Another Point Of View

Note: I wrote this several months ago, and promptly forgot about it. When I wrote it, the ElectronConf drama was current. Now it is not, so let me give you a quick refresher:

In June, a conference on Electron, sponsored/hosted (I think?) by Github, was announced. They did all their magic spells and ancient rituals designed to guarantee a good harvest gender balance in their speakers, rituals like blinded proposals and outreach to womens’ groups and the like, but they didn’t get the result they wanted. After all of this, they had a conference where every speaker was male.

So they did what any reasonable conference organizer would do in that situation: They took their ball and went home. They put up a splash page that said the conference would be delayed indefinitely, until they fixed their diversity problem. I went to go dig up the page right now, and it’s gone. In its place: ElectronConf 2018. Apparently, they just gave up on the whole endeavour.

Because in THE CURRENT YEAR, GitHub (one of the most internally progressive companies I’m aware of) can’t find even one qualified woman to give a talk, and so the obvious solution is that nobody gets a conference.


I saw a comment on HN the other day. It’s in the comments of a post about ElectronConf, which you can go read up about if you really want. TL;DR: diversity drama, same as it always is. I don’t want to antagonize the original author of the comment, so instead of linking it I will reproduce it in full. The context is that this comment is being written in reply to someone saying that quotas for underrepresented people is discrimination against overrepresented people:

I see this from another point of view.

Suppose a female new grad goes to Electronconf and sees all male speakers. Suppose she goes to other conferences and it’s the same story.

She feels there’s no way she’ll be able to break ground and be recognized as successful. She slowly drops out and leaves the industry and goes somewhere where she can make friends like her.

Now suppose she sees plenty of female speakers and she thinks to herself “wow this is awesome, I wanna be like her, she was like me 5 years ago”. She stays in industry, and possibly becomes a speaker on future.

Once the cycle of people being motivated and seeing others like you starts, you see a diverse set of candidates joining the industry.

Here is the reply I wish I could write, but alas, HN comments are a no-go zone:

I see this from another point of view.

Suppose a midwestern new grad goes to a new job in California and sees all blue state urban elite coworkers. Suppose he goes to other new jobs and it’s the same story.

He feels there’s no way he’ll be able to break ground and be recognized as successful, when he can’t bridge the culture gap. He slowly drops out and leaves the industry and goes back to the state he came from where he can make friends just like him.

Now suppose he sees plenty of midwestern speakers and he thinks to himself “wow this is awesome, I wanna be like them, they are like me five years ago”. He stays in California, and possibly becomes a speaker on future.

Once the cycle of people being motivated and seeing others like you starts, you see a diverse set of candidates joining the industry.

This may sound like a frivolous criticism, but if it does, that’s because you haven’t come from where I’ve come, and gone to California.

When I first moved to California there was dramatic culture shock. I come from Midwestern Canada, where things are quite a bit different. When I got here, I had a lot of adapting to do. It was hard. VERY hard. Not only were there dozens of times where I barely resisted buying a one-way ticket home without telling anyone, but there were more than a few instances where the stress was so severe that I considered more…. final and exhaustive ways of leaving the state.

First off there are the obvious ones. The ones satirized in virtually every “Bumfuckistani moves to New York” story. We don’t even have freeways back home, so I couldn’t drive for almost two years after moving here; I didn’t know how. I got slapped with a $4000 medical bill for sutures (1k per stitch) once, and, not understanding the US system, I paid it off in full before disputing it with my insurer. I’ve been violently assaulted on transit half a dozen times, and when searching for empathy from friends I was met with a cold “what the fuck, why would you ride the bus there?”

I was dramatically underpaid for the first two years I moved here. Fuck me, right? Back home, $50kCAD ($37kUSD) was a good salary for software, and unscrupulous Californian managers had no problem taking advantage of my knowledge gap.

But worse than any big city challenges were the social dynamics. The good ol’ micro-aggressions that y’all talk about all the time. See, when you come from a different place, with a different culture, often people will see you as a foreigner and exclude you. In the Bay area, where so much depends on socializing and back-channelling, this is economic oppression.

The greatest example of this was the friend who convinced me to move out here. She was the only person I knew here, who sold me on promises of a Nerd Mecca. A few months after moving here, she invited me to a party at her house. Lots of fancy people there. Tons of her college classmates from prestigious universities, with rich privileged upbringings. Lawyers and doctors and startup CEOs. I was invited to one party, but never again. In fact, after that party, we never spoke again. I don’t know why. But given the sneering looks I got from her friends, I assume I just wasn’t cultured enough for them.

Then there was the religious aspect. While I am not a Christian, I was raised as such, most of my family are still religious, and I respect the value it brings to their lives. Consequently, I was never willing to engage in the constant religious-bashing that everyone else seems to do. On the few occasions where I’d attempt to play devil’s advocate, I’d get insulted and condescended to. “You’re just young, dumb, and naieve. Some day you’ll see how evil those people really are”. “THOSE PEOPLE” ARE MY FUCKING PARENTS.

The best one, well, I’ll be a walking example right now. Back home, in Canada or in the midwest or in the 90s or all of the above, who knows, we don’t have racism. Of course, there’s a misleading reason: It’s so ethnically homogenous that most people have never even met someone with darker skin than them. But back home, none of this is a thing. I come here, and suddenly discover there are dozens of unwritten rules, that all Americans just intuitively understand, and if you break them you get ostracized. Like, apparently if you say “black person” that is racist. Back where I come from, it’s considered common practice to use adjectives to modify nouns, based on observations from reality. Here, if you don’t circumlocute five times before brunch, you’re a Nazi.

My biggest racial faux-pas, well, I still don’t understand it. I was poor and struggling to afford this place (see above re: dramatically underpaid), and ended up moving to a cheaper place. Unbeknownst to me, there was a reason that it was cheaper: Americans are racist as fuck and refuse to live in “black neighbourhoods”. I moved in to find that my girlfriend and I were the only light-skinned people on my block.

Oddly enough, most of my neighbours (all black save the one Indian couple) were totally fine with my being there. They welcomed me to the neighbourhood. They liked me, I liked them, and we were all nicely acquainted. But this wasn’t good enough for coworkers, who started looking at me funny. After the whispering at work got bad enough to impact my productivity, I pulled my most trustworthy colleague aside to ask what was going on. “Dude, you moved into their neighbourhood. You’re gentrifying the place. You are displacing people of colour and making them homeless. You are part of the problem”.

Imagine my surprise, a culture-shocked kid from the midwest, who just wanted to do the right thing, and who was on friendly terms with all his neighbours. I was told, by people who had the ability to accelerate (or stop) my career progression, that I was racist. Why? Because I didn’t segregate myself to the majority-white zip codes that they all lived in. You want to talk micro-aggressions? I dealt with gossip and slander like this for two years before I walked out of that company.

The worst part of all of this is the condescending attitude everyone takes about it. As if this is Just Something Everyone Knows, and that I am somehow not just bad, but stupid, for not understanding. For people who claimed to study Class Oppression in college, the classist undertones fly over their heads.

See, most of these people come from well-off families. Many of them grew up in wealthy suburbs, went to private magnet schools, had a full ride (courtesy of the “You’re my child” scholarship from the Mom And Dad Institute) to prestigious schools. They didn’t have to cold-call fifty different employers; tech companies came to their school before they graduated and hand-picked them. For fucks sake, an ex grew up in Palo Alto. She got to go to NASA space camp every summer. I only got to go to Bible camp, and only the two times my parents could afford it.

I didn’t grow up in a place with all this opportunity. I didn’t grow up with all this wealth. I grew up in a place where a large number of the guys in highschool are auto mechanics, electricians, and EMTs now. Most of the women got married at 20 and had children approximately eight and a half months later. If someone asked “what church do you go to” and you evaded the question, they probably won’t be talking to you anymore. There is no high culture back home, because we’re all too busy barely scraping by.

To come here and be faced with friends, coworkers, managers, and bosses who never did a day of manual labour in their lives, and to be belittled and insulted, have my background and culture near-constantly slandered, and to be told that I’m stupid and irresponsible and maybe even racist for not just magically knowing all these social quirks, it’s not fun. It’s fucking hard. Maybe you all don’t understand this, but in college, my friends and I read Hacker News specifically to “learn how to be techies”. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what we had to do to succeed. While you were all out protesting cultural assimilation, we actively studied and practiced it because if we didn’t, we’d never find jobs here.

And the thing is, nobody cares about this issue. They keep on going on, making insulting comments about the retarded backwater people from my home region. And you know what? It sucks, but it’s fine. Because that’s life. Other people are not your personal concierges. The world wasn’t designed to cater to you. You make yourself useful, or make yourself scarce. I busted ass to make myself useful, only to see commendations and promotions go to the deadweight who know how to dress, how to speak. So when I see someone like the OP make comments like that, well, it pisses me off. The only adversity standing in her way is “people don’t look and act like me and this makes me mildly uncomfortable”, and because of this we get entire departments of companies dedicated to making sure that that never happens to her again.

You know, if you’re so weak-minded that something like that is enough to make you unwilling or unable to do your job, then maybe you should go get a different job. Some of us actually worked to get here.

I don’t write this to be a whiny little bitch, although I have failed in this endeavour. I tell my story to highlight that we all have challenges. In the tech industry, it seems like the only challenges they care about are the mild inconveniences that rich women have to face. At a professional level, this is massively disproportionate and inappropriate, and on a personal level it is a stunning lack of basic empathy. When people are using social pressure to enforce gender quotas, it’s really easy to sit there and snark from behind the safety of an LCD screen. But the people who get overlooked so that those quotas can get met, some of them worked hard to be here. They’ve overcome more adversity just to be here than the rich women will face in their entire lives. And then they get passed over, quite explicitly, with no explanation other than that they don’t deserve what they have. And when they say “hey, maybe this isn’t fair” they don’t get reasoned with. They get condescended to. They get “educated”.

The reality is that software engineering jobs are not magical privileges, not lifetime keys to the lands of luxury and riches. They are hard, important work taking smart, skilled, and highly practiced people a lifetime to master. Most people here will have struggles, because hard things make you struggle. Focusing on a very small subset of those struggles is a very curious definition of “fairness”. Respectfully: Check your goddamn privilege.

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About Simon Penner

Injecting compassion and humanity into political discussion. Disagreements welcome, but you must be kind and charitable.
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10 Responses to Another Point Of View

  1. Al Sadius says:

    Yeah, I have a lot more sympathy for this sort of culture shock than most. I didn’t move as far as you(I’m less than a hundred miles from where I grew up), but it’s far enough to be a different world. When I grew up, private school students were unheard of. I currently live in a house with my wife and a couple good friends, and I’m the only one who went to public school – they’re all big-city rich kids, and my parents met on a construction site. So when it comes time for minor household repairs, I’m the only one who can handle them – there’s two engineers in the house, but neither one could build a window screen without my help. But when it comes time for anything in their comfort zone – like, say, meeting my wife’s friends and family – I spend the time so far out of my comfort zone it’s ludicrous. More than once I’ve congratulated myself for navigating unfamiliar waters reasonably well, and then found out afterwards that I bungled things horribly without even realizing it.

    Like you say, culture shock is one of those things that happens, and the world isn’t here to serve me. But still, I wish some of these oh-so-empathetic people would actually display some empathy sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vxxc2014 says:

    OK.
    Now remember you come from hardscrabble and can be feared intrinsically more than the Softborn.
    And the next time remember it was FEAR.
    It was FEAR of you all along.

    Now learn the Dead Stare, the friendly hand on the shoulder that isn’t, the Thug smile and the mocking “lets be friends’ about all this”…because that’s your card they don’t have.

    You may be more skilled and motivated. That’s not your Card.
    FEAR is your card, and believe me their fucking Kryptonite.
    Start using a little and then a little more and they’ll get out of your way.
    Then your problem is turning OFF the headlights and not scaring genuine nice people.
    But being shit on and snubbed WON’T be your problem.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  4. newday@newday.com says:

    You complain quite alot. This is life when you move to a new place.

    Like

    • Arthur Northwode says:

      This is exactly what needs to be said to women who feel mildly uncomfortable that there aren’t any other women at the tech conference.

      Like

  5. Steven says:

    “If someone asked “what church do you go to” and you evaded the question, they probably won’t be talking to you anymore.”
    How Christian of them.

    “There is no high culture back home, because we’re all too busy barely scraping by.”
    Everybody scrapes to get by; the difference lies in choosing a book, PBS, American Idol, or a monster truck show.

    “and unscrupulous Californian managers had no problem taking advantage of my knowledge gap.” Or put another way, you failed to put forth even a minimum of effort to research the market. Way to go.

    “I was invited to one party, but never again. In fact, after that party, we never spoke again. I don’t know why. But given the sneering looks I got from her friends, I assume I just wasn’t cultured enough for them.”
    Sure, it’s everyone else but you.

    “But the people who get overlooked so that those quotas can get met, some of them worked hard to be here. They’ve overcome more adversity just to be here than the rich women will face in their entire lives.”

    “Respectfully: Check your goddamn privilege.”
    Respectfully, you appear by your writings to refuse to acclimate to the culture you joined, and expect everyone to change for you. Check your goddamn privilege.

    Like

  6. pbw says:

    Steven: were you shooting for a perfect parody of everything the author was pointing out? I hope so, because otherwise, you have an astound lack of self-awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. anon says:

    Simon, thank you for this. It really resonates with me. Of all the things you’ve written, I think this probably ranks in my top 3 favourites.

    The negativity in the comments above leaves me flabbergasted. I learned something quite important by reading your post.

    Like

  8. Anon says:

    Manager of the Electron project, reflecting on the current Google memo drama: https://twitter.com/0x604/status/893871564541763584 (read thread). Should tell you all you need to know about that whole ElectronConf situation.

    Like

  9. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/08/06) - Social Matter

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