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Apology to Women Programmers.
Today I gave a keynote at ACCU in Oxford. In the midst of it I made two (count them) two statements that I should have known better than to make. I was describing the late '70s, and the way we felt about the C language at the time. My slide said something like: "C was for real men." Emily Bache, whom I know and hold in high regard, spoke up and said "What about women?". And I said something like: "We didn't allow women in those days." It was a dumb crack, and should either not have been said, or should have been followed up with a statement to the effect that that was wrong headed.
The second mistake I made was while describing Cobol. I mentioned Adm. Grace Hopper. I said something like "May she rest in peace." I don't know that any of the words were actually demeaning, but the tone was not as respectful as it should have been to an Admiral in the United State Navy, and one who was so instrumental in our industry; despite what I feel about Cobol.
I am a 59 year old programmer who was brought up in a male dominated industry, operating in a male dominated society. To my regret, old habits and attitudes, that I thought were long dead and conquered, pop up from time to time. I am very appreciative that Emily pulled me aside after the talk and pointed them out to me. The _last_ thing I want to do is discourage women from becoming programmers.
So, if you see me making a mistake like this, you yell out and stop me. Or catch me afterwards. Or write me a note. And don't let any of my peers get away with it either.
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polotek commented May 5, 2012

@jbrains Wow, I owe you an apology. It was late last night and I lumped you in with the others in this thread that really bothered me. I think your response was pretty measured and thoughtful and I did misinterpret it.

That said, it's still wrong. I don't understand why you think approaching someone and letting them know that what they said made people uncomfortable was not approaching the problem correctly. It was the exact we we should approach the problem and it was not out of line. In fact, it's a problem when thoughtful guys like you suggest that these instances are just people overreacting and "interpret everything a man says as sexist, everything a white person says as racist, everything a young person says as ageist." Because that marginalizes those on the receiving end of this attitude. It does no one any good and it allows people that actually have this privileged attitude to continue denying it themselves.

It's also not good to advise people to "keep it to themselves". That's a cop out. Because if you stand up and say what you think, you may find that it's actually wrong. And that's good. You should find out when you're wrong trying to "attune myself better to my own inadvertent, covert, entitled perspective". Again, I say that you are not helping here and others think you are a kindred spirit when they denounce this "non-existent" problem. You may not think you need to hear these things because you're so enlightened (I disagree, we all struggle with this). But others certainly do need to hear it.

I am sincerely sorry for including you in the screed I went on above though. Most of the time I really try not be that guy. It was actually the post that @saiko-chriskun posted above that set me off. Such bullshit. I wrote a post recently about my own view of these things. I'll leave it here to try to offset some of the damage I did last night.

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jbrains commented May 5, 2012

Thank you, @polotek, for your apology. I have written plenty of things I later regretted, and I wish I had apologised more for that. Even so:

I don't believe that I said, "Don't tell Bob that what he said made people uncomfortable." I believe I said to Piotr, "Don't tell Bob that he shouldn't apologise." It's Bob's choice and only Bob's choice to apologise. I advised him to consider instead saying, "In your position, I wouldn't have apologised", because that would express your choice, rather than tell Bob that his choice was "wrong". If this were a simple right/wrong issue, then we would have settled it long ago.

I also did not say that /this is/ a case of 'just people overreacting and "interpret everything a man says as sexist, everything a white person says as racist, everything a young person says as ageist."' Instead, I told Piotr that I think I understand the root of his reaction: some people will always assume that the rich white man doesn't know he's privileged and that every mistake he makes comes from a place of intentional malice. I am now repeating again to you that, if I did what Bob did, I'd likely feel bad about it. I even clarified to you that I would probably apologise for it. I don't think I'd do that if I felt that, in that situation, people were needlessly overreacting.

I also did not tell Piotr, nor anyone else, to "keep it to himself". I told Piotr that I have had better results by changing the way I express my disagreement: not as an order to someone do something different, but rather by describing my understanding of the situation and how I would react. Piotr and I know each other, and I expected him to interpret that as friendly advice, rather than harsh admonition or a passive-aggressive way to articulate an order. If Piotr and I did not know each other, then I probably would have tried a different approach.

Despite all this, I think I understand part of your point: you appear not to want someone holding an ignorant-seeming position to interpret my comment as agreeing with that position, since I think you understand that I don't agree with that position. I know that when I tell someone that I understand the root of their reaction, even when I don't agree with that reaction, then that person might interpret my understanding as agreement or support. I know that that might happen even if I explicitly tell them that I don't agree and I support them in their reaction. Still, I'd rather live in a world where we try to understand each other more and judging each other less: the former seems to stand a much better chance of leading to harmony than the latter.

I had already read your "What's the big deal" article. While I agree with the overall points, I do not and will not accept responsibility for cultural guilt based on the actions of other rich white men who had created an environment in which I was born privileged. I did not ask to be born a rich Canadian white boy; that was an accident of where my parents decided to live approximately 9 months after a sexual encounter at which I was not present. I believe it a basic human right to be judged on my actions, and not my heritage, and not my privilege. If you're not willing to do that, then please let's you and I part ways; and if you are willing to do that, then let's you and I put the privilege issue aside and figure out how to treat each other better. You choose.

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polotek commented May 5, 2012

@jbrains I think we're coming around to a better understanding. I'm glad you read the piece. And I've already responsded to someone else with your same concerns about the guilt and responsibility associated with privilege. Excuse me for pointing back to my article, but I think I articulated things well there (as opposed to here :/). Hopefully this comment helps to clarify my point.

In short, you don't have to accept responsibility. You shouldn't be judged by your heritage. But you also can't escape the fact that privilege is with you. And it does inform your speech and actions. It's not something you can dismiss, or rationalize away. You can only admit it exists, examine it, be mindful of it and try to do better. When you say "figure out how to treat each other better", that is exactly what we're doing. But it seems you're making the argument that we've progressed to the point where we can do that without examining our history, our prejudices and being honest with ourselves that we may be driven by unconscious conditioning. I respectfully disagree. But I've misinterpreted you a few times already so please correct me if I'm wrong.

Also one final thought, I often hear people in your position say things like "if you do this, we can talk, if not then go away". Excuse me for paraphrasing. But it's important to note that you don't set all the rules for discourse. In fact one person can't and shouldn't set all the rules because that person will undeniably set only those that create the most beneficial environment for themselves. If we eliminate anything that might make you uncomfortable, like how your heritage and privilege may be informing your actions that people perceive as discriminatory or sexist, then how are we going to get anywhere? How are you going to truly get anywhere? People's personalities don't exist in a vacuum and the harm people do is not always intentional. In fact, I would argue that the problem of sexism in technology in particular is largely unintentional. And yet it is pervasive and persistent. So please help me understand how can we get at these hard questions without offending your sensibilities? It's my feeling that hard questions breed hard conversations. You should stand up for yourself if you feel unjustly attacked. But what if you're actually wrong? Can you push past the judgments to see the "kernel of truth" as you ask us to do?

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jbrains commented May 5, 2012

Thanks, @polotek. I don't think we have to ignore our past, heritage, context, but I prefer to give much more weight to what people do and say now. I have seen too many arguments from the perspective of privilege create a prison in which we who have it are told that they can never rise above it nor live it down. When a person tries to use privilege as a silver bullet to stop the conversation, I have only one recourse left: walk away. That's why I wrote what I wrote.

Acknowledging my privilege does not mean that I must treat myself as a powerless slave to it, and I don't expect other people to assume that about me.

I'm not setting all the rules for discourse; I'm stating the terms of my involvement in this discussion. I alone get to choose those terms, as do you for yourself, and as each of us does for himself or herself. I'm happy to participate in a fair and reasonable argument, even when it becomes complicated, even when it becomes heated. I've done that for years, and it's helped me become more tolerant, sensitive, understanding, reasonable, and it's helped me argue more clearly, more precisely and with more caring. I'm not, however, willing to participate in any argument in which, no matter how much sense I make, and no matter how reasonably I act, the other party feels like she or he can always play the privilege card and shut me down. I find that fundamentally unfair and I don't have to do it. I don't see the value in participating in a discussion in which, by definition, I can at any time be told that, by definition, I'm in the wrong.

To the extent that I can at all consciously control my thoughts and actions, I try every day to think and act with less judgment and with more sensitivity in all things. People either accept that as the basis for engaging in any discussion with me or they don't. Those who do get further with me than those who don't. I honestly don't find much controversy in this way of thinking.

In your comment 315, you partition all privileged people into two groups: those who struggle to recognise their privilege, and those who simply abuse it. Where is the group of people who recognise their privilege quite well and generally treat others with caring and sensitivity? This is what I mean about defining privileged people as wrong. There's a joke about two managers arguing in the hallway, and one says, "Look... all software projects either finish late or on time...." and a programmer walks past and asks, "What about projects that finish early?" Yes, in fact, projects can finish early. Let's not forget that.

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polotek commented May 5, 2012

@jbrains I know where you're coming from. I don't think anyone should feel compelled to argue with a person who doesn't actually want to find common ground. But I also don't think that should be the prevailing atmosphere and we have to be careful not to dismiss people off hand whenever we feel attacked. Even the most reasoned person can sound like an asshole sometimes and if you leave the conversation immediately then neither of us can benefit. Again, I don't think we're disagreeing on the issue at hand. I think we have a different idea of how to be most effective in discourse.

I know the grouping of privileged people can raise hackles. People hate being grouped, even though we all do it to others. But I think you're still missing part of my position on privilege. I explicitly say that privilege is not "wrong" in itself. But it does come with responsibility. You can choose to ignore that responsibility. But if a person does so, they're doing other people a disservice. And I think you're arguing a non-existent point. If you "recognize your privilege and treat others with caring and sensitivity", then you fall into group 2. It seems you object to the idea that you haven't yet mastered it and it is still a constant struggle. Perhaps it's not that hard for you and if so, I think that's great. But if you're suggesting that it's something you're completely comfortable with, I think that attitude breeds complacency.

To correct your analogy, it's more like "all software projects are either late or they're not". Yes some might be ahead of the game and finish early. But I think we can all agree that those are not typical and we shouldn't point to those as the reason that being late isn't a huge pervasive problem. And in fact, those devs who find it easy to finish early or on time, should be helping the rest of us get better by speaking towards things that promote better habits. I think that's about as far as I can stretch that one :)

So let me try to distill my position a bit better. It seems you're a reasonable guy and have all the right ideas about this stuff. But instead of speaking towards more equality, you came in trying to give people an out by talking about individual responsibility and nobody should tell anyone else what to do. But I disagree. We're all in this together whether we like it or not. Individual responsibility is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need to work to create an atmosphere where it's not acceptable for people to discriminate. That's why we have to challenge people when they say something that they don't realize has an effect. That's why we have to push back on people who are clamoring for their right to "have their own opinion" about things that are harmful to others. I would like to have you as an ally in creating this atmosphere, or at least have you not muddy the waters by inadvertently bolstering the claims of those who still seem to be blinded by privilege.

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pzol commented May 6, 2012

@polotek @jbrains there are a lot of strong opinions on this topic, as a non-native English speaker I feel being a little bit in a handicapped position, as I have learned the words 'should' have a totally different gravity than in other languages I know.

Anyway, I will try to state my point of view more clearly - I would appreciate people wanting more women in tech to pro-actively support the women near them to get more confident about themselves, their abilities, a great initiative worthwhile supporting is for instance
One of the girls was doing a presentation at the Railsberry conference recently, and because of the friendly way she did it, there were no negative reactions at all.

In my opinion, if you are convinced, that you have to stand up for what you believe, the right way to do that is, to do it in a non-violent and pro-active way - word and action-wise. Pushing back people will make them more violent, helping them understand, might win you an ally.

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jbrains commented May 6, 2012

@polotek, I too think we mostly agree. I feel like you have tried to understand me, and I appreciate that. I still find some of your conclusions troubling; in particular, I think you have characterised what I've written a bit unfairly.

Telling people what to do is not the same as giving advice. I'm not against giving advice, but I have found people more willing to consider my advice when I have framed it less as a directive and more as sharing what I would do in the same situation -- or better, what I have done in similar situations in the past, and how that worked out for me. Thus, my advice to Piotr. I have studied how to give better advice and give advice better over the past decade, and I took an opportunity to share a little of that with Piotr.

Ultimately, your choice is your choice. Telling you that you're wrong tends to work less well than alternative ways of disagreeing. That's my experience. Others may differ. I'm open to hear stories of people who get good results from directing people's behavior.

Regarding my analogy, you are not correcting it, since it's not wrong; it seems you've missed it. Some projects do finish early. When managers pretend that that's impossible, they marginalise the people who have delivered projects early. That's the point of the joke. I think you did that when you characterised people of privilege as either ignorant or struggling. What about those who have genuinely worked hard and got past most of the struggling? Have you decided that it's literally impossible for me to have accepted my privilege and to be consistently aware of it in my dealing with other people? Your words suggest to me that you have decided that, and I daresay that attitude is fundamentally the same as any other discriminatory attitude. I find that advising someone to stop a negative behavior using another version of that negative behavior doesn't work very well.

One last point, and I'll repeat it one last time: I did not say that it was all right to discriminate. I empathised with Piotr, but expressly did not support his conclusion. I know that some people will always find a way to interpret empathy as agreement. I can't control that, and I choose not to let that stop me from empathising, because a world with less empathy is less of the world in which I want to live.

I have decided not to add more to this discussion, because I've reached the point where I'm merely repeating myself. That tells me that this discussion as gone as far as it can go for me. I walk away with a useful reminder of just how sensitive this issue is, how it can blind people, and why I need to remain ever vigilant about how people perceive my attitude towards my privilege. That's enough for me.

Peace, everyone. Unsubscribed.

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Thanks. This is a classy apology and it's appreciated.

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except not

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