How Far Have We Evolved Past This? One Year Later – by Gloria W.

[Part 1 of a three-part guest article, submitted to dotFiveOne by Gloria W., a programmer who happened to answer the call I made for submissions. Part 2 will appear tomorrow, and Part 3 on Wednesday. Thanks, Gloria!]

Last year at about this time I wrote the article called “Let’s All Evolve Past This” , which was a combination of my assessment, and a summarization of colleagues’ opinions and experiences, regarding women in tech environments. I had no clue at the time that I would be spending the following three straight weeks categorizing, analyzing and replying to the flood of good, bad and ugly responses sprinkled throughout the net. After things quieted down, the biggest realization I made is  that this issue is most definitely something we should all be talking about repeatedly.

A bit over a year later, I thought it would be useful to review the types of responses to the original article, and discuss some new observations.

Responses, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

The “Thank Yous”

It was encouraging to read the flood of public and private good responses and thank-yous. When I wrote the article, I tried my best to firmly represent the female perspective, but from a position which is aware of many facets of the male perspective. I also tried my best to bring to lights the less communicated, not-so-obvious social aspects of some of these issues.  These responses helped me realize that I am accomplishing at least some pf what I tried. Thank you in return.

The Most offended tend to be the worst offenders

One thing I did not realize until it happened is that this article touches some exposed and sensitive nerves for certain men and women. This caused some interesting reactions, ranging from not to surprising to absurd beyond belief. I’ll paraphrase these responses below.

1: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen

This response pertains to my comment about hostile behavior in the workplace, and in online communities. There were, unfortunately, a large number of responses like this. But this comes as no surprise since there still are tech environments where, for example, design discussions turn into either filibusters or yelling matches, testing one’s endurance and tolerance levels in many directions.

This response reflects a false sense of entitlement, and a perceived privilege to exclude and discriminate, using hostile behavior as the tool to accomplish the goal. The good news is that there are quite a few men as well who are intolerant of this awful behavior.

My pondering: Is it just a subset, or does the entire group foster this behavior and willingly participate?

Based on the responses from colleagues and my own observations, there are definitely still groups in IT work environments which not only practice the “locker room/battlefield” mentality, but foster it as a fringe benefit to try and draw new employees.  The good news is that these companies are being exposed and discussed in online tech groups when it happens, and blatant intolerance of such behavior is growing. In some environments this behavior is so pervasive that many men who don’t like it, ignore it and silently keep their eyes open for better work environments, proclaiming to their family and friends that they “work with a bunch of immature idiots”.  The women in these same environments actively seek out better work environments, end up finding better jobs and leaving quicker.

My pondering: Do managers know or care that this hurts their profit margin?

Usually, the less pervasive environments which only have one or a few employees practicing “locker room/battlefield” behavior also have a very vocal and obvious resistance to this behavior from both men and women, which is encouraging. Another bit of encouragement is that today, it is much easier to “vote with your feet”, and find a new job. There is still a shortage of skilled IT people, which means more choices and less tolerance for abuse. Bad group dynamics ultimately hurt a company’s bottom line in two ways: by causing a fast employee turnover, and by fostering a homogeneous group of people thinking in the same direction, which stifles creativity. Some companies operate better with time as managers realize this, and others do not. Skilled IT professions can seek out the companies with smarter, more socially aware management, and leave the slow-evolving companies in the dust.

2: This (objectification of women) will always happen, in the workplace, on the street, everywhere. This is what “we” do.

This response is twist on the entitlement response shown above. It gives an excuse, although not legitimate, that this is “what men do”. Finding many men who do not do this disproves this statement, and forces me to change it to “This is what immature men do”.

I chose to trace back one response of this type, and it led me to a Cornell graduate who regularly posts on Joel on Software’s forums. Another led me to an active software contributor in the Python community. Tracing back many of these types of supposedly anonymous responses to their owners has proven to me that, unfortunately, this socially challenged mentality seems to cross all socio-economic and education levels, which makes it a profoundly sad and frustrating problem.

3: This never happened to me, therefore it hasn’t happened to you. You’re lying.

Response like this generally come from very young and/or naive women. In this particular case, the response came from a woman who was not involved in IT at all, and is trying to break into journalism. Tracing her response back, I noticed that she made claims in her own blog that women who do not publish on a regular basis have not been granted the legitimacy to publish articles such as mine.  It seems that response like this, at their lowest levels, are due to fear. It made me question what fears such an article could spurn in women, and this is what I surmised from this and other responses:

a: Shut up and sit down, you’re out of line.

I was foolish to think this was a dying mentality that would be expressed mostly by women of a generation beyond mine. I was shocked to find this expressed by some women younger than myself. It is a not hugely popular, but still present mentality, usually in more rural areas and small towns, and strangely, among the rich. The general gist of it is that women have a place in society which is different from men, and should behave a certain way, and any female who breaks this mold is a perceived threat to women in general. Phooey! Not too many women who think this way make it into IT in the first place. But it certainly makes for interesting discussion when I am amongst these women so diametrically opposed to myself. I feel more out of place with these women than I do in just about any group of men, gathering for almost any purpose.

b: I am afraid of being perceived as a “whiner”, so:
1.    You don’t speak for me.
2.    Thank you for speaking for me. I’m too terrified to speak for myself.

Some men and women have the bad habit of categorizing women who openly express their frustrations as whining. Some women who are aware of this are deathly afraid of being perceived as a whiner.  The fear is legitimate, because the reaction is pervasive throughout our culture. From the  media to the workforce, we have all seen women who speak up against something become casually categorized as whining.

What makes the severe “you don’t speak for me” reaction profoundly sad is that it is driven by pure fear, and stated by women who usually do want things to change, but are terrified of losing their jobs, or suffering from some other backlash because of their opinions. The perception of whining can be everything from mildly annoying to completely stifling, especially in the workplace. It’s so sad that even the fear of the categorization can silence a woman.

The milder reaction of women not speaking for themselves reminds me of the general attitude regarding rape in the US until the 1980′s. Reporting it brought about great shame instead of justice, and people subconsciously thought that somehow the victim was to blame, by creating the circumstances under which such a thing could happen. The whining categorization feels very similar, and is imposed on women by both men and women in the same ways. Women are told to “toughen up”, “it’s your own fault if you place yourself in certain situations”, and the scariest advice of all: “be quiet, you’ll make it worse for the rest of us, and there could be some backlash”. The silence has to end, and the risks have to be taken, for this mentality to go away.

c: You don’t speak for me, you scary feminist lesbian!

There is a fear amongst some women who do not know what Feminism means, and who are  homophobic, and are afraid of being labeled as a homosexual. Many people in general seem not to know that even straight men can be Feminists. Maybe more public awareness efforts such as this (http://wiki.mako.cc/Feminist_in_Training) will help educate the masses.

[Part 2 of this post will appear tomorrow, and Part 3 on Wednesday.]

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