It’s Not That Big a Deal

odd one out
Credit: Flickr / Michelle Friswell

As an Angry Internet Feminist™, every incident I point out has multiple parts.

  1. I notice and say something.
  2. Tone policing, on whether I should have noticed it. After all, it’s not that big a deal.

Someone uses “he” when they should say “they”? Not that big a deal.

Mild objectification of women in something that should be professional? Not that big a deal.

No women speaking at a conference? Not that big a deal.

Because the thing is, each instance isolated is not really that big a deal. So one sentence wasn’t inclusive? So what. So one guy thought he was funny when he wasn’t? So what. So that one conference didn’t actually get the best speakers because they limited themselves to <50% of the population (usually no PoC either). So what?

Here’s the thing that people who are telling me what should and should not bother me don’t seem to realize. It’s that I do understand that if it was that one thing, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it probably isn’t even the only thing I’ve encountered that week.

Because whatever your feelings about “they” as grammatically less correct, when I sit in a room full of men, and only men, and someone says “he” when they could say “they” I often look around the room, and I’m reminded that I don’t belong.

Really, I get enough reminders. At the events featuring pizza and beer. When men think I’m lost, or something – anything – other than an engineer. Could you just change that word? Would it really be that big a deal?

And yes, it just a word, it’s just a tasteless joke. But it’s in your marketing materials and presumably more than one person looked at those. So if that wasn’t a big deal… what will not be a big deal for something less externally facing?

That guy, urgh that guy, who “jokingly” called his female colleague a bitch. What do you think he’s going to write on her performance review? Maybe that she’s “abrasive”.

You know, when I left my Prestigious Tech Job to do something different, it wasn’t to be the unpaid, unappreciated teaching assistant of the Feminism 101 MOOC.

Because these individual items that each taken individually are “not a big deal” have piled up and now I sit precariously atop a pile of tiny rocks, wondering when it will all come crashing down.

These things do not happen in isolation. The culture that culminates in the death and rape threats (just the most recent example) is built on a culture where women do not get paid what they deserve, where they are objectified, marginalized, and, most of all, ignored.

Can we talk about humour for a moment? Because I’m tired of these things being “jokes”. This guy thought that rape threats were satire. I will now explain why they are not funny. Humour requires an element of the unexpected, and there is nothing unexpected about a woman with an opinion being threatened with rape. It is an alarmingly normal occurrence. Online harassment is an expected part of being an Angry Internet Feminist™, and it is hard to distinguish between the guy who calls me some obscene word and is “joking” and the one who has intent.

So we add two factor authentication (did you know, Twitter has it?), and install security software on our websites. I have only experienced the very mildest levels of harassment, but make no doubt, if I was truly under threat, I have a plan for where I would go, and enough air miles and money to get me there. Call it paranoia, if you want. I call it being prepared.

There is no humour there. There is just yet another woman who is paying the price, in harassment, for having an opinion. For calling stuff out, when she saw it.

The data says that 40% women drop out of tech careers in the first 10 years. I didn’t know many other women on my university course, but of those I do, I am the only one still building systems and writing code. One is an environmental economist. Another a BA. I hear one became an artist, cool.

And I’m sure each of them went towards something compelling, to them. I’m sure they each made the decision that worked for them. I hope they have interesting careers and fulfilled lives.

But they didn’t stay.

Against the evidence, my generation of women techies, we thought we were different. We thought things were better, because sexual harassment and even assault was no longer a normal part of the working day (although don’t be mistaken – it happens). We thought things would be different, and we just needed to work hard and be awesome. We were wrong.

I’m reaching this point in my career where I’m starting to see my peers drop out. Make their backup plans. I wrote this article about knowing someday I would leave tech, and so many women said “this is how I feel!” and a couple of men said “wow it’s really bad that women feel this way, maybe we should do something”.

Because I hear variations on the same story, again, and again, and again.

It is hard to fix structural equality. And like many hard things the first step is admitting there is a problem. Could you just say “they” instead of “he”? Pay an expert to review your marketing materials? Could you just do the work to get a more balanced line-up at your conference? Stop making “satirical” rape threats? Could you stop telling me what should, or should not bother me? Please?

I’ll tell you what I think is a big deal. It’s when I watch a woman who I know to be brilliant, slowly lose her joy of making. It’s when I watch her give up caring about her career, and just go through the motions, because frankly showing up every day is hard enough. It’s when I see her leave.

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