Book notes: Lean Out (Shevinsky, 2015)

Lean Out is a collection of essays by women on their experiences in the tech industry. I appreciate Elissa Shevinsky’s efforts to put this compilation together and have it published in book form. As a collected volume these essays paint a bigger picture than taken separately, and they have a bigger impact.

As a woman in tech myself, I was curious to read the book and see if it had any new answers or insights to offer — should I stay in tech? is it worth it? are there better ways? Perhaps that was too much to ask of a book, but I was left dissatisfied. The essays were moving, insightful and entertaining, but none of it felt new or revelatory.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the subject of tech culture and its issues around diversity and representation. However, if you’ve been following the public conversation on diversity in tech for the last few years, then this book has less to offer — the ideas presented feel very familiar, and in parts even outdated.

One of my favorites essays in this book is Erica Baker’s The Other Side of Diversity, which I was familiar with and enjoyed rereading. It is Erica’s personal account of her experience as a black woman in tech, standing out like a sore thumb. It’s a great picture of what it feels like to be a minority, of all the extra energy consumed by having to deal on a daily basis with being “different”.

Another great piece is the essay “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” by Katherine Cross, which undertakes a more formal exploration of tech culture and its tropes. She talks about ostracized nerds becoming tech whizzes and their need to believe in a meritocracy to have their accomplishments be meaningful, bolstering self-esteem and a personal narrative of the misunderstood genius. Later she analyzes how this plays into their inability to see themselves as biased or discriminating against others — hence, sexism.

The two FAKEGRIMLOCK essays that bookend the whole collection are great fun. Joyful and energizing and funny. They also made me realize that I had inadvertently assumed a male gender for FAKEGRIMLOCK, and now I’m faintly embarrassed and very curious about the real person behind that account.

There are a couple of essays that offer possible solutions — Jenni Lee’s “What Young Women in Tech Really Need” and Katy Levinson’s “Sexism in Tech”. I don’t disagree with their proposals, but they feel insufficient. Levinson’s desire to have a way to “correct behavior” for those that are being sexist “but not malicious” falls flat with me — I feel like we’ve debated to death the difference between intentions and impact in the last few years. In 2018, good intentions are not nearly enough of an excuse for sexism, racism, or other discriminatory behaviors. Lee’s call for more networking and mentorship opportunities, while pragmatic, is more of a statement on what is needed get ahead in the current climate, and less of a solution to the root problems.

All in all, I’m glad I read Lean Out, but it didn’t blow me away. It did, however, leave me wanting more — more depth, and more imaginative solutions. We need a goal, a different future to build towards.