First published: Mar 9, 2015, 3:32am -0700
Last edited: Mar 13, 2015, 7:16pm -0700

What riding a unicycle can teach us about microaggressions

I like the thing Slate Star Codex sometimes does for breaking up various hard-to-neatly-categorize thoughts in an article using just numbers, so I’m going to shamelessly do that. You can now watch me utterly fail to do nearly as good of a job at whatever it is Scott does with words.


At this point, there have been at least two published papers about the responses unicyclists get from passers-by: Sam Shuster’s original British Medical Journal satire issue paper from 2007, and his 2012 followup in Psychology Research and Behavior Management.

In the initial paper, Sam Shuster gets a unicycle and rides it around, cataloguing others’ reactions. When it came to the women’s reactions, 95% of their reactions “praised, encouraged, or showed concern, and women made few comic or snide remarks.”

What really got to me is what the men did (emphasis mine).

In contrast, only 25% of the comments made by men indicated praise, appreciation, or neutrality, whereas 75% were attempts at comedy, often snide and proffered combatively as a put-down. Equally striking was their repetitive nature, even though given as if original – almost 66% of these “comic” responses referred to the number of wheels (the most common), the absence of handlebars, or a part having being lost or stolen. Less than 25% used less obvious snide humour, but often with stylistic repetition.

Guys consistently responded with a “lost a wheel?” joke, and further, acted like they thought it was original! I can totally see myself doing this cause it’s a hilarious joke. Haha, he’s missing a wheel, get it, cause, haha.

But to the unicyclist, this seemingly original joke is anything but original. It’s frequent, tiresome (haha tiresome), and no surprise. Check it out, here’s a whole unicyclist bulletin board thread complaining about the same joke.

The surprising consistency of others’ reactions led to the follow up study to see if Sam Shuster’s observations were universal. Surprise! They were. Unicyclist hecklers are universally concerned with your missing wheel.

This gets to me because I think I’m funny, but in many situations I’m actually more likely just delivering some internal script coded into my head. Worse still is that even though the idea that my jokes aren’t always original might be a tolerable scenario for me (I’m happy someone already thought of naming a German bakery “Gluten Tag”, for example), the receiver of the joke might have been the victim of said joke so often already as to be frustrated.

There’s a clear difference in perception and position between a one-time deliverer of a comment, and someone who is receiving the same comments from thousands of one-time deliverers. I’m calling this “interaction asymmetry blindness,” for lack of a better (known-to-me) term.

Employees in jobs which have to field the same question over and over again get a sort of cold steeliness about those questions. It makes sense; imagine working a job where every 30 seconds you have an exactly identical interaction with a brand new human. I’M SORRY BUT THE PLANETARIUM’S SEATING IS FULL. This human interaction is strangely asymmetrical, like the unicycle – on the one hand you’re frustrated that the patrons you’re interacting with aren’t able to figure out that they missed getting tickets to the Pink Floyd Laser Show, but each individual new patron has no idea if they’re going to get to see lasers or that you’re getting sick of explaining.

Now, imagine one last asymmetrical interaction scenario but in bizarro-metaphor-land. You have three ears (or some other physical property of yourself you can’t help). You get comments about your third ear (or other physical property) all the time because everyone wants to know what’s up. Chances are this new person in front of you hasn’t seen you deal with comments about this every day of your life already.

Except, in bizarro-metaphor-land, every time you would have gotten a comment about your third ear you instead get a comment like “damn, girl” or “you look fantastic” or “I’d hit that” or “I’d like to know where you sleep heh heh heh”.


Let’s talk about something that’s clearly wrong and horrible before we get into more subtle stuff.

Did you know that rape affects 20% of US women?

Did you know that 1 out of 3 college men voluntarily agreed they would rape a woman if they could get away with it?

Did you know that a study found most teenage girls assume sexual coercion and violence is normal because they think men can’t control themselves?

Did you know that when asked if they had ever raped someone, 4% of college men voluntarily said yes?

The point of these statistics isn’t to drive fear, but to set the stage for where we are and where we need to go. Maybe there’s good men out there, but holy friggin cow shanks, right now, for women this is hostile territory.


Yesterday, yet another engineer who happens to be a woman came forward about her experiences with the massive undercurrent of sexism in the tech industry.

TL;DR: Senior directors made uncomfortable comments such as

“You look amazing in that bathing suit.” “Doesn’t [she] look amazing heh heh”


“It’s taking all of my self control not to grab your ass right now.”

Not only did this affect her workplace comfort, it directly affected her career options.

Tragically, there’s nothing incredibly surprising to anyone about the sorts of issues she’s dealt with. The initial response was a resounding “yep, I’m so sorry” or “yeah what’s wrong with that?”

Here we’re talking about just comments. Right? These are just comments. Compliments, even, some say.

That women are constantly subjected to this kind of hostile behavior is complete bullshit.

Are these compliments? Guys don’t get these sorts of comments in the male- dominated tech workplace. The amount of guys who hear “nice ass” in their software job is pretty low. You can imagine that a guy could hear a comment like that once or twice and not be particularly worried about rape statistics. “Treat others as you’d like to be treated,” right? “It’s no big deal, I wouldn’t react so much if someone said something like that to me,” maybe they say.

As a group, women get this type of appearance-driven comment all the time. It’s incredibly disproportionate. To women, these aren’t infrequent compliments, these are daily reminders of the hostile territory they live in.


It’s clear that the tech industry has a serious problem.

First, we know that women are vastly underrepresented. For example, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft all have less than 32% women in general.

Second, we know that gender-balanced companies:

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in my filter bubble. It’s relatively safe to assume that you at least agree better gender balance is worth pursuing, so I won’t belabor the point. Let’s assume you want to help fix this.

So what’s the problem? The pipeline, right?

Every so often, I see something that reminds me of the “lost a wheel?” joke but depresses the crap out of me. Witness: bingo for all of the things women see or hear from men trying to fix the problem.

ally bingo

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with your mother teaching you to respect women, or being all in this together, or saying someone is articulate, or fretting over the pipeline of incoming new engineers, or name-dropping Sheryl Sandberg (HEY I DO IT TOO I TRIPPED OVER HER ONCE IN A MEETING). It’s that these types of responses don’t do anything to fix the problem of making the culture more welcoming. They especially don’t do anything if they’re so commonplace that women are making jokes about how often they experience them.

Maybe the pipeline of incoming engineers is involved, maybe it isn’t, but male-dominated industries are shitty places for women. To improve gender equality, the tech industry needs to be a welcoming place for all people. If a large population of people doesn’t feel safe or like they belong in their place of employment, they will leave.

So what can you do to fix this?


Alcohol has been produced and consumed as far back as 8000 BC. It’s been a staple of modern humanity literally since before written history. Everyone has the capacity, after enough shots, to get slammed, and there’s no shortage of examples of that happening.

Automobiles are a comparatively recent phenomenon, but again, many people have access to cars and can now easily transport themselves to where ever they wish to go.

Alcohol and automobiles do mix. They mix with terrible consequences, but mix they do. People stay out, stay late, get a little more plastered than they planned and still need to get home. Drunk driving is a terribly common problem. What’s the worst that could happen? My house isn’t very far away.

Unfortunately, driving drunk endangers way more people than yourself and in aggregate puts many lives at risk.

What’s the solution? Severe penalties for the first offence. Any of the following outcomes could happen to you if you get into a vehicle to go to your house after participating in some of the oldest human social behavior known:

Again, I want to emphasize that as a society we’ve decided that to curb very easy behavior since we don’t like the aggregate result, we’ve decided to levy stiff fines.


I am in unbelievable debt to my grandmother. As a school teacher, she championed and succeeded getting computers into her district’s classrooms back when Steve Wozniak was designing everything, and I learned to program on one of her Apple IIs.

As recently as the 1970s, she attempted to take out a loan and was told women weren’t allowed to take out loans. She stood up, told the teller to let her know when they wanted her interest money, and left. They did a few days later. These days, this kind of discrimination is thankfully unheard of.

We’ve come a long way, but at the same time, I can’t help but admire the sentiment here:


As an industry, we need to have zero tolerance and respond forcefully and fearlessly whenever men make women feel unsafe or unwelcome.

The thing about knowing what systemic sexism feels like from the inside is that it can be very subtle. Things that seem completely harmless to you, from your perspective, given what you know, could have a completely different effect on someone in a different perspective, interacting with different people.

"Lost a wheel?"
"Geez, overreact much?"
"No, actually, you just don't have my perspective."

If you are a man, you need to recognize that it is very easy behavior for you to make a women feel unsafe. It’s not that you’re a good person and it’s all those other terrible people giving men a bad name. You have the same internal scripts in your head that all the other men have. You need to work tirelessly to interrupt them in yourself. You are on the blind side of an asymmetric interaction.

You also need to recognize that it is equally easy for other men in your organization to make women feel unsafe, regardless of what level in the company they are, how long you’ve known them, or how badly you need their skillset. Again, it probably has very little to do with good people versus bad people. The other men in your organization may just be oblivious (I often am) and obliviously following internal scripts. You need to make sure you interrupt and correct this behavior quickly, just like you would any other unacceptable behavior. There can be zero tolerance for anything else.

As a man, you don’t stand up for women because you have a mom or sister or daughter or grandmother or something. You have zero tolerance for people being treated hostilely because they’re people, just like you.

Eliminating the subtle systemic hostility takes daily vigilance and work. I definitely have not done all I could and probably will miss opportunities again. Others have done the same. But it’s time to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

I’d like to end by throwing my support here behind this beautiful albeit heart-wrenching article about supporting whistleblowers of sexism. The author ends with a plea that workplaces do the following three things and I’d like to end with the same plea:

  • Make sure the systems to handle malicious abuses of power against women have teeth, and that they seek to let the disenfranchised blow the whistle, rather than simply “keeping stuff under control.”
  • Help your well-intentioned peers who are still making mistakes do better without threatening them or humiliating them.
  • Make a public commitment to taking potential whistleblowers seriously. Commit to educating yourself, to having an opinion, and, if you believe the whistleblower’s claims might have merit, to helping. Live up to that commitment.

Add those things to your to-do list to follow up on and push for right now. I just did, and I’m using this opportunity to publicly commit specifically to number three now.

We can do this.

Update (2015-03-11): Three ears? Man, why didn’t I think of people with funny names? “Harold Bals” is too blatant, but I’m sure I could find a better example. Also, I didn’t know about the term Petrie Multiplier; I don’t think it’s the whole story, but it’s certainly related. Last, just another reminder that caring, empathetic, personal growth-oriented men can be and are still part of the problem.