Sean Johnson

Why I asked to be removed from the Techweek 100

The difference between who you are and who you want to be.

Yesterday I found out I had been named to the Techweek 100, an annual list of folks in Chicago who are making a difference in the tech community. I was flattered, to say the least – I’m easily the least talented person on that list, and many of them have been folks I’ve admired for years. It felt like validation for the last few years of work, trying to build our company into something I could be proud of, and giving back however I can.

The same day, Techweek sent out an email advertising a black tie party, using an image they shouldn’t have.

The email set off a chain of events overnight, with some of the people I admire the most taking a stand against it, asking to be removed from the list.

Inspired by them, I did the same.

But I’ll be honest. I saw the email yesterday and didn’t feel outrage. I didn’t think anything of it.

This isn’t because image was appropriate. It wasn’t.

It’s because I’m a broken person.

Realizing You’re a Part of the Problem

Like many white males who grew up in nice middle class communities, I’ve never been marginalized, attacked or belittled in any real way.

Perhaps like you, I haven’t been surrounded by (or perhaps more accurately haven’t chosen to be surrounded by) people who think deeply about issues facing women, who immediately recognize situations that perpetuate systemic or cultural mistreatment.

Perhaps like you, I’ve been bombarded by literally millions of advertisements, movies and shows perpetuating these stereotypes. Millions of impressions I’ve either actively sought out or at least allowed to go through my brain unimpeded. 30+ years of weeds that have to be pruned – weeds that more empathetic men have managed to clear away already, but that I have not.

Years of these conscious and unconscious choices have wired my brain to look when it shouldn’t look, to think thoughts it shouldn’t think, to say things it shouldn’t say.

Strangely, I’ve always thought of myself as guy who has a high view of women. During my childhood I was raised by my mom, who taught me that women deserve my respect. I always was drawn toward intelligent, talented women, and married someone who is in every way better than I am. As a boss, I’ve deliberately tried to hire women to counteract the male-dominated work tech environments I’ve seen and been a part of.

But reading the #YesAllWomen stream last week broke my heart. It broke through the parts of me that wanted to act like this was yet another example of fake internet outrage, against the tendency in men that started the whole thing in the first place, to say “yeah, but that’s not me.”

It taught me how real, how pervasive and how destructive this stuff is. It broke my heart that my wife almost certainly endured stuff like this. It broke my heart that my baby girl would very likely encounter stuff like this unless things change.

Most importantly, I realized many ways in which I was a part of the problem. I realized my antennae for this stuff is woefully short. I don’t notice things I should. I don’t feel outrage when I should. In ways both unconscious and deliberate I contribute to the problem.

I’m not writing as a guy who has things figured out. I’m writing as a guy who is realizing he very clearly doesn’t.

Resolving to Change

So I’m trying to build my antennae.

I’m following people who clearly have a stronger antennae than I do, to learn from them and to raise my own awareness.

I’m taking a breath before writing off people’s outrage, trying harder to understand issues, and asking if I’m guilty of what they’re upset about.

I’m praying for a heart that continues to break, to a mind that can see through the mountain of garbage I’ve put into it and can recognize the situation for what it is.

I’m examining my actions in the past and the present, trying to identify my blind spots.

I’m asking people to tell me if I’ve let them down, trying to apologize, and asking for their forgiveness.

I’m trying to surround myself with people who can hold me accountable – who I can talk to when I’m confused, who will call me out on my own behavior.

And I’m praying for the conviction to take a stand when I see it – to be willing to be ridiculed or to give up on otherwise amazing opportunities to avoid continuing being a part of the problem.

Baby Steps

To many this will seem like “privileged white guy feels guilty and tries to make amends.” That’s because it’s true.

I’m in no way speaking as a guy who’s gone through the journey of self-realization and come out the other side a changed person who can guide others on the way they should go. I’m the guy who realized how messed up he is, who has the long journey ahead of him.

Just this afternoon, I showed a draft of this to some people I trust and they brought up ways I’ve acted or spoken that they didn’t appreciate. The very people who I thought would help me process this and figure out whether it’s worth writing are people I’ve hurt in the past. I’m thankful they still talk to me, that they love me enough to call me on my failures.

I’m going to continue to screw up – to miss things I shouldn’t miss, to think things I shouldn’t think, say things I shouldn’t say.

But my hope is that a year from now that happens far less than it does now. That by the time my daughter is old enough to notice she’ll be able to use me as a model for what she should expect from all men.

I also hope that more guys allow their hearts to be broken like mine did. To truly think about whether they’re part of the problem as well. To create similar systems of accountability, to continue to expose themselves to the issue even if it makes them uncomfortable, to resolve to be better.

My decision to follow those guy’s lead this morning doesn’t really mean much – very few people recognize who I am, no one is going to remember it, and I have no delusions it’s going to be some catalyst that changes the world.

But after all the introspection of the last week, it felt like a test for me. My first tangible opportunity to be better about this issue in some way, to put my name on the line and say something needs to change.

I stood up this morning not because I’m a great guy. I stood up because I’m not.

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