As long as I continue to work as a software engineer, I'll have a second job. I can't quit this second job except by quitting the job I get paid for, yet I don't get paid for the second job and I probably never will.
Emotional labor has been a topic of discussion lately, and I actually wrote much of this piece before the MetaFilter discussion on it came out. I hope, though, that I have something to add as it relates to working rather than personal relationships.
As an example of what I mean by teaching people how to take other people's subjective experience into account -- that is, teaching people to practice the skill of empathy, which they usually already have but apply only selectively -- I present some comments from this thread on the Haskell subreddit. I did not participate in it, but since I've spent much of my professional life as part of the Haskell community, it's a good example of what I've had to deal with over the years.
"The gender inequality might be caused by men being socialized to be less risk averse." -- someone who has not bothered to familiarize themself with women's accounts of their subjective experience in male-dominated communities, but nonetheless feels comfortable speculating about the reasons why male domination is self-reinforcing.
"Bits of useful advice used as a vehicle to force through the author's politics..." -- reflecting an assumption that marginalized people's opinions are political whereas one's own opinions are not -- that is to say, that interactions that reinforce existing power dynamics are apolitical, whereas interactions that challenge those power dynamics are political.
Many comments have been deleted by the moderators (to the moderators' credit!), but that doesn't change that as a community, we still consider it up for discussion whether it's worth effort to welcome marginalized people. In fact, we still consider it up for discussion whether the community drives marginalized people away -- hence the speculation here about whether people in gender minorities are "less risk averse", or (elsewhere) just less interested in writing code. The very fact that this is a topic of discussion drives more people away.
Those who aren't driven away are tasked with an unpaid job: teaching people to listen to the views of those whose experience departs from their own; teaching people that experiences they haven't personally lived through can be real. There are two parts to this job: the practical work of teaching people how to take others' subjective experience into account, and the persuasive work of teaching them why it's important and helpful to do so. Both are essential to social change.
A marginalized person in tech who declines to do this job is given a different task: to defend, over and over, their position as an expert on their own lived experience. As Rebecca Solnit put it, "to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I write as someone who has chosen to do the job rather than to internalize a lot of anger and hurt. Either way is a valid choice.
Emotional work steals our time and attention
It's not that privileged people (I'm using this as a shorthand for people with relative privilege -- someone who enjoys privilege along multiple axes, including but not limited to gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, neuro(a)typicality...) can't empathize; it's that they've been taught to empathize with people like themselves, and disbelieve people who are unlike themselves.
I think denial of empathy is so pervasive in software is that it's such a monoculture. It's dominated by men -- relatively privileged men, at that. From early in their lives, white men get taught that they are special and important and deserve to be heard above all else, and that thinking about other people's feelings is a sign of weakness. This is truer the fewer intersecting oppressions a given white man experiences.
It's harder for people experiencing multiple intersecting oppressions to be a software engineer for reasons having nothing to do with our ability to write code. Being a software engineer is about more than just doing work for the company that writes your paychecks. It's also about being part of a community, being visible in a community. If you are going to advance in your career, you generally have to participate in discussions online -- which is where much of the community-of-practice around tech. "Don't read the comments" is not an option. In these discussions, even ones that start out as seemingly something totally esoteric and technical, conflicts arise that essentially come down to who is going to be seen as a person with feelings that are worth respecting, and who is not. The Haskell discussion that I linked to is a relatively mild example of that.
And whenever one of those conflicts happens in my sphere, I have to put down whatever else I wanted to do today and explain to somebody, again, why other people's feelings matter and are real and cannot be made to go away by any amount of talking that he believes is logical and rational. I would rather not be doing this. I chose to become a software engineer because, at least at the time when I made that choice, I liked writing code, not helping people learn to apply interpersonal skills consistently.
I don't want to overstate how hard things are for me, either, because when I write about my experience, people listen. And being treated as a man, while also actually being one, helps. But I want to write about the second job anyway because I think a lot of other people have it too, and are not necessarily believed when they talk about having it.
For example, look at what kf writes in another Haskell Reddit thread -- both in the linked-to comment, and the follow-ups to it. She exhibits an immense amount of patience while explaining things that we adult professionals shouldn't be having to explain to each other. And she shouldn't have to spend her time doing that, ever.
But she does, I'm guessing, for the same reason I do: in the hopes that it will make it easier for her, and her friends, to survive in software, which is one of the few remaining lines of work that has a reasonable chance at eliminating economic insecurity for somebody starting from nothing.
(By the way, I'm picking on the Haskell community in this post not because it's especially bad as far as tech communities go, but because it's my technical home and I have higher expectations for it than for, e.g., the Linux kernel community.)
The rage of the privileged manifests itself in denial of empathy
For me, at least, it's not an option to just put my head down and do the work and leave those explanations to other people. The price of trying to do that would be such intense cognitive dissonance that I wouldn't be able to maintain mental stability. I can't stand by and let the discourse be impoverished by refusal to listen, refusal to believe others' reports of their own experience, refusal to care about whether others' suffering. I can't be in a professional field where that stuff, the narcissistic rage of the white hetero cis male ego -- outraged he might feel shame or doubt and desperate for someone to blame those feelings on, someone he can hurt further in the hopes of destroying those feelings, destroying those unsightly parts of himself -- rages on, unchecked. "White fragility" is one term for this narcissistic rage, but whatever you call it, its existence constitutes violence in defense of the feeling of innocence experienced by those who would rather attribute their unearned privilege to their merit.
I want to emphasize that when I use the term "narcissistic", I'm not referring to a psychological diagnostic term, or to anybody's basic neural wiring. I'm referring to a particular kind of behavior that people are taught and rewarded for; the rewards increase with the number of intersecting privileges someone experiences. You can see the process of people being rewarded for their narcissistic behavior in action by reading those Reddit threads (and, of course, comment threads on many other parts of the Internet.)
So the options for me are exit and voice; loyalty, which is to say silence, isn't an option for me. As you know if you've read my blog post about wanting to leave tech, I've been strongly considering exit. But economics might be ruling out that option for me, leaving the option of continuing to speak out. That is: of doing a second job, unpaid, on top of the job I'll be getting paid for. I wonder about whether I could just switch to a job where it's my explicit task, rather than my tacit one, to teach people to be emotionally competent -- like therapy, or education. I'd get paid less, but at least I'd only have one job. For the time being, though, writing software pays more, and I have student loans. It pays more, but not enough.
False dismissal limits speech
Conversations about diversity in tech, when hosted on technical fora, consistently draw huge numbers of comments compared to technical discussions on the same fora, which some people think are more on-topic. If diversity is off-topic for technical fora, why are forum participants so interested in it, when we measure interest by volume of comments? The Haskell reddit thread about Sarah Sharp's community post had 152 comments. The Haskell reddit thread about functional programming and condescension had 141 comments. When I posted on the Haskell subreddit announcing the ally skills workshop that was held at ICFP this past September, my two posts (several months apart) drew a total of 70 comments. And the Haskell Reddit thread discussing the original version of my blog post "How To Exclude Women From Your Community Without Really Trying" had 342 comments, three years ago. If the Haskell community is a representative example, people want to talk about diversity and inclusion with other people in their technical communities.
So why do people keep saying "this is boring" or "this is off-topic", when the way to discourage discussion of a boring subject is to decline to comment on that discussion? I think it's an example of false dismissal, which I talked about in my Model View Culture article "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?".
What false dismissal looks like: "I would prefer that an OSS community be a discussion about software, not about non-technical issues," from the Haskell thread on "what makes a good community". If "non-technical issues" are what people comment on the most, what conclusion are we to draw?
Undoubtedly, these conversations will continue to flourish. But there is work, genuine work, that needs to happen to make them productive. Some of that work is getting performed, for example, by the moderators of the Haskell subreddit. Yet in the threads I linked to, you can also see commenters devaluating the work that the moderators and others do to try to make those conversations with productive. They are uncomfortable with discussions about feelings, and channel their discomfort outward by shaming others for daring to talk about how they feel. To engage with this type of discomfort is work.
Shouldn't we credit people for the emotional work they do in discussions like this, and make them feel like mentoring others emotionally is an asset and not a liability?
Ideally, learning to empathize with a wider range of people and learning to be more comfortable talking about feelings wouldn't happen in these discussion threads. It would happen in individuals' therapy sessions, or maybe in support groups that don't yet exist. But those therapy sessions aren't happening, so we voluntarily offer help in these threads. It's hard work. People tend to prefer to go on with however they're doing things, even if what they're doing is hurting themselves or others, rather than changing. Encouraging change ought to be acknowledged. False dismissal of emotional or interpersonal subjects contributes to the devaluation of this work.
Community work is technical work
If we can't trust each other, we can't work together. If we can't work together, then I'm sorry to break it to you, but we can't do jack. The "lone male hero" archetype of scientists and engineers, the one that elevates individual male scientists as "legends" and individual male engineers as "rockstars" is a fairy tale. Technical progress is made, awesome new things are invented, by groups of people pooling their resources to build something that's better than anything any one of them could have made on their own.
Trust can't occur without willingness, on everyone's part, to believe others' reporting on their own subjective experience. Teaching people how to do that is technical work, because community work is technical work. It is essential to any technical project or goal that matters. It is not off-topic. It is central to the topic.
How will companies and open-source projects change in order to reward community work the same way they reward code contributions?
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Work that has contributed to my thinking on this topic (not an exhaustive list):
- Lauren Bacon, Women in Tech and Empathy Work
- Cate Huston, Codes of Conduct and Worthless Manfeelings, Tweeting Shit That Men Say, and much of her other writing
- Beerops, On Interrupting Interrupt Culture
- Patricia Williams, Teleology on the Rocks in The Alchemy of Race and Rights
- Any number of blog posts from women who just wanted to write some fucking code, but had to write a blog post about what was getting in the way of writing some fucking code in order to be able to write some fucking code ("That's the same thing I'm asking for"). How many of them worried about some boss seeing them supposedly slacking off on the clock, doing work that isn't about generating immediate economic value but rather about sustaining an environment in which they can continue to generate value in the long term?
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