The orange program sitting on each chair of Wednesday night's "#MeToo in Seattle Tech: What Men Can Do" panel offered practical advice: "Catch yourself when you interrupt a female coworker and apologize," "Give women opportunities to work on projects that help their career," "Call out men who repeat women's ideas without crediting them," "Treat women as professionals, not potential dates."
Soon, the advice was repeated on a slide at the front of the room. "Women are asking," the slide read, followed by bullet points: "to be believed, to be listened to, to have an HR/management organization that has their back, to be paid fairly and promoted fairly, to be treated with professional respect..."
"None of these are radical things," organizer Austin Valeske told the crowd. "These are things we all do for men without thinking about it."
About 100 people attended the panel at the Northwest Film Forum Wednesday night. By a show of hands, most said they were tech workers for large companies and a little more than half were men. Valeske was one of several organizers from the Tech Workers Coalition and Women of Color Speak Out.
The "women are asking" lines were the boiled down results of a survey of 204 women and non-binary employees of local tech companies. The survey found that 81 percent of them said they had experienced gender-based discrimination or harassment at work in the male-dominated field.
Asked about the types of discrimination and harassment, respondents reported sexual assault; inappropriate comments, jokes, and sexual questions; being interrupted or talked over; negative career impacts for not being flirtatious enough; prioritization of men's career goals over women's; and other behaviors. Asked what male coworkers, managers, and HR employees could do, respondents cited things like not commenting on women coworkers' appearances, speaking up when a coworker makes an inappropriate joke, and removing names from resumes when screening job applicants.
Quotes from the survey responses range from addressing unconscious behavior like talking over women to addressing malicious sexism:
"Most men in my team and org are well-intentioned but are either not aware of, or just don't stand up when women get talked over, interrupted, ideas dismissed or not promoted. Any acknowledgement of these things would make a big difference."
"I often have men repeat my ideas and then immediately give credit to me for them: 'Maybe we could do X, as Y just suggested. It seems like a good idea to consider to me.' For me, this was amazing, because these guys use their power to get my ideas noticed and then make sure it's understood that it is MY idea, not their own."
"I've felt supported by management and HR when there were real career consequences for malicious sexist behavior, instead of just a meaningless verbal reprimand."
“The main takeaway here is that everything you think is happening is happening even more,” Valeske said.
In the survey results, 36 percent of people said they reported an incident of harassment or discrimination to a manager or human resources employee, but just 27 percent of those who reported "felt meaningful action was taken to resolve the issue."
"HR is beholden to the company," Caty Caldwell, a local tech worker, told the group during the panel. Caldwell asked that her company not be named since she was not speaking on their behalf. "They report up to company leaders... They mainly try to avoid PR disasters." (This theme stretches beyond tech. When Sydney Brownstone reported in November on sexual harassment allegations at City Light, a former union representative for City Light employees said city departments can hesitate to acknowledge sexual harassment because of liability fears.)
Susie Lee, an entrepreneur and artist who founded the now-defunct feminist dating app Siren, said her company sought to upend a sense of "entitlement" created by dating apps like Tinder. But "being a female founder trying to present a business idea was now inviting me to experience the sexual harassment we were trying to fix in the dating world."
Erik Molano, a graphic designer on the panel, said that as he read a flood of #MeToo posts on social media, "I kept thinking, 'these are some really terrible guys. I kept telling myself, 'this is horrible, but I’m glad I’m not one of them.'"
Then, he saw his own name in a post from a woman who recounted him "disrespecting her boundaries," Molano said. "It was a full body shock." Molano said he apologized publicly, went to therapy, and has begun to analyze they way men are socialized. While others on the panel made a now-familiar argument to "call in, not call out," Molano said "calling out is important. It breaks that pattern of thinking... It OK for someone to call you out. Don’t try to tell someone not to be angry or to be polite."
(I hate to say I went to a panel focused on the ways women are constantly harassed, sidelined, and ignored and felt like a man's perspective was one of the most interesting there. But it's also rare to hear someone acknowledge their own role in rape culture rather than treating the issue like it's women's work. Like this reader email we got, it's a perspective worth considering.)
The night's discussion attempted to offer practical advice for tackling sexism at tech companies: Stop interrupting women and non-binary people, credit them for their ideas, pressure companies to publicly share diversity and sexual harassment data. But the obvious point was that the issue is systemic.
“If you have women—not one woman, that's not diversity—if you have three or more women making decisions about how a company’s DNA is going to be," Lee said, "you will have a change."
"Patriarchy is a systemic problem," Caldwell said. "Patriarchy isn’t going to be solved by interpersonal changes... The new solution, in my opinion, is to organize collectively and start bargaining for what we want."