Why Tech Is Still Toxic for Women (and What to Do About it)
Back when I was still taking public transport, I remember being on a mostly empty train one sunny afternoon. There was a young woman standing holding onto the pole with a large portfolio propped against her leg, maybe heading to university, maybe an interview, maybe her entry-level creative job. She was of course ignoring the world with headphones on and scrolling. She gets a tap on her shoulder. She moves probably thinking she’s in someone’s way. Nope. Some guy wants to tell her “You’re a real good-looking girl.” She nods him off. He taps again. She takes off her headphones. She’s nodding, yeah, yeah, thanks. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Yes thanks. “Nah you don’t have a boyfriend. I’d take good care of you.” She has to unlock her phone to show him a pic of her with a guy. One last time he insists on telling her, aggressively, how pretty he thinks she is. Then he finally moves on in the train car.
That young woman was heading to either work or school, but now will be looking over her shoulder if that guy is following her. If he’s going to see where she works or lives.
And such harassment happens online to an astonishing degree. In 2017, women had been the target of 1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets, an average of one every 30 seconds, according to Amnesty International.
I remember my first cyber stalker at my first job as a tech journalist at a massive media conglomerate. I spent a few months getting contacted by “Milo.” Via Facebook, Twitter, and relentlessly via email because the blog had a contact us form at the bottom of each post. “Milo” as he called himself, started by telling me how pretty I was. He kept asking me why I didn’t respond. Who was I with instead of the love of my life, Milo?
He said he knew where I lived in Barcelona and that he was coming soon. Still I never responded. He said I probably wasn’t responding because I had a man. He promised to get rid of him when we met. This went on aggressively for a few months. CBS’s legal department got involved, but they had no idea how to handle it. The direction given was to just block him on my email. A quick search for the FBI advocated the exact opposite — you need evidence to pursue anything like this.
Hi @jack. Last week I was called a c***, told to drink bleach & that I’d be tied up. For tweeting. How about sorting yr reporting rules too? https://t.co/VkPi0TZNyQ
— Sophie Walker (@SophieRunning) September 27, 2017
Eventually a friend tracked Milo’s IP address to let me know he was sending these messages from the West Coast. Over time, the creeper moved on. I relaxed again — more or less.
This is the kind of bullshit women have to deal with, at work, and on the internet. Being a woman or nonbinary person of color only multiplies these threats. The world is toxic for women. The internet is toxic for women — and the workplace is toxic for women, all thanks to their (mostly) male counterparts’ systemic permission to be aggressive with little to no consequences.
When they get to work, women have to deal with mansplaining, “himterrupting” and “hepeating.” This is when women are consistently talked down to, talked over, and men constantly take credit for our ideas. Eighty-eight percent of women in tech surveyed have experienced clients and colleagues directing questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them. And this attitude carries over into the online realm.
men: why do u hate men
— Randi Lee Harper (@randileeharper) December 19, 2020
Tall Poppy CEO Leigh Honeywell argues that sexual harassment hasn’t gotten worse online, it’s just that the internet reflects and amplifies the sexual and racial harassment that’s been going on for centuries. People often blame anonymity but she pointed out that people are often perpetrating under their real names.
“The way that platforms have continued to mirror society, online harassment isn’t different from catcalling on the street. Is it worse? No, the misogyny and racism is just more visible and undeniable,” Honeywell explained to The New Stack.
Why Is This Still Happening?
Host of the podcast Race & Gender Unfiltered, Daniel Edmund said that “It’s always been unsafe, but now we just have this platform that’s representing the ‘unsafety’ that is already there. It’s more unsafe and more violent because of the ability to connect with people just immediately. Someone could send a death threat immediately across the entire world. Right now. It takes ten seconds.”
He continued that now the access we have in every area is just so much greater.
“The fact that we live in a world where they actually have to create signs saying that ‘We support women’ or ‘Black lives matter’ is ridiculous. What world are we living in if that explicitly has to be said?”
— Daniel Edmund
“We’ve advanced so much technologically. What we’re seeing is a real lag in our social evolution in our collective consciousness that’s really trying to catch up where technology is going,” Edmund said.
Any space where human interaction exists — like social media — bias also will exist. And online platforms serve to reflect and amplify that bias.
Edmund told The New Stack that “There’s an abuse of power with men, and all men are operating within a space that protects them. There aren’t a lot of repercussions for men that act that way.”
He says the majority of laws were written by men and most companies are run by men. Usually white men. And because these men have the power, other community groups outside of that are at much higher risk.
How Can Companies Improve the Lives of Minoritized Colleagues?
Edmund has spent six years being called into corporate settings as a men’s wellbeing coach. He says he’s usually brought in by women at mid-level management because something bad happens — and usually continues to happen — and they are trying to get people above them to make a change. However this act of bringing in diversity and inclusion consultants — just like companies posting about the #MeToo or Black Lives Matter movements — are largely performative and don’t last for long.
Edmund says the lowest hanging fruit for companies wanting real change is to create safe spaces for articulating their experiences.
“What is your experience like as a woman, as a Black woman, as an Indian woman, as a trans woman, as a Black man? We find so much that minorities normalize that other people would find shocking on a daily basis. ‘That’s every day — that’s just life,’” Edmund said.
Ask your marginalized colleagues whether they want to go through this discussion process and then if they want to do it anonymously, one on one, or in a group session. He warns just be very clear about what you are trying to achieve.
It’s a start, but then it’s about what you do with what you’ve learned. Edmund says you don’t get brownie points just for being aware.
He warns that often “The only thing that changes is everyone knows about it now. Which is actually worse because you can’t even claim ignorance.”
He says what actually has to change is that managers must put practices in place with a clear-cut stance on what the company culture really is. Too often he says that someone reports being sexually harassed or being discriminated against at work, and organizations are actually still on the fence about it.
“I think there’s an expectation that this is going to happen,” Edmund said.
So managers have to “Take a very clear stance of what you want your culture to be like. It has to come from top-down, drawing lines like: ‘We don’t accept sexual harassment.’”
Having to screenshot sexual harassment on Slack or Teams for HR reports is a far too common trend. What’s almost as common is asking the victim if she’s blowing it out of proportion. After all, that dude is really a big asset. What this woman endured at Uber — and what she learned several other female colleagues endured — is unacceptable and should never happen again.
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Predominantly female HR departments are often complicit in upholding the systems that marginalize women and other minoritized groups. And once they find their complaints diminished, victims probably won’t go to that supposedly safe, legally protected space again.
Edmund says we all have to be responsible in recognizing how in our everyday experiences we feed into these abusive structures. We all have to be committed to bettering the experiences for women and other community groups.
Edmund says in any given company there are maybe 10% of the people actively abusing — usually in a documentable way. There are also about 10% who actively want to see change occur — he calls them “change champions.” The majority are actually indifferent, which he says is the real threat to any type of change: “the well-meaning, good-intentioned people who don’t do anything.”
He says the companies who contract him are always focused on the 10% who are actively creating that hostile environment.
“For women it often comes down to: Do I want to keep my job or not? If you want to put in an abuse claim, you have to be ready to leave this company because even if I do win, my experience here will be so much worse.”
— Daniel Edmund, Race & Gender Unfiltered
“Some people may never, ever change, but look at the core values of your company. You made a stance, and then those people do not align with your company and your values. And you are putting your time and energy from the beginning into people who may not be right for your company. A lot of companies compromise on their integrity and values because [the perpetrators] may be doing well at their job,” Edmund said.
Instead, we should focus on those change champions.
Edmund said, “Focus on the attributes and characteristics that you want to continue. You want to celebrate them. And then people are drawn to that energy.”
He says this stance also has to extend to who you accept as customers and vendors too.
How to Protect Others When They’re Being Publicly Harassed
Honeywell’s Tall Poppy is a company dedicated to building tech that fights online harassment. Focusing on harassment outside of companies, her team mainly works with developer advocates, trust and safety teams, and media and journalists, who share in public roles that make them more of a target.
Tall Poppy isn’t a replacement for HR, but rather it provides proactive cybersecurity training with software to help avoid account takeovers and doxing. A professional office will have IT shoring up defenses, but most don’t have that kind of protection for personal security. With that in mind, Tall Poppy provides the technical support with a human touch.
The amount of times I have had to ask companies to disable comments on @YouTube videos I’m featured in due to harassment is way more than it should be.
It bears repeating: being a woman in tech is exhausting. 😓
— Chloe Condon 🎀 (@ChloeCondon) January 14, 2021
When someone is a victim of harassment or abuse, it’s proven essential to try to help them restore some sense of control.
One way the Tall Poppy team can help this is by calmly coaching the victim through the technical side of the trauma, always making sure to validate their experience.
Honeywell said, “When you think of the pieces of the online harassment, start by thinking about the things you can control — two-factor authentication, passwords, security in account.”
She says it’s akin to a self-defense class, which doesn’t solve the broader issues of violence and inequality but can give people a sense of control over the things they can control.
Of course, as her business grows, they are gaining more of a “proactive advantage,” getting teams and individuals to take security steps in advance which in turn can dramatically reduce harm. Increasingly organizations are contacting Tall Poppy ahead when they are going to release a policy change or announce a big hire.
But they are most often called in when aggression has already been laid down. Honeywell echoed the idea that you can’t always just block someone. The perpetrators could just create another account anyway and, in severe cases, you may need record-keeping for law enforcement. She said a good first move if you wanted to block someone on Twitter is to have a friend monitor the search of your name to make sure there’s no new content about you that you can’t see.
Tall Poppy also can help with preparing customers with how to interface with law enforcement. For example, if you have to file a police report you are going to have to print out all those screenshots in hard copy.
Back when Honeywell was working on Slack’s policies, she realized that, even if a social media account is infiltrated and someone deletes all your posts, it’s really not deleted. There are very intentional design considerations for how and when something is deleted.
“Deleting stuff is a complicated technical and social problem,” she said, including that there are backups saved in a database somewhere to revert malicious changes.
She did say it’s a highly effective move for the victim’s employer to get involved publicly early on.
It’s unclear what about my posts recently has said “please email me follow ups about why I don’t like creepy unsolicited emails” pic.twitter.com/tchY0JaKPt
— Abby Fuller (@abbyfuller) December 27, 2020
“When I’ve seen very large harassment situations having the least impact on the employees, it’s because the company has been publicly standing behind them,” Honeywell said.
A simple statement of support from a corporation usually ends things.
Honeywell warns against just jumping in to respond in support of a friend or colleague. It’s better to direct message to ask what the victim prefers first. Your getting involved too soon could make it much worse.
Instead she says to focus your energy on “Signal boosting people’s content who are different from you in a way that makes it clear that you support it and you are lifting up their work.”
How to Make Yourself Safer Online
“Just be conscious of what’s out there. If you’re public in any way, google yourself at least quarterly,” Honeywell said.
Some things can’t be taken down but you should at least be aware of what’s out there, like your address could be popping up on online tax records.
Honeywell also recommends being judicious about what you post.
“Things as simple as if you want to post at a particular venue, post after you’ve left. Be conscious of the impact and data of the images have on you without having to be super secretive. We all have a right to an interior life. And we also have a right to exist as human beings in public. It should be no big deal, but it’s not” always, she explained.
Microsoft Senior Cloud Advocate Chloe Condon further reminds us to be aware of things like what is reflected in our glasses in selfies as it can signal our whereabouts. And never risk someone’s safety by pointing out where they are located.
Hello! 🙋🏼♀️ Unless it’s super obvious/it is explicitly tagged, please do not call out locations in women’s photos publicly! It’s v cool that you recognize where we are, but it can often be a safety issue. And PLEASE do not show up!! This is why I post pics days, if not weeks later.
— Chloe Condon 🎀 (@ChloeCondon) October 22, 2020
Of course, we’ve already established online harassment can happen and often increases when you are well known, like with that blue Verified check offered by Twitter. Honeywell says response varies by person, circumstances and the human psychology of the target, the perpetrator and the audience. Some victims choose to never engage. Some will respond once asking to be left alone. Sometimes it’s appropriate to screenshot and shame. When her team is working with clients they will talk through the options and potential consequences within the goal of making the abused feel more empowered.
One thing Honeywell warns is to never quote retweet, which she refers to as a signal that boosts harassment and increases the harasser’s likes and shares. An alternative is to tweet at their employer in the thread or use their employers’ confidential ethics line.
Whether you engage or not, the reporting functionality in social platforms can be very powerful. She says it’s particularly effective if anyone is dealing with impersonation.
“At the same time as we aren’t getting groped at cons which is awesome, not only are we dealing with these traumatic sets of circumstances in the world, when we are dealing with this online harassment, we are at home. It feels a little more threatening. We are in this extra heightened and fragile state. And it can make that online harassment to feel more violating and upsetting.”
— Leigh Honeywell, Tall Poppy
The Twitter quality filter is open to everyone as a way to keep you from being overwhelmed with threatening or negative content but without risking missing what people could potentially be saying about you through a block.
If you remove a connection on LinkedIn, the removal goes both ways, however, on Twitter, you can’t as easily make someone unfollow you. Honeywell advocates for “softblocking” to get around this. This is when you block and then unblock them, which forces them to unfollow you. This is useful when you are using Twitter to signal boost minoritized people and you don’t want to put them at greater risk.
Tall Poppy’s clients are undoubtedly in the public eye, but what are the safest spaces in general for minoritized people in tech? Honeywell praises semi-private safe spaces like Slack groups specifically for women in tech and people of color.
“What this enables is that everyone doesn’t have to solve problems,” she said, but can just focus on their careers.