What’s with the silence?

Every man in tech that doesn’t openly speak out against sexism in the industry is losing his opportunity to become part of history. And I’m wondering… what’s keeping you?

I wondered this again while reading Ashe Dryden’s gut-wrenching post on some of the issues she—and many, many other women—have to deal with in our industry:

I’ve had a male coworker threaten to come to my house because I didn’t want to discuss a work issue with him while he was angry. Because he attended most tech events in the city I lived in, I stopped attending them – even the ones I was involved organizing.

A guy at a tech conference asked me where he could get in line to have sex with me.

I worry daily that people are going to think I’m a bitch for speaking up in my own defense or the women around me. I worry how it hurts my public image and opportunities. I’m tired of feeling like I have to be fighting this 24/7 so we don’t lose ground.

There is a very vocal minority in our industry, particularly online, that fights to keep the status quo intact; that fights against anything that even just hints at reducing their privileges, anything that forces them to acknowledge they didn’t get where they are solely based on merit. But out of all the people who speak out about these issues (sexism, racism, and other -isms), whichever side of the debate they’re on, this small minority currently forms a majority. They’re a vocal majority in this debate because too many people, especially members of the dominant demographic, remain silent. But we know this majority exists, as the recent JSConf example shows: 85% of the JSConf attendees put down $10 in support of increasing diversity in tech.

So we know most people support diversity, even put their money down for it, but why do so incredibly few of us speak out? Do the people remaining silent think it’s bad for business to speak out against sexism, maybe because there seems to be such a large audience who disagrees? Many recent examples have shown the opposite to be true, that capitalism has repeatedly favored those who speak out respectfully in favor of diversity and taking active measures against sexism. Capitalism has favored the conferences that put in the effort to ensure a respectable level of diversity of their speakers and that actively encouraged a diverse audience to attend, and capitalism has penalized those who failed to do so or, worse, who offensively dismissed the idea of such efforts altogether.

Most people don’t like conflict, myself generally included, but unfortunately, choosing to remain silent in this greater debate is not the same as playing no part in it: your silence does play a part. The people suffering from discrimination, harassment, systemic disenfranchisement and constant vitriol, they need others to make them feel welcome and supported. They need to hear these words of support, see these actions taken. They cannot, and will not, assume from your silence that you’ve got their back. You may think your silence tells them nothing, but it’s worse than that: your silence tells them they can’t count on you.

These people need to know that not everyone in our industry shares the bigoted views of this privileges-clenching vocal minority. But this vocal minority is being heard infinitely more than your silence. A silent majority loses every debate against a vocal minority, no matter how small.

Silence always concedes ground.

That’s why Ashe is “tired of feeling like I have to be fighting this 24/7 so we don’t lose ground.” That’s why I speak out so frequently and so loudly, because your silence forces me to speak out on my and your behalf.

These people are dealing with a bad environment that is occupying their time and headspace, day in day out, preventing them from using that time to further their career, or contribute to open source, or make better designs and better products. Their customers are suffering because of all this time being spent on things other than their work itself.

I am emotional about this (yes, men get just as emotional as women), because many of these people are incredibly talented, hard-working, driven professionals, and I’m fortunate enough to count some of them among my friends. We are all losing out from the time they have to spend just to be treated, respected and accepted as equal human beings. But most won’t say that as explicitly or publicly as Ashe did, for fear of the anger, hatred and vitriol they’ll risk getting from that vocal minority.

For almost two years now I’ve been putting my career and reputation at risk by being so outspoken in support of more active measures to increase diversity, to encourage women and under-represented demographics from getting their fair share of representation and respect from our community. And so far, all it’s cost me is some people unfollowing me on Twitter. The only cost to my career has been the time spent on it that could’ve been spent on my startup, but I’ve been happy to make that sacrifice in order to let people know that I support them, stand beside them, and will struggle with them to make ours a better community for everyone.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we are shaping the identity of our industry moving into the future, cultivating the very environment in which our future’s history will be written.

You can help without having to become an activist. You can tweet or retweet links to good articles—don’t just favorite them, nobody sees that and your support won’t be known. Read up on tips and methods to handle people saying sexist things in your presence. Learn more about how the culture of misogyny happens, so that you can better identify and understand it.

The World Wide Web is the medium upon which our entire future history will be written; not just that of our industry, but the history of our species. The Web documents our progress, and lets us chart our future. We are among the new cartographers of the human purpose.

And we’d like for you to join us.

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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