As we continue to see discussion and fallout surrounding Odyssey Con, it’s important to remember that these things don’t happen in isolation. While I wish it weren’t necessary, I’m happy to share this guest essay from software developer and Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, talking about some of the reasons we keep seeing this kind of mess with sexism and sexual harassers.
I want to tell you a heartwarming story about second chances. Last year, Google welcomed a developer named Chris onto their team. Chris is like a lot of men I know in the tech industry. He’s super geeky, white, male, just 28 — and has an incredibly irreverent sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy that would fit right in a Google — or really any other large tech corporation.
Just one catch. Chris had a bit of a misadventure as a teenager, launching a well-trafficked internet site where some pretty unsavory things happened. An encyclopedic list would take too long, but here are the highlights:
- The site was a haven for child pornography.
- A member murdered a woman violently, and posted picture of her strangled to death on the site.
- A transgender woman was outed and then bullied until she committed suicide.
- A breach of iCloud resulted in non-consensual sexual imagery of celebrity women to be spread through his site, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who called it a “sex crime.”
- Prominent women in the game industry were relentlessly harassed through his site, resulting is several careers being destroyed — and unmeasurable personal harm.
I’m speaking, of course, of 4chan founder Chris Poole. Last year, after not being able to make money from his site, he decided to take a job with one of the most powerful corporations on earth. As I was one of the women who had been repeatedly targeted by 4chan, I was fairly incredulous, as were my fellow women colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, the white men in tech I know felt differently.
I’m not going to name names, but I had at least 10 conversations with colleagues in tech about Poole’s hiring. They felt it would be unfair to deny him a fresh start at a career. They didn’t want his past to haunt him forever. They saw 4chan as just a silly teenage hijink, something all in good fun. It’s hard to imagine, they saw parts of Chris Poole in themselves — and by giving him a second chance — they could give themselves a chance to clean up their own mistakes.
America loves second chances. But it’s hard to not notice that the main people that seem to get them are straight, white, and male.
This brings us Odyssey Con.
I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, which has been written up here. But, long story short, the con had decided to let an extreme sexual harasser onto the programming committee. When guest of honor Monica Valentinelli was put on programming with him, she asked the con to step in. They wrote an amazingly condescending email back to her, at which point she withdrew from the con.
What stands out to me the most in the whole harmful affair was a single line by Gregory G.H. Rihn, writing about “what would be fair.” He suggested a compromise between Monica and Jim Frenkel, the known serial harasser. In a world where sexual harassers are on one side, and women wanting to be treated with respect are on the other — women can never win. Rihn saw himself as an impartial observer, but he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand.
And he’s far from alone. Or even, a particularly egregious example.
As a prominent woman in the game industry, I’m also married to four-time Hugo award winner Frank Wu — so I feel uniquely positioned between the tech industry and science fiction fandom. And while, I know it would shock some of you to think about this, the structural sexism is practically the same. Consider the following.
- Like the game industry, I am regularly asked to do programming at cons on my gender rather than my professional expertise.
- Like the game industry, I am regularly talked over by men on programming.
- Like the game industry, men generally talk to my husband and not me when we are in groups.
- Like the game industry, it’s the men in the field getting big career opportunities – and not the equally talented women.
- Like the game industry, no men I know will admit they are part of the problem.
- Like the game industry, the men in science fiction consider themselves impartial judges of structural sexism – rather than influenced by motivated reasoning.
- Like the game industry, there’s a lot of window dressing and very little examination of bias.
- Like the game industry, I regularly hear sexist, racist and transphobic jokes that make me blanch.
- Like the game industry, men that speak out about sexism are heroes — while women are put in a career box as a known feminist.
- Like the game industry, you have a hate group rooted in white supremacy — hellbent on establishing a golden age without diversity.
If the tech industry gets a D- for sexism, science fiction doesn’t deserve much better than a C-. Maybe a C+ on the good days.
This brings us to Jim Frenkel. His situation is no different than Chris Poole’s, albeit a lot less extreme. The men of Odyssey Con (and one woman is a position of power) were reluctant to exile him from fandom because if he were held to high standards, that would mean they or someone like them might be one day as well. So, he will get an ample supply of second chances, just like most white straight men in science fiction.
There are so many times in science fiction I hold my tongue because I don’t think anyone on programming would listen. Recently, I was on a panel with a rather prominent man in the game industry that made a wildly sexist remark about “banging whores.” I sat there for the panel, stewing, feeling like this inappropriate statement needed to be called out. I asked male friends about it later, who all told me to, “let it go.”
I realized it wouldn’t be worth it to fight that battle with programming, and it could burn a bridge with someone powerful in my field. Like most women, I fight these internal battles daily — and I lose a piece of my soul every time. I have to imagine Monica Valentinelli was fighting this same internal battle before withdrawing as guest of honor. Her comment about wanting to be known for her work rang so true for me. It’s the same fear all women feel when deciding to speak out, being shoved into a box that says loud feminist.
Our political system trains people to root for one side like a football team- everyone points fingers and no one feels accountability. For science fiction, there are plenty of men that vote Democrat and believe intellectually in the equality of women. They think that’s the end of the story. It is not.
You can either have a community where the Jim Frenkels are thrown out, or you can just admit all the talk about gender equality is window dressing.
Brianna Wu is a software engineer and a candidate for US congress in Massachusetts district 8. You can follow her on Twitter at @spacekatgal or on Facebook at Facebook.com/developerBriannaWu.