Diversity & Inclusion
Guest posts / Women in tech

Yes, Philly’s tech scene does have a sexual harassment problem

Health planner and BarCamp Philly organizer Briana Morgan shares her thoughts on gender discrimination in the tech sector.

Female founders are focused on human problems first. (Photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat, used under a Creative Commons license)
This is a guest post by Briana Morgan, a co-organizer of BarCamp Philly who works in public health and digital strategy.
Three weeks ago, Technical.ly Philly published a post with the title “Does Philly’s tech scene have a sexual harassment problem?” It was not about sexual harassment, and it minimized and then quickly glossed over the issue. (The title has since been changed.)

To answer the question: Yes. It does. Of course it does.

Philadelphia’s tech scene is made up of dozens of smaller communities, although most of us move between them. They are often (but not only) defined by field, cause, personal identity, language, or framework. One of the incredible characteristics of Philly’s tech scene is just how many of these communities there are: everything from content strategy to DevOps to civic engagement.

Although we put our own spin on them, each of these local communities inherits the cultures of those communities at large. Every tech community has norms around how its members interact with one another. These norms include everything from whether new projects default to open source to whether event speakers use slides. They define how business is done, how jobs are acquired, and how community members see and treat one another.

So yes, Philly’s tech scene has a sexual harassment problem, because tech has a harassment problem. This harassment problem is inextricably intertwined with gender-based discrimination. It runs the gamut from assumption after assumption that every woman in tech works on the marketing team to sexual assault at tech events. It includes thinking that the problem can’t be that bad, because you haven’t heard about any specific instances.

If you have not been a woman or femme in Philly’s tech scene, you may not hear the stories of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

They are typically shared only through DMs and hushed warnings; we share this information quietly as it becomes directly relevant. Philly’s tech scene is small. The vast majority of women I talked to before writing this told me their stories, but asked me not to share them — not even without details, because even vague descriptions are enough to identify agencies and individuals. Men hold most of the power in most local tech organizations, and people in general are quick to defend their friends. This is only natural; we want to support our friends, and we don’t want to think that we associate ourselves with people who act harmfully toward others. So, many of us wait for proof of transgressions.

There often is no proof, or if there is, the events seem minor on their own. There are the female experts in their field who are turned down for technical talks, but offered diversity talks instead. I once attended a tech event, and the very first interaction I had was with a man who asked what I did and immediately dismissed all of it to comment on my appearance. No one was around to see that. There are all of the times that women speakers are interrupted by guys, and no one seems to notice. A colleague who has been groped at tech events doesn’t have photos of it happening. Two months ago, a male event attendee laughed at me — twice — when I said I was the president of a tech/creative group, and later made sure to comment on my appearance. I don’t have video of that either.

And if I did have proof of these interactions, what good would it do? I’m not in this to shame the men who do these things. I want this to stop happening. I want women in tech to be recognized for their contributions, not their bodies. After years of service to the tech community, I want to be able to attend or speak at a tech event with the expectation that I’ll be treated as a colleague. I want any person to be able to show up at a tech event and expect to be treated as a colleague — or as a future one.

It gets worse than just this. The real cost is not found only in lack of physical safety and lost opportunities. Even if women and femmes do not point these interactions out, we lose our most valuable resource: time. My male colleagues can show up to a meeting or a networking event with an expectation that they will be able to conduct business and have business-related conversations there. As a woman, the utility of those events is often reduced for me; many conversations begin with a traditional dance of “Yes, I code, really, yes really” and conclude with a comment on my appearance or otherwise being dismissed. Each conversation like that precludes me from having one that is useful. There is real opportunity cost in women being minimized and hit on at meetings and tech events.

“Does Philly’s tech scene have a sexual harassment problem?” went up the day after I spoke at DjangoCon US, a conference that does a commendable job of working on gender equality. I spent an entire morning reaching out to women in tech I knew had been dismissed, discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. I was across the country to attend a conference, but I missed the talks that morning ensuring that the women I knew were okay. I was also tweeting so that other women in Philly tech knew that we believed them. That time is gone now.

On my trip home, I had intended to write and post a recap of my talk. Instead, I drafted a thorough and personal email to some of the team at Technical.ly about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Philly’s tech scene. This was a two-page email. That time is gone now. I still haven’t had the opportunity to write a talk recap. I’m currently writing this post on a long-awaited vacation I’ve been planning since February. That time, too, is gone.

These are items for consideration when we look only for job candidates who regularly make open-source contributions, or speak publicly, or organize events, or write for tech publications. It is worth considering how much time a person is putting into asserting their right to exist in those spaces at all. I am able to lead a life that allows me to do this kind of uncompensated, and often expensive, work; many women are not.

Women (not just women in tech) in Philadelphia deal with harassment constantly. At best, it’s a permanent hum in the background. We get catcalled on our way to work, leered at and physically intimidated in public spaces, and worse. That harassment should stop when we step foot into our offices.

We shouldn’t have to expect it when we go to tech events. We shouldn’t have to make a choice between learning something at an event but being minimized and hit on, or just going home. We shouldn’t have to choose between a career in tech and not being harassed at work.

There’s a reason that the Women in Tech Summit and Ela Conf started in Philadelphia, and why our Girl Develop It chapter is so wildly popular. It’s because there are lot of women in Philly who love tech, and we crave spaces where we can learn and talk shop without our very presence being questioned. Those are the spaces we can simply show up to, knowing that the other attendees will assume we belong there — and not the other way around. They are immensely popular *because we can’t get that in other places.*

As a woman in tech, I’ve learned that I can never expect a culture of gender equality in tech unless it’s intentionally designed, communicated, and enforced. There are real examples of this; DjangoCon US is a good one. We know what the status quo is. We can’t change the entire scene at once, but we can improve upon it in each of our smaller communities. We can thoughtfully consider who we are including, and who we are excluding, in our companies and meetups and nonprofit organizations. We can ask who is missing, and why. You can do this yourself, and you can ask the same of others.

Many of us have more power than we know. When you see someone being marginalized, you can speak up on their behalf. When you see a perspective being pushed aside, you can shine a light on it. If you’re an organizer, you can look critically at your agenda and speaker choices. If you’re a founder, executive, or manager, you can listen harder and adjust policies that have had unintended consequences.

Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are pervasive in tech. This is an uphill battle, but Philly is not a city that shies away from a challenge. Our tech scene can do better.

We must do better.


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