It’s a Friday afternoon at a tech startup in downtown San Francisco, and Valerie Aurora is arming men with phrases they can use to try to make their Silicon Valley environment less sexist: “Not cool.” “We don’t do that here.” “Awkward!”
She wants them to use them against other men when they encounter biased comments or actions aimed at women, and tells them not to worry if they freeze the first time. “Just keep practicing and wait for the next time. I guarantee it will happen again.”
Aurora is a feminist activist and founder of Frame Shift Consulting, a tech diversity and inclusion firm. She has come to the company to run a three-hour training session for a group of men and women, teaching them how to use their societal privilege – whether male, white, straight or able-bodied – to benefit people who do less well in Silicon Valley.
Her workshop, a version of which has already been adopted by Google, isn’t aimed at the Donald Trumps of the world, says Aurora. The attitudes of the Republican nominee have sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and sexism in America. Instead, what Aurora calls “ally skills training” is meant to teach people who both understand there is a problem and want to help fix it by taking practical action – including teaching men how to step in when they see other men engaging in casual sexism.
“I am teaching men to actively work to end patriarchy,” she says. “The point is to eliminate privilege and my approach is, hey, you believe that this is the right thing to do.”
There is a detailed primer on language – don’t use “girls” for women aged 18 and over – and a mechanism to ensure everyone gets speaking and listening opportunities. “We want to make sure people aren’t re-experiencing oppression,” says Aurora.
This is not the usual kind of training dished out by HR departments. Aurora says this kind of education has been missing in Silicon Valley, which is famous not only for its hi-tech products but for the low numbers of women and minorities involved in making them. Major tech firms have started publishing their diversity data over the last two years, which has only served to confirm that the industry’s employees are still overwhelmingly white and male. Women are twice as likely as men to drop out mid-career, often complaining of hostile work environments which are biased against their gender.
Aurora sees Silicon Valley’s most prominent efforts to increase diversity as backwards. Encouraging women to give the industry a try and exhortations to “Lean In” – a motto and accompanying book by Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg – wrongly puts the onus on those who are marginalized to change their own behavior, she believes.
Instead, her “ally skills” training asks those with the privilege to change theirs. Protected by that privilege, as well as generally having more power and influence, they can speak up and are in a better position to take the heat. “It is the exact opposite of Lean In,” says Aurora. “Everything has been framed in terms of ‘what can women do to overturn sexism’. I have reframed it as ‘what can men do to stop sexism, because it is their responsibility’.”
It is easier for allies to act, she says, because they don’t experience the same repercussions as members of a marginalized group when they speak up. If a woman points out that another woman was interrupted, she will often get a negative reaction, says Aurora. If a man does the same, people are more likely to listen.
A ‘follow-on’ to unconscious bias training
Aurora started Frame Shift Consulting last year after winding down her four-year-old project the Ada Initiative, a non-profit that supported women in open technology and where she co-developed the Ally Skills training. Aurora has run 15 workshops at tech companies since the start of 2016, sometimes training employees and sometimes training the trainers themselves. Her fees range from nothing to $10,000 per workshop, depending on need.
Among the companies that now teach her methods to their own staff are Google – which introduced “Bias Busting@Work” in 2014 – Square, Slack and Spotify and Yelp. Aurora spent 10 years as an open-source software developer before starting the non-profit Ada Initiative, which aimed to support women working in open technology. She first developed ally skills training at Ada, but wound up the project in 2014 to start her consultancy. She makes all her material available for nothing on her website.
She describes her training as a follow-on to unconscious bias training – an approach rising in popularity in Silicon Valley which makes people aware of their own subtle biases. The approach sometimes leaves people feeling frustrated and guilty because it offers few practical strategies for compensating for bias, she says.
Aurora considers the tech industry to have a serious problem with sexism and racism as a whole, but says that many people working within it do value fairness and equality. If people see allies standing up for their values and acting selflessly, she believes, then others will want to emulate them.
Back at the workshop, pictures of sneezing cats provide light relief before attendees divide into groups to discuss scenarios taken from some real-life experiences of Aurora and others in the industry. How could a man make a lone woman at a mostly male conference feel welcome? Only one of the three groups recognizes that she might perceive the man is trying to chat her up. Aurora steps in to offer a script: introduce yourself (no need to ask for her name), and invite her – as soon as possible – to join your group. Stand further back than you world normally, she cautions, and don’t get personal by talking about girlfriends, wives or children, for example. “Then you are done,” she says. “You did your job.”
They consider another seven scenarios, finishing with how to respond when a sexist joke is made at a work party. Aurora advocates playing to the audience, so they don’t get the idea that this is the way things go at work when people start drinking.
‘Training in isolation doesn’t lead to change’
Sociologist Frank Dobbin, who studies diversity initiatives at Harvard University, thinks Aurora is on the right track. It is very difficult to prove that diversity programs of any sort work, he says, but trying to recruit allies makes sense. “It is a great intuition that you want to get people to think of themselves as on your side,” he says. Encouraging allies to use their advantage in terms of social justice – because it is the right thing to do – has been proven to work better than the current standard approach of making the business case for diversity.
Caroline Simard, senior director of research at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University in Silicon Valley is less sure. Training needs to be nested in a broader corporate strategy, she says, so that what is learned is reinforced by the organisation and there is a framework for accountability.
“Training in isolation doesn’t lead to change,” she says.And rather than men per se it is middle managers – the vast majority of whom happen to be men – where she thinks extra effort needs to be directed because they have so much influence over an organisation’s culture and staffing. “I don’t think the sector has really solved the puzzle yet of truly engaging the middle,” she says.
Yet people who have attended Aurora’s workshops report seeing real change in their lives and workplaces. San Francisco-based software engineer Daniel Jackoway, 23, says his confidence improved after his then employer, Dropbox, paid for him to take Aurora’s workshop in 2015. “I now bias myself a little bit more towards action,” he says. Most recently, when someone shared a sexist, racist article in a chat room, he called foul.
Jenni Snyder, the manager of database engineering at Yelp, says the training is making for a more welcoming and inclusive environment. A workshop at Yelp was so oversubscribed, including among managers, that Snyder trained earlier this year to lead it herself. She has now facilitated two sessions at the company and is planning another early next year. “It is incredibly difficult to measure, but the type of dialogue I have been exposed to has radically changed, and the knowledge I see many people communicating and speaking up with is from those workshops,” she says.
Aurora remains as true as ever to her radical feminist roots, but she’s pleased to be doing more than just raising issues. “I view this as far more radical,” she says.
How to deal with casual sexism
- Practice simple responses
- Be short, simple and firm
- Don’t try to be funny
- Play to the audience
- Amplify voices of marginalized people when it is positive for them
- Speak up when it is a negative for marginalized people to be the centre of attention
- Speak for yourself; state your values
- Pick your battles
- Don’t expect praise and credit for fighting inequality
- When you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on
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