There’s a common pattern where some men seem to have a complete inability to understand women when they speak. As far back as the 1970s, this kind of interaction has been illustrated with humor:

an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it

The term mansplaining was coined more recently, sparked by Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me. Solnit’s stories present a different perspective from the prevailing narrative that women lack confidence to speak up: perhaps the lack of confidence is not in ourselves but rather in our audience. One must be an authoritative expert on a subject with footnoted documentation before having the right to an opinion, and even then, we may be inaccurately criticized or simply ignored.

It was a few years ago when I realized that I had accepted the status quo. I was on a conference call with two male colleagues. I was caught up in the discussion and hadn’t noticed that I had initially put forth an idea that was then attributed to my other male colleague. Instead of tacitly accepting credit for my idea, he promptly said “I agree, that was a great idea that Sarah had.” A simple correction, said kindly with an edge of humor, honored my contribution while gently chiding our colleague. Most men have the capacity to listen to the words I say and follow the thread of the idea, and some realize that correct attribution is a simple respect that fosters effective collaboration.

A couple of weeks ago, Jen-Mei Wu, Judy Tuan and I were talking about code and sharing stories of our lives. With dark humor, I noted that for some men, it seems that my voice is unintelligible. I know they hear me, since they typically wait till I finish speaking before repeating themselves verbatim as if I had not spoken or asking a less knowledgeable man to explain in more detail. I joked that I needed a personal translator, a man who would attend meetings with me and repeat what I say for some of my colleagues who can’t seem to understand my words.

We wondered if this behavior might stem from the need to compensate for a cognitive disability where some men can hear female voices, yet struggle to discern meaning from sound. Without self-awareness of their own affliction, when they hear the garbled syllables, they assume the woman is not speaking clearly, and so they feel compelled to repeat their understanding of the words. Tech companies might identify men who are thus impaired and offer mansplaining-as-a-service as a benefit to accommodate this peculiar affliction.

I sought a word to describe this new insight about a potential root cause, perhaps a previously unknown form of aphasia where some men cannot cognitively process words when they are spoken by women. It seems important to separate the community service where a man will amplify a women’s ideas by repeating key points with attribution, as distinct from the bizarre echolalia commonly known as mansplaining which may be a further symptom of this affliction.

In reading further on this subject, I discovered some research indicating that there might be a physiological basis for this syndrome. Further study may be needed. Independent of the neurological processes involved, I suggest the word agynephasia to describe this phenomenon.

agynephasia greek roots: a- not, gune woman, phanai speak

I urge men to support your colleagues who may be unaware of their disability. Until the tech companies start routine testing for this affliction and providing trained assistants, you can help by learning about the expertise of your colleagues and dinner guests, regardless of their race or gender, correctly attributing ideas, and helping to redirect the discussion if needed.

In 2009, when Sarah Mei and I started teaching free coding workshops for women, we didn’t expect to fix the industry, just our little corner of it.

We’re programmers. We solve problems by focusing on something concrete that can be built with the tools at hand. We focused on increasing diversity in the SF Ruby meetup. By teaching workshops, engaging the local tech companies and all of the people who wanted to help, we moved the needle. Later we expanded to include outreach to other demographics who are underrepresented in tech (which turns out to be most people).

Last week I spoke at a Bridge Foundry event where we announced a new industry partner program. In preparing for this announcement, I spoke to Amanda Cooper (@MandaCoop) on our advisory board. She framed what we do as “you make the road by walking it.”

There was no clear path, but we had ideas that we thought could work. We did the work to implement our ideas. We took a data-driven approach to measuring impact. We open-sourced our process and materials. In doing the work, we created a path that others could follow. Or more accurately, inspired others to help create the path by walking it with us.

Over the years, I’ve watched students become senior software developers. I’ve seen how volunteering at the workshops has caused some ex-programmers to decide to become software engineers again. It’s not all about more diverse software developers — we want everyone to be able to learn these tech skills, if they want to. Coding skills are applicable across many disciplines and can be useful to simply understand the technology that people use every day.

Most students and volunteers are working software developers, and we’re seeing some particular problems in the tech industry where we think we can help.

Lack of good tech jobs

The tech industry has a diversity problem that goes well beyond the “pipeline” problem that can be address with skill training. There seem to be few workplaces where there is real opportunity to succeed based on individual skill and potential.

I believe that most companies genuinely want to create workplaces where people with the right skills and capabilities can deliver business impact. This should be very aligned with business goals. Unfortunately systemic bias gets in the way. There are patterns that need to and can be changed. There are bugs in the system that need to be fixed in order to attract and retain diverse talent.

I see some companies where the environment seems to be different. I hear about companies who want to do better. Help create the path by walking it with some folks who have a lot of experience solving these kinds of challenges: join the Bridge Foundry Industry Partner Program.


Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.

― Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems

I write this as a privileged white cis woman, or at least that’s what I look like, with my blue hair, ivy league education and house in San Francisco. I have compound privilege, so what I describe below represents an easy life.

I work in the tech industry.

I started programming when I was twelve. My first commercial software was a Mac application. People bought our software and we sent them a box with a paper manual and some floppy disks. I thought sexism was something I would only experience from old men and young jerks. There were a lot of messed up things in the world, but on this point I thought my generation was cool.

Now I work on distributed systems. People fill out a web form and enter their credit card and then just start using our software. It runs 24×7 on computers all over the world.

We write good code. We have tests that run automatically when we change anything, and extra checklists when we make something new. We still write bugs, and even if our code were perfect, it runs on hardware that can fail. So we create data centers with redundant systems, and just in case there’s a storm or earthquake, we run some more copies of the software on the other side of the planet. We do all that work, and still, we prepare for a production outages — that’s what we call it when things are so bad that people will start noticing. It’s inevitable. It happens. In fact, it happens so much it’s routine. We prepare. We create systems to alert us as early warning signals, so we can do something to avert catastrophic failure.

No matter how much we prepare. No matter how hard we work. No matter how brilliant we are at writing code. It happens.

By the time there’s a production outage, We’ve already worked through all the solutions in the standard playbook and nothing worked. Maybe we’ve already looped in a few colleagues who happen to be awake or nearby. We start improvising. We try anything that is both fast and safe. As we pull in some experts, we hope we’ve written all the important things down.

Afterwards, we’ll do a root cause analysis. It could be a mistake we made 6 months ago that’s been quietly corrupting data. Maybe we made an incorrect assumption, or some other system changed and we weren’t notified. Sometimes we could have prevented the problem. Sometimes the root cause is entirely outside of our control.

Sexism is like a production outage.

We learn to expect it. We create systems that mitigate risk. We learn the rules. We study the written laws and policy, because we find that the unspoken rules we learned as kids don’t make any sense. Guidelines about appropriate behavior box us in so tightly we can’t actually get anything done. Sometimes you can ignore the rules.

If you have the privilege of working with men who will respect you, it can work pretty well to pretend these unwritten rules don’t exist. If you want to move to a new team or a new position, you make a judgement call: is the opportunity worth the risk?

There are places I won’t work. Being part of the next unicorn startup isn’t worth the kinds of production outages I would expect there — it’s too disruptive to get any work done.

To be successful in the software industry, we need to take risks — make new software, work with new teams. Men take risks too and can experience their own production outages. And I’m sure I can’t imagine your situation, but from what I’ve observed in the United States, there’s a class of privileged white cis men where failure is a sign of positive risk taking. For blacks and latinos, it seems that failure is more often perceived as failure, or condescendingly, as a lack of preparation that is not their fault. Asian men seem to have fewer production outages in their early careers, then at some point they stop advancing and hit the bamboo ceiling.

I’m not sure the tech industry is really worse than any other place to work, but it does seem different. I wonder if its because many of us were like me. I expected it to be different. When I encountered obstacles, I just worked harder. I thought everyone was held to the same high standards, but when I look back, I’m not sure that’s true. If you have to defend your ideas and plans more than your colleague, that slows you down. If you don’t ask permission, it’s more likely you will be held accountable for your failure, so you have to make sure you don’t fail. We need to take risks to do great things, but for some of us, there are more risks and the risks are bigger.

The “leaky pipeline” is well-documented. Through my own lived experience and hundreds of women I’ve known as fellow travelers in this strange world of the tech industry, I see patterns that seem to be invisible to most of my male colleagues. This metaphor of the effects of sexism as a production outage helps me develop strategies and advise other women when they face obstacles. If there is only one woman on a team, it’s hard to tell the difference between sexism and incompetence. Is she being treated differently? Did he just make a mistake? The research is interesting, but when it happens to you, it doesn’t matter. You can do root cause analysis later. Right now, you need to put your life on hold and deal with a production outage.