I’ve never done a “book review” before, so I find the concept intimidating, so let’s not call it that. Let’s call it a “book chat” or something. Regardless, this is for my WiDGET BroadBand. The best band of broads a girl could hope for.
It’s been A Bit Of A Shit Time lately. I’ll spare you the details but it’s been rough. The kind of rough that has you coming over all existential every 5 minutes. The kind that shakes your core and has you questioning what you’re doing in life, and all-consuming doubts are a dime a dozen. Let’s blame those feelings for how disjointed and rough this post is, instead of other things like Not Being Very Good. I’ve been asking myself what I’m trying to achieve by working in games, feminist activism, writing, everything. This book, “Lean Out – The struggle for gender equality in tech and start up culture”, an anthology edited by Elissa Shevinsky, came into my life at the perfect moment, with all these questions swirling around in my headbox, like they were looking for a drain.
“Men invented the internet” – Wrongy McWrongerson
(read a book mate, jeez)
The book has a carefully planned chapter progression as to mimic the familiar feelings many women in tech experience. “Am I alone?” “I’m not alone!” “Am I in or am I out?” “What are we going to do?”. It starts out with what feels like Shevinsky patting the chair next to her, telling you to sit down and have a chat about making sense of it all. I recognised and related to what she and the authors after her described. I swung between feeling entirely hopeless and committed to leaving, to wanting to punch the world and take no goddamn prisoners. During every despair and every contradicting feeling, I felt supported, galvanised, and safe in the hands of these writers. I felt part of something bigger, when I was feeling particularly small.
“Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” – Kate Heddleston
The first chapter, “What we don’t say”, a gut-wrenching recollection of abuse and violence from Sunny Allen, first had me wondering whether I was strong enough to read the rest of the book in my current state. I cried as I read her words, the make up of my tears being 50% anger that this happened to her, and 50% just raw and brutal heart-sick empathy. I’m glad I kept reading. Allen’s family were coal miners, most eventually succumbing to black lung, but responsible for powering the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the chapter, I was in awe of and reinforced by Allen’s strength as she proudly said, with the spirit of her forebears behind her, that she too was “powering the revolution”. What a fucking mensch. This chapter made me refuse to be anybody’s canary.
Leigh Alexander’s chapter generously shared her personal path to activism, deftly manoeuvring between sharing experiences that made her realise maybe she couldn’t bootstrap her way out of this after all, and a stellar call to arms for other women and other feminists to cut the hair pulling and band together, reminiscent of one of my core texts by Molly Lambert. Being a big fan of Lambert’s “Befriend the other woman. Even if she’s shit” approach to feminist action, I felt like I could easily slide into Alexander’s advice and truly bask in the full and beautiful strength of her words when she said “remember who and what the real enemy is”. Constantly checking ourselves not only for our privileges but to see where the crosshairs are pointed is a crucial part of all feminist activism, and we would do well to listen to the women that remind us of this.
“It’s deeply ironic to fight for choice and agency for women while demanding they bear only one sort of battle scar” – Ash Huang
Katy Levinson’s chapter “ Sexism in tech” focuses on whistleblowing, and calls for companies who really care about making their workplaces healthier for women to make sure there are concrete protections for people to point out when something is tragically broken. Her concepts about there being two kinds of trust in this context resonated deeply with me. Levinson goes on to explain that believing a whistleblower could be defined as a “factual trust”, and the belief that the whistleblower is not doing this for personal gain could be described as a “motivational trust”. This distinction between the two is how you can find your allies – they have both of these trusts in you. To take it one step further, Levinson then explains how when one of these trusts is missing due to someone wanting to “find out all the facts” before committing, the more time goes on the more this lack of trust ferments into making you the dreaded “liability”. This parallels the feminist (read: not jerk) concept of Always Believing The Woman, because the stakes are so so tragically high when we don’t. This chapter made me realise I will not stand for anything less than factual and motivational trust from people I work with.
Elissa Shevinsky’s chapter “That’s It, I’m Finished Defending Tech” was the catalyst for this anthology, and is an absolute corker. It mirrored a lot of my feelings about the Exhausting Optimism Machine spruiking tech and games to the masses, hoping they won’t notice that there’s a huge hole in the floor with a spiky pit at the bottom of it. It rubs up against difficulties I’ve had trying to encourage girls into my profession, feeling guilty of leading lambs to the slaughter. Her chapter later in the book “The Pipeline Isn’t The Problem” is a perfect companion to this one, and required reading for everyone who thinks getting women involved in tech is a numbers game only, and that changing the systems these women enter into isn’t something that is required. If you think that, read this chapter and sit there and be wrong in your wrongness.
We start to delve into the nerd identity from this point, and “cultural fit”. Katherine Cross’ chapter “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” was (as you’d imagine) a huge meal for the brain. In this chapter she posits that there is a clash between masculinities, that of the “conquistador” (or the jock, the combative and physical) and that of the “counting house” (the clever, adept at systems and solving problems with wit and guile instead of fists), and that women often bear the brunt of the clash between these two masculinities, each with their own challenges regarding entitlement and toxicity. Squinky’s first chapter was a tales from the trenches account of “Notes From a Game Industry Outcast”, that wrenched at my heart. Followed immediately by the chapter “Making Games Is Easy, Belonging Is Hard”, Squinky told of the difficulties faced by people who didn’t “fit” the cultures they worked in, and that this isn’t helped by critical success, as one may (incorrectly) assume. This was another Leena Cries chapter, as I shared Squinky’s relief that games spaces may finally be progressing to something more accepting, when I read the line “It’s like I was waiting for you all this time, and now you’ve arrived”. It made me think about my BroadBand.
“There’s no shame in taking your hand off of something poison” – anna anthropy
I thought about my BroadBand again in the next chapter by Krys Freeman, who extolled the virtues of listening to the wisdom that came from the women before us, in “2nd Generation In Tech”. The importance of role models cannot be understated, and Krys was lucky enough to have one in very close proximity. Krys’ mother is a BAMF! Having a baby the same year as graduating high school didn’t stop Krys’ mother becoming not only the first woman in Bloomberg’s “Console Room”, but the first black woman, too. I also really appreciated Krys’ take on why Lean In rubs so many of us the wrong way, underscoring the importance of making a distinction between the amount of work it takes a white male with a wife and permanent childcare to accomplish their professional goals compared to that of a black single mother. It’s unfair to compare the two and tell one of them to just “try harder”. Krys’ call to not lean in but lean on your own authenticity, is something that will stay with me for a really long time.
In “Beyond the Binary: A/B Testing Tech and Gender”, Brook Shelley shared her unique insight afforded to her by being seen by the world as a man for the start of her career, and how that has changed since the world now sees her as a woman. Hearing first hand from someone that it is a completely different experience depending on gender was an odd relief that it’s not just me (us) suspecting things are rough — it’s proof they are. Shelley also had wonderfully sweet words about the importance of the internet in her life that I really related to, albeit for very different reasons. Shelley’s writing style felt particularly warm, even when she was talking about really difficult situations.
(I should have instituted a Cry Jar by now, I’d probably have money for a couple of wines. Wines I felt very entitled to at this point).
Erica Swallow and Gesche Haas both told their stories of sexism and othering in tech and venture capital, and what happens when you “go public”. This has been on my mind a lot lately, how often women are left with no other recourses other than to publicly name and shame in order to feel any sense of justice or exert even a skerrick of power. If we had systems in place that dealt with these problems in an appropriate manner, we could avoid this mess altogether. They complimented Levinson’s whistleblower chapter really well.
Here’s one that *slayed* me. In a good way. I think. I don’t know. Can you just hold me? This chapter will possibly stay under my skin for the rest of my life. It was jarring, loving, and confronting, all at once. Someone loves you when they see something is bad for you and tell you to stop doing it, and I felt nothing but love coming from anna anthropy in her chapter, when she was honestly and frankly suggesting that it’s okay to acknowledge that games and tech are bad for you. She went even further than that and made me really question The Big Question: “Is it killing you?”. It echoes and mirrors conversations I’ve had with people who love me, who ask me what I’m doing and why I’m bothering. I felt this chapter reverberate around my chest for days. There was no elegant shedding of the single tear here. It was the full blown sob. The Ugly Cry. She touched on how damaging “passion” can be. How easily it can be taken advantage of and used against you. We see so much of this in games, on so many levels and in so many ways. I still can’t really articulate what this chapter means to me, or unpack why I get the shakes thinking about it, but maybe I will be able to do so better one day. I don’t think today is that day. All I know is that I’ll always be grateful I read it and that it exists.
“Given all the talk in the press and social media posts about supporting women in tech, you would expect there to be actual support” – Jenni Lee
Erica Joy’s chapter “The Other Side of Diversity” was super fascinating to me. We often speak of the benefits diverse teams bring to corporations and to art and products, but we rarely get an insight into the HUGE weight there is on the shoulders of the people expected to magically fix things by just existing there. What it’s like to be that Diverse Person, and how it feels on a day-to-day basis there at the coal face. How it hurts, how it feels to be that isolated different person. How easy it is to lose ourselves in the face of ‘enculturation’, how every time we adopt another person’s characteristic in order to fit in, we drop one of our own, and what happens when we try and take inventory of what Being Us actually is, and find it’s mostly stuff inserted there by other people. This helps me frame my feminist support. I have no interest in helping capitalists make more money from diverse pools of workers, so that argument doesn’t really light my fire — but I am interested in helping women stay true to themselves in the places they want to work, doing the work they want to do. This chapter made me reflect on what ‘supporting minorities’ actually looks like on the ground, and how easy it is to get caught up concerning ourselves with getting people hired, instead of helping us stay us.
Leanne Pittsford opened my eyes to the distinct challenges that queer women face in her chapter “Lesbians Who Tech”. It’s so easy for LGBT-themed tech events to centre on the experiences of the gay male, and that women are often lost in the throng yet again, under-served and ignored. Gay men tend to make more money than lesbian women in tech, and lesbians are statistically more likely to have children than gay men, and Pittsford explains the importance of remembering that this means queer women can find themselves at a massive disadvantage — one that approaches like “Lean In” tend to ignore in favour of a straight perspective. This chapter fortified in me the importance intersectionality has in any feminist action. If it’s not intersectional, it’s bullshit.
“But Leena, what concrete measures can we implement to help?”, I hear you ask. Well Jenni Lee’s chapter “What Young Women In Tech Really Need” lays it all down for you in black and white. With dot points, even! This is an outstanding chapter that pulls no punches about precisely what helps, and what is meaningless lip service. “You can teach a man to fish, but what if he’s not welcome at the pond?” was a fist-pump moment. There were a few of those in there. This chapter helped clarify so much for me, and not only that, helped me realise I could fucking ask for precisely what I thought we needed. Which oddly, doesn’t occur to me as much as it should. Ash Huang’s chapter “Runners” serves as a great companion to the chapter before it, in that it’s a How To Guide for the women running these actions. How do we survive while implementing these things. Following this and continuing the “Actually… maybe I can do this” tone, Dom Deguzman uses the 5 Stages of Grief to talk us through coming to terms with the cultural fit of the “brogrammer”. I too have been in situations where I’ve told myself it’s nothing (denial), only to disappoint myself or be disappointed by others (anger), before trying to see where my line in the sand really was (bargaining), followed by a cloud dawning over me (depression). The final stage is supposed to be acceptance, but Deguzman makes sure to never advocate putting up with exclusive workplace cultures, and encourages the reader to consider the fact there might never be a final stage at all.
“Careers are not ladders. It’s rock climbing” – Dom Deguzman
Just when some readers might be making their decision to Lean Out entirely (a decision I would find it really difficult to disparage), Melanie Moore implores readers to “Build a Business, Not an Exit Strategy”, and do it their way. This particular form of chutzpah is admirable as much as it is scary to me, not being someone who is particularly business-minded, but Moore held my hand through the whole thing and it wasn’t as intimidating as it first seemed. Even with lots of numbers talk, which my brain seems to register as a trauma. As with many of the authors in this book, I felt like if I were to give money to their causes, not a cent would be wasted.
The book ends with an outstanding call to arms for women and allies everywhere, in “Where Do We Go From Here?”. Lauren Bacon absolutely smashed this chapter out of the (GODDAMN) park, and left me thinking I could make a difference in some small way before I decide to Lean Out for good. Oh that’s right. She’s not going anywhere just yet! Bacon’s clarity and forthright nature really reminded me in a spectacular way of one of my favourite local activists, Van Badham. Both have lead the call to start with shifting public opinion, and then the systems will be forced to react. The genius of this approach lies in it’s simplicity. Systems are not going to change when people push back against that change, and by nature they are change-resistant. Bacon identifies that given the current climate for women in tech and the mainstream coverage of large scale criminal movements against them, public opinion has shifted from “They have women in tech?” to “Holy shit that’s really rough for them, that’s not good enough, this has to stop”. If we don’t move on this shift, it will blow away with the wind. This chapter (this whole book, really) is a bible for any feminist activist in tech. Bacon even gives us DOT POINTS, in no uncertain terms, with how we can change the fucking world. No joke. Just like that. A 6-step plan, with forging alliances being a huge part of facilitating these changes. We might all need separate things, us intersecting groups, but when we plot it on a Venn diagram and overlap with another, we need to rally together for a shared goal. I felt inspired, and reminded of the timeless adage “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”.
“And whatever you do, DO NOT drink the Kool-Aid!” – Melanie Moore
I know what you’re thinking. “This book kinda sounds okay I guess, but I really think it would be better with a Robot Startup Dinosaur?” Have no fear, my love, for FAKEGRIMLOCK has contributed 2 chapters to this book, as well! In true FAKEGRIMLOCK style, they have your best interests at heart, and say just what you need to hear, right when you need to hear it. Sometimes it takes a Robot Startup Dinosaur to drop some truth bombs on us for us to really listen. FAKEGRIMLOCK is to be seen to be believed, and is hard to describe, so allow me to quote them directly, with an amalgamation of my two favourite lines:
“LOOK AROUND. THIS NOT WHAT WORLD COULD BE.
THIS NOT WHAT WORLD SHOULD BE.
THIS NOT WHAT WORLD MUST BE.
YOU WILL FIX IT.
YOU WILL GET BACK UP. YOU WILL PUNCH THE WORLD.
AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN. “
Lean Out was a fortifying read for me. It distilled in me the importance of intersectional feminist activism, learning from each other, not taking any shit, and caring enough to make things better. Even though certain parts were concerned with capital a lot more than I personally am, I still left feeling stronger and wiser for it. I’m blown away by these inspirational bolshie babes, just doing their thing and doing it with pride, confidence, and love. I feel lucky to have read their words.
This book came into my life at a time where I’m finding it hard not to consider it a kismet. We just lost a dear friend, suddenly, and shockingly. She had a tattoo that I found inspiring when she was alive but now that she’s gone I feel especially fired up about living by. “Defiance. Feminism. Empathy.” I don’t believe in the supernatural and I’m not big on the Higher Power stuff, but in my soul it feels like this book was printed with the same ink as that tattoo, and I think it will always have a special place in my heart, accordingly.
I often say it’s hard to speak up against injustice when you’re on your own, but with other women behind you, you feel like you can do anything. This book brings a gift to those who read it; Lean Out immediately provides 19 siblings to women feeling isolated and struggling to find their place in tech culture. As for trying to sum up my feelings about this book in a concise way (she says 3500 words later), I’m afraid I’ve been outdone by a Robot Dinosaur:
“IF YOU LET SOMEONE ELSE BUILD TOMORROW, TOMORROW WILL BELONG TO SOMEONE ELSE. THEY WILL BUILD BETTER TOMORROW FOR EVERYONE LIKE THEM”