Sexism and Oppression: From Oblivion to Action
This post is going to be a stream of my consciousness about my gradually increasing awareness of the oppression that exists around me, specifically sexism. This is my personal blog and I’m using this post to remind my future self about where I stood on this day.
Almost every day of my life has been spent surrounded mostly by caucasian people who aren’t super worried about paying the rent/mortgage or putting food on the table. Being a boy, particularly a shy boy, I’ve spent a lot of my life surrounded by boys and men. There have been exceptions, like when I spent 4 years working as a therapist and earning my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Those years were spent mainly around women. Those years ended when, at the age of 26, I decided I wanted to become a software developer.
I grew up in the lily-white suburbs east of Seattle. In 1992, I chose to attend Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, a similarly caucasian suburb of Chicago. I’ve lived in that same suburb for 20 of the past 22 years. It is historically a very conservative, religious community.
I played American football in high school and college. It was a huge part of my life for those 8 years, and has had a lasting impact on my work ethic and goal-orientation. I loved that sport. It has been over 18 years since I played my last game in 1995, and I still miss playing football. Football is (almost) exclusively for men.
When I switched from “family therapist” to “programmer” in 2000, I moved from a field of mostly female practitioners to a field of mostly male practitioners. I noticed this gender-ratio difference, but I didn’t think much of it. I just knew that I loved solving problems with programming languages and I wanted to get better at it. And I got a lot better at it. I took all of the work ethic, obsessiveness, and tenacity that made me a successful (small-time) football player and threw it into becoming the best software developer I could be.
In 1997, a few years before I made this career switch, I married Staci, a feisty, charming, athletic woman who I met when I was 21. Both of us were just 23 years old when we married. My daughter Rose was born in 1999, when we were 24.
My self-induced immersion into the world of software development started a pattern of neglect between me and Staci. I would frequently pull all-nighters and while I still “showed up” as a father and husband, I was often a zombified version of myself, operating at about 25% of my capacity, most easily evidenced by the consistent loss of my short-term memory.
Our family was growing. My sons Ricky and Charlie were born in 2001 and 2004. We needed more space to live in, and we were burdened by a ton of credit card and student debt. I kept working hard to get us out of financial stress. Up until 2001, Staci worked part-time. After our second child was born, Staci stayed home with the kids. Since the day we were married, she has been the primary caregiver for everyone in our home. I’ve tended to be a grown-up kid when it comes to caregiving.
In 2009, I was a partner at a software consultancy named Obtiva. The company was doing well and I was now being compensated at a level that the financial stress in my life was starting to decrease. This is when I finally looked up from the trenches of my obsessions and started becoming more aware of injustice and disparity. Up until that point, I felt like I was sprinting. It’s almost impossible to be aware of anything other than the finish line when you’re sprinting.
Since then, I feel like I’ve been running a marathon. I’m still moving along at a steady pace, but I notice a lot more around me. I’ve noticed lots of things over the past few years.
When I was helping lead Obtiva, we were incredibly male-dominated. Since I had been there since (almost) the beginning, this realization crept up on me and it wasn’t something I had many feelings about. I tried to recruit female apprentices, but also noticed that they struggled more than the male apprentices. It wasn’t until we were acquired by Groupon and I looked around at the Chicago engineering team (circa 2011) that I was blown away that while we had over 100 engineers, I could count the women on one hand. I knew all the people hiring people, and I realized there was something systemic at work, something beyond anyone’s direct control. I knew for a fact that the hiring people weren’t a bunch of dudes consciously trying to keep women out.
I met an interesting guy named Paul Baker around 2009. On the surface, he looked like any other white guy in tech. He was the CEO of his own web design firm, but Paul had a very strong sense of justice. He kept reaching out to me with ideas we could work on together that would help disadvantaged people. Despite my passivity, he was relentless about this, and through the ideas and connections he kept throwing at me, I stopped running so hard and started conversing with people about injustice and what’s broken in our society.
Around the same time, I completely stopped running and stood still for a while. I had reached a very dark place in my personal life and I had to take some time to consider where I was headed. That’s when I discovered one of my life goals: to decentralize education. A few years later I asked myself Why? Why do I want to decentralize education? The answer came immediately: to unleash latent human potential! A year ago, I stopped and thought about the demographics of humanity’s latent human potential, and it doesn’t take a statistician to tell you that when it comes to developing software, there is an incredible amount of latent human potential in women and underserved minorities.
As I launched Dev Bootcamp in Chicago, I was very deliberate in recruiting women onto our team. I had previously failed to create an apprenticeship program that worked for women, so I figured that if we had strong female practitioners involved, that they could help create a great environment for women to learn in. As the applications poured in for our program, they were overwhelmingly male. We soon had 60 students in our space and I was sprinting again. Issues around justice and diversity blurred by as we tried to get our program off the ground and give our students a great experience.
A year later, the program is now cruising along successfully. We’re still improving and adapting, but we’re no longer sprinting. We have more time to stop and think about how to engage the tremendous latent potential that exists in the segments of our population that are currently not actively participating in technology. We’re working closely with Girl Develop It, Levo, Close the Divide, and more recently, YesWeCode.
One new aspect of our program this year is a workshop on oppression and sexism. I’ve run this workshop twice now, and it has had a powerful impact on me. There are a series of exercises that I take our students through that have helped me recognize the enormous privilege that I’ve lived with since the day I was born. The workshop gives me brief glimpses of what it’s like to be oppressed, which has actually left me feeling nauseous by the end of our time together.
The most concrete takeaway from this workshop is this: institutional oppression is rampant in our society, and what keeps that oppression going isn’t some malignant rich white dude pulling levers in an ivory tower somewhere. What keeps institutional oppression going is passivity and obliviousness. Ignoring oppression is an act of supporting oppression. I am increasingly facing oppression. I am still very ignorant. I am stumbling around, clumsily trying to be an active participant in unleashing the latent human potential that surrounds us in every city in this country.