Yes, Philly's tech scene does have a sexual harassment problem - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 5, 2017 12:55 pm

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.

(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.

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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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Briana Morgan works in public health and digital strategy. Among other things, she serves on the board of PANMA (the Philadelphia Area New Media Association), co-organizes BarCamp Philly, and works on Entire.Life. She also regularly speaks at tech events and conferences. You can read more about her work at brianalmorgan.com.

  • Thank you, Briana! This is a great response.

    I so relate to the “proof” part of this. Video with good audio of these incidents would … help? Perhaps. But the bigger issue is why do we, as women, need more “proof” to convince Philadelphia that harassment in the tech sector is vicious and ubiquitous? I’m sure you received more than one direct message on Twitter after the first article came out, as did I, as did other friends. We women know about this and have experienced it, yet it was a MYSTERY to the one media outlet dedicated to all things Philly tech. I know quite a few talented women in Philly who won’t set foot in another tech meetup event. Being hit on, groped, propositioned, laughed at, and not believed is marginalization we have no time for. And frankly, not worth it. Why get yet another job in tech when all this crap will just happen again, ad infinitum?

    I call on Technically Philly to become a leader in this space by:

    *Lobbying for the implementation of, if there is yet to be one, an independent Ombudsman office in the city government to address harassment issues in the business sector. Yes, any such office will be overwhelmed and free of influence, but that’s not the point. The point is for women to have one place in the city to report feeling marginalized at work. *Building a women-in-tech beat that consists of a network of reporters across its other markets
    *Construct a diversity training vertical to offer along with its tech events/services income model
    *Bring more awareness to its tech meetups and events by offering safe space volunteers, safe space policy posting, etc.

    There’s more, but that’s a start. Thanks for stepping up, Briana. You’re one of our best and brightest. You inspire others, men and women, to dare imagine a welcoming and (therefore) fiercely competitive Philly tech scene.

  • Kam

    Briana, thank you for the article. Interested to hear your further thoughts on:

    1/ In your judgement how much worse is this in the Tech culture vs general society/business culture? (see audio/video proof from 2016 presidential election)

    2/ Do you see any differences across ages? aka are younger men more accepting/professional, or basically the same?

    Glad you spent the time writing, it wasn’t “time gone” for me, so thank you.

  • Tracey Welson-Rossman

    Thank you, Briana, for writing this.

  • Jackie

    It is so disheartening to see that sexual harassment is still an issue in the workplace. As a PR generalist who has had clients in tech and virtually every other industry, I remember experiencing all of this in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but so much has been out there in terms of sexual discrimination since then. I truly thought this had improved. Then again, I never thought I’d see a U.S. president who says the things he does about women. Nor did I ever think I’d see white supremacists marching in 2017, or that I’d be participating in a Women’s March in the same year. I understand that women are forging new paths in the formerly all male tech world, but I still thought that the issue was pretty public and that younger male employees were more sensitized to this. I’m a solopreneur with a home-based business, and am no longer in the younger demographic so am out of that loop. I applaud you and other tech women for taking this issue on. I’m just so sorry that you still have to.

    • Jackie, actually women were over 40% of computer tech/IT workers up until the 80s. We don’t know why the drop happened, but theories exist. This article speaks to the gender makeup in computer science college majors but there are other articles that document the female mainframe operators, cobol programmers, et al. who were a good chunk of the workforce before the decline. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-happened-all-women-computer-science-1-180953111/

      • Jackie

        Now that you mention it, I do recall female computer science majors in college with me. Still I didn’t realize they amounted to over 40% of the workforce back then. (I graduated college in 1982). Interesting. Thanks for the additional information. I’m interested in reading it. Again, it’s so disheartening to me, but I hope you, Briana and your female tech colleagues stick with it. I love all of your suggestions of how to turn things around and I hope Technically Philly picks up on some, if not all, of your ideas.

  • Tamara Peace

    Thank you so much for this brilliant, direct and powerful testimony. What really was excellently put is the TIME wasted—that is a key component that often gets missed in discussions of sexual harassment. Harassment is, in part, designed to pin the target and then gradually wear the person down. It works in highly insidious ways. The exhaustion in just keeping it at bay, and in being on the alert without becoming paranoid is tremendous. It is not a minor matter—it can be a major determinant of the actual trajectory of a person’s career, and their relative success, financially and personally. So again, Briana, thank you writing this—it is imperative that this poisonous atmosphere be pierced—now.

  • Sonia Holloway

    I wonder….
    What would happen if we return the favor….
    Like ,oh u a pres of ..tech? What ever u are sexy as hell whats under that dress.
    Answer: something u cant handle in the bedroom nor the board room.
    U think you smart huh…
    Answer: no i am i graduated from( insert school creds and gpa)
    Give work experience and contribution
    To company growth also inform them of your knowledge about their company end with the phrase what you got.
    When talking and your interrupted by dude cause u either speaking truth or sharing information that he may or may not know simply apologize for not realizing he not bright or didnt want the info shared .or simply say excuse me i was speaking but if you want ill slow down my speech so you can keep up ?
    And if they grab u or touch u in appropriately just turn around and smack em on they ass or grab they balls and ask em how they feeling right now trust me do this with
    out ever raising your voice or speaking out of line show em you can play the game just like they can.and if embarrassing them they feel is cause to shut u out of projects and or refuse your business because of it trying to remind you of your “place ” ask their boss if they cool with losing a good ally who can bring them the product on time and under budget all because boyfriend feelings are hurt and is embarrassed.
    If they try to bring u down just remind them that you grabbed them and theres really nothing to brag about ?
    Whether you get the contract fired or blacked ball one things for certain theyll think twice before doing that again and start taking women in the business seriously.
    If the later happens politely inform them u got a lawsuit ..?

  • Kathy11

    “If you have not been a woman or femme” – I’m not sure what you mean by femme here?

  • Nadia Adam

    Thanks for writing this Briana. I’m a bit shocked that there are women who are no longer attending local tech events because of this issue. A lot has been done to encourage women to enter tech. Without the networking of tech events, this could actually hurt their prospects…….wow….

  • Jessica Ivins

    Briana, thank you for sharing this. I left Philly three years ago. While I was in Philly, I managed to push a drunk male colleague off of me when he tried to kiss me after an open-bar work party. I got hit on by my drunk male boss, who later told my colleagues he wanted to “punch me in the head” when I submitted my resignation. Another boss bullied me into doing unpaid contract work (this boss didn’t pressure or bully any of my male colleagues to do the work).

    Other men I worked with made fun of my “just in case I go home with a guy tonight” bag when I brought an overnight bag to work on Friday before leaving for a weekend trip.

    Tech has a sexual harassment problem. Philly’s tech community is no different. The more we acknowledge this problem, the more steps we can take to fix it.

  • Mark Shvets

    Thank you for writing this Briana

  • Representing the F.O.Y.

    As a woman in tech, my experience is that the community in Philly and in New York is much better at treating everyone as equals than the general population. I realize everyone has different experiences but I couldn’t have been happier with my time in Philly.

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