Standing up to jerks

This week there was yet another incident where a male presenter at a tech conference acted like a middle schooler and exhibited poor taste and lack of judgement. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It should never surprise you to find a jerk in any community. Jerks are everywhere. What’s important is how we – the non-jerks, and particularly the men – respond to the jerks.

I tweeted:

And I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since then. What would I have done in that situation?

There’s several options available to you. You can simply leave. You can be quiet about it, or be loud about it. You can stand up and speak out about it. You can ask the representatives of the conference in the room to step in and throw the bum off the stage.

Or, of course, you can do nothing, which is what most of us do most of the time.

Speaking out is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s deeply awkward. You’ll look like an idiot. People will resent you. You’ll have nasty things said about you online. It’s much easier to sink back into your chair and let it happen – perhaps even participate in the nervous laughter around you.

But it only takes one person to stand up and say, no, this isn’t on. This isn’t how we do things in our community. You are on the outside, and you won’t be allowed to paint us all with your brush.

Several years ago, I was attending a conference. As it happens, it’s one of my favorite conferences. I’ve spoken there numerous times, and a lot of my friends attend. This particular time, my wife was attending with me.

We stepped into an elevator and another conference attendee was in the elevator wearing a tshirt depicting a woman pole dancing, with the text “I support single mothers”.

I didn’t say anything.

I think about that frequently. Why didn’t I say anything? I’m a respected member of the community. My words carry weight there. I could have made a point that he was making people uncomfortable. That he was being disrespectful to the women in the community. That, since he was on the way up to his room, perhaps this was a good time to change his shirt. I could have used my privilege as a man, as a community elder, as a speaker at the conference, to right a small wrong.

But I didn’t. And so I was complicit in the women that were made uncomfortable, or didn’t come to the conference next year, because this guy thought his little joke was more important than someone’s dignity.

He was the middle schooler, and I was the grownup in that situation. When my son misbehaves in public, it is my job to correct him and make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is not to say that he’s not responsible for his actions – he is – but I’m responsible for my response. The young man in the elevator was responsible for his tshirt. He chose to put it on. I presume he thought it was funny. It was my job to educate him, and I missed the opportunity.

And so we come back to you, and how you respond to indignities and injustices that happen around you. Did anyone in the audience stand up and protest? I don’t hear them on the video. Was anyone even uncomfortable? Did anyone think that it was a problem?

If you’re one of the elder statesmen who, like me, attend a lot of these events, and have a loud voice in the community, you have an obligation to stand up to this kind of thing, rather than sink into your seat and cringe. Stand up. Say for the whole room to hear, we don’t do that kind of thing here. Risk being uncomfortable. Risk feeling awkward. Risk people being angry with you, or not understanding why you thought it was important to spoil a “harmless prank” or “just a bit of fun.” Because it’s not fun to the people who are being othered by this kind of behavior. And, in the long run (and the not-so-long), it is harmful to the future of our industry when we make it clear that women aren’t welcome.

It’s fine to be indignant after the fact when these things happen. It’s important to support GirlsWhoCode and other organizations that encourage other marginalized groups in technology, but how you respond at the moment that indignity occurs defines what’s ok the next time.

Stand up and say something.