Tech Needs More Empathy

So, Last week sucked.

If you’re not familiar with the events surrounding the horrendous harrasment and attacks on Adria Richards you can catch up here.

Although this post is inspired by those recent events, I don’t want to talk just about Adria.

I want to talk about empathy:

The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

For people with power, privilege, or both, empathy is often a luxury. If you have it, it’s certainly nice for the people around you, but you can get ahead just fine without it.

For people with less power and privilege, empathy can be a matter of survival. As a minority1, you spend significant time and energy learning the ways of the dominant culture. By necessity, we need to understand the motivations of that culture in order to fit in2 and have any hope of achieving the same goals that others take for granted.

One of the things I adore about President Obama is that he has empathy. He cries a lot. I have exactly zero memories of any other president from my adult life crying on camera, even when talking about the most horrific things. Obama seems to understand at a gut level that the decisions he makes affect real people. More importantly, he cares about those people. When tragic things happen, he is genuinely upset because he has empathy for people, including people he will never meet.

Contrast this with Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, who recently reversed his long-held stance against gay marriage because his son came out to him. Portman gives this rational for his change of heart:

Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

Dan Treadway hits the nail on the head with his response in the Huffington Post:

Rob Portman is a good father for changing his view on this issue so that he may support the rights of his son. But the fact that he was only able to feel empathy for the plight of gay people in this country — a plight that he for decades actively contributed to based on his voting record — only after the issue directly affected him, is definitive proof that he is an unfit politician.

People who can only have empathy for those they know and care deeply about, suffer from a failure of imagination. When those people have the power to make decisions that affect an entire office, conference, or country full of people, the results can be disastrous.

What I kept coming back to, as I read story after story after post after article last week about the attacks on Adria, is the lack of empathy. I’m not talking about the inevitable trolls who resort to threats, intimidation and DDOS cyber bullying. I don’t have any hope for people like that.

But there are plenty of seemingly reasonable people who never the less, have resorted to spouting the same platitudes and tropes that minorities have been hearing for eternity. It was almost three days before I saw a post that didn’t resort to deconstructing whether Adria handled things the ‘right’ way, as if that mattered in the face of the backlash she received and the larger issue–which is that this loop has been playing itself out for a long, long, time without actually getting any better.

The fact that some people want to nitpick about the specifics of this or that incident, without understanding the larger context in which these redundancies play out, is a luxury of privilege. However, if you’re on the receiving end of injustice day after week, after year, it’s nearly impossible not to be aware of the systemic nature of the problem.

What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

In the scheme of things, I’m fairly new to the tech industry. And yes, I knew I was entering a boys club when I walked through the door. But last week, as I tried to focus on the actual coding I’m being paid to do, many threads of my brain were taken up trying to process the fact that I’ve entered a field where my safety could be at risk just from objecting to offensive behavior.

Just…sit and ponder that for a moment.

A moment

Fire fighters. Police officers. Secret service agents guarding the President of the United States. People who enlist in the armed forces. Cirque du Soliel performers.

These are people who might have a reasonable concern for their safety due to their career choices.

People who type on computers for a living should not fear for their safety because of the industry they work in.

In addition to worrying about that disturbing and unfathomable fact, I still have to deal with the people who keep saying they’re ‘on my side,’ but then reveal pretty standard ignorances about the realities of privilege, power and how that plays out when minorities speak up about injustices.

  • Why can’t you just deal with people directly?
  • Why can’t we just handle this privately?
  • Why are you so angry?
  • We’re Not All Like That, you know.

Oh OK. We just need to ask politely?

Melissa McEwan created the #IAskedPolitely hashtag on Twitter to show just how well that strategy works. (Hint: it doesn’t). It was a matter of hours before the trolls found the hashtag and helped prove the point even further.

But those were trolls, you might be thinking. Surely you can still try to have a rational discussion with the NALTs right? Let’s look at some examples.

Exhibit A: With Friends Like These…

Here’s a storify, that exemplifies some of the backlash that comes from even the ‘well meaning’ people:

A storify that illustrates the BS women go through just trying to defend ourselves.
Click the image to read the full conversation at

Yes, women have the potential for violence. Alexander’s obsession with having this fact acknowledged in this particular conversation is neither supportive nor helpful. I could be out kicking every man I encounter in the nuts right now on general principal instead of writing this blog post. BUT I’M NOT.3  The fact is that women are harmed by men in far greater numbers than the reverse.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Among all victims, about nine out of ten are female.4

9 out of 10

Nine out of Ten.


Excuse me if I don’t have any room for your 10% right now. How ’bout you guys get your act together and when it’s only 1 out of 20 women who get assaulted at some point, then we can get back to your problems. BUT GIVE US A MINUTE.

A Quick Psychology Detour

Availability is a cognitive heuristic in which a decision maker relies upon knowledge that is readily available rather than examine other alternatives or procedures.

“There are situations in which people assess the frequency of a class or the probability of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind.5

As women, we are constantly doing calculations that aren’t even always conscious but that are designed to keep us safe. That means keeping a sharp eye out when you’re walking alone with possible assailants nearby. It means keeping an eye on your drink at the bar so no one slips something into it. It means saying ‘no’ to certain requests for help from men because it might be a trap to get you alone and harm you. It might mean skipping the conference after party because there’s a high chance of being the target of unwanted attention.

We don’t do this because ALL men are dangerous. We do it because it’s so very easy to call to mind the last time we or someone we knew had to deal with some sexist bullshit and there’s no way to tell where the next attack is going to come from.

But it’s a rare man who understands that this is what women have to live with every day, or can remotely imagine what a toll it takes on us, even after it’s been explained to him.

Exhibit B: I’m On Your Side…Except

Oh well, I guess that’s it then. He’s on my side, but since he’s right and she’s wrong, CASE CLOSED FOLKS!6

Honestly, I have no idea who the woman is who spurred the original tweet, and I don’t agree that categorically declaring all white men assholes is helpful either.7

But what privileged folks need to understand is that getting angry enough to categorically declare that you are SO DONE with an entire group of people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I can easily imagine what might have driven that woman to the point of rage where she would write off an entire gender because I’ve been there.

Also? Declaring your support while also declaring that support conditional, isn’t really supportive.

What you’re really saying is, I support you:

  • As long as you don’t make me uncomfortable.
  • As long as I don’t have to deal with your anger
  • As long as I don’t have to feel guilty about things people in $mygroup have done to you

Obama vs Portman Styles of Empathy

If a man’s girlfriend or wife was raped, (not by him, I’m sad to have to clarify), then he would most likely be understanding if his partner was reluctant to have sex with him for a while, even though he did nothing wrong. Why? Because he would have high personal level of empathy for someone he cared about.

That is the Rob Portman model of empathy. The circle is very small.

If you want to be a good ally to anyone in a less privileged group than you and you happen to reside in the upper echelons of the privilege circle (i.e. straight, white, cis male), then you’ll need to up your empathy game towards the Obama scale.

Saying ‘I’m on your side’ is all good and well, but it doesn’t mean I feel supported if your behavior doesn’t back up your words. When I encounter people who seem to mean well but obviously don’t get it, and aren’t willing to listen, I silently relegate them to the ‘well meaning, but can’t be trusted’ category, and remember to set my shields a little higher next time I encounter them.

If you want to be a good ally, a good place to start would be actually listening to people who have a different experience than you, and trying to imagine how it might be to go through the world on something besides the lowest difficulty setting. Men, if you have women you care about in your life who haven’t yet clued you in on the myriad of bullshit that we deal with every day, there might be a reason for that.

If you don’t have women close enough to ask, or those women no longer trust you well, guess what, you’re on the Internet! There are plenty of stories out there from people of every stripe. All you need is a willingness to put down your defenses for a little while and take them in.

Is that enough links? Is it OK to be angry yet?

Are you mad ’cause your whole group looks bad because of the ‘few bad apples’? Well guess what? GOOD. YOU SHOULD BE PISSED. IT’S ABOUT FUCKING TIME. NOW STOP WHINING ABOUT HOW GOOD YOU ARE AND START MAKING YOURSELF USEFUL.

I Read This Whole Blog Post and All I Got Was a Bunch of CAPS

If you want to know what a good ally looks like, check out these awesome men:

And most importantly, stop putting the onus on less privileged people to absolve you of your guilt. We can’t afford to go around giving you the benefit of the doubt.

It’s literally a matter of life and death. 



1. Though I may use a single term like ‘women’ to illustrate a point, you can apply the logic to any marginalized group: people of color, queer people, women, transgender people, deaf, differently abled, etc. (Back)

2. I went to a meetup once for lesbians of color and didn’t feel comfortable in the group. I gave up on ‘fitting in’ a long way back. If you’ve nodded your head while reading this, you’re probably my people. Welcome! (Back)

3. At least not yet. Keep up this fuckery though and I might snap someday (Back)

4. Statistics from the Rape Crisis Center (Back)

5. Science, bitches. (Back)

6. This entire blog post was originally in all caps. Editing, FTW! You’re welcome. (Back)

7. That doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I feel sick and tired of (white people, men, stupid people) as a group. I just have enough sense not to rant about it publicly…most of the time. (Back)


Comments: I’ll probably post a formal comment policy at some point, but people who need a lot of rules to tell them how to be polite won’t listen anyway. If you already know how, then behave as you would as a guest in someone’s home.

If all else fails, follow Wheaton’s Law.

All our visitors bring happiness. Some by coming, others by going.

This post is part of the thread: Tech Journey – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.


  1. Nice.

    Okay, here’s where I’m coming from…It’s hard to defend a group that is arguing against racism and sexism when that same group is pointing at you (“you” meaning “me”) saying you’re (I’m) racist and sexist based on the color of your (my) skin and what’s between your (my) legs.

    I don’t defend racists and sexists, plain and simple, so the more a group promotes and tweets and re-tweets and blogs and writes articles about how rage against one demographic is a-okay, the more they look like a group I should be AGAINST. When fighting a corruptive or damaging thought process or behavior, it’s generally best to not exhibit either. Unfortunately, some do, and they make it difficult for me to defend them.

    Yes, I see this as a simple binary issue, one that is about right vs. wrong. If a demographic is singled out as being a worthy recipient of racism and sexism, I consider that to be wrong. In my opinion, there is no room for complication or conditions here. By proposing to discuss this with me at length, I read that as disagreement with this viewpoint. Perhaps your response was about the conditional statement in my tweet and not about debating the correctness of singling out one demographic for racism/sexism. If so (and it appears to be the case), I apologize for misreading your response.

    I will not debate this with anyone, though. People are either against racism and sexism or they aren’t. Giving a pass to anyone is a one-way ticket to my shit list, and I have no plans to change this policy.

    You have made some assumptions about my motivations that were incorrect. I appear to have made some assumptions about your motivations as well. Neither of us was right to do this. However, now that you have immortalized me on the Internet as being a pig, you get the last laugh. Be proud.

    This is progress, right?




    1. @Erik, I don’t know if you’re sexist or racist or anything else. I’m not qualified to make declarations about your character. If I had assumed you were sexist, I wouldn’t have bothered trying to initiate a dialogue.

      What I can say with certainty is that I made an honest attempt to engage in dialoge about something that *for me* is more complicated than the all or nothing scenarios you describe, because I have lived a different experience.

      I can also say with certainty that your response was disappointing, frustrating and made me sad.

      It’s hard to talk about this stuff if your only frame of reference is all or nothing– that people either ARE racist or sexist or they’re NOT; That being anti-sexism/racism means you could never behave in a way that was sexist.

      In reality, a lot of good people with good intentions are still capable of BEHAVING in ways that perpetuate disenfranchisement of less privileged people. It’s not for me or anyone else to decide if their intentions were malicious or not. But it is perfectly reasonable to call out behavior that you find objectionable or hurtful and attempt to explain why and ask them to stop. That’s what I’ve done in this post.

      Your unwillingness to even hear what I had to say about it illustrates some of the points I made:

      1. That we can change people’s attitudes just by having reasonable conversations with them. I tried that and it didn’t work. That happens a lot.

      2. That lack of empathy makes it hard to create those dialogues. (Maybe if we had a closer relationship, you would have been more willing to listen? I can’t say).

      Things I didn’t do:

      1. Call you a pig.
      2. Promote the idea that rage against an entire group is positive.
      3. Labeled your behavior in any way except in reference to the direct effect it had on me personally.


  2. Okay, you win.

    When and where. Be prepared to receive words as well as give them. And I expect you to listen with an open mind, as I’m sure you expect the same from me. Anything less will be a waste of two peoples’ time.

    You have my email address. Please use it.



  3. @Erik,

    Thank you very much. Your apology is much appreciated.

    I don’t doubt that there’s a rich personal history that informs your views on all sorts of topics. And it was never my intention to invalidate those. In fact my entire point is that I wish more people would recognize that very fact and cut people a little slack. And that doing so doesn’t necessarily mean changing your opinion about something, it just means being willing to listen and trying to see the other point of view.

    As for your requests:

    I would have given you specifics if you’d asked but again, it was too long for Twitter, hence the opening question. This point was brought up in the session I facilitated at Barcamp and I have a whole other blog post worth of thoughts on this topic. You will not be mentioned. 🙂

    2. I tried that last time and it didn’t work. The guy just blocked me on Twitter, told everyone how scary I was, and never spoke to me again.

    So I tried something different this time for two reasons; first, your ‘offense’ amounted to, “this one time, Erik didn’t listen to me,” and on the scale of 1-10 bad things people do to each other, it’s well below 1. Second, the argument that you can only confront people privately and that you have to avoid ‘public shaming’ even for things that happen in public, is one of the straw horses that fuels the status quo.

    In a large majority of cases, minorities who try to deal with things this way are ignored or worse.

    I don’t agree that sharing someone’s Twitter handle is ‘personal information’ when it’s the third result of a Google search. But rest assured that I would never publish your email address, phone number or address (if I knew it), nor would I ever publish a private email that someone sent me, unless I felt that person was threatening my safety.

    Lastly, I have a very long and detailed response to your first comment and a bunch of your tweets that I’ve been thinking about all weekend and have spent the past 90 minutes writing. I deliberately wrote it before looking at your second comment. (Only first time commenters are moderated btw, so your comments are unfiltered after the first one.)

    I’m happy to say most of it is unnecessary at this point so I’ll be sending it to you privately, as food for thought. Feel free to respond or not, as you wish.

    Thanks again.

    We now return you to your regularly scheduled cats.


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