Reflecting on the Talia Jane brouhaha

I’m summarizing my comments from various social media threads on Talia Jane’s letter to the Yelp CEO and the responses like this one, and reposting them here for later findability.

I have complicated feelings about this letter, given that I have been that ranting employee – not doing it publicly (even back when my blog was called “The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich”), but standing up at company all-hands meetings to tell the CEO he was wrong. I didn’t get fired that time, but only because I had written much of the code being used in the company at that time, so it would have been difficult to instantly replace me. And I later did get fired from another job for undermining the CEO.

I had another friend post about this and I liked her point that there is a tension between “let’s flatten hierarchies and hear good ideas from anywhere in the organization” and “put in your time and suck it up”. The system is currently biased too heavily towards the latter and reinforcing the current hierarchy (with its inherent power dynamics and (un)conscious biases), so we should encourage shaking it up by skipping the chain of command.

In particular, I think I’m hesitant to pile on because she’s a woman, and there are institutional and systematic biases against her (and I’m primed to think about those because I’ve recently been talking about such biases in other conversations). We are extrapolating wildly from this post and seeing what we want to see – perhaps we would feel differently if she saw a guy in her department get his promotion/transfer after only 6 months, and she was told she had to wait a year by her manager.

It’s hard to support this individual woman based on her post alone, but I could imagine her being in a position where she saw no opportunity for improvement within her group/manager so she tried to go straight to the top (she says as much in a quote to Business Insider). She did miss an opportunity to effect change – by focusing on her personal anguish, it focused responses on her personal choices rather than on the systemic conflict between unsustainably low wages and the high cost of living in SF. As a friend commented, “I agree with her in principle. I just don’t agree with *her*.” However, she was in pain, so I think it is too much to expect a young person in a desperate situation to craft her message for the public arena. She’ll learn – it’s just unfortunate that she made this mistake in judgment in public, where the public shaming will commence.

As somebody who had some good ideas but didn’t have the finesse/coaching/mentoring to express them appropriately in my 20s, I am sympathetic to Talia Jane here. And I think the experience of getting slapped down repeatedly in my career has made me too cautious at this point. Figuring out how to strike the right balance between encouraging a diversity of voices and maintaining the current process/hierarchy (to keep things moving) is really tricky. So, yeah, complicated feelings.

P.S. I liked this response quite a bit.
P.P.S. Her interview with Quartz makes her more sympathetic.

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