Julie Pagano

Life and Times of a Tech Feminist Killjoy: You Can’t Go Back & There’s No End in Sight

Content notice: assault, sexual assault, harassment, threats, suggestions of suicide

I recommend starting at the beginning of this series for context.

Yesterday, I declared on twitter that I was leaving the tech community. That my involvement in tech will just be my job for a good long while. I meant it. Before the day ended, I deleted my public twitter account. This has been a long time coming. Those who know me well are not surprised.

I was trying to hold it in until I finished the series. I had this grand plan of announcing it near the end of the year. Something like “2015 will be my year of self care, and the tech community is a toxic place.” I just couldn’t wait. Kathy Sierra leaving twitter again because of harassment was the last of so many straws. I couldn’t wait.

So how did I get here? That’s what I keep asking myself. It’s why I am writing this series. I want to reflect on how things got this bad. On why I was planning to withdraw from the community. On why I’m not the only one who feels this way. I want to share, so maybe history doesn’t repeat itself.

So how did I get here? I didn’t start here. I wasn’t even a feminist when I started tech. I thought women’s groups were stupid. I was frustrated with the few women classmates I had in the engineering department, not because of their low numbers, but because of my perception of their incompetence. I was what some refer to as a “Fuck You Got Mine” (FYGM). Something so common we have a name for it. Most of the tech feminist killjoys I know have a similar origin story. We were not born this way. We didn’t enter tech this way.

How does a FYGM end up a tech feminist killjoy? Put them in the tech industry for a few years and wait. The tech feminist killjoy is often forged in the crucible of the “culture” the tech industry is so fond of. It becomes hard to ignore sexism, homophobia, racism, bias, mistreatment, and, above all, worship of all that is young, white, and male. Once you see it, it cannot be unseen.

I talked about some of my personal experiences in My Experiences in Tech. I started learning in late college at an internship. It continued at my first full time programming job. The series ended with my Death by 1000 Paper Cuts post, written several months after taking a new job.

I mentioned the new job was better, but it’s not just the job. I have been doing this for years now, and the cuts leave scars. I am covered in them, and I have never gotten a chance to heal. So I am leaving the community, but not the job.

So how did I get here? I keep digressing, but not fully answering that question. What changed since I wrote about paper cuts? Did it really get that much worse? Where do I even start?

The Stories You Don’t Hear

Over the last year or so, I have opened up a lot. That first series was the start. I shared even more in my writing, on twitter, and in person. I talked in front of audiences about my experiences with impostor syndrome. I shared my vulnerability and told my stories.

People see these things and see me as someone they can talk to. Someone they can ask for advice. I hope that most of the time I live up to that expectation.

People tell me their stories, so many stories. Some of them sound like mine, and some of them are different. Some are better, and some are worse, but to take a measure to them is pointless. The point here is that they have been hurt. So many people have been harmed by the tech industry.

When it comes to the tech feminist killjoys, most of us know each other. It’s a survival mechanism. Those of us who gave up being acceptable, realizing it wasn’t going to save us. We live on the whisper networks and the backchannels — the safest places for us to share information and support one another. This is my support system, but it is also a source of many more heartbreaking stories.

Many of you may think the bad things that happen in tech are isolated incidents. I could not harbor that delusion even if I wanted to. Not after hearing all of the stories. It is nice to know I am not alone. It is horrifying to realize this is an epidemic.

The Stories You Do Hear

Even for people who do not hear personal stories, it is willful ignorance to believe that incidents are isolated. Just look at the timeline of incidents. We haven’t had a break from this in years.

Nearly every week there is something new to be upset about. Some might think that I would get used to it — a new normal. I suppose in a way I have. I haven’t been surprised by it in a very long time. However, lack of surprise is not lack of feeling. I used to say that “apathy was too high a price to pay,” but feeling a mix of anger, sadness, and frustration on a nearly constant basis isn’t healthy.

Some people seem to have the ability to turn it off. To stop caring for a little while. To up the apathy for the sake of sanity. It is not a skill I have ever been very good at. I can’t not be upset at this stuff because it hurts people. The accumulated burden makes it harder every year.

There’s No End in Sight

I have known for some time now that I was pushing myself too far. That this was catching up with me. I have finally learned that I cannot disengage without removing myself from the community. Even when I have tried to take a break, it found me.

I have some stories about times I tried to take a break and how it turned out. Interestingly, they almost all involve proximity to a conference. Conferences are supposed to be a fun chance to share time with friends. Sadly, most of them have been ruined in some way.

September 2013

I attend a new conference I am incredibly excited for. It’s my first serious conference speaking gig. My friends are going to be there. I cannot wait.

The night before the conference is somewhat marred by a long argument online with the opening keynote speaker about the lack of diversity in the speaker lineup at RubyConf. This includes that person accusing myself and others of just “whining on twitter.” He uses his spot as a keynote speaker to claim he will fix speaker diversity with a new program.

I am so upset about the events at the conference, I write a post titled I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship…with the tech community. What happened did not violate a code of conduct, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t harmful. A good friend is so upset about what happened, she has not attended a tech conference since, even though this is potentially harmful to her career.

The person who did this continued to violate boundaries with the people involved months later. When I called him on this, he emailed a private ruby organizer list and a number of my friends. As far as I can tell, he still does not understand what he did wrong.

The promises made on a stage were likely never fully followed through on. The twitter account hasn’t tweeted since last year. The site is still a launchrock page. I have seen no accountability for this. However, at least one of the women speakers on this year’s RubyConf schedule credits my speaker support group with encouraging her to submit.

October 2013

Despite what happened in September, I am so excited for my first time attending Grace Hopper Celebration. It’s a conference full of women. Surely nothing bad will happen while I am there. Even despite the Lean In heavy program, the conference was fine. I meet some awesome people and mostly have fun. However, I was not able to fully focus on the conference.

Three things happened around the time of this conference: I was mugged, and two women who work in tech went public with stories about being assaulted by men who were prominent in various tech communities. I recovered from the mugging pretty quickly. I wasn’t hurt, and all I lost was an easily replaced phone. I still haven’t recovered from the other things, and what I lost cannot be replaced.

I don’t want to get into a lot of details here. They aren’t my stories to tell, but I want to comment on a few things.

I threw myself into it more than I should have. I played tank in a way that probably wasn’t good for my mental health. I do not regret it, but my friend who keeps telling me about secondary trauma is probably right.

A woman who runs a number of popular tech conferences said I was more dangerous than the predator involved in one of these situations. That is fucked up. I will never trust an event she organizes to create safer spaces or uphold a code of conduct.

I lost a huge amount of respect for a large number of people over what happened. That’s what I lost that I cannot get back. You acted terribly. Those of you in power took little to no steps to prevent this from happening again. Most of you moved on and pretended it never happened and get angry with us when we remind you. I’m sorry, but this isn’t something I can move on and forgive. For forgiveness, you would have to be sorry, accountable, and show change.

The tweets above are from a man who I worked with at my first job. He wrote these around the time of these events as a means to discredit me. As a note, incidents involving this man are mentioned repeatedly in My experiences in tech: Adventures outside the workplace. He is known in some circles for frequently trolling women about “women in tech.” He is one of the reasons I began to really realize things were broken. He frequents the local tech community, and I don’t even want to be in the same room with him at this point. Meanwhile, people tell me what a “nice guy” he is.

As far as I can tell from all of these exchanges, members of the tech community (including some people in power and leadership positions) think I am harming the community for suggesting we don’t include rapists. That is a community I want nothing to do with.

January 2014

One of the women from the incidents mentioned in October 2013 is being sued for a large sum of money for warning people about a man being arrested for assaulting her. The lawsuit is ongoing. A reminder of exactly why most women don’t speak publicly about these sorts of things.

June 2014

Despite months and months of bad things, I am again excited for a conference. I am going to Portland for the first time for AdaCamp and Open Source Bridge. I will be giving my first keynote at OSBridge and am incredibly excited.

The night before I fly out to Portland, what is now referred to as the Gittip crisis happened. As a friend or acquaintance of almost everyone involved and a gittip contributor, user, and advocate, this was not an easy situation to ignore. I shared some pertinent information, shared some thoughts while traveling, and then shut off twitter to enjoy AdaCamp.

Unfortunately, shutting off twitter was not enough. Despite requests to no longer discuss the situation, I received an email from the leader of Gittip including a sample blog post he wanted to publish that included a lot of war metaphors. Considering most of the people on the other side of the issue were already receiving harassment and threats on a regular basis, war metaphors being spread was upsetting. I lost part of AdaCamp to dealing with the situation. I was stressed about it for most of the trip.

I wrote a brief post about leaving Gittip. A lot of people who depended on money from gittip were harmed by the entire situation and still have not been able to make up for the loss. Gittip rebranded to Gratipay, partly because of the scandal around all this.

July 2014

I am pretty overstressed at this point, but I am super excited about Madison Ruby. This will be my third year attending. Even though I’ve left the Ruby community, I adore this conference. It becomes the vacation that is the light at the end of the tunnel…until it isn’t.

Myself and a number of my friends become targets for harassment and threats from a man that lives in Madison. I go anyway. Eventually, I settle in and enjoy myself, but the city doesn’t feel safe the way it did the year before.

The harassment from this person continues to this day. It seems unlikely to stop.

October 2014

Grace Hopper Celebration has a male allies panel with the CEO of GoDaddy on it. The corporate women in tech movement has officially jumped the shark.

Kathy Sierra leaves again.

I leave. Even as I am leaving, people suggest they hope it’s a signal I am going to kill myself.

Does this help answer how I got here? These are just some stories. There are many more from me and from others. There’s the timeline of incidents. The stories from others that don’t ever make their way public. It adds up to a lot. I can’t remember a week where I had a break in years. The damage compounds, and I am never left time to recover.

Goodbye

Maybe you understand a little bit better now why I am leaving. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I don’t need your permission. I am gone.

I am not leaving tech entirely. I like my job and being able to pay my bills. I am, however, leaving the community.

What does leaving the tech community mean? No conferences (with one exception I agreed to months ago). No speaking. No organization. No local user groups. No helping people make their events more friendly to women. No more trying to explain basic human decency to people. No more free labor. No more. No more.

I may still write, but focus less on tech and more on other things. This series still has a few posts in it that I may write. I will very likely still generate firebees content because it makes me happy. I still exist on the backchannel. If you are someone I want to see, you know how to find me.

Bye.