Tone policing: a tool for protecting male power

By now, many of you have probably read Sarah Sharp’s blog post about civility in the Linux kernel community as well as her followup post about it. As an experiment, Sharp decided to allow unmoderated comments on her original post, which has 284 comments as of this writing.

I’m not going to go re-read all of those comments, because I would rather remove my own appendix with a rusty spork. Rather, I just want to make one observation. Again, I’m not going to back up this observation by reference to specific comments, since they are terrible.

A frequent response when people point out that Linus Torvalds (or another prominent open-source leader known for abrasiveness) is rude to people is, “Yeah, well, he’s a jerk, but he gets things done.”

Now, there’s certainly no denying that GNU/Linux is a successful project. However, it would be a logical error to conclude from its success that it’s inconceivable that the same project could have been more successful if its members — and especially leaders — were committed to treating each other with respect.

For example, there’s reason to believe that verbal abuse is more likely to turn off women contributors than men. This is certainly not universal (there are plenty of women who are happy to respond to rudeness in kind, as well as shy and sensitive men). I also don’t believe it’s due to any sort of deep biological truth; more so due to the ways that men and women are often trained into different communication patterns, and rewarded for conforming. When I say “women”, by the way, that includes all women, because even women who weren’t assigned female at birth frequently know which social messages are meant for them, and internalize them starting from an early age. And if you are driving away roughly half the population from your project, you’re driving away half of all potential contributors for no particular reason.

I am certainly not the first to make this observation. However, so far I haven’t seen anyone point out that besides discouraging women from participating, equating abusiveness with leadership effectively ensures that women cannot attain positions of power.

Why? Well, if you believe that “jerks get things done”, it’s easy to go from that to believing that if you’re not a jerk, you must not be interested in “getting things done”; you must be someone who wastes precious time on social niceties. So if you believe that, you won’t recognize someone who is not at least occasionally rude and abrasive as a potential leader.

And, I argue, you won’t recognize a woman as a potential leader. Not because women can’t or don’t want to be rude — rather, because women are likely to already have been conditioned to be nice, and even if they haven’t, a hypothetical woman who led a major open-source project would never get away with being rude to people the way Linus is.

You might ask: how do you know? And in my opinion, all the evidence you need is contained in the comments on Sarah Sharp’s blog post. Sharp made a quite polite request; in return, she received numerous comments accusing her of rudeness, and of threatening what commenters say as a man’s right to be “frank and honest” (without stopping to consider the feelings of others). Some commenters seized upon the fact that Sharp’s post to the Linux kernel mailing list contained the word “fuck”, and scolded her for using a swear word while simultaneously defending Linus & company’s right to swear at people.

If you still need evidence that there’s a double standard, there it is. I think what’s happening here is that whatever men do gets defined as being effective, by definition, because they are men. It’s a little bit like how women frequently get describe as “emotional”, but this (often pejorative) label is rarely applied to men who are raging out, because apparently anger isn’t an emotion. (Thanks to Brenda Fine for originally pointing this out to me.) When a guy yells at his team members, he’s “being a leader”, “getting stuff done”, not wasting time with trivialities like being nice. But when a woman suggests that the whole team would be better off without the yelling, she’s “being oversensitive”, “reading too much into it”, wanting to stop everyone from ever saying “fuck” again. She can’t possibly be saying it because she has the best interests of the project in mind — because by definition, women are off-topic.

So that’s why the belief that “jerks get things done” is dangerous (and, in my opinion, false): it defines what leadership means so as to indirectly block women from being leaders. Because a nice polite woman can’t been seen as “a jerk, but she gets things done”; while a woman who swore and insulted people the way Linus does would be socially frozen out for violating gender norms. No matter what a woman’s communication style is, someone will focus on style and use that to ignore the substance of what she is saying.

What do you think?

  • Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?
  • Are you a guy who doesn’t want to be rude or confrontational, and if so, do you feel like you’ve paid a price for that?
  • Are you a woman who’s tried to become more frank and honest, and had that backfire?
  • Are you a guy who feels like you’ve gotten away with verbal abuse that a woman wouldn’t have been able to get away with?
  • If you’re genderqueer, what set(s) of conduct standards do you feel people apply to you?
  • If you’re trans, have you found that changing what gender others perceive you as made them more or less tolerant of your behavior (and did your behavior actually change?)
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About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at

20 thoughts on “Tone policing: a tool for protecting male power

  1. kaberett

    My most hilarious experience with this recently was actually having a senior male dev dismiss the concerns I was (frankly, honestly, somewhat angrily) raising with “I expected you’d say that!”… and then defending himself by claiming he was just being frank and honest. (Spoilers: I don’t actually think saying “I don’t care [so we’re not going to do it]” about a feature your volunteers are requesting is good. “I don’t think it’s a sensible thing to do in the broader context because [reasons]”, sure, but “I don’t care”? Nuh-uh.)

    1. kaberett

      oh, & because I am so open about my physical health, which includes aspects relating to my (hahaha) “reproductive” organs, I suspect people expect me to behave “like a woman”. And then I do that. The example above, I *did* feel I was getting summarily dismissed in large part because I was saying “that’s not cool, and you WILL drive volunteers away if you keep doing it”, because that’s too “emotional” and not “honest” enough.

  2. Rebecca

    I’m trans and… well, I haven’t personally seen much of a change pre-and-post transition, but I’ve always been non-confrontational. Abusive remarks in a community, regardless of who they’re directed at, have always made me shut down and stop participating. Sometimes I, in retrospect, feel like I back down too easily– but in the moment, it’s easy to convince myself that I don’t “care enough” about whatever the topic is to put my energy into it.

    The not “caring enough” script is clearly an reflection of the “jerks get things done” narrative that you’re talking about– which goes to show how easy it is to internalize this stuff.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      it’s easy to convince myself that I don’t “care enough” about whatever the topic is to put my energy into it.

      Yeah, such a good point. I could write a whole other post about how the concept of “passion” for your work gets used to emotionally manipulate tech people into doing everything from working 70 hours a week to putting up with abuse (because if a little thing like being verbally or sexually abused could stop you from doing your work, you must not love your work enough, right?!)

  3. mythago

    I absolutely know that I am treated differently when I am perceived as male. Because I have a not-especially-gendered handle, people online often assume I am male (“so when he said that….” in referring to comments, and so on), the tone and behavior is very, very different.

    1. MadGastronomer

      Me, too.

      I am an angry, sweary, out-right-mean-to-bigots woman. I always get shit from some people for it. But probably 75% of the people who come down on me hard for not being “nice enough” get much, much nastier when they know I’m a woman — which is made all the more obvious when people assume I’m a man, and then find out I’m a woman. (I’m not in the open-source community, and I am not talking about interactions in any professional context, but in online discussion, often about social justice issues. In a professional context, I’ve fired people for swearing at and being hostile and dismissive towards the people they supervise. Professional interactions are not the same as personal ones.)

  4. gin

    I wish Geek Feminism had a ‘like’ button or an ‘agree 100%’ button, because that’s all I’ve got to say about this post.

  5. ekb

    As a trans-woman working at an open-source software company, I’ve found the transition to be a significant eye-opener in terms of how it changes the reactions and acceptance of people around me. Much like the linux community, the projects the company specializes in are dominated by very harsh male voices (Well, exclusively male voices at this point). I used to put up with it, and even back when I presented as male I tried to find diplomatic solutions and focused on concrete details of the code rather than worrying about the guy at the top yelling, “Morons!” over and over. As the years have rolled on, that’s gotten harder and harder.

    At this point, my ‘transition’ is essentially complete and I feel like I don’t dare even participate in those violent discussions. My code is good enough– or it was, before– but now it feels like I’m fighting in a hostile environment for the right to somehow disprove what I’ve worked so hard to be. Part of this is simply getting worn down over time, but as you’ve suggested a big part is that women can’t argue back in that voice without violating the assumed gender norms. For trans-people this is especially devastating because of the tendency to second-guess before even entering the argument. Indeed, I don’t argue anymore; instead I’m spending a lot of time thinking about other careers.

  6. abadidea

    “Are you a “frank and honest” woman?”

    Yes. Results vary. I was not popular with the boys at school. I was not popular with IRC. My general impression is that I am much more effective going against leaders than being one. It has been a while since someone called me a “bitch” but it used to happen quite a lot.

  7. sparrow

    When I identified as cis female, I spent a lot more time in extremely male-dominated geek spaces and sort of carved space for myself by being roughly as verbally aggressive (or more aggressive) as a lot of the guys. I still do this, but now that I am gender-questioning and presenting much more androgynously people seem more tolerant of it.

    Some of my willingness to be verbally aggressive is about relative privilege – I internalized patterns of socialization usually offered to US upper-middle-class cishet white guys, and the ways I am vicious have frequently included using tools I can call to hand because of structural power – like threatening legal action. Some of that willingness is about skewed risk-assessment and not always knowing how to “brake” rather than accelerating from zero to SHOUTING PROFANITY super fast. I know I’ve gotten better at that at the same time as my presentation has moved towards masculinity, and I have not nearly had so many occasions where I really frightened or bothered people recently than I had years ago.

    I’m not sure if or how this increased ability to tolerate threats/irritants in thoughtful ways is related to the gender experiments. Maybe I am calmer because I have gotten further away from being a miserable and psychologically unstable adolescent, and so the ways people are more tolerant of my confrontational behavior have no connection to the gender stuff. Maybe I am calmer because I am experiencing less dysphoria (e.g. using a name I actually like), so I feel less need to escalate stuff, and so I am perceived as wiser and more respectable. Maybe the fact of my masculinity means I am taken more seriously, so I get what I want more easily, and so I am less aggressive because I don’t need to be as aggressive. Enough correlated changes have happened to how I confront people over the past few years that I’m having trouble figuring out which way the causal links go.

  8. Naomi Ceder

    Yes. Being trans and always having tended to avoid confrontation I can speak to both sides. For the many years I was male and managing a few people, I had the reputation as being a “nice guy”. This was viewed as a harmless flaw, never mentioned as a negative in evaluations, etc, although I personally wondered if it was something that kept me from getting the absolute most out of people. Almost immediately after transition to female I heard from my (female) boss and a male employee independently that I was “too nice” and “didn’t hold people to a high enough standard.” Only one thing had changed.

  9. Chantalle

    “Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?”

    – Absolutely. In negative wording: Over-aggressive, abrasive, challenging, hurtful (to sensitive types). Positively: Straightforward, honest, trustworthy, no BS, but interested in people’s ideas and down to debate. In work, I find guys and some women having a bit of a difficulty placing me. I find friendships with women slightly more challenging than friendships with men because of the aforementioned social training – passive aggression, kindness to the point of fakeness, emotional sensitivity – collaboration vs competition (there are +/- of this). It has made dating straight men more difficult (most don’t want to feel challenged), too. I’ve found that saying “I’m sort of a guy” usually helps people “get me,” and it’s unfortunate I feel I have to attach a gendered description for people to get it. But I can’t be anything but myself and keep promoting thoughtful articles like this to forward womankind into the 21st century.

    – And on the article, absolutely right – there should be no association between jerk behavior and ability because the nice guy/girl can be just as capable. I’ve seen improvements on this and hope that in the near future I can be a nice but straightforward woman and be respected for accomplishments and competencies all the same.

  10. andrew

    as a kind of gender questioning human who has identified as totally cis male until v. recently, i definitely feel like i’ve “gotten away with verbal abuse that a woman wouldn’t have been able to get away with.” i learned a sort of disregard for emotion growing up and living as a boy, and in my engagement with the wider “geek” culture (and, more recently, the culture surrounding computer programming,) which not only made me behave quite badly, to humans in general but in a way which i agree disproportionately affects women in the ways you described, but also has made me distrustful and suppressive towards my own emotions. my sense of self as a male was in conflict with my emotions, and i ignored them and didn’t respect them, and i’m actually only just learning to not do that.

    but anyway, i definitely feel like i learned to behave that way at least in part from my engagement with coders and geek culture and the fact that not only are there “role models” for men in the culture behaving that way, and so the men might want to emulate that behavior in hopes of attaining the same kind of success, but also because the attitude seems to kind of be regarded as something which brings success in and of itself, like it’s necessary to be “callous enough” in order to get anything done, and if you can’t hang with that then you’ll just bring the project down. i theorize that that argument just arises to kind of assuage the collective cognitive dissonance that liberal nerd men who don’t think of themselves as supporting the patriarchy experience about their reluctance to let women into something they perceive on some level as their boys club, and how being verbally abusive is a tool that they realize on some level they’re using as a tool to keep them out.

    i think it’s our responsibility as the men in the community to look ourselves in the face and ask ourselves why we’re really doing stuff, to not be so embarrassed of needing to change our behaviors or acknowledging that we’ve been hurtful that we actually ignore the hurt and perpetuate the behaviors. and for gods sake, if somebody tells you something is hurtful to them, don’t tell them why it shouldn’t be! just shut up and listen. jeez.

  11. Suzanne

    I am a cis- female, and generally avoid conflict wherever possible. Conflict exhausts me. I have very little patience for arguing over something if I can tell that nothing productive is coming out of it. I grew up wanting to make people happy, and was terrified of offending someone, angering someone, or otherwise making them dislike me. I also struggled with social anxiety, leading me to pretty much just take to the corner and attempt to be invisible and silent.

    I’ve grown out of most of that, and while I still don’t like having to make a stink about something, I can if I must. However, I’m still naturally cautious, and as I’ve had a lot of practice not making waves, I take great pains to word my position very carefully and diplomatically. I’m quite good at maintaining a calm exterior and being polite, even if the other person–uh–isn’t.

    I’m spoiled to be in a very positive workplace (a bit over half female and very respectful), so I haven’t run into too much trouble there.

    But in a different context recently, I had to navigate a conflict among a group of us, where I was being very intentional about being diplomatic. I had a dissenting opinion, but I was careful to give concrete reasons for my view. I avoided personal attacks entirely. I tried to reach out to find a compromise with opposing points of view. We collectively exchanged messages over the course of three days, during which time I restated and supported my points, clarified what I was and wasn’t talking about, and had to remain calm while being ignored, misinterpreted, or outright belittled. But supposedly, this was all good, because we were having a “debate”.

    I was then told that I had leapt to conclusions, that I seemed unwilling to hear anyone else’s point of view, and that I was putting down other people’s insights and experience. This wasn’t even because I had said anything harshly–it was because I didn’t simply go with the flow of the opposite viewpoint.

    Meanwhile, one of our guys was throwing around direct insults. But hey, “That’s just the way he is”, and “Sometimes he doesn’t think before he talks.”

    Let’s just say I’m not a part of that group anymore.

  12. mooocow

    “Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?”

    I am what you would call “assertive”, I have strong opinions and if something is important to me (many things are) I’m not going to back off easily. Some people may read that as aggressive, but I would rather say I’m passionate.

    In general, this has earned me a lot of respect and has worked out nicely. But there are some people who feel challenged by my mere existence and react with hostility. It seems to me that these are highly gendered reactions that wouldn’t have happened if I were male. Several times, this has reached the threshold of bullying/harassment (almost always in a computer science context).

    On the other hand, I wonder if some of the positive reactions to my personality are also gendered/age-related, as middle-aged men may feel more inclined to see the nice and friendly person behind the strong statements in a young woman than in a man their own age – not sure about that one, though.

  13. S.P.Zeidler

    “Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?”

    This is a very culture-dependent set of issues. Not only am I German, I’m Bavarian.
    Indirect modes of communication might fly right over my head. If you meant “not possible” you would just say so, why ever wouldn’t you? (I’ve had “cultural sensitivity” training so I at least know other communication styles exist. Picking up other meanings than the literal might still not always happen.)

    Also, are women supposed to be “nice” in my native culture? I don’t think so.
    I’m supposed to use sarcasm rather than the more vulgar swear words when I take out the knives to flay my opponent, but that’s quite likely more a class thing than a gender thing. There is the tendency to be unable to hear women, too, but that can be overcome by sufficient aggressiveness. Which is not disallowed, but still tiring/annoying.

  14. A. Mani

    I am a transwoman in research (algebra, logic, rough sets), consultant (soft computing, GNU/R) and also a free s/w activist in India. Yes, tone policing happens everywhere including free s/w/GLUG mailing lists, but I never leave the essence of the argument. That helps.

  15. Richard M Stallman

    Torvalds gets a lot done, but I think his harsh tone is a
    handicap rather than an advantage. Managing a project sometimes
    requires telling people, “The discussion is over, and my decision is
    ABC,” but that can be done without verbal aggression. I think that if
    he made the effort to change this he would get more done.

    I have not been involved in Torvalds’ projects such as Linux — my
    work is the GNU operating system, which Linux is often used with. So I see this only from the outside. It must loom larger from inside.

    One of the first comments mentioned how the idea of being passionate about your work is used to manipulate people into letting employers exploit them. In the free software movement, the idea is to be passionate about everyone’s freedom. That kind of passion is harder to abuse to manipulate people for private gain.

    1. J. B. Rainsberger

      Clearly, Linus gets enough done, so he has no motivation to change his approach. When others emulate him, however, I suspect that they substantially underachieve.

      I honestly don’t understand how Linus attracts anyone to work with him. I don’t understand the attraction to unabashedly abusive figures. He raises judgment to an art, whereas I found I’ve got better results from working hard to deny my judgmental impulses. To each, eir own.

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