Combating Sexual Harassment in Tech

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By Alexandra Garretón

Even Anarchists need rules — that’s at least what the six-year-old anarchist hackerspace Noisebridge, in the Mission, discovered this year after fielding complaints from women like Hannah Grimm.

Grimm’s experience at the space over the last year, documented in a September Google Plus post, included being called the “c-word,” having her ass spanked and being told she was going to be made a bride.

“It has become abundantly clear to most women in the space that ‘Be Excellent’ has failed us,” Grimm wrote in the post, in reference to Noisebridge’s guiding motto.

The coed members of Noisebridge, a collective workspace, agreed. In late September it became one of more than 100 hackerspaces, tech conferences and meetups since 2010 to impose an anti-harassment policy from the Ada Initiative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports women in tech. The idea is “no jerks welcome.”

Noisebridge now subscribes to zero-tolerance for harassment, which includes offensive verbal comments, stalking and inappropriate contact. Those who break the rules can be suspended or kicked out by any Noisebridge member.

This decision is what many women tech workers hope will become a widespread trend in an industry where roughly a quarter of “computing” jobs are held by females, according to The National Center for Women and Computing in Colorado. It’s tricky to get hard numbers on exactly how many women work in the tech industry; while the national labor statistics available do separate out gender, they do not differentiate between departments and roles within organizations.

Mitch Altman, a hacker and inventor who co-founded Noisebridge with fellow hacker and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum in 2007, said, “Both of us are queer, we’re very aware of harassment and its negative effects.”

“We wanted to start a place where everyone was welcome and where there is zero tolerance for putting people down for who they are,” Altman said. “Seeing these problems crop up is disheartening but seeing people want to deal with it is very heartening.”

The anti-harassment policy at Noisebridge will be reviewed again in January.

The incidents at Noisebridge are not uncommon in the industry. There are enough recorded sexist incidents in the tech community to fill a wiki timeline, an up-to-the-month chronicle of abuses going back to the 1970s.

Take a Halloween party mentioned on the wiki — hosted by Hacker Hideout, a San Francisco hacker group. Advertised to the city’s tech scene this year, the theme was Hackers and Hookers. The banner read “Beer. Dance Floor. Shot Bar. Food Truck. Girls.”

Hacker Hideout’s Facebook page was briefly taken down but The Bold Italic reported in October that the backlash from the tech community about the theme-party resulted in a lackluster apology from the hacker group: “We would like to start by saying it was not our intention to offend or upset anyone, but it can be hard to please the whole world and the different cultures, values and beliefs that exists.”

Increasingly, however, women bloggers are calling out offenders, but it hasn’t been easy.

“You don’t want to be that girl who’s like ‘Hey, that’s not cool’ because it shuts down the conversation,” said Missy Titus, 25, a San Francisco-based visual designer and blogger who often writes about gender disparities in tech.

Titus said that women used to circulate lists of male harassers at conferences among themselves “because you couldn’t talk about it publicly before without being ostracized by all the men who didn’t think it had happened.”

Twitter, she added, has become an increasingly useful tool in supporting other women. The social network, she said, “is helping a lot of people see that there is a community out there, which hopefully is helping more people feel that they can speak out and be supported — even if there is not a lot of support where they are.”

But, changes are only beginning. Ashe Dryden is a Wisconsin-based activist who advocates for diversity in the tech industry. She said that women have learned to take precautions if they plan to speak out against sexism and harassment. Her reasons are clear. In July, she launched an Indiegogo campaignto increase diversity in tech:

Two days after that Tweet, she followed up with a post on her personal blog about limiting harmful speech online. “In the United States, if you walk up to someone and threaten them with bodily harm, you are not protected under the First Amendment. What you just did is against the law. Why do we treat this differently on the internet?”

Dryden published that post the same day a woman in the United Kingdom launched a petition for Twitter to add a “report abuse” button. More than 140 thousand people signed, and, in response to the growing pressure, Twitter included a “report abuse” button for individual tweets in August.

Within tech companies, reporting abuse can directly impact a person’s position. Dryden asked her more than 6,500 Twitter followers what had happened when they reported harassment or assault to their employers — 23 of 25 respondents had been fired within three months. For Dryden, it speaks of an industry that would rather eliminate “troublemakers” than deal with the issue at hand.

A popular Medium post in May by Titus, the visual designer and blogger, compared men and women in the tech industry to climbing up two escalators: men are on an up escalator, while women are treading up a down escalator. Afterwards, she got a call from a local startup that appeared interested in hiring more women. Titus said, “His main premise was, ‘Well you know we still want to be able to be men….We don’t want women to come around and have to walk on eggshells because there are women around.’”

Still, tech women who are speaking out are seeing some progress in anti-harassment policies.

PyCon, the world’s largest conference for Python language programming, adopted an anti-harassment policy this year. According to the Ada Initiative, the conference drew a record 20 percent female crowd and a record number of female presenters after adopting the policy.

Just up Mission Street from Noisebridge at 20Mission, a live/work space for the tech community, Suzanne Carmody, 29, said her experience has been more positive than negative.

She has never experienced harassment when visiting Noisebridge for events, but she is familiar with the problems of being a woman in an industry where they are greatly outnumbered by men.

Carmody is perhaps especially attuned to sexual dynamics, given she runs a sex-positive blog calledNice Girls Like Sex Too. Some men have taken the provocative title as an invitation to send her pictures of their genitals — at the going rate of at least one crotch shot each day. She always reports them immediately to her email provider.

Though 20Mission has no formal harassment policy, Carmody said the one reported incident in the space was resolved peacefully through peer mediation. “A lot of men in geeky spaces or tech spaces were bullied as kids,” Carmody said. They’ve now entered an environment where men hold the reigns, and some have “unwittingly become a bully because they are unaware of the power they have now.”

Back at Noisebridge, relations are still not perfect, but Grimm is hopeful. “Passing the anti-harassment policy opened the door to the idea that it was okay for Noisebridge to have rules, and to enforce them,” she wrote in an email to Mission Local this month. “That’s made the space much safer. It still has a long way to go, and there’s plenty of people who are strongly opposed to making changes. But things are getting better.”

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