Suppose you’re an engineer working on Gmail. One day, you're checking the application’s usage statistics, and see something alarming: It appears a tiny percentage of users are getting other people's emails. In other words, Jessie sends an email to Alexis, but it goes to Grandpa instead.
You try to "reproduce" this bug, but your own email works fine. And nobody else on your team is encountering this problem. Perhaps the stats are wrong?
Then the reports start to trickle in. Emails addressed to sisters going to bosses; emails sent to friends going to strangers. Within 30 minutes, there are 150 new reports of this problem.
This bug would be declared a "P0,” or an all-hands-on-deck emergency.
Notice how this is treated differently than a usual bug: We’re acting on speculation, rather than fact. It's possible that every one of those 150 bug reports is invalid. Maybe Jessie and others are misremembering whom they addressed their emails to. Perhaps the stats really are misrepresenting the situation, and it’s just a big misunderstanding. That's all technically possible, but a far more plausible explanation is that something's actually broken.
To my fellow engineers: The systematic oppression of women and minorities is a P0. The innumerable studies and statistics are the data. The overwhelming anecdotal evidence are the bug reports. We can only conclude, then, that something is terribly broken.
We can only conclude, then, that something is terribly broken.
It doesn't matter that you can't reproduce the bug yourself (“But I've never encountered any sexism in tech”).
It doesn't matter that the absolute number of occurrences are low ("But it's really unlikely that you'll be wrongfully arrested”).
It doesn't matter that you haven't figured out precisely what’s happening ("How can you be sure he was being sexist?").
This is an emergency that needs to be solved as soon as possible, not later on ("We just need to wait for the racists to die off”).
Stories of discrimination represent stories about a much larger P0 emergency—and there’s overwhelming evidence that this P0 is real. As the listener, you don’t have the authority to close someone's personal experience as "Invalid - Not Really Sexism." Unless you're a human-resources rep addressing a particular accusation of workplace discrimination, you have no business challenging anyone's experience.
That said, hearing a first-hand account of institutionalized oppression may be uncomfortable. You may not know how to respond. Luckily, this has an easy fix. Try: "Thank you for sharing." Or, "That's awful. Is there any way I can help?" Or, "I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know much about this, and I want to learn more. Can you suggest any educational resources?"
Acknowledge the P0, respond with empathy, then enjoy the rest of your lunch.