Career Social Networking WISE women in computer science

The Bubble in The Swamp

Credit: Wikipedia

I watched the GitHub fallout the other week, and was particularly stuck by this tweet, apologising for defending the culture to feminists.

Don’t we all do that? Say that where we are is fine, but there are these general problems. I think there are two main reasons for that. 1) It’s politically infeasible not to, 2) we actually believe it.

The first one is self-explanatory. The second more interesting. Because to believe that, it doesn’t actually have to be true. We can rationalise in any of a thousand ways, pretend it’s not really happening, that that particular event wasn’t actually sexist, we just got unlucky. It just happened to be us that got in the firing line. Yet it just happens to be us, or other women (or other marginalised people), a lot. Because if you really believed that where you were was like that, that you had to sprint up a hill whilst guys mosied on past you on the flat, how would you cope? How would you get out of bed every morning and go to work so you could do more, for less than your “peers”?

What I’ve been thinking about most of all lately, is that it just can’t be true. There cannot be some little bubble of paradise in the sexist swamp. It still impinges.

And that is without talking about the extra emotional labour of bubble-maintenance.

The Membrane is Permeable

We’re not in stasis. The bubble is growing. This means people are going to come in. And here’s the thing; a misogynist surrounded by men, is just a man. Usually, of course there’s the odd one who will come out with a level of objectification that even other (non-ally) men will notice. But sometimes, you learn a lot about a guy the first time they encounter a woman at work, especially if there is any kind of disagreement. And there are totally reasonable things to disagree about! Like code standards or design. It happens. It should happen. If we’re all on the same page, then we’re not really challenging ourselves to build something new and awesome.

This is why you want women to interview candidates, not a perfect system as people are on their best behaviour when they interview. But if there is any kind of suggestion that someone has an attitude to that interviewer, I’d suggest having them interview again with another woman.

Just to be clear though, this strategy does not make for an equal experience. Depending on numbers, there may be a significantly higher interview load on the women. And they are much more likely to have bad experiences as interviewers. Not the candidate bombed the interview, although that is never fun. But things like: the candidate hit on her, or patronised her, or just (the classic!) thought she was the recruiter.

Stereotype Threat

There’s an amazing book about Stereotype threat, called Whistling Vivaldi (Amazon). But here’s an extremely short summary of the problem I’m talking about. When society sends so many messages telling certain groups people they don’t belong in certain places, anything that reminds them of that actually reduces their performance.

A big issue for me is when I feel that someone (a man) is patronising me. It gives me massive stereotype threat and makes me really stressed. I don’t mean answering questions and being helpful. I mean things like jumping in before I’ve asked a question, second guessing everything I do, assuming that I don’t know anything about something I’m an expert on…

And can we talk here about the trope “oh that guy, he’s a jerk to everyone“. Firstly – are you sure? Does he seem just a little more vicious/entitled/whatever when it comes to women? Or anyone he perceives to be an easier target (see also: interns, other marginalised groups). Second, stereotype threat. Does his behaviour re-enforce the message of not being welcome?

Behaviours that have traditionally been gendered are disproportionately upsetting to women, even when they are inflicted by an equal-opportunity jackass.

Participating in the Outside World

For women on the internet speaking her mind, rape threats are an expected response. Going out in the world, and to conferences, personal safety is a major concern.

Personally, I choose  to take these risks (within reason), especially speaking up online because I don’t seem to get anywhere near as much grief as many of my friends do. But I understand women who make the decision that either of those tradeoffs are not worthwhile, or pick their battles. I stay as far away as I can from the atheist community, for example.

The Padlock is Sturdier

In the tech industry, we can joke about golden handcuffs (stock options that vest over time) and gilded cages (the perks that render us unfit for for the adult world).

But for guys venturing out into the swamp, looking for a change of scene, their restruction in this regard is what are they willing to watch? And, as most men live in blissful oblivion of the issues that women and other marginalized groups face, this doesn’t  seem like a huge hardship.

For women it’s harder. Better the devil you know. At least they haven’t … yet. Who knows if it will be better elsewhere.

Here is a good article from a man talking about male privilege in technology, some points of which are very relevant to this. 

5 replies on “The Bubble in The Swamp”

Comments are closed.