Debugging Sexism

Photo by Steven Fettig, some rights reserved

The word of the day is sexism: Shanley Kane tweeted the CTO of, asking them to take down a video of a woman in a top and underwear dancing around. The subsequent tweets were captured in a long Storify and subsequently issued a public apology.

The interesting thing about this, to me, is how often well-meaning geeks react badly when someone says that they did something sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.

Let’s say someone says to you, in a public forum, “This thing you did is sexist.” What should you do?

First, if your immediate reaction is to say, “No it’s not!” don’t give in to your immediate reaction. That seems to be what most people start off with and it doesn’t help anything.

The reason you’re probably so eager to say it’s not sexist is because you’re not sexist. (Let’s assume, if you’re reading this blog, that you are correct: you are not sexist.)

So, if you aren’t sexist, why can’t you flat-out say “You are wrong”? Well, for starters, just because you’re not sexist doesn’t mean you never do anything sexist. Besides, they’re saying “This thing you did is sexist” but what they mean is “I feel this thing you did is sexist.” And even if you’re Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Atwood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer rolled into one, you cannot tell them their feelings are wrong (well, you can, but you’ll look like an ass). What should you do, then?

You should try to make them feel better and try to avoid hurting them in the future.

  • Step 1: try to make them feel better. The best way to do this is through an apology. A real one, not an “I’m sorry this offended you”-type apology. A better choice: “I’m sorry that I did that.” Now follow up with, “What can I do to make this better?”
  • Step 2: try to avoid hurting them in the future. Obviously, everyone makes mistakes. You can’t never make one again, even if you and your company were publicly humiliated the first time around. The important thing is to try to learn from it. Google around and read about the issues women and minorities are concerned about in geek culture. Even if you don’t agree with everything everyone writes (I certainly don’t), you will at least know what the issues are.

If someone tells you they’re offended, you should take that seriously. If they’re speaking up, there are probably many others who are silently offended.

kristina chodorow's blog