The world has recently become more terrifyingly aware of incels, which, if you don’t already know, stands for “involuntary celibate.” It’s an underground coalition of mainly men who complain about how society actively and unfairly deprives them of sex, often, they say, because they are too ugly or too fat.
It is, of course, nonsense. Incels are usually conspiracy theorists, not victims, who believe the world is purposely denying them their fundamental right to sex on demand—and who share many values and tactics with white supremacist, men’s rights, and alt-right groups. Self-declared incels encourage violent acts, including the “incel rebellion” in Toronto that killed 10 people and injured 20 more.
Ellen Pao (@ekp) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is founding CEO of Project Include and author of Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. Previously Pao was CEO of Reddit, leading the first major platform ban of unauthorized nude photos and other harassment. She has also worked as a venture capitalist, chief diversity and inclusion officer, business development executive, and corporate attorney. She holds a BS in electrical engineering and public policy certificate from Princeton, and a JD and MBA from Harvard.
What hasn’t been discussed much is their presence in our everyday lives, including our workplaces. Like many groups of young men whose misogynistic beliefs gestate online, incels often work in the tech industry and in engineering—and because of tech’s long-standing, well-quantified lack of women and other underrepresented groups, it’s a natural fit.
Technology plays a central role for these hate groups, as a career and as a weapon. On incel forums, they pride themselves on their tech contributions; they joke that the world would collapse without them to maintain network infrastructures, and that their companies would fail without them. They move seamlessly among online hate group forums where racism and misogyny feed on one another.
Many large tech companies have unwittingly encouraged these groups in the name of unconstrained debate and “free speech.” Misguided advocates quote the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”—to argue that open platforms will expose and show the wrongness of hate and terrorism. Instead, though, what we’ve learned from platforms ranging from Reddit and Twitter to GoDaddy and Cloudflare is that public exposure consistently normalizes, encourages, and amplifies these beliefs.
Like many groups of young men whose misogynistic beliefs gestate online, incels often work in the tech industry.
I hear every day from tech employees and executives, and many tell me in painstaking detail about how hate groups are using tech platforms and workplace communities to spread their ideas, onboard new recruits, and train them on how to execute these ideas in their companies. In an industry with predominately white men as employees and leaders, and a hands-off approach to monitoring speech and behavior, hate groups have a huge advantage. They weaponize communications and interactions, setting traps to use as fodder for complaints, trolling, and, in some cases, litigation.
All this means it’s highly probable that a tech company of significant size employs men who identify with these forms of hate, if not with the actual movements. They organize on company Slack channels, creating private discussions to denigrate their coworkers. They defend themselves with arguments on diversity of thought and free speech. They may even leak information to dox coworkers, intending to incite real-life, offline harassment.
So if you’re the leader of a company, what do you do?
Right now, it seems, not much. I’ve heard some leaders say that they’ll be perceived as making a value judgment about somebody’s politics if they confront these toxic groups. But incel culture isn’t a political belief; it’s an ideology of hate. We don’t accept open misogyny in our workplaces, and make no mistake: That’s what incels promote.
In an industry with predominately white men as employees and leaders, and a hands-off approach to monitoring speech, hate groups have a huge advantage.
Others expressed concerns about thought policing. After all, whatever goes on in somebody’s head is their own business. And that’s true—until they act on it. Consider how these ideas are directed at weaponizing interactions between incels and others targeted by gender. And how the group intends to spread the behavior and push boundaries as far as they can. Sometimes their misogyny can be hard to spot—like a microaggression inflicted on a coworker. Other times it manifests itself very clearly. We’re not talking about ideas here; we’re talking about employee safety. We don’t allow groups of employees to congregate in person to hurt others; why would we allow it online? Why is it that, when hate takes shape online, people automatically allow it as freedom of expression? Shouldn’t we respond to behavior that is intended to harm others, regardless of where and how it happens?
Incels can be vicious, and dealing with them head-on can be intimidating. When I tweeted a simple question—“CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?”—I got almost 3,000 replies, and many were insults and threats from incels. I also received more than 2,000 likes. And I heard from others who worked with incels at tech companies who were afraid to speak publicly, but expressed support—and a need for action.
One woman told me about an incel at her tech company, and she described a horrifying situation: He started stalking coworkers, going so far as to hide his mobile phone in the bathroom to video female employees using the toilet. He later used the captured video to intimidate, threaten, and harass his colleagues.
The modern workplace—especially in tech—isn’t prepared to deal with these kinds of interactions. When inappropriate behavior is reported to managers or HR, bad actors rarely face serious consequences. In this case, I heard that complaints to HR went unheeded, and the situation escalated, making HR and the company look increasingly foolish for ignoring warning signs.
The modern workplace—especially in tech—isn’t prepared to deal with these kinds of interactions.
The tech environment’s star system is a big part of the problem. We hear time and time again about stars getting second, third, or more chances after complaints about their behavior. Instead of addressing the core problem, CEOs delegate to HR, which usually tries to address short-term symptoms by pushing out the person who speaks up. As a result, they compound the core problem, as fewer people see value in speaking up, bad actors feel even more empowered to harass coworkers, and others follow their example.
What should we do? As leaders or managers, our job is to create a productive environment for employees with, at a minimum, physical and emotional security. Aspirationally we want our culture to allow everyone to contribute their best, most meaningful work. In both cases, that absolutely entails creating a diverse and inclusive culture—and that means rooting out and banning incel beliefs.
Ultimately leaders need to lead, even if it’s uncomfortable.
In 2015, as Reddit’s CEO, I was able to start changing the culture both internally and externally. We had just come out of a painful period in which we enabled the widespread viewing of unauthorized nude photos of celebrities on the site. In the office, we prided ourselves on an open culture that reflected our product, exemplified most memorably for me in a 45-minute-long, company-wide discussion comparing the aesthetics of penises and breasts.
Changing Reddit’s culture was an ongoing, multistep process. I invited outside speakers to talk to our team about diversity and inclusion. CEOs like Y Combinator's Michael Seibel, Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong, and Stellar’s Joyce Kim described their successes through the lens of diversity and inclusion. We held an all-hands focused on change; Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor led a session on culture and anti-harassment and anti-discrimination, including dos and don’ts of behavior and interactions. Afterward, several women reported having been harassed by coworkers; we tried to address each situation individually through conversations and warnings, and the problem in aggregate through ongoing monitoring and values reinforcement. And it seemed to work: No one sued us, and, six months later, the same women said they were satisfied with changes in behavior and interactions.
At the same time, I enforced our values, especially around privacy, on the Reddit website. We were the first major site to ban unauthorized nude photos and revenge porn. A few months later, we banned the five most harassing subreddits—and a study showed we were effective in reducing hate speech.
What I learned was pretty simple, but effective internally and externally: 1. Make your company values and codes of conduct (internal and external) clear. Write them down and share them. 2. Build multiple paths for raising concerns and reporting violations, and make them easy to understand and easy to take. 3. Learn about violations as early as possible, especially ones that can escalate. You should focus on solving the actual problem, not trying to hide its symptoms.
Back then, pre-#MeToo and pre-Susan Fowler, I felt like my efforts were not valued by many, especially when I was fired. But I have no regrets. If we don’t lead and address these problems proactively, they won’t go away. Any conversation that values one group of people less than others is inappropriate for the workplace, because it almost certainly conflicts with company values. Conversations encouraging unwanted, misogynistic actions on others should also be banned. Using our company’s workspaces—physical ones, virtual ones, tools, and platforms—to spread this kind of thinking should be a fireable offense. We cannot allow employees to mobilize identity-based intolerance, much less against their own coworkers.
We cannot allow employees to mobilize identity-based intolerance, much less against their own coworkers.
Tech workers know incels and the like expertly wield our companies’ innovations to attack the vulnerable. Employees also know those toxic beliefs are shared by more coworkers than many of us realize—and they’re willing to push to end them. When a group of Google employees teamed with investors this month to put inclusion on the Google shareholder ballot, they stated that workers were “feeling unsafe and unable to do our work.” Their initiative wasn’t particularly controversial except for its format, which forced management to confront these issues publicly and reactively.
Now, what actions do you plan to take to address the incels in your workforce and to protect your employees and culture—before you don’t have a choice anymore?