On Language

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I’ve encountered a lot of words that I would sooner not, working in tech. I have found the word whore in a design document, had colleagues who refer to women as “bitches”. I’ve been called – as most women have – abrasive, or more bluntly, a “c***”. I have been told, again and again, that I’m unqualified, asked, in ways too myriad to enumerate, if I am really technical, demanded to prove it again, and again.

I’ve endured lengthy explanations from men about how the singular they is grammatically incorrect, and how “guys” is in fact gender neutral like I give a fuck. Like I have any fucks left to give.

“Guys” is not gender neutral. It is not gender neutral because it is literally not gender neutral because in English grammar singular male made plural is plural male. But it is not gender neutral because when (most) men hear it they hear “you” and when (some) women hear it, they hear “not you”.

When I entered tech I fought to be included but to my shame, I am now prepared to accept an environment that is at least not actively diminishing. It would be nice to do better, but the reality is that few of us get to and never all the time.

I would like to never be called a “c***” again. I could do without being called “abrasive” either. I doubt that people – men – will ever stop referring to a group I am a part of as a “guys”. I don’t write “a group including me” there, deliberately, because at that point I won’t be included. I will remember that word is almost accurate, and I will feel alone.

There are men who think that being considerate of their language, getting feedback on it, is too unreasonable, too unfair. Perhaps because they don’t know, haven’t experienced, the deep unfairness of low level exclusion, of impossible expectations, and being called words so offensive you can’t bring yourself to repeat them.

The language we use reflects the world we expect and experience. If telling ourselves “I feel excited” helps with anxiety and positive self talk boosts self esteem it makes sense that a foundational part of being an inclusive person, building an inclusive culture is using inclusive language.

I worked at a place where someone else did all the work around language. It was such a relief to watch an automated bot correct an occasional slip up, and refreshing and encouraging to see a male colleague educate a new contractor who triggered it repeatedly. Then we got a new boss, and he kept saying “guys”. And he hired some “guys” who also kept saying “guys”. And I would look around the room, realise I was the only woman, and feel alone. Appreciate, really, for the first time, all the months where that hadn’t be my experience. The period when I was included, as opposed to not actively diminished.

The language changed again, as they started to talk about women like women were inherently broken, discuss this idea of an application that would somehow “fix” women and our inability to communicate. It was laughable, when this is an industry where yes, all women know each other – and we talk about you. But also harmful, because when men talk about women like that in general, how are you possibly supposed to believe that they have professional respect for you in particular.

The idea went nowhere, and the company shut down. And now all that remains are the memories – of when someone else did that work, and I didn’t have to.

5 thoughts on “On Language

  1. This is a nit—I’m a long-time reader of your blog and especially love your book reviews—but, I’m not sure where the “all women in tech know each other” meme came from, and whenever it’s referenced, it always makes me feel a bit alienated :/

    I know it’s meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek/jokey, but… I’m a lady that works in a rather niche part of the industry, an area with an even more-abysmal-than-average gender ratio, and I just plain *don’t* know that many tech ladies. I don’t really do conferences or talks or Twitter, which, outside-looking-in, seems to be the way a lot of this specific ring of tech ladies seem to know each other (or similar geographic region, etc etc).

    That is awesome and I’m super-glad that community is there for y’all! But I just don’t want to feel excluded from being a “woman in tech” just because I’m not particularly well-connected and thus do not actually know everyone or am bad at networking or whatever.

    (And I’m relatively young and manage to swing a meetup here and there, so I’m not even as disconnected as I could be. Some of the lady-engineers I admire most are older and have sufficiently many other demands on their time—kids or volunteering for non-tech causes or caring for aging parents or whatever—that they just plain aren’t connected to a lot of these communities. They’re amazing and I never would have know them had I not worked with them. I think they count too.)

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