Don't Be a Bystander

My friend Cate wrote a few tweets about bystanders. This is a little story about a time when I worked with some bystanders and why little things matter.

When I started one job, I found that our existing software had a diagnostic tool that took some input parameters, you clicked submit and it showed you what our service would return for those inputs. Like a good tool, it came pre-populated with inputs and the resulting outputs that demonstrated how it works. But because humans can be thoughtless, someone in the past thought it would be cool to choose inputs that resulted in a picture of a scantily clad woman. It wasn’t a good choice to demonstrate how the tool works because due to data decay, only that picture showed. Nothing else interesting would show up and most of the time people used the tool for other outputs. So. Just a picture that looked like it came from the cover of a bad porn DVD. No, I did not work for a porn company.

Now this tool was used by our team. It was also used by many other people at the company when they were trying to figure out if the problem was our software or systems we integrated with. Whenever anyone at the company opened up this tool, they were presented with a picture that reduced women to their sexuality. At some point, I quietly changed the default for this tool so it was much more neutral and so that it was actually useful: all the useful outputs actually existed, not just the image. No big deal, right? Well, consider the impact.

Many people around the company had to use this tool to debug issues. Some of these are women. I’m kind of jaded and roll my eyes at a lot of bullshit, but a young woman still trying to figure out her place in the world made to look at that every day and decide this place - the company, tech - isn’t for her. After all, even the tools she needs to do her job reminds her that a woman’s place is as a sex symbol, not as a professional programmer or product manager. Many people are junior and don’t know what is appropriate in the work place. How many people just entering the industry saw that tool and would now consider it an okay thing to do, creating similar environments elsewhere? Some folks come from cultures that are fairly conservative about nudity (some of course don’t). How many of those people were made uncomfortable with this tool but didn’t feel like they could speak up because they’d be seen as prudes or otherwise not fitting?

For how many people was that a “little” thing that contributed to them feeling uncomfortable at work and ultimately leaving? They might not even consciously know the exact things that made them feel uncomfortable and not fit in. My team was probably responsible for a little bit of that.

A few years later I was talking to a former teammate (we’d stayed friends). We had both left the original team by then. He asked me directly about sexism, etc. in tech. I was much more vocal about it at that point. To be honest, when someone actually makes an effort to ask about the topic, they automatically get a lot of credit with me. I reminded him of this tool and why it was a problem. It just wasn’t something he’d thought about. I think it was that way when he joined the team. He was a bystander then but so was everyone else on the team. I don’t say this to shame him (if he reads this, he’ll recognize this story). I bring up this story and his reaction because it’s a good example of how easy it is to be a bystander. To be a generally good person who’d never intend to hurt anyone and still be a bystander.

To not be a bystander requires saying or doing something at the moment when the harm may not seem that great and the risk to yourself, socially or professionally, seems immediate. “Just a joke” or “just one time” is easy to say if you’re worried your team will laugh at you. But over time that stuff does matter and becomes harder to shift. If the team has tolerated little sexist jokes for months or years, then when you do speak up you’re going to sound like a hypocrite. That only encourages you keep your mouth shut.

How much harm could have been avoided if someone had looked at that tool when it was created and suggested different default inputs be chosen? They wouldn’t have had to make a big deal about it. No need to say “this is sexist bullshit”. They could have just said “maybe we should use example data that is more neutral.” Not being a bystander doesn’t have to be about making a statement. I doubt the developer would have fought a different choice. But someone had to just push back, a little bit. And no one did.