Earlier today I was stunned to read about the accusations of sexual harassment against Robert Scoble. We aren’t friends, but we have friends in common and we have interacted remotely in the past.
I had no idea, no clue, that Scoble had harassed women. There are some people you might suspect of doing so, and some people you don’t, and before today I would have listed Scoble in the latter category. It just goes to show that on the internet, people don’t always know you’re a dog.
Regardless, this is a story that should be told far and wide, because Hollywood isn’t the only culture that has a problem. It’s difficult enough being a woman involved in the tech community; we don’t need sexual harassment in addition to the pervasive discrimination we face. In this field, practically every person in power is a man. How the hell do we get ahead if men see us either as incapable or an object of sexual gratification? Or both?
One of the people who Scoble sexually assaulted, Quinn Norton, wrote about the experience on Medium. It happened during an O’Reilly Foo Camp, an invite-only enclave of the currently hip and upcoming in the tech community. She was able to defend herself, but later on felt she had to ensure she wouldn’t lose her future invite to the event:
I checked in with the organizers after that to make sure I would still be invited again if I broke Robert Scoble’s nose for sexually assaulting me. They said sure. But neither me nor they did or said anything more. I can’t be sure why for anyone but me, but I know why I decided to stay silent. I never knew who that woman was, I never had a name, contact information, anything. But I knew she was likely to get uncovered and destroyed if I spoke up. I had protected myself, the way I had for years in the technology scene, by threatening what should have been a professional contact with violence. I realized I was part of the problem that night — a woman’s safety in her career environment shouldn’t require credible threats of violence.
But I knew she was likely to get uncovered and destroyed if I spoke up. Not Scoble, you notice, but the woman. The woman would have been destroyed.
Norton also discussed seeking a ‘path of redemption’ for Scoble :
I’m very mixed on this. I believe if we don’t provide paths of redemption for badly behaved people, we enable abusers as much as we do by remaining silent. I also believe we need to talk about these things plainly, and we need to seek to help and elevate the victims.
In my opinion, the ‘path to redemption’ philosophy is why this kind of behavior continues in Hollywood and in tech and every industry where most of the power figures are men—all the man has to do is express sincere-seeming contriteness, maybe go to therapy, and all will be forgiven. It sends a signal to other men that if they get caught, they only need to grovel in the dirt for a bit and all will be well.
Maybe after 30 years in the industry, I’m cynical about ‘paths to redemption’. I do agree with Norton that we need to talk about these things plainly. However, I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about these events among those who know Scoble. We don’t know how much of this silence is because people are stunned, like me, and how much of the silence is because people are just waiting for it all to blow over. Business as usual.
I’m especially unhappy with Tim O’Reilly right now because Foo Camp is him. He’s the center of this particular universe. According to Business Insider
Founder Tim O’Reilly said the company banned Scoble from future events but admitted it “could have done more.”
Yes, he could have done more, and not just dump it on Sara Winge. For one, O’Reilly is in a position more powerful than Scoble’s. He could have helped to prevent future problems by saying a whole lot more about Scoble’s behavior before the accusations came to light this week. Other than the quote at Business Insider, I’ve not found anything he’s written specifically about Foo Camp, Norton, and Scoble. And he should.
One person did speak out, but he did so long ago. He was a young man named Aaron Swartz.
If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.
I really noticed this when I was at foo camp once, Tim O’Reilly’s exclusive gathering for the elite of the tech community. The executive guys there, when they thought nobody else was around, talked about how they always held important business meetings at strip clubs and the deficiencies of programmers from various countries.
Meanwhile, foo camp itself had a session on discrimination in which it was explained to us that the real problem was not racism or sexism, but simply the fact that people like to hang out with others who are like themselves.
The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. And I should be clear, it’s not that there are just some bad people out there who are being prejudiced and offensive. Many of these people that I’m thinking of are some of my best friends in the community. It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.