It’s Time To Listen

Last week, a member of the tech community of which I’m a part admitted she was sexually assaulted at a conference by her then-manager. This happened in January, and the incident was reported to her employer’s HR. After an investigation, the manager was asked to leave but allowed to do so in a way that made it seem like a voluntary parting of the ways. After months of seeing the man who assaulted her describe his situation as “Funemployment” and taking time to find himself, she decided to speak out about what happened to her.

What followed is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve ever seen someone speak publicly about sexual violence. Which is to say that what followed was a mixture of horrifying, enraging, and sad.

I’m bringing this up because we have a serious problem that needs addressed. This is a problem that stretches down through our entire society, but for now, at this moment, I’m staring hard at my community, the programming community (and in particular other Rubyists), because we’re failing even harder than the people around us. For that, we should be ashamed.

I’m asking my fellow programmers — specifically we menfolk who make up the majority of the field – to stop talking and listen for a little bit.

Not to me. To the people who are affected by the harassment and abuse our community has failed to address. To the women who have to deal not only with the threat of abuse, but the unwarranted judgment of their peers when they speak out and ask for the community to support them.

I mean it. Shut the fuck up and listen.

You may not agree with everything you hear. You may worry that some of the measures people would like implemented to protect themselves go too far, or are unfair, or will cause problems of their own down the line. You may feel attacked.

Still: shut the fuck up and listen.

What we lack in this community more than anything is empathy. We try to analogize our own lives to the lives of people whose situations we don’t understand. If you’re white and male, it’s easy to think, “Why can’t you just go to the police?” because we’re used to the police taking us seriously. It’s easy for us to think, “How is it fair to exclude someone from the community without a trial/proof/recourse?” because, having never been abused, threatened, or harassed, we don’t understand the pain it causes to see our abusers sharing our space, and being accepted by people we thought were friends. It’s easy for us to think, “Why can’t we stop attacking each other and forgive?” because we don’t know understand that someone who’s been assaulted  knows what it truly means to be attacked, and don’t understand the pain we cause when we ask them to forgive.

Thus, I ask you to shut the fuck up and listen.

For a while.

Even though it’s uncomfortable, even though we have an opinion, even though we feel like our opinion needs to be heard.

Our opinion is always heard, and that’s part of the problem. What we need right now is to hear the opinions of those who’ve been marginalized.

If we shut the fuck up, we make it easier for them to be heard.

If we shut the fuck up, we might hear those opinions ourselves.

I want more for this community. I don’t know how to get us there. But I do know how to shut up, and I do know how to listen, and maybe, if we do it together, we’ll see the way forward.

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7 Responses to It’s Time To Listen

  1. Well said. Thanks for taking this stand in your community.

  2. Chris says:

    Not only is sexual assault a workplace violation, it is a crime. Reporting to HR is the correct first step, but their decision on how to handle the situation only “resolves” the workplace violation. No matter how serious those consequences are to the perpetrator, there is at still a crime to adjudicate.

    Furthermore, the fact that the person responsible was fired or resigned does not relieve the employer of responsibility if it is found that proper procedures were not followed.

    I fully understand that filing charges in a sexually based situation is often more difficult for the victim than he/she wants to face, especially shortly after the occurrence. We can make this easier.

    Not only should we (expletive deleted) LISTEN, we need to lose our tendency to automatically assume the victim was wrong (or right, for that matter). We need to create an environment where such occurrences are handled (and viewed) the way other occurrences are handled (and viewed). If your house was broken into, are you made to feel like you “invited” the crime? NO. If someone mugs you, is it YOUR fault?

    Before we can effectively listen, we need to learn not to prejudge a situation. THEN we can listen with an open, empathetic mind.

  3. Mere says:

    Putting aside our archnemesis schtick for a moment, I’m really glad you wrote this, Eric — for two reasons. One, it publicizes the “no-fault” sexual assault (i.e., the perpetrator does not suffer the legal consequences of his actions) — which is a reprehensible response to workplace harassment, all in order to save face for the company . And two, much as I hate to admit it — and god, do I hate it — maybe Justine’s message will filter through to more male coders because it’s being featured on another male coder’s blog. Too often women are dismissed as being “oversensitive” or “hysterical” (though how you can be “oversensitive” about your boss publicly fingering you in a bar is beyond me) — so not only is it reassuring to see a man who’s actually listening, but asking others to listen, too. Thank you.

  4. Zach Briggs says:

    Thank you for writing this so I don’t have to. Thank you, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.

  5. K. L. Karoly says:

    Yes indeed it’s time. It’s past time. Past time to do something.

  6. Kim Mann says:

    Thank you Eric for sharing and for being so forceful with your response.

  7. samatwitch says:

    Thank you for writing this, Eric. We all need to listen when something like this happens because too often the ‘incident’ is brushed under the rug and the perpetrator is given a free ride – or at least a much easier one than the victim. It is especially hard on the victim if the perpetrator is well-liked and everyone acts like it’s no big deal. Thanks for standing up.

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