This been the damn world

I was watching a snippet of Colbert’s late show, where the host is interviewing Billy Bush, of the Access Hollywood tape notoriety.

It seemed just yesterday that the tape was leaked, but it has been quite some time since then. We had Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler here. There were many celebrities and professionals in the entertainment industry coming forward after that.

And all I could think of, watching the interview today, was that Billy Bush still is bitter that he lost his job and Trump kept his, that he thinks he didn’t do anything that wrong even if he speaks the politically correct words expected of him, that he said it was back in 2005 and that he laughed along with the other men just because it was the norm of the time, and somehow that vibe of ‘I did the right thing for that time, and why I am being blamed for it now that the times have changed?’ got through to the host and the audience as well. It made for uncomfortable watching, certainly.

I hear the same in discussions informal and formal, online and offline. [Why are we looking at tech? Other industries have the same problems! Women don’t come in because they don’t want to do the hard work. It is not a discrimination problem, it is a supply problem.]

The problem is multivariate. Solutions are not easy. However, the first step is acceptance. The first step should not be about ”understanding what a woman faces’, or doing exercises to ‘put yourself in her shoes’, or going through endless sensitivity training videos on the corporate website. It is accepting that the problem of harassment and discrimination exists.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to even get to that point with most of my male colleagues. I have only male colleagues, and have had only male colleagues for the entirety of my career. So how they react to this hits home for me.

Any mention of harassment brings up defensive reactions, disclaimers that they knew nothing of it, that they saw nothing of it, that nobody meant anything ‘really serious’. Variations exist on those themes.

  • It is not the companies I’ve worked at. I am sorry you faced this here. I want to assure you that it’s not the norm!
  • It’s not the people I know. You are dealing with an odd man out.
  • It’s never been the industry’s way. You are dealing with an odd company.
  • It’s only because they are boys entering the field without professional coaching. They get better with time. Don’t take it personally.

When you are the only woman in a setting, when sexually inappropriate comments are made inside the workplace with knowing, coy looks, it’s hard not to take it personally.

It is not unusual that we don’t often hear these stories. There are very few women in the field. There are very few women as you move up the ranks, and they keep changing companies until they switch career tracks or find a nice, dead-end, cosy position. Many of them are on a visa, or in various stages of establishing permanent residency, tied to their employer for that duration. They risk their job, their ability to stay in the country, when they complain. It is easy to find a new job, of course, in today’s market, but you risk being labelled as the poisoner of the well, and if you have a visa at stake, you risk a lot more.

Why didn’t you say anything about it? Why didn’t you take it to the right channels? Why didn’t you persist in reporting higher and higher up when your management chain concealed the reports? If you don’t do something, what if this happens to someone else here? The questions are not without value. Yet, I wonder, in this field of incredibly intelligent men that I work in, why would they need it explained to them many times over? Maybe one day, they too, like Billy Bush, will say it was only the norm at that time, that they introspected and reflected and found out that their behavior wasn’t okay, and that they are changed now. Maybe, though, there will be a false accusation soon, and everybody will go back to their lives, convenient as it is to think every woman who came forward was just an embittered, unsuccessful-in-life snowflake who made it up in her head, that no such thing would ever happen in real life, in your life or my life.

Then there’s the perception effect. You are a woman working in a group of men. You smiled and had coffee or took a walk about the campus with this man. So that must mean that in some way you provoked someone else to act inappropriately towards you. Unless you are the perfect victim, the archetype of Virgin Mary, Mother of God, why would I believe anything you say? Why would I believe that you didn’t have it coming?

So complaining about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace only becomes feasible if you have an incredible support system, a perfect victim profile, a financial safety net, a new job or set of jobs waiting, and acceptance that you will lose friendships with male colleagues in the field as well as get blacklisted in the network effects that happen in a closed and small world as this, and a tremendous amount of courage to deal with the aftershocks, everyday, for a long time to come. So we pretend that leaving was our choice, and move on to the next place quietly.

When any attempt to raise the issue up the chain of command ends up with you getting basically demoted, shifted around to work in dead-end projects, out of sight and out of mind, it is incredibly hard to believe that you are dealing with an odd  man out, that it is just boys entering the field a tad rough about the edges, that the industry is as pure as they claim it is.

I stumbled into a few colleagues at lunch today.

“Oh, how is your new role going on?”

I made my polite replies. Then they said, “You look happy! You must be so happy to be now working in foo_bar.”

I wondered what the appropriate response would be. At least one of them knew the exact reasons as to why I had been ‘voluntarily’ reassigned. Many of the others knew that something had gone wrong, but had made no effort over the weeks to understand what exactly transpired (not that I consider that an egregious sin). And the person who knew stood there, with the others, smiling politely at me as if he had no idea about any of it.

It didn’t matter then. So I just carried on with my day.

“Think about how lucky you are! At least you get paid a lot.”

I entered this field because I was interested, many years ago. I stayed all these years because I was interested. The money came later, once that robotics hype exploded recently. And even if I came and stayed for the money, I signed up to be paid for SLAM, not to service the unfettered needs of male colleagues that they’ll get away with for the foreseeable future.

“What will you do?”

I have come around to thinking that we have all our places to stand. Mine, for now, is a place of observation. Action, if there must be action, can only come later in my life, when I have built enough courage, when I have built enough of a support system outside this industry, when I have options and opportunities outside this industry to retreat to without worrying about livelihoods and immigration.

Action, if it one day comes, cannot be mine alone. When the ratios I work in, have worked in (~40:1, usually give or take), are what they are, it means my male colleagues need to be aware of how they talk, of how they touch, of how they take my compliance in overlooking their violations of professional boundaries for granted, it means that my male colleagues need to accept that regardless of how serious they think they were (‘just kidding around!’), there are serious consequences for me (potential loss of work, a change of job).  It is hard, I understand; I found it hard to accept that I am usually spoken over at meetings, that I am taken less seriously at technical discussions etc. I have found my way to address these issues, but it is a trial-and-error, what-works-for-me solution. The hardest part, though, was not finding the solution. It was accepting that this was my reality and that it was entirely up to me to solve it if I wanted to stay in the industry.

I was uncertain about posting this. I generally prefer to keep matters more abstract when writing here, especially if they are close to my heart. Today, though, I was thinking that my exit from this industry was more likely to happen in an ugly manner from these thousands of paper-cuts than by a clean, single-stroke of irresistible force. So it felt right to write here, of this, today.

I am not normally one for SNL, but I saw they did this piece earlier this month: