life women in computer science

Staying Silent


Silent, woman! Shh... Don't be so loud
Credit: DeviantArt / MarielleAxelsson

There’s a sick cycle in the tech industry, where if a woman say someone assaulted or harassed her but doesn’t name names, she’s probably making things up. But if she does, she’s public shaming and ruining someone’s life.

I don’t know what people think happens to the life of someone who’s been sexually assaulted. To be clear – they don’t just take it as a complement and move on. The memory fades, but doesn’t disappear, and there are a variety of after-effects – including PTSD. I can’t find statistics on relationship breakdown after such an event, but there’s no question that the effects would cause a strain on any relationship. After what happened to me – a relatively mild occurrence compared to things you hear about, I doubt that I will ever be able to relax in an economy seat next to a random dude again. Luckily, most of my flights that has not been the case – but the result is that business class is no longer pure luxury, but the only place on a plane where I feel safe.

I hate that that guy took that from me – the willingness to hop on a plane and just think, worse case I’ll take something to help me sleep and eventually it will be over. I have a new worst case, and it’s not 14 hours of discomfort next to a screeching baby.

And all this push back comes from the idea that women might be able to make this up. I have such a hard time believing that. Personally, I had such a hard time believing it was happening, that I set some bar for being “sure” that was way in excess of what was needed. I know what the statistics say, but they don’t measure what they claim – the article “I am a false rape allegation statistic” will make you cry.

But to go back to the idea of why I felt I had to be sure, my worse case scenario would have been going away, not having been believed, and being forced to go back there. Safely away from that moment, I doubt an airline would force a hysterical female passenger to go back and sit next to a man she was afraid of, but at the time I was calm. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be once I went away.

But this is why women keep quiet. About this, about smaller things – different shades of the view that women are somehow lesser, that their rights and wants are worth less than those of men – inappropriate comments or material at work for example. About someone being attracted to her in a way that makes her a bit uncomfortable, but doesn’t seem to cross some line – do we even know where that line is? Is it when she feels uncomfortable? Or does she have to feel threatened? Or does she have to show that she has some reason to feel threatened? Which given just 7% of communication is verbal, seems like it would be hard to quantify.

Choosing to stay silent, is choosing to be able to tell ones self that “well, I could have said something”. It’s surprising how comforting that can be. Choosing not to be silent, well, that’s a bit more unpredictable. On occasion things are well handled and she is supported. But that’s not always the case and it’s not like her suffering ends with the end of whatever process is enacted.

And what if her concern is dismissed, or downplayed, usually by a man who doesn’t understand that men can be physically threatening even when they do nothing – they are bigger, there is a social context (Louis CK on “There is no greater threat to women than men”), or the perceived threat of higher status – in the few (no way all) stories we actually do hear about at work and at conferences, it’s often the case that the perpetrator was more senior to the victim.

And then, her problem is now exponentially bigger. Because something made her feel uncomfortable, and she went to someone she trusted, who she had reason to believe would help her… and they dismissed her concerns, didn’t want to hear it, chose not to help.

He doesn’t have to agree, but dismissal is so harmful. He can say, “I don’t agree, but I can see why it would seem that way.” And he can ask, and offer things, that will make her feel safer. There is good reason for her to feel unsafe and take precautions in this industry and in the world.

There are a lot of subjective things. But how she feels is not one that he can or should argue with. She should feel safe – at work, at tech conferences, sitting next to strangers on planes. And if speaking up about those feelings makes the problem exponentially worse, there is a good chance she’s going to choose to keep quiet… and who can blame her.

No doubt the trolls will find a way. But decent human beings won’t.

long live the silent few
Credit : flickr / Anna Phillips

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