Jordan from “Real Genius”, who I adored
(Image courtesy of the Cult Film Club)
Note: This is longer than my usual blog-post. It’s on a topic that is both complicated, and one I think is really important, but it may strike you as tl;dr. I’m okay with that. For the rest of y’all, read on:
Despite the fact that it is a trite observation that “women and men are different”, and bearing in mind that gender is both more fluid and less binary than we are taught growing up, these differences–which permeate basically every facet of our lives–have been and continue to be an important area of study for psychologists, sociologists, and even relatively unimportant schlubs like me. (One of the best books on this topic that I’ve read is Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”, which I highly recommend.)
Now, the reasons behind this are up for debate. Some–radical feminists, for example–say that it’s the patriarchy’s method of keeping women subjugated. Other theories abound (“It’s due to religion”; “It’s a holdover from the Middle Ages”; “It’s a holdover from the hunter/gatherer era”; etc.). But I’m not interested in exploring any of that.
I mention this right up front as a preface to what I’ve seen, and what I think about what I’ve seen, with women and the reactions of men in the high tech world. I’ve written about some of that in another post, so I won’t rehash that in depth. Instead I want to focus on “typical” male and female reactions to certain situations, and how that affects the advancement (or lack thereof) in that environment.
A former manager of mine, Margaret Dawson, has written an excellent post (Seriously: read it!) on this topic, and if I’m successful this will be a good companion piece to her thoughts and observations. You might even read her post first, if you have a mind to.
These are generalizations, of course. I recognize that. And I recognize the fluidity of gender and its potential impact on these observations. But I have seen too much of what I note below to think this stuff isn’t widespread, so I hope you can read with an open mind.
“Men Don’t Cry”
This is a stupid trope that has been around as long as I’ve been alive. Heck, it’s in some literature–science fiction literature, no less–that I still enjoy. “Don’t cry in public”; “Make sure you’re alone in the bathroom if you have to cry”; “Crying shows weakness”; even “There’s no crying in baseball”. All macho baloney of course, but it’s deeply stuck in the culture.
Why mention it? Well, when men are angry, they yell. We’ve all heard stories about high-tech executives who behave like–let’s be honest here–spoiled little children. Yelling, screaming, throwing things, calling people names, cursing up a blue streak that would cause a sailor to blush. (Well, maybe.) Men get mad, and they yell.
When women get mad–and again, this is a generalization, but one I’ve seen many many times and had it confirmed by many women–they cry. It’s their emotional response. It doesn’t matter why–Deborah Tannen probably has a whole book on it–it only matters that it happens.
Add that to the fact that many men have very strong responses to female tears; embarrassment, shame, anger, even (so I’ve read) sexual excitement. (It’s never affected me that way, but I can believe it.)
Now mix it together. A woman gets angry during a meeting, or in a 1-1 interaction; what happens? She’s a weakling, she “can’t take the heat” and should “get out of the kitchen”. She needs more and bigger balls. She needs to toughen up. This is business, not personal, and business isn’t bean-bag toss. It’s tough; you need to be tough, too. Etc.
(As a side note the only time I ever hear “It’s just business, it’s not personal” is when someone has either just screwed you over, has screwed over someone else, or is planning on screwing someone over, and they want to salve their ego. And in my view, it’s epic baloney.)
There are really only two options here: Force yourself to learn another set of emotional responses to external stimulus (it can be done, but it’s hard), or teach men to be respectful of the different ways in which women respond to situations that make them angry. Neither of these is an easy solution, but these are emotional reactions, for most folks below the conscious level; it seems unlikely we’ll see a lot of advancement for women in high tech executive positions until both are addressed. Both, not just one or the other.
Men Expect Advancement as Their Due
One thing in Margaret’s post was that has long struck me was her recounting how many of her fellow women executives wondered how to advocate for themselves, how to get the advancements that they seemed to earn, how to ask for it. What hit me most of all were the women who advanced rapidly or highly, and were considered “heroes” for doing so.
You shouldn’t have to be a “hero” in order to advance. Reasons to advance someone in a hierarchy are various, but most folks expect the value of their work to be recognized, and for them to advanced based on that recognition. But you also have to advocate for yourself, because your manager–no matter how good he is–may not know of your goals, or advocate strongly for you, or think you want advancement. Only you can avoid being trapped in a position because “that’s where you excel”.
As a rule, men advocate for themselves; it’s expected, it’s not surprising, and it’s not denigrated in the least. Indeed, a number of managers have told me that it was good I did.
Women on the other hand are in a double-bind. While it’s made advances since I was a kid, society still treats girls and women to “be seen and not heard”, to be demure, quiet, not strong personalities. (My partner and I have gone out of our way to avoid our daughter being inculcated with this idiotic trope.)
If a woman follows this line, she doesn’t advocate for herself, expecting (reasonably) that her efforts will be justly rewarded. And as I already alluded, a lot of time that simply doesn’t happen (unless, ironically, a male co-worker goes to bat for them–which I have done myself on a number of ocassions).
But if a woman does have the temerity to advocate for herself, it’s almost impossible for her to do so in a way that doesn’t mark her as “pushy”, “grasping”, or “a real bitch”. She can be asking for her due in a far less direct manner than her male co-workers and still be branded as “a pushy bitch”, despite how enormously unfair this is.
Are there male executives out there who don’t behave this way? Sure. But as Margaret’s post shows you, they’re in short supply.
Nerd Culture is Inherently Sexist
If you had any doubt about this, one can only hope that “gamergate” changed your mind, as gamers are very similar to nerds and the two overlap quite a bit. (If you don’t know anything about it, Google it; it’s too long to summarize here.) Or you can read my brief overview of the problem in a previous blog post. But a few details of that culture are relevant and I wanted to mention them. (And I tell you three times and what I tell you three times is true: I am well aware that these are generalizations. But I’ve seen them demonstrated so often it would make your head explode.)
Nerds wear jeans and t-shirts. Yes, it’s superficial and at base a silly observation, but it hints at something deeper, and is another double-bind for women. If they dress like a nerd in jeans and t-shirts, they’re not being feminine; they’re being butch, they must not like guys, they must be the female equivalent of self-hating Jews, etc. You won’t believe some of the nasty things I’ve heard (mostly younger) nerds say about women who actually dress the part. But by the same token, if you dress nicely, you’re a “distraction”, you’re not a real nerd, you’re paying more attention to your clothes than your work, etc. etc.
Guys swear, girls don’t. As I mentioned in my other blog post, if a guy swears, he’s just being a guy. If a woman does, it’s inappropriate. I have seen CEOs, Senior VP’s, “distinguished engineers”, and other men at high levels behave in a manner that is, shall we say, unacceptable outside a locker room. In meetings. Yelling, swearing, banging on things; it’s all okay. But if you are a woman, oh my land, do the Mrs. Grundy’s of the world come out. “How shocking!” “Not acceptable!” “Inappropriate!” “What a bitch!” Etc. And of course if you don’t swear, or use alternatives, you sound as ridiculous as Ian McShane would saying, “Well drat it all!” on “Deadwood”.
Guys watch sports. Look, just because a lot of nerds didn’t play sports doesn’t mean they don’t watch them. (Though of course many nerds did and do. I’d still be doing sports if my body hadn’t collapsed on me. Another story.) Fantasy football. Baseball. Football. Soccer. “Hey, did you see the Sharks game?” “Do you have tickets to the Spurs?” “Are the ‘horns ever going to the Rose Bowl again?” Etc. This filters into the language, where as many feminists have pointed out makes sports metaphors pervasive. “We have to swing for the fences”; “It’s fourth and one and we need to go for it”; “We need a home run here”; “We’re going to have to punt”; etc.
Sure, there are plenty of women who like sports, and can fit in with this, but not all of them. To push it to the other extreme, while there are some metrosexual guys out there who might feel comfortable speaking about upcoming software projects in terms of makeup, if a female project manager started saying things like, “We used the wrong shade of lipstick on that; we went with a pink and we should have gone with a deep red”, I have to think there’d be a lot of uncomfortable squirming around the table and guys talking to each other afterwards saying, “What the FUCK was she talking about?”
And that’s exactly the point, kids.
I’ve always hated articles, books, blog posts, or what have you that point out some problem in society and then say various versions of, “How this all plays out in the future . . . remains to be seen. I’m Biff Clicherstein, CBS News.” No. Suggestions, thoughts, ideas; if you’re going to kvetch about something, the least you should do is propose a solution or two, no matter how ridiculous it may sound. As people in high tech say, put something up there so you can shoot arrows at it. That’s the only way to make ideas arrow-proof.
So what do I think? I think a few things, most that have been proposed before, some of which will be, to put it mildly, hard to implement.
- Start ’em young. In the 70s, a lot of people made fun of attempts to produce gender-neutral toys. Yeah, okay, sometimes the 70s went a bit far, but why not? And why not market toys to the entire spectrum of kids? My boy loved his sister’s Dorothy costume ruby slippers; why not? We gave my daughter dolls and Mack trucks. Girls can’t love the LEGO Millennium Falcon? Why the heck not? Don’t limit your kids. Now, just because my daughter turned into a girly-girl who loves pink doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to give her options. And that’s the point; she made her own choices. Don’t make them for your kids; let them make them.
- Similarly, be aware that gender is not binary, that there are more options than The Manly Boy and the Girly Girl. There are girly-boys, and boyish girls, and little boys who will grow up and decide that they were girls all along, and all kinds of variants all over the spectrum. Be aware of it, and don’t force your kid into a mold. The mold of the Barbie, pink-wearing, “math is hard”, I can’t fix engines type is a trap. Sure, they can choose that, but the key is giving them the choice. Trust me on this: Not every “Firefly” fan is stuck on the “classic” beauty Inara; Kaylee and River and Zoe have plenty of fans, too. Don’t force your girl to be Inara if she wants to be Kaylee. (Yes, I am a nerd, too. Sue me.)
- More video games with female heroes. And with a greater variety of body types, please. Humans come in all sizes. Yeah, soldiers are going to be more buff, but all women don’t have D-cup boobs and trust me on this one, those that do don’t usually go around in skin-tight spandex. Use some imagination here.
- More movies with female heroes. How many people kicked up a fuss when they talked about Black Widow not being in the second Avengers movie, huh? Don’t tell me there’s no market for it. Two of the best science fiction shows on TV are “Orphan Black” and “Lost Girl”, both with female protagonists (and both with bi and lesbian characters, I might add; start clutching those pearls, Mrs. Grundy!).
- Enough with the fucking sports metaphors. I’m a guy and I’m tired of them. Can’t we come up with something a little more imaginative? We have access to almost all the knowledge of human history through our effin’ phones and we have to stick with sports metaphors? C’mon!
- Positive encouragement of girls in STEM classes all through K-12. This has to be a priority. Kids learn early what their roles are, and we keep letting girls get shunted into the “girly” tracks right from kindergarten, we are dooming ourselves. How many potential female engineering geniuses are dying on the vine because of sexism? My mother’s side of the family is hella smart. Really smart. And with what result? My grandmother attempted suicide; her mother suicided, and so did her mother. I don’t know the reasons, but it couldn’t have been easy to be a smart, strong-willed woman in an era where that was strongly quashed. We need all our brainpower; let’s not quash it.
- Affirmative action for women in college STEM programs; and yes, that’s right you right-wing jerks: I’m talking about quotas. When the playing field gets leveled, maybe we’ll change it back. Right now, with what, 13% of high tech engineering jobs filled by women, you want to whine about quotas? That’s just plain stupid. We need to crank our butts into gear, get women in STEM, and keep them there.
- In these last two, we need to treat sexism with the same level of intervention as bullying is now treated (and boy I wish we had had that anti-bullying stuff when I was in school!). Have sexist jerks be brought before the Vice Principal and read the riot act, given detentions and suspensions. Stop that kind of nonsense in its tracks.
Just like how in the end it wasn’t necessary for gays and lesbians to “act straight” in order to start getting equal rights, I see no reason why women should be forced to “act like nerds” in order to make it in high tech. High tech doesn’t need women acting like nerds; it needs women acting however they act, and everyone getting over it. If a woman swears, she swears; get over it. If she dresses in a low-cut top, get over it. If she uses some kind of metaphor that isn’t sports-related, get over it. If she cries instead of yelling and throwing things when she gets angry, GET OVER IT. You cried when Spock died in “Wrath of Khan”; she cries when you acting like a jerk-weed in a meeting. Deal with it.
And in the meantime, let’s get cracking, shall we? And if you have any ideas, let’s hear ’em!