “Hey, your behaviour is not okay,” like speaking up at the time, but also, if you just see somebody who is routinely bothering a woman or committing micro aggressions, a man grabbing them is a very different thing. I think a woman coming up and being like, “You’re doing this to be,” where people get defensive… I think somebody just being like, “Hey, come over here. Let’s have a chat from a man’s perspective,” might be a lot better.
Liz: I have done that before like, the next day – gone to the person and said, “You know that thing that you did? I just want to explain to you how that felt and what effect it had on me because I think maybe you don’t realize.” I know that I am saying that from a complete place of privilege. I was able to do that, I was not frightened enough and not worried enough about my career to do it, but it was almost like compulsively, I felt like I had to. I wouldn’t get any closure unless I did it, so I kind of felt compelled to do that. I’ve done that twice and both times, the person I spoke to was like, “Oh my Gosh! I’m so sorry. I had no idea that you would feel like that.” The slightly sad thing is certainly, for at least of one of those people, I’m not sure that their behaviour has changed as a result of that conversation – I wish that it had – but it’s really, really hard to do that. I think, Matt, your question about what can you do, help that conversation to take place so that people know the effect that their words and actions are having on people and repeat that message so they can see it’s actually not just Sal or Melissa or anybody who’s super over sensitive, but rather, it’s your behaviour that is consistently making women feel isolated, belittled and attacked.
Liz: I think not necessarily for Matt, but for anybody else who is out there, any other men who are out there who might be feeling a little bit nervous right now, apologize. Apologies go a long way and resist the urge to double down. If you get called out because your behaviour is wrong, have a think about whether your behaviour was wrong and if it was, apologize for it. It means the world to me when somebody has done something wrong and recognized it and gives me a genuinely, heartfelt apology, especially if they are prepared to do it again the next day when they are sober. That’s nice.
Sal: That is an interesting thing that you bring up – the whole alcohol thing – because I’ve had that as well. One of the people who I approached afterwards were like, “Oh, I was drunk.” Liz is showing us an alcohol-free beer right now. I had to say, “I don’t care if you were drunk. That is not okay and being drunk isn’t an excuse.” It’s like if you know that you behave in that way when you’re drunk, it’s your responsibility to not drink or not drink so much that you can’t behave appropriately or not go to that kind of event if you can’t go and not drink and therefore, not behave appropriately. It’s not for me to say, “Oh, you’re right. You were drinking. It doesn’t matter then,” because it doesn’t make it okay.
Melissa: At one of the big Agile conferences, there was a whole team of people from Safe walking around with a shirt that said, “What’s your safe word?” That was their official T-shirt. I came out of a party where I was pretty drunk. So was everybody around me, but they were kind of swarming me and I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” My friend Paul grabbed me and was like, “Let’s go put you in your room,” and I was like, “Yes!” It was one of those things where I feel like people almost associate conferences as parties and we do have parties and I love to go to them. Everybody knows I’m always the one to find the best party at the Agile conference – it’s what I love to do – but it doesn’t give anybody excuses to act inappropriately. That’s not okay in that environment. You all have fun and be respectful at the same time. If you get drunk, that’s cool! Just don’t harass anybody!
Matt: It also wouldn’t be okay at a party at my house with friends like, you don’t behave like that.
Melissa: I remember in college, too. It was the same thing at fraternity parties. You would go and grab the girl because you’re like, “These frat guys are hitting on her, but she doesn’t look stable enough to be here and make judgments. I will take you home.” When you feel like you have to do that at a conference, that’s wrong. I’m sorry. You should not have to feel uncomfortable at a conference because you drink slightly too much. I would advise not drinking too much, but at the same time, it’s like you shouldn’t feel unsafe is that happens. You shouldn’t feel like that at a professional workplace and yet, that happens a lot. I’m also like, “Who designed those T-shirts and thought that was a good idea?” They came back the next year with the same T-shirts and there is a code of conduct for that conference.
Liz: We’re all stunned into silence now.
Matt: It’s interesting. I’m just thinking about the way people react to it. I remember there was a conference not that long ago – an Agile conference – and somebody noticed that all of the speakers were white men and said something about it in public. They just exploded into these different positions on it. I guess it’s the same thing. It’s dismissing the feedback basically. It’s the same thing as people talking about how that guy that introduced Melissa probably didn’t really think about it. It’s the same sort of thing. It’s dismissing the feedback and not learning from it.
Arti: It’s wilful ignorance, I think. How can you be in this industry and not be aware of how many women are speaking up and saying, “Look, we’re uncomfortable by these behaviours,” and then say, “Oh, I didn’t know”? At least, if you’re saying, “I didn’t know,” say, “I didn’t know, but I will do better next time.”
Liz: The first time that I posted about the stuff that’s on my “Me too” blog, it was actually in a private. It was because there were a bunch of guys all worrying about, “How do I avoid offending a woman? If I do offend them, what do I do? I’m so scared.” I was just like, “Are you kidding me? No, you do not have that much to be scared of. Try being a woman.” I just listed all the stuff that had happened.
Sal: I’ve had that before as well where I’ve said to somebody, “Your behaviour doesn’t really make me feel very safe,” and they’ve said, “I need to feel safe to express myself as well and now, you’re making me feel unsafe.” It’s like, what? Hang on.
Melissa: I am also very willing to explain to friends why something might not be okay if they ask me. I think there’s an onus, too. I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately from a person I consider a friend, but it’s almost like any time something comes up in the news about harassment, he’s like, “Explain to me why this is bad.” I’m like, “Why do I have to be the one to explain this every single time?” There’s an onus, a responsibility for me to explain this to him and I’m like, “I’m exhausted. Can you ask somebody else?” There’s a really easy way to avoid offending people and it’s basically, “Just be a respectful human being.” That’s all you have to do. Nobody is going to get offended by that.
Arti: I don’t know if this is a popular tone, but another friend of mine and I call it “the woman tax”. It’s that extra stuff you have to do to educate the people around you about what’s right and what’s wrong. On top of not having the privilege, you also have to pay this extra tax of bringing awareness.
Melissa: There’s a tax and I think some people mentioned this. Now, it’s on women to defend themselves and speak up for themselves, but also the educate people. That is pretty exhausting. I just want to do my job.
Matt: Sorry for getting you on this podcast to talk about it!
Melissa: The podcast is good because I’ll kill all the birds with one stone and then, I don’t have to explain this to every single individual. Next time somebody asks me, I’ll just be like, “Listen to this podcast. That’s it!”
Matt: Are there any other home truths that need saying before we run out of time? Are there any things that I haven’t asked you about that you need to rant about while we’re on this subject?
Liz: Not rant, but I did see one of your questions from the question list which I thought was probably worth talking about, which was, “Is it ever okay? Is it ever okay to actually make a move on somebody you’re working with?” I’m actually with somebody that I was working with. We got together. It’s about options. Don’t take people’s options away from them. I have been propositioned at conferences in a way that made me feel like I was being treated with respect and it was done by making it completely okay for me to say, “No, thanks. I’m not interested.” I don’t mind that at all. You make it really apparent that it’s okay for me to say no and there won’t be any backlash, we’re still going to be mates, we’re still going to be friends and then, I’m okay with that. If you can’t do that, then do not do it. If you cannot be sure, do not go there. It’s really that simple. The problem is never when people get together. It’s when one person wants to get together and the other one doesn’t and it needs to be okay for that to happen. Otherwise, just don’t go there.
Melissa: I like that. I’ve never heard it described as options. I think that really makes sense.
Liz: I’m an options thinker.
Matt: I think it’s Marshall Rosenberg I got this from – the difference between a genuine question and a demand is whether it’s okay to say no.
Liz: The only other thing that I did want to say is that I hear stories sometimes and some of those stories are about people I consider friends and if one of my friends is out there having exhibited this kind of behaviour that we’re talking about, this kind of unwanted behaviour, you need to stop doing it and take a look at yourself and apologize because that breaks my heart. It absolutely breaks my heart to hear some of these stories. That is not okay and I don’t care that I have been treated with respect. If you’re not treating the other women around me, it makes my life harder, too.
Sal: That’s a great point as well, Liz. I know that in some ways, we are fortunate because we’re of a certain standing within the community, but absolutely, I would reiterate that, too. I don’t care if you’re treating me with respect. If you’re not treating people around me with respect, then it hurts me, too. It hurts women as a community and it hurts the tech community and it hurts the culture. It’s not an isolated event. We’re learning as women as well. These things that we’ve hidden away secretly in our hearts, these things that happened are not isolated events. They’re not isolated events actually. When you hear everyone else’s stories, it is heartbreaking for them as well, but you kind of just realize the absolute enormity of the problem and that’s been very shocking for me.
Melissa: I think this has been going around – people saying like, “Believe women!” I’ve just had so many men not believe my stories or trivialize them. I’ve trivialized some of the stuff that’s happened to me myself and there are things that you just let go of, but also, when you trivialize something that is kind of big, which I tried to do, you carry that around with you for a while. It grates on you and you second-guess yourself and start to think, “Am I crazy? Maybe I’m just too touchy.” I thought of that myself, “Maybe I’m just too touchy. Maybe I just have higher standards for this and that’s not okay and I have to lower them.” You start second-guessing it as a woman because you’re not hearing other people saying, “Yeah, that’s not okay.” They’re not standing up for you. I would say, “Please don’t trivialize our experiences.”
Arti: It’s gas-lighting.
Melissa: Exactly! It builds up like we keep saying. Every little cut builds up to the point you’re like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I personally love this industry and I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else and I’m like, “This is what I am going to do with my life.” I think everybody else here, too, is hopefully like that. I’m passionate about being in tech; I’m passionate about what I do. I don’t want to leave it and I don’t plan on leaving it for this, but we never want to make that choice. I’ve known women who’ve left because of it. They’re just like, “I can’t take it anymore. I love it. I just can’t be here anymore.”
Liz: On a slightly more positive note, something that I have seen conferences doing that I really, really like, as well as having a code of conduct, as well as enforcing that code of conduct is having named people who are trusted friends and I’ve seen that a couple of times now – named people with lanyards or T-shirts, “We are the trusted friends for this conference and if you’re feeling uncomfortable for whatever reason and you just need to speak to somebody and get some help, we’re the trusted friends.” I’ve really, really liked that. I thought that was a great initiative.
Melissa: There have been a bunch of conferences. We talk about the poor experiences, but there have been plenty of conferences I’ve felt really safe at. You feel like you have a community of trusted people there. I think everybody shows up to those conferences with the attitude of, “We’re going to learn and we’re going to have fun and build a community out of that.” I go to a lot of conferences every year because they’ve been some of the most positive experiences in my life. They’ve been places where I meet friends and see friends and get to share my knowledge, get to learn some stuff and I love them. I want to keep going to them, I want to keep doing that and when you really do have organizers who commit to making the experience great, it really pays off and those are the ones that you remember!
Matt: Don’t name names, Melissa. What are some of the really good conferences you’re talking about?
Melissa: Lean Agile Scotland is one my favourites. That was the second conference I ever spoke at and ever since then, it felt like, “These are my people. This is my tribe.” I never felt weary there for a second. I know some people probably have different experiences, but…
Liz: I’ll echo that! Lean Agile Scotland.
Melissa: That’s what I thought! I was lucky for that one and I really enjoyed it and I think the organizers there make a point to make sure it goes off without a hitch which is nice. They take care of things, so that was a great one. ACE! Poland – that was phenomenal, too. Really great organizers! Paul just made sure that everybody is comfortable and we had these experiences, too. Some of the female speakers all stayed in an Airbnb together and the male speakers do, too, if you choose to, but he asked everybody, “Are you comfortable with this setup? This is what it is. If not, I’ll get you a hotel room, a private one, next door, but if you are, then you can all meet.” We had a great experience, made some really good friends that I continue to talk to in the industry. He really cared about that. He would ask all about how to make the speaker experience better, how to make the community better, how to make people in the audience feel connected. I thought Paul did a really good job on ACE! as well.
Arti: There’s CukenFest!
Matt: We’re learning all the time about what we can do and it’s really useful to pick up those tips and ideas. Let me just say thanks to all of you – Liz, Sal, Arti and Melissa – for a really heart-warming, heart-rending, interesting, fascinating conversation. I’ve learnt a lot. Hopefully, the listeners have, too. Melissa, you’ll never have to speak about this again. You can just point people to the podcast.
Melissa: Thanks, Matt!
Matt: Thanks, everyone! See you next time!
Liz: Cheers, Matt! Bye!
Sal: Thanks, bye!
Arti: Thanks, everyone! Bye!
This post was updated on 3rd December 2019 to correct Liz's words when saying “It was in Agile Scotland and they’re very good at enforcing their code of conduct” to say “Lean Agile Scotland” instead.