Benedikt Meurer JavaScript Engine Hacker and Programming Language Enthusiast.

Small things matter

After all the recent drama in the Node.js community, which has been on-going for a long time actually, I was almost tempted to believe that a lot of this is really because problems deeply rooted within the american society leak into the (open source) tech community. And to a certain extent that’s probably true. But only to a certain extent. There’s more about the broader tech community that makes it an extremely hostile environment, without being influenced (directly) by the american society. A lot more than that.

So I came across this post of a young, german, female computer science student last week, which turned into another wakeup call for me. That young woman doesn’t want her Twitter handle to be revealed anywhere now after she received a major shit storm and became target of a lot of harassment. It was so bad that she even had to protect her Twitter account. But she gave me permission to post the text here. Below is the original german version of her Tweet (with an english version afterwards):

Heute war mal wieder einer dieser Tage, an denen ich nichts hinbekomme als heulend vor Vorlesungsfolien zu sitzen. Eigentlich macht es mir Spaß, komplexe Probleme zu lösen und mich in neue Themengebiete einzuarbeiten. Aber sobald diese Probleme weg von abstrakten Modellen und hin zur tatsächlichen maschinellen Umsetzung gehen, bekomme ich Angst. Und davon so viel, dass ich es manchmal nicht schaffe, mich überhaupt mit den Vorlesungsinhalten zu befassen. Obwohl ich weiß, dass ich eigentlich intelligent genug dafür bin, habe ich das Gefühl, sie unmöglich verstehen zu können. Woher das kommt, ist unschwer zu erraten in einer Gesellschaft, in der schon den Ausdruck “Frauen und Technik” als sexistischen Witz gilt. Vieles davon ist internalisierte Misogynie. Aber es ist auch ganz konkret dieses Studium.

In einem anderen Kontext habe ich die Erfahrung gemacht, dass es tatsächlich einfach nur Spaß machen kann, eine neue Programmiersprache zu lernen. Ich hatte dort die Sicherheit, Fehler machen zu dürfen und danach noch respektiert zu werden. Das Studium dagegen fühlt sich wie eine feindliche Umgebung an, in der jeder Fehler nur Vorurteile bestätigt. Vorlesungen und Tutorien sind für mich so unangenehm, dass ich meistens lieber alleine zuhause versuche, den Stoff nachzuarbeiten. Wieso?

Wegen den Kommilitonen, die sich neben mich setzen und mich 90 Minuten lang einfach nur anstarren. Wegen denen, die während der Vorlesung versuchen, mich in unsinnige Gespräche zu verwickeln oder mir creepy Nachrichten auf meinen Block schreiben. Wegen denen, die mich beim Vorbeigehen anfassen und denen, die sich zwei Reihen hinter mir lautstark darüber unterhalten, dass Frauen das Studium ja nur schaffen könnten, weil sie sich „durchschlafen“. Wegen den Typen, die fragen, ob ich mit ihnen Übungsblätter machen wolle und dann arschig werden, wenn ich tatsächlich nur das will. Die dann sagen, ich solle vielleicht einen längeren Rock anziehen, wenn ich ernst genommen werden wolle. Und dass mir doch hätte klar sein müssen, dass sie sich nicht wegen meinen Fähigkeiten mit mir treffen wollten. Und tatsächlich, mir wurde das klar. Ich habe angefangen, davon auszugehen, dass meine Kommilitonen mir mit Vorurteilen begegnen. Und ich habe aufgehört, mir selbst “Dinge mit Technik” zuzutrauen.

Es gab kaum eine Veranstaltung, in der mir nichts dergleichen passiert ist. Keine dramatischen Ereignisse, aber in der Summe unangenehm genug, dass ich lieber versuche, kryptische Folien zu entschlüsseln, als mir Vorlesungen tatsächlich anzuhören.

Es ist in dieser Umgebung völlig normal, dass Leute öffentlich sexistische Sprüche machen. In der Fachschaft, in Tutorien, sogar Dozenten in Vorlesungen. Da gibt es solche Typen wie diesen Dozent, der mich nach unserer ersten Begegnung bei einer Fakultätsveranstaltung plötzlich fragte, ob ich mit ihm schlafen wolle. Und der sich dafür rechtfertigte mit “ich weiß nicht, worüber man mit Frauen reden soll”. Er weiß nicht, worüber er mit einer Frau reden soll, wenn er sie nicht direkt nach Sex fragt? Are you fucking kidding me? Wie soll ich in einer Vorlesung partizipieren, die von einem Mann gehalten wird, der schon davon ausgeht, dass ich nichts Relevantes beizutragen habe und mich nur als Sexobjekt wahrnimmt?

Das ist, wie ich in dieses Studium erlebe: Als den Versuch, in einer Umgebung zu lernen, in der ich oft nicht als Mensch behandelt werde, sondern nur als Objekt. Und ich bin dabei ständig an der Grenze zum Scheitern. So oft geht all meine Energie dafür drauf, mir einzureden, dass ich nicht wirklich zu dumm dafür bin. Dass es sich lohnt, es weiter zu versuchen. Aber manchmal schaffe ich das nicht und heute war so ein Tag.

And here’s the english version of that Tweet (mostly generated from Google Translate with some manual rephrasing where the translator was completely off):

Today was once again one of those days, on which I did not get anything done, except sitting in front of lecture notes, crying. I do actually like to solve complex problems and get involved in new topics. But as soon as these problems derive from abstract models towards actual machine implementation, I become scared. So much that I sometimes do not manage to deal with the lecture contents at all. Although I know I'm smart enough, I have the feeling that I cannot understand them. Where this comes from is easy to guess in a society in which the expression "women and technology" is considered a sexist joke. Much of this is internalized misogyny. But it is also quite concrete these studies.

In a different context, I have had the experience that it is really just fun to learn a new programming language. I had the psychological safety to make mistakes and still be respected afterwards. These studies, on the other hand, feel like a hostile environment in which every mistake confirms prejudices. Lectures and tutorials are so unpleasant for me that I usually prefer to work at home alone. How so?

Because of the fellow students who sit next to me and just stare at me for 90 minutes. Because of those who during the lecture try to involve me in nonsensical conversations or write creepy messages on my block. Because of those who are approaching me, and those who talk two rows behind me loudly, that women could only be able to study because they "sleep their way up to the top". Because of the guys who ask if we should do the exercises together and then act like jerks when I really only want that. They say I should wear a long skirt if I want to be taken seriously. And that I should have realized that they did not want to meet me because of my skills. And indeed, I realized that. I have begun to assume that my fellow students meet me with prejudices. And I have ceased to give myself "things with technology".

There was hardly any course, where something like that did not happen to me. No dramatic events, but in sum unpleasant enough that I'd rather try to decrypt cryptic slides than actually going to lectures.

It is perfectly normal in this environment that people make public sexist jokes. In the academy, in tutorials, even lecturers during lectures. There are such types as this lecturer who, after our first meeting at a faculty event, suddenly asked me if I wanted to sleep with him. And who justified himself with "I don’t know what to talk about with women”. He does not know what to talk about with a woman when he does not ask her directly about sex? Are you fucking kidding me? How should I participate in a lecture that is held by a man who already assumes that I have nothing to contribute and that only sees me as a sex object?

This is how I experience these studies: As the attempt to learn in an environment in which I am often not treated as a human being, but only as an object. And I am constantly on the brink of failure. So often that all my energy is going into convincing myself that I'm really not too stupid. That it’s worth it to try to continue. But sometimes I cannot do it and today was one of those days.

I had to read it a couple of times, because at first I couldn’t really believe what I just read. My immediate reaction was something along the lines of “it’s impossible that this could’ve really happened”. But then I started thinking about it in more depth and it makes total sense, and I can relate to it 100%. Even if you are willing to believe only like 10-20% of the story. That’s already shocking. Being paralyzed like that puts you in a really bad place.

It’s hard to imagine how terrifying this situation is for an individual if you haven’t been in that position yourself. A lot of it has to do with stereotypes. If you look around and you’re the only woman in a computer science class then it’s a lot more likely that you might think to yourself that you’re probably not capable of doing computer science, than if you’re a man looking around and seeing mostly other men. This does of course apply to all minorities not just women in tech. So assume that you’re already somewhat willing to believe that “this is not for you”, then it’s not particularly difficult to imagine what happens to your confidence when people around you constantly assure you that “girls suck at tech”.

How it works

So in order to create equal chances for everyone (independent of gender/race/etc) we need to do extra work for the minorities, because otherwise the “look around you” factor is already working against minorities. I often hear people around me complaining that we should not spend extra money/effort that “only benefits minorities”. But quite frankly this is bullshit. In particular a woman in tech usually has to invest a lot more effort to get into the same position as a man, even if it’s only the mental and psychological overhead of reassuring yourself that girls don’t just suck at computer science.

And if you agree on what I said above, but don’t believe that you can make a difference. And there’s nothing you could do to change this situation. Let me tell you that you’re wrong: It’s not about the big things at all. It’s really about small details usually. Everyone can help to address the problems: Think about how you look at minorities in our industry. Think about how you look at your female colleagues. Think about how they had to go through struggles that you never even realized to get to the same position as you are now. Maybe it doesn’t hurt to share some (extra) encouragement next time you bump into someone struggling? Maybe you could just speak up and say “Stop this is not ok” when you hear a sexist joke next time? Maybe on the next meetup you could try to engage with that female coder that is always standing outside because she doesn’t feel confident? And so on...

Also note that it isn't the end of the world if you fail sometimes. We're all imperfect. I sure made a lot of sexist jokes and did other stupid things that I regret. I never thought of it as a big thing and it helped me gain acceptance in groups where I was struggling to get into. And only later I realized that my behavior was hurting other people around me deeply, and that it’s not about big things. But it’s all about the small things that we do. And we need to pay attention to those. Because small things matter! ❤️