I’m a 20-something woman working in tech in San Francisco, like many others, and I recently had two interesting events in my life collide – one was was Susan Fowler’s article about the sexism and unconscious bias she experienced at Uber, and the second was my dealing with unwanted attention from a man on the internet. Fowler’s article wasn’t surprising to me, and gauging the reaction of a number of other women in tech I’ve spoken to about it, it really wasn’t a huge surprise for them either. In the ensuing storm, I read Uber engineer Aimee Lucido’s Reflecting on Susan Fowler’s reflections, and Lucido had a passage that really stood out for me.
As you’re sitting there, reading this post, thanking your lucky stars that your company isn’t like this, remember that the contents of Susan’s post were surprising specifically because Uber employees didn’t think that it was a problem.
What was so powerful about this passage is that it makes it clear that all of these bias/sexism issues are NOT black and white. They’re not going to reveal themselves as bleeding wounds. They’re silent killers – cancers. I’ve occasionally encountered outright sexism in my career, but the real devil has been in the grey area – the unconscious bias. It’s important to point out that women are not the exclusive victims of unconscious bias. I’d argue that everyone has been a victim of it, as well as a purveyor – the problem is that context is everything, and because Silicon Valley’s gender/sexual orientation balance is so polarized, it can be difficult for one sex/orientation to put themselves in another’s shoes.
So where does this connect?
Over the last year, there was a man who attempted to contact me through nearly every social channel online. He tried to add me multiple times on Facebook, messages me, Twitter, email, you name it. It was frightening.
He then recently renewed an effort to contact me through Linkedin. I selected the option on Linkedin to say, “I do not know this person” after which he paid for inMail to keep messaging me. The messages were not entirely inappropriate from an insulting/sexual manner, but they were not appropriate for a professional networking platform.
I felt helpless, so I posted a screen shot of the messages on Facebook and asked people what they thought I should do. What fascinated me was the range of responses. Some men made light of it, and joked about it. Some men were appalled, and most of the women were unsurprised/angry on my behalf. To be fair to the men, they had no context to know the extent of this cyber stalking, and it probably had never happened to them, so they probably didn’t think about being worried. It was interesting to read the responses because there were people that were surprised that this was a problem.
How does this connect back to what Susan faced? Well, there were a lot of men who didn’t think it was a big deal – they told me, “just block him.” The problem was that I was afraid to block him on yet another social platform. Why? Because this was an individual who was taller than me, stronger than me, older than me, and I had no idea who he was connected to. This was a person who had ignored every previous cue I had given him not to engage – and since he was falling outside the realm of normal behavior, I felt completely trapped. I didn’t know if this was an individual who would get angry that I had blocked him and start to slander me to my professional network or online, or even end up hurting me. I felt powerless.
I’m sure almost every woman and quite a few men reading this can relate.
So here’s where the story gets better.
As luck would have it, one of my Facebook friends recognized the small thumbnail profile picture of the person who had messaged me. Turns out he had a few connections with him, and he messaged me on Facebook.
First, he apologized for what was happening. He didn’t have to – he didn’t owe me that and it wasn’t his fault, but in that moment it really meant a lot that he took the time to empathize with me and not judge or belittle my issue.
Second, he told me he would reach out to the mutual contact and try to help fix this situation.
Within a week, he messaged me back, told me he spoke with the individual and that everything had been sorted. Since then, I haven’t had a single problem with this individual.
An entire year of worry and concern was fixed by one good person being a good person. One person who didn’t try to pass judgement on me, who looked at the situation, saw it was wrong, and did what he could to help make it right. He put aside his own time and ego to help – and he did it without reward or recognition.
This may seem like a small thing to you and my fear and concern may be surprising to you, but to me, I felt validated.
In the wake of all of the polarizing views, vitriolic discourse on sexism, race, and gender, I wanted to share my story and remind everyone that there are people out there who are working on fixing problems. There are men and women out there fighting for women and minorities, championing them, investing in them, and mentoring them. There are people who are figuring out ways to overcome the unconscious bias that lets the problems like the one I faced fester. We still have a long way to go, but I think it’s important to point out progress when we see it.
This was small thing that was GOOD, and I’m truly grateful for all of the people out there who are being the change they wish to see in the world. Thank you.