TL;DR: Ignore Jeff; read Shanley.

Jeff Atwood:

If you see any behavior that gives you pause, behavior that makes you wonder “is that OK?” […] speak up. Honestly, as one man to another.

OK, you got it.

Jeff Atwood’s blog post today asks an important question: “what can men do?” (I’m not linking to Jeff’s post directly; it doesn’t need the signal boosting.) But it fails to answer that question effectively, reinforces several myths about gender in tech, and, worst of all, structurally reinforces male dominance rather than breaking it down.

I don’t want to imply that Jeff’s post is all bad; indeed, having someone of his prominence take up this issue is admirable. I just wish he’d done a better job of it, so my goal here is to dig into that and explain where he falls short.

Jeff’s post fails in two ways. First, it repeats and reinforces some common myths, misunderstandings, and half-truths about gender and diversity in tech. These mistakes suggest “solutions” that won’t actually work, and they obstruct some of the important truths about sexism in tech. Worse, the very structure of Jeff’s post reinforces male dominance by appropriating and refusing to acknowledge earlier works from women—specifically, appropriating Shanley’s identically-titled, incredibly-similar “What Can Men Do?,” written nearly a year ago.

Before I go any further, though, let me acknowledge three things:

  1. I’m not questioning Jeff’s motives in writing this. I’m sure he has the best of intentions; I think he genuinely wants to help. I know his advice comes from a desire to improve the situation, and that’s noble. It’s not like Jeff is some evil mustache-twirling villain trying to pollute the well; I know he has good intentions. It’s just that he falls short of the mark.

    Within technology, we often talk about how execution matters more than ideas. Well, this is true here as well: Jeff’s idea for this post may have been good, but his execution leaves much to be desired.

  2. There are several things Jeff gets right: framing diversity in tech as a men’s problem; his nod to the Hacker School social rules (yay Hacker School!); and the advice to listen first and speak later (advice that Jeff and I clearly need to follow more closely!).

  3. The irony of me, a dude, criticizing Jeff for writing instead of signal- boosting women is not lost on me. I’ve tried, quite imperfectly to do that kind of signal boosting here—in fact, if you haven’t already, you should read Shanley’s article, or Geek Feminism’s resources for allies go do that now instead of continuing.

    However, I agree with Jeff: it’s important for men to call out other men, so I’m living with the irony and hitting “publish.”

Myths, misunderstandings, and half-truths

Jeff makes several errors in his post:

  1. Aspergers.

    As the Geek Feminism Wiki points out,

    The fallacy that “autism is to blame for sexism/harassment” is a common one in discussions about harassment and other sexist behavior in geek communities. The argument is that neurodiverse people are not capable of learning social norms to the extent of knowing when sexual advances are unwanted, or that they should end interactions when the other party asks them to, or that they should not believe all stereotypes of women promoted by the surrounding culture.

    In fact, as that article goes on to explain in depth, Autism Spectrum Disorder is rarely if ever a factor when harassment happens in tech, but is in fact used to excuse harassing and sexist behavior. It’s a myth that harassers are awkward men who miss signals from women; in fact, men understand at “no” perfectly, they just don’t like the answer.

    Jeff buys into this myth, and, worse, I expect his post will be used in the future as to further excuse deliberate harassment as just “mistakes” or “miscommunication.”

    Put succinctly:

  1. The role of education.

    Jeff writes, “I suppose any effort to encourage more women to become software engineers should ideally start in childhood.” This one’s not a myth, of course: it’s completely true that our education system has substantial structural inequities, and that addressing diversity in tech involves fixing childhood education. But that’s also far from the whole story:

    Yes: getting more women into tech is important… but only if they stay. Most don’t:

    [Women] leave their careers at a staggering rate: 56 percent of technical women leave at the “mid-level” point just when the loss of their talent is most costly to companies. This is more than double the quit rate for men. It is also higher than the quit rate for women in science and engineering.

    Women in IT: The Facts (p11).

    So yes, Jeff’s right: we do need to look at why women get into tech. But only focusing on getting women into the pipeline ignores the elephant in the room:

  2. Sexism, harassment, abuse, and assault.

    Women leave tech for many reasons, but a huge part is the continual sexism, harassment, abuse, bullying and assault. For just a tiny slice of what women face in tech, read through Geek Feminism’s timeline of sexist incidents in tech. (Beware: that page can be very hard to read.)

    Jeff’s post complete ignores these factors. He uses the word “sexism” twice: once when quoting Hacker School’s rule about “subtle sexism,” and once to dismiss the idea that men refusing to listen to women is about sexism. He talks a bit about “bad behavior,” but does so in such a vague way that we could be talking about—I dunno—walking too slowly on the sidewalk or something.

    One reason this abuse continues is because we ignore it, downplay it, refuse to name it, and by omit it so we cansweep it under the rug. Jeff continues this trend.

  3. Alcohol. The advice to avoid drinking is fine, I suppose, but it glosses over the role that alcohol really plays in assault and harassment. The relationship is complex, but a pattern is that abusers invite and encourage women to drink, target women who are drinking, and use alcohol to blame victims and deflect responsibility.

    Alcohol is indeed a big problem in geek culture, but “Just Say No” isn’t anywhere near a sufficient answer.

  4. Office romance. This one’s just weird; I guess it probably comes from Jeff’s reading of Julie Ann Horvath’s harassment at Github, but it’s a bizarre conclusion to come to from that event. I hope he’s not implying that her dating a coworker somehow excuses the harassment she faced.

    Whatever his meaning, there’s nothing wrong with office romances themselves, but they can go wrong when a workplace doesn’t have clear HR policies and personel who know how to handle them. Mature companies don’t need to have “no dating coworkers” rules because they have systems in place to prevent those relationships from going pear-shaped. My cousin met his wife at Microsoft; a good friend met her husband at IBM; another friend recently disclosed a new relationship and changed roles to avoid impropriety.

    Romance has little if anything to do with sexism in tech, but the lack of mature HR certainly does.

  5. “If you see bad behavior from other men, speak up.”

    Fine advice, but it mostly misses the point. The thing is, harassers are quite good at not getting caught. You probably won’t see bad behavior because abusers are incredibly good at acting in ways that won’t be noticed, choosing behaviors that are ambiguous or easy to explain away as “mistakes,” selecting victims who won’t tell, and setting up situations where victims won’t be believed if they do tell.

    Yes, men need to call out bad behavior—but we also need to take steps to educate ourselves on what bad behavior looks like so that we recognize when it’s happening. The 2004 Report by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, specifically the “Naming Gender Oppression” section (pp 5–12) is a good place to start learning.

    And for fuck’s sake, we all damn well need to do a whole lot better about believing women when they do speak up.

Again, there are some things that Jeff gets right—framing diversity in tech as a men’s problem; his nod to the Hacker School social rules; the advice to listen first and speak later—and so there may be some small value in having this post out there. But those high points are washed away by his mistakes and omissions, and completely pulled under by the very structure of how he went about writing this post.

Appropriating and ignoring prior work

Even if we set aside mistakes and omissions, the post remains problematic. The post itself is an illustration of how women are treated in tech: Jeff’s post is presented as completely original, without acknowledging any of the many women who’ve done similar (and far better) work. For all his talk about listening to women, Jeff does a lousy job walking that walk.

There are many women and woman-centered groups that have tackled this subject in the past—and in far better ways. Jeff could’ve used his platform to signal-boost similar posts by Shanley, Ashe Dryden, Julie Pagano, Geek Feminism, The Ada Initiative, or literally dozens of others.

Instead, Jeff completely ignores their prior work. In fact, in a post filled with links, Jeff links to only two articles by women. (By comparison, he links to himself four times.)

And it’s not just a matter of ignoring prior art; Jeff straight-up appropriates Shanley’s identically titled, incredibly similar “What Can Men Do?,” from nearly a year ago. Appropriation is a bad-ally smell, and Jeff’s post stinks to the skies.

This is especially shameful in light of Jeff’s tone-policing of Shanley’s post:

In his blog post, Jeff ignores his own advice to “shut up and listen quietly.” Listening, Jeff writes, is “about basic respect”—respect he denies Shanley. Instead, he tone-polices her, and then appropriates her work, claiming it as his own.

Indeed, in the one place where Jeff does shut up and let a woman (Sara Chipps) speak, he does it without her permission, in a way that distorts her meaning:

All in all, Jeff does a great job demonstrating what men should never do but a rather poor job showing what we should. We should be listening to what women and other marginalized people have said and written, even when it’s uncomfortable for us. We should be boosting their signal, instead of our egos. That’s how we make things better.


Thanks to Leigh Honeywell and Ashley for advice on and corrections to a draft of this article.