Donning my angry feminist hat.1
First, let’s get the initial argument out of the way. Sexism exists. It definitely exists in tech communities. There are long-standing scientific studies on it, whole departments of colleges based around it, and the next person who thinks we’re past it (not “doesn’t want to talk about it,” but thinks it doesn’t exist)2 is being taken out back to be flogged as a fundamentalist3. Here’s a handy timeline. This entry deals mostly with women and sexism. You all should know by now that “women” is but one word used to refer to an area of a matrix, but I feel like using my wordiness on other topics today. Know that I’m focusing on one facet of an entire intertwingled object of marginalized populations4.
Everyone grows up with social scripts, unless they are raised in a box with no interaction with anything (no way IRB is letting you do that one!). The cadence of your voice to your posture to how you indicate interest are all influenced by social scripts. These scripts abstractly guide how we interact with one another – we are cued from past interaction, seen or participated with. This is part of why it is difficult to get women to speak at conferences – because they don’t see the value of their words, because the bulk of interaction has pointed at that5. Individuals from the projects won’t take a promotion because authority is seen as negative, and they don’t want to have authority over their peers. And because these roles continue to be filled by not-that-demographic, that-demographic never sees that it’s possible for them to do it. Women specifically are also socialized into letting people down easy and into making space and providing support for other people and the group over themselves (which is great when it’s reciprocated!). So, a society that objectifies women also sets the expectation that they will be objectified. We tend to grow into the expectations set on us6.
When women talk about being cat-called on the street pretty constantly, and the response it “I don’t see that” from her male peers, that is because they don’t. It doesn’t happen (as much, or at all) when they are with her7. And they don’t know how to be aware of it when it does happen around them (and are often participating in it). As someone in the penumbral8 space of gender norms, let me queersplain something to you. I don’t get catcalled much, because the way I walk and interact with people is pretty head-on. I am not scared to get in fights, to make eye contact, and to call people on things (most of the time). My upbringing is to thank for this. My parents consciously reduced the amount of exposure I had to mainstream social scripts through television and magazines. They made sure I felt comfortable in my own skin. My self-possession is a learned behavior9, and one that I am privileged to have obtained early on. But because I apparently also have hips, harassments still happen to those around me. I see it on a regular basis, and have to constantly decide if it is worth engaging in conflict.
Persistent, low grade harassment is so invisible until seen in aggregate, that when someone does snap, it’s seen as out of proportion. We have the ideas of straws and camels backs, and practice of drip water torture for a reason. Small things add up. When asked to laugh with you about the absurdity of the situation, and that “dongle” is indeed a funny word, maybe the laughter will be a beautiful moment of shared understanding. But when it’s not about the abhorrence at the system itself, such comments are instead just another straw. It can’t be taken lightly because it’s one of many. The individual voicing that comment is responsible for being a part of that load, when in fact they should be actively lightening it. The people who share that load with you get to joke with you about how utterly ridiculous it is that you can’t be using your strength to carry other things. It would be easier to just roll with it, but that also continues a culture that makes such comments ok. It is harder to fight.
Which gets us very smoothly into this whole Pycon thing, and how Adria is a very public figure.
When you are a highly visible person, you are expected to adhere more closely to the outlines of social scripts. For privileged populations, that means being MORE of what indicates success – demanding, manic, callous. If you are from a marginalized population, it still means fitting MORE closely to those expectations within that demographic. We call them archetypes for a reason. Individuals from those populations, rare already in roles associated with success, are demure and muted so as not to tip a boat they already feel shaky in10. At the same time, people of privilege are socialized to retain their privilege. Two to tango and all that. Because of all this, I feel a public response to a systemic issue occasionally trumps individualized response11.
The thing about this specific situation is that the same startup culture which claims Safe Space To Fail for tech doesn’t provide the same support and space for learning social lessons. Social lessons which are hard, but somehow the technical community has persuaded themselves and the rest of the world they are exempt from learning. That inability to care for our own, let alone others, is killing us and keeping our brightest from finding home.
The reason this debate is so visible is because it shows the tension between what we think is the case (why some will think this is dead-horse beating) and what is (many people’s daily existence). It shows the tension between where tech and social affect each other. And perhaps most tangibly, it shows the tension between the ideals of our society and our shitty labor laws. No one should have been fired over this, though we should still be having discourse. Hate to say it, but the same patriarchy12 that makes all this shit a part of everyday experience for so many is also what upholds the idea that your employer knows best and you have no desire nor ability to stand up for yourself and each other.
The response here is not more in-fighting and drama (which are not even true responses). The action here is to realize where the flaws are and to band together, to have nuanced conversation. We need unions. We need to support marginalized groups while not infantalizing them by taking control of their own ability to stand for themselves. It’s hard work. No one said it would be smooth, but brilliant people are used to sticking to what comes easily.
1. (Can it be a wizard hat? You bet your fingers it can be)
2. This is like saying racism is done in the US because we have a black president. Your desire to move forward blank-slate does nothing to the actual starting point of a vast majority of the population. Lack of acknowledgement of history is what is preventing many potential allies from doing anything except perpetuate the current state. Handy Infograph.
3. It’s the equivalent of someone saying “I don’t believe in webpages” and you saying “but you’re reading one right now” and them saying “silly coder, you really should look around you.” If they actually decided to figure out what you were talking about, you might sit and explain it to them, open up conversations, give them a book. Here’s my favorite starting place for feminism: Said the Pot to the Kettle: Feminism for Anarchist Men.
4. Which is what meant by references to “minority,” we mean “represented in the minority” – a language misstep that I do not intend to keep making. This misunderstanding of “minority” as “population minority” is similar to cracks implying scientific “theory” is a wild guess.
5. I challenge you to observe a room of people and tally how often people are checking their phones when a man is talking versus when a woman is talking. Audiences indulge in distraction far more when a woman is speaking, and not because of subject matter knowledge nor presentation style. Imagine how that effects your self-assurance when doing public speaking. See if you catch yourself checking your own phone more often in different cases.
6. Whole other entry in the works about halo effect and expectations vesus desire. But I didn’t want to overload you right now.
7. If your response to this is just always having a male companion, you are an event-addressing, non-systems fuck.
8. (insert favorite word into a ranty post +10 points)
9. Just as yours, or lack thereof, is learned.
10. I keep my blue hair, let me tattoos show, don’t hide my sexuality not only because it’s me, but because it also sets the tone for future people. It is a conscious choice, and one that sometimes detriments my ability to make professional progress. My subcultural markers are opt-in. My sex and sexuality are not. My desire to have all of them show is something I choose at personal cost for societal gain.
11. Only addressing these things individually is like playing whack-a-mole.
12. Look how far I made it in this entry without using the word! Look look look!
I don’t think I’d call the ’employer knows best’ attitude of this Patriarchy per-se, but I completely agree we’ve created, and live in, a culture where people often think they can set aside thoughtfulness, morality, and fairness when they don their ‘corporate personhood’ mask. I think most people don’t abdicate their morals when it comes to business related situation, but we’ve made it normal enough that we don’t hold people accountable when they do.
It’s also amazing to me that the woman involved is named, over and over again, when the men involved are not named. I think there is some interesting psychology related to that, but I’m not sure I have the knowledge or vocab to explain it. But it seems to ring of the ‘Bella as a Blank Canvas’ ( http://kateheron.com/wp/like-an-adult-but-not-an-adult/ ) variety.
Adria’s knee-jerk reaction may do more harm than good. The bigger story however is America’s not continuing a national dialog on many tolerance and equality-related topics. We give ourselves too much credit because from many perspectives we’re as uncaring, selfish and apathetic as can be.
When a society reaches a certain level of wealth and can no longer argue about religion, it will start waging culture wars and bicker about trivia.
So… this argument is a good sign that society has reached a certain level, but a terrible sign because it’s so mind-numbingly trivial.
On the inside, it seems incredibly important. But if you’re concerned about whether the village well is going to dry up or how many cows you own, it looks like self-indulgent insanity.
Incidentally, a good way to gauge how unimportant an argument is, is to work out the ratio of abstract words to concrete nouns people use. The more abstraction, the less importance.
@Far and @Jerry – many thanks for the feedback.
@Hoover – I am interested in what you *do* think is worthwhile, and how it is so completely detached from how we treat each other. Admittedly, sociology is a lens through which I see the world. Never said it was a silver bullet – simply an additional way of understanding and tackling large problems.
As to being worried about a village well – go do research on how closely linked quality of life and empowerment of women are. Even if that were not the case, why give up insisting on increasing dignity in all places for all people? Seems Cartesian to me.
Adria failed to make the world better. She punished innocents because they reminded her of a problem that exists. Her employer let her go. There is no good side of this story (except, maybe, that forking his repo is a pretty awesome compliment).
If you want to do what you say you want to do (make a better world for everyone by making a better world for women) then you cannot use another metric to evaluate decisions. How much progress did she make?
She and her supporters collectively taught men to be wary of women and not to defend the speech itself or the joke on face. In a very subtle way, I suspect they reinforced the idea that radical women and women are two different classes.
Where I have trouble is seeing either what the employer or Adria as wrong from a freedom of speech perspective. Like any figurehead of a firm, you’re representing that firm with your public actions… and fundamentally being an “evangelist” is being associated with your firm. You’re living the brand.
Larry Summers found out the hard way that you can’t truly separate your private opinions (even at a private event) from your public persona. And just like Harvard was in their right to fire Summers for comments that he made privately, I think Adria’s employer was in their right. But similarly, it was in her right to make those comments – but she had to realize the consequences.
Obviously sexism is a problem in this situation because it caused it… but I don’t think it plays much of a role beyond being the cause.