Listening Well

March 18, 2014 Onsi Fakhouri

Julie Ann Horvath’s public departure from GitHub has, once again, brought the question of gender equality in the tech world – and the San Francisco tech world, in particular – to the forefront of the blogosphere’s fickle zeitgeist.

Sadly, important and difficult conversations rarely take hold amidst the ebb and flow of the trending and the interesting and – all-too-often – the blogosphere moves on, having merely scratched the surface of a topic with deep systemic roots.

This is my entry, on this topic, into that public record of dubious value. I strive to articulate this post with humility – fully aware (at least, as aware as I can be) of my place in the conversation. You see, I have great privilege: as a a male software engineer I am part of the majority and have not experienced the abuse and trial that women working in this field have endured. What could I possibly add to the conversation? What gives me the right to chime in? And why should anyone care about what I might have to say?

But chime in, I will. And with two simple points that, I am hopeful, could help deepen this important conversation by giving other male engineers – members of the majority – a framework with which to approach this issue.

Point #1: Don’t assume. Ask. Then, listen.

A few years ago the topic of gender equality came up on a Pivotal Labs internal mailing list. This does not happen very often and I was curious to see how things would play out.

One well-meaning (male) engineer sent out a post lamenting what he perceived to be a male-centered engineering culture. One of his complaints? “We have a beer fridge.” Amused, I brought my wife (a physicist, not an engineer) over and pointed the offending sentence out. Her reaction? “Wait. What? I love beer!” (Brown ales, to be precise.)

What happened here? Simple. That engineer thought, as we fallible humans so often do, that he understood. In particular, he thought he understood the contours of the systemic problems facing women in our field. Ironically, his outline of the problem only proves to illustrate a deeper problem: too often, we (male engineers) reason about this issue with naive assumptions that betray facile stereotypes (e.g. women don’t like beer, men do).

How to fix this?

Don’t assume.

Don’t assume you understand the problems and concerns that women face in this field.


Instead of making assumptions, welcome women into the conversation and ask them to describe the problems and concerns themselves!

Then, listen.

And when you ask, drop everything and listen.

Point #2: Do not minimize or invalidate feelings and experiences.

But what does good and effective listening look like? There’s a lot to say here but I want to hone in on one specific issue that I’ve seen come up time and time again. Naturally, this issue is quite general and extends beyond the question of gender discrimination in the tech industry.

A common way that we fallible humans respond to feedback – particularly negative feedback – is to minimize or invalidate the feelings and experiences of the person providing the feedback. This is grossly dishonest and harmful, as it communicates to the person providing feedback that their experience of reality is incorrect and, therefore, invalid. This breaks trust, shuts down conversation, and turns a learning and growing opportunity into yet another example of abuse.

To make this less abstract, I’d like to take a specific example coming out of Horvath’s experience. In her communication with TechCrunch Horvath mentions an incident that broke the proverbial camel’s back. In her own words:

Two women, one of whom I work with and adore, and a friend of hers were hula hooping to some music. I didn’t have a problem with this. What I did have a problem with is the line of men sitting on one bench facing the hoopers and gawking at them. It looked like something out of a strip club. When I brought this up to male coworkers, they didn’t see a problem with it. But for me it felt unsafe and to be honest, really embarrassing. That was the moment I decided to finally leave GitHub.

By way of example, let’s imagine some possible responses of Horvath’s male colleagues to her feedback. My intent is not to single out or put words into the mouths of Horvath’s coworkers, but rather to use this concrete example as a springboard for unpacking the abstract point I’m trying to make.

Imagine a coworker responding with:

“We weren’t gawking at you. You shouldn’t feel the way you’re feeling.”

Such a response invalidates the feelings of the one providing feedback. It has things precisely backwards: when you are told that you have hurt someone you must understand that the person has been hurt. Whether or not you think they should feel hurt or not is irrelevant; you must understand that they were hurt and that they were hurt because of your actions. Yes, even though your actions may not have been directed at them.

Here’s another possible response:

“I did not intend to hurt you. Get over it.”

Whether it was your intent to hurt or not is irrelevant. Yes, of course, intentionally hurting someone is worse than unintentionally hurting someone. But you must understand that the experience of hurt is valid and real regardless of intent. To attempt to minimize or deflect the hurt because it was unintended is to evade responsibility and is unfair to the one who has been hurt.

And one more possible response:

“It’s not a big deal. Why don’t you just forget about it?”

Such a response minimizes the experience of the one providing feedback. It effectively says: your reading of reality is invalid – you’re making too much of a small thing; chill out. This is deeply hurtful! Giving negative feedback is hard – overcoming that challenge and speaking up takes courage. Clearly this is a big deal that should not be swept under the rug.

Here’s a much better response. One that takes the feedback seriously and opens up the conversation for future growth and healing:

“I understand that you were hurt by my actions and I now see that my actions were inappropriate. I apologize and will change my behavior. Thank you for having the courage to share this feedback; is there any other feedback you can offer me?”

Gender discrimation in the tech industry is a complex issue that must be approached with humility and honesty; with a heart bent on understanding, empathizing, and – ultimately – transforming behavior and culture. These two points are just small stepping stones towards a better framing of the conversation: Don’t assume. Ask. Then, listen. And when you listen: don’t minimize or invalidate feelings and experiences. Instead, listen well.

About the Author

Onsi Fakhouri

Onsi Fakhouri is the Senior Vice President, Cloud R&D of Pivotal.

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