The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Leaning Out

I left the software industry more than a decade ago. At the time, I would have said I left because I was doing inconsequential work on inconsequential projects, because I wanted to write more sentences and fewer lines of code, and because I could better contribute to technology policy from outside the industry than from within. But in hindsight I’ve realized there was something else. Recent stories about how the industry is an unwelcoming place for women have resonated with me, because they pinpoint things I also found unsatisfying about it.

First, I see how much I benefitted from overlapping forms of privilege. It wasn’t just being a man; it was also having the right educational background, the right habits and interests, the right style of speaking, and so on. People treated me with respect and deference far out of proportion to what I “deserved” based on my technical contributions. I did some things I remain proud of, but usually in short and occasional bursts; much of the time I was unfocused and wrote shoddy code. So I experienced the same hypocrisy of technical “meritocracy” that many women did, just from the other side. There is nothing like being excessively praised for minor accomplishments to make you feel that the work you are doing is not intrinsically worthwhile.

Second, now that I’ve been in legal and academic workplaces where women are better represented, I know from experience how much more interesting and fulfilling going to work can be. The conversations are more wide-ranging; the perspectives are more nuanced; the atmosphere is more genuinely collegial. I was lucky to work with (and sometimes work for and be mentored by) some remarkable women in software. But they were few, and the absence of female members hurt the teams I was on. Everyone loses when voices are missing; I know I did.

Third, I experienced firsthand the problematic industry culture that feminist critics point to. There was an implicit social pressure to be hardcore about work. Meetings and after-work events were clubby. Some young men suddenly flush with cash acted like boors. I didn’t then have the terms or the theory to explain what bothered me, but I knew that I didn’t like those aspects of the software world. I did my best to avoid them, but I didn’t completely succeed. Worse, I could see that the parts of the industry with the most interesting technical challenges also had the most toxic personalities.

I was not a very good ally for women in tech. I had female friends and I like to think I supported and encouraged them individually. But I didn’t do much of anything to address the systemic issues. Nothing in my programming life became me like the leaving it.