Archive for the 'sexism' category

It's easy to not harass women

Oct 16 2013 Published by under People, Personal, sexism

For many of us in the science blogging scene, yesterday was a pretty lousy day. We learned that a guy who many of us had known for a long time, who we'd trusted, who we considered a friend, had been using his job to sexually harass women with sleezy propositions.

This led to a lot of discussion and debate in twitter. I spoke up to say that what bothered me about the whole thing was that it's easy to not harass people.

This has led to rather a lot of hate mail. But it's also led to some genuine questions and discussions. Since it can be hard to have detailed discussions on twitter, I thought that I'd take a moment here, expand on what I meant, and answer some of the questions.

To start: it really is extremely easy to not be a harasser. Really. The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it's downright trivial: if you're not in a not in private with a person with whom you're in a sexual relationship, then don't. But in particular, here are a couple of specific examples of this principle:

  • Is there any way in which you are part of a supervisor/supervisee or mentor/mentee relationship? Then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors of any kind.
  • In a social situation, are you explicitly on a date or other romantic encounter? Do both people agree that it's a romantic thing? If not, then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors.
  • In a mutually understood romantic situation, has your partner expressed any discomfort? If so, then immediately stop discussing or engaging in sexual behaviors.
  • In any social situation, if a participant expresses discomfort, stop engaging in what is causing the discomfort.

Like I said: this is not hard.

To touch on specifics of various recent incidents:

  • You do not meet with someone to discuss work, and tell them about your sex drive.
  • You do not touch a students ass.
  • You do not talk to coworkers about your dick.
  • You don't proposition your coworkers.
  • You don't try to sneak a glance down your coworkers shirt.
  • You don't comment on how hot your officemate looks in that sweater.
  • You do not tell your students that you thought about them while you were masturbating.

Seriously! Is any of this difficult? Should this require any explanation to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?

But, many of my correspondants asked, what about grey areas?

I don't believe that there are significant grey areas here. If you're not in an explicit sexual relationship with someone, then don't talk to them about sex. In fact, if you're in any work related situation at all, no matter who you're with, it's not appropriate to discuss sex.

But what about cases where you didn't mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they've heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

In reality, harassers know that they're harassing. They know that they're making inappropriate sexual gestures. But they don't want to pay the consequences. So they pretend that they didn't know that what they were doing wrong. And they try to convince other folks that you're at risk too! You don't actually have to be doing anything wrong, and you could have your life wrecked by some crazy bitch!.

Consider for a moment, a few examples of how a scenario could play out.

Scenario one: woman officemate comes to work, dressed much fancier than usual. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, why are you all dressed up today?". Anyone really think that this is going to get the male coworker into trouble?

Scenario two: woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit". Woman looks uncomfortable. Man sees this, and either apologizes, or makes note not to do this again, because it made her uncomfortable. Does anyone really honestly believe that this, occurring once, will lead to a formal accusation of harassment with consequences?

Scenario three: woman officemate comes to work dressed fancier than usual. Male coworker says nice outfit. Woman acts uncomfortable. Man keeps commenting on her clothes. Woman asks him to stop. Next day, woman comes to work, man comments that she's not dressed so hot today. Anyone think that it's not clear that the guy is behaving inappropriately?

Scenario four woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, wrowr", makes motions like he's pawing at her. Anyone really think that there's anything ambiguous here, or is it clear that the guy is harassing her? And does anyone really, honestly believe that if the woman complains, this harasser will not say "But I just complimented her outfit, she's being oversensitive!"?

Here's the hard truths about the reality of sexual harassment:

  • Do you know a professional woman? If so, she's been sexually harassed at one time or another. Probably way more than once.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her knew that he was harassing her.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her doesn't think that he really did anything wrong.
  • There are a lot of people out there who believe that men are entitled to behave this way.
  • In order to avoid consequences for their behavior, many men will go to amazing lengths to deny responsibility.

The reality is: this isn't hard. There's nothing difficult about not harassing people. Men who harass women know that they're harassing women. The only hard part of any of this is that the rest of us - especially the men who don't harass women - need to acknowledge this, stop ignoring it, stop making excuses for the harassers, and stand up and speak up when we see it happening. That's the only way that things will ever change.

We can't make exceptions for our friends. I'm really upset about the trouble that my friend is in. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I'm sad that he's probably going to lose his job over this. But the fact is, he did something reprehensible, and he needs to face the consequences for that. The fact that I've known him for a long time, liked him, considered him a friend? That just makes it more important that I be willing to stand up, and say: This was wrong. This was inexcusable. This cannot stand without consequences..

74 responses so far

A White Boy's Observations of Sexism and the Adria Richards Fiasco

Mar 28 2013 Published by under People, sexism

I've been watching the whole Adria Richards fiasco with a sense of horror and disgust. I'm finally going to say something, but for the most part, it's going to be indirect.

See, I'm a white guy, born as a member of an upper middle class white family. That means that I'm awfully lucky. I'm part of the group that is, effectively, treated as the normal, default person in most settings. I'm also a guy who's married to a chinese woman, and who's learned a bit about how utterly clueless I am.

Here's the fundamental issue that underlies all of this, and many similar stories: our society is deeply sexist and racist. We are all raised in an environment in which mens voices are more important than womens. It's so deeply ingrained in us that we don't even notice it.

What this means is that we are all to some degree, sexist, and racist. When I point this out, people get angry. We also have learned that sexism is a bad thing. So when I say to someone that you are sexist, it's really easy to interpret that as me saying that you're a bad person: sexism is bad, if I'm sexist, them I'm bad.

But we really can't get away from this reality. We are sexists. For many of us, we're not deliberately sexist, we're not consciously sexist. But we are sexist.

Here's a really interesting experiment to try, if you have the opportunity. Visit an elementary school classroom. First, just watch the teacher interact with the students while they're teaching. Don't try to count interactions. Just watch. See if you think that any group of kids is getting more attention than any other. Most of the time, you probably will get a feeling that they're paying roughly equal attention to the boys and the girls, or to the white students and the black students. Then, come back on a different day, and count the number of times that they call on boys versus calling on girls. I've done this, after having the idea suggested by a friend. The result was amazing. I really, honestly believed that the teacher was treating her students (the teacher I did this with was a woman) equally. But when I counted?She was calling on boys twice as often as girls.

This isn't an unusual outcome. Do some looking online for studies of classroom gender dynamics, and you'll find lots of structured observations that come to the same conclusion.

My own awakening about these kinds of things came from my time working at IBM. I've told this first story before, but it's really worth repeating.

One year, I managed the summer intership programs for my department. The previous summer, IBM research had wound up with an intership class consisting of 99% men. (That's not an estimate: that's a real number. That year, IBM research hired 198 summer interns, of whom 2 were women.) For a company like IBM, numbers like that are scary. Ignoring all of the social issues of excluding potentially great candidates, numbers like that can open the company up to gender discrimination lawsuits!

So my year, they decided to encourage the hiring of more diverse candidates. The way that they did that was by allocating each department a budget for summer interns. They could only hire up to their budgeted number of interns. Only women and minority candidates didn't count against the budget.

When the summer program hiring opened, my department was allocated a budget of six students. All six slots were gone within the first day. Every single one of them went to a white, american, male student.

The second day, the guy across the hall from me came with a resume for a student he wanted to hire. This was a guy who I really liked, and really respected greatly. He was not, by any reasonable measure, a bad guy - he was a really good person. Anyway, he had this resume, for yet another guy. I told him the budget was gone, but if he could find a good candidate who was either a woman or minority, that we could hire them. He exploded, ranting about how we were being sexist, discriminating against men. He just wanted to hire the best candidate for the job! We were demanding that he couldn't hire the best candidate, he had to hire someone less qualified, in order to satisfy some politically correct bureaucrat! There was nothing I could do, so eventually he stormed out.

Three days later, he came back to my office with another resume. He was practically bouncing off the walls he was so happy. "I found another student to hire. She's even better than the guy I originally came to you with! She's absolutely perfect for the job!". We hired her.

I asked him why he didn't find her before. He had no answer - he didn't know why he didn't find her resume of his first search.

This was a pattern that I observed multiple times that year. Looking through a stack of resumes, without deliberately excluding women, somehow, all of the candidates with female names wound up back in the slushpile. I don't think that anyone was deliberately saying "Hmm, Jane, that's a woman's name, I don't want to hire a woman". But I do think that in the process of looking through a file containing 5000 resumes, trying to select which ones to look at, on an unconscious level, they were more likely to look carefully at a candidate with a male name, because we all learn, from a young age, that men are smarter than women, men are more serious than women, men are better workers than women, men are more likely to be technically skilled than women. Those attitudes may not be part of our conscious thought, but they are part of the cultural background that gets drummed into us by school, by books, by movies, by television, by commercials.

As I said, that was a real awakening for me.

I was talking about this with my next-door office neighbor, who happened to be one of the only two women in my department (about 60 people) at the time. She was shocked that I hadn't noticed this before. So she pointed out to me that in meetings, she could say things, and everyone would ignore it, but if a guy said the same thing, they'd get listened to. We'd been in many meetings together, and I'd never noticed this!

So I started paying attention, and she was absolutely right.

What happened next is my second big awakening.

I started watching this in meetings, and when people brushed over something she'd said, I'd raise my voice and say "X just suggested blah, which I think is a really good idea. What about it?". I wanted to help get her voice listened to.

She was furious at me. This just blew my mind. I was really upset at her at first. Dammit, I was trying to help, and this asshole was yelling at me for it! She'd complained about how people didn't listen to her, and now when I was trying to help get her listened to, she was complaining again!

What I realized after I calmed down and listened to her was that I was wrong. I hadn't spoken to her about doing it. I didn't understand what it meant. But the problem was, people didn't take her seriously because she was a woman. People might listen to me, because I'm also a white guy. But when I spoke for her, I wasn't helping. When a man speaks on behalf of a woman, we're reinforcing the idea that a woman's voice isn't supposed to be heard. I was substituting my man's voice for her woman's, and by doing that, I was not just not helping her, but I was actively hurting, because the social interpretation of my action was that "X can't speak for herself". And more, I learned that by taking offense at her, for pointing out that I had screwed up, I was definitely in the wrong - that I had an instinct for reacting wrong.

What I learned, gradually, from watching things like this, from becoming more sensitive and aware, and by listening to what women said, was that this kind of thing is that I was completely clueless.

The fact is, I constantly benefit from a very strong social preference. I don't notice that. Unless I'm really trying hard to pay attention, I'm not aware of all of the benefits that I get from that. I don't notice all of the times when I'm getting a benefit. Worse, I don't notice all of the times when my behavior is asserting that social preference as my right.

It's very easy for a member of an empowered majority to just take things for granted. We see the way that we are treated as a default, and assume that everyone is treated the same way. We don't perceive that we are being treated preferentially. We don't notice that the things that offend us are absolutely off limits to everyone, but that things that we do to offend others are accepted as part of normal behavior. Most importantly, we don't notice when our behavior is harmful to people who aren't part of our empowered group. And when we do offend someone who isn't part of the empowered majority, we take offense at the fact that they're offended. Because they're saying that we did something bad, and we know that we aren't bad people!

The way that this comes back to the whole Adria Richards fiasco is very simple. Many people have looked at what happened at PyCon, and said something like "She shouldn't have tweeted their picture", or "She shouldn't have been offended, they didn't do anything wrong", or "She should have just politely spoken to them".

I don't know whether what she did was right or not. I wasn't there. I didn't hear the joke that the guys in question allegedly told. What I do know is that for a member of the minority out-group, there is frequently no action that will be accepted as "right" if it includes the assertion that the majority did something offensive.

I've seen this phenomena very directly myself, not in the context of sexism, but in terms of antisemitism. There's an expression that I've heard multiple times in the northeast US, to talk about bartering a price for a car: "jewing the salesman down". I absolutely find that extremely offensive. And I've called people out on it. There is no response that's actually acceptable.

If I politely say "You know, that's relying on a stereotype of me and my ancestors that's really hurtful", the response is: "Oh, come on, it's just harmless. I'm not talking about you, it's just a word. You're being oversensitive". If I get angry, the response is "You Jews are so strident". If I go to an authority figure in the setting, "You Jews are so passive aggressive, why couldn't you just talk to me?". No matter what I do, I'm wrong. Women deal with this every day, only they're in a situation where the power dynamic is even less in their favor.

That's the situation that women - particularly women in tech - find themselves in every day. We are sexist. We do mistreat women in tech every day, without even knowing that we're doing it. And we're very likely to take offense if they mention that we did something wrong. Because we know that we're good people, and since we aren't deliberately doing something bad, they must be wrong.

For someone in Adria Richards' situation at PyCon, there is no course of action that can't be taken wrong. As a woman hearing the joke in question, she certainly knew whether or not it was offensive to her. But once she'd heard something offensive, there was nothing she could do that someone couldn't turn into a controversy.

Was the joke offensive? We don't know what, specifically, he said. The only fact that we're certain of is that in her judgement, it was offensive; that the authorities at PyCon agreed, and asked the gentleman in question to apologize.

Did the guy who made the joke deserve to be fired? I don't know. If this stupid joke were the first time he'd ever done something wrong, then he didn't deserve to be fired. But we don't know what his history is like. I know how hard it is to hire skilled engineers, so I'm very skeptical that any company would fire someone over one minor offense. It's possible that his company has a crazy hair-trigger HR department. But it's also possible that there's background that we don't know about. That he's done stuff before, and been warned. If that's the case, then his company could have decided that this was the last straw.

Did Adria Richards deserve to be fired? Almost certainly not. We know more about her case than we do about the guy who told the joke. We know that her company fired her over this specific incident, because in their announcement of her firing, they told us the reason. They didn't cite any past behavior - they just specifically cited this incident and its aftermath as the reason for firing her. It's possible that there's a history here that we don't know about, that she'd soured relations with customers of her company in incidents other than this, and that this was a last straw. But it doesn't seem likely, based on the facts that we're aware of.

Did either of them deserve to be threatened? Absolutely not.

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Gender Bias, Sexism, and the Science Cheerleaders

Nov 25 2010 Published by under Meta, sexism, Society

My dear friend Sci seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest by posting something less than entirely complimentary about the science cheerleaders. That sounds like a sarcastic way of saying that she wrote something taking them down - but actually it's an accurate description of what she did. What she wrote wasn't entirely negative or entirely positive. It was an honest, balanced assessment of just what she thought about the idea of the science cheerleaders and why they made her feel uncomfortable.

I think Sci's assessment was dead-on. But over at Labspaces, there's a whole discussion about it which has largely devolved into a bunch of people shouting at each other (complete with a sub-discussion about which dudes successfully banged hot but crazy smart chicks).

I don't have much too say about the basic issue that hasn't already been said. Personally, I'm very much behind Sci's take on it. I've got a daughter who loves science, and I'd be very proud if she grows up to become a scientist; but I don't like the message that I think the science cheerleaders actually deliver.

What I think gets missed in discussions like this is that there's an awful lot of societal context that you need to consider in things like this. An awful lot of the criticism that's been aimed at the people who aren't thrilled with the science cheerleaders is, I think, based on ignoring that context.

We live is a highly patriarchal society. In our society, there is a constant message that men are important, and that women exist in order to serve men. A woman who isn't attractive, who isn't dressing in ways that show off her fuckability, is considered less valuable as a person.

This isn't just an attitude of the misogynistic assholes in our society. This is an attitude of our society, reinforced virtually everywhere. It's something that's virtually impossible to avoid. No matter how much you think you're better than that, that you don't believe that you're a sexist or a misogynist, you've still absorbed that message. Living in this society, it's pretty much impossible to not absorb that message. Whether you're a man or a woman, whether you're young or old, whether you're smart or stupid, whether you're straight or gay, it doesn't matter. This is a very deeply engrained attitude in our society, and you can't avoid it.

I'm not saying this to insult men, or to insult women. But I am saying that if you deny that you've been influenced by the society you grew up in, if you deny that you've internalized the incredibly strong messages of sexual and gender roles that are such a part of your society, then you are fooling yourself.

Just, for a moment, think about cheerleading as a sport.

Cheerleading is the most popular sport for young women in high school. There are thousands of girls who want to be cheerleaders, with huge competition for the few available spots. As a sport, it's extremely demanding and difficult physically. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, practice, skill, and strength to be any good at it.

But what does a cheerleader actually do? What is their role as an athlete? It's not to go out and win. Not even to compete. The primary role of a cheerleader is to support the male athletes. Cheerleaders are dressed up in impractical costumes - tiny skirts even in the coldest weather - and to dance, jump, and do all sorts of rythmic gymnastics while men are competing at the real sport. The women's sport is very much subservient to the men's, and the women's sport is highly sexualized.

Even when you have co-ed cheerleading, you'll find that the men typically wear long pants and a loose sweater, while the girls wear miniskirts and tight clinging, revealing tops.

In the male sports that have cheerleaders, the primary role of the male participants is to show off their strength and skill at the sport. The primary role of the chearleaders is to show how a group of attractive, fuckable women are supporting the talented male athletes.

This is basically the problem that many people have with the science cheerleaders. It isn't that there's anything intrinsically wrong with cheerleaders - but the societal context of cheerleading is that the cheerleaders aren't part of the thing they cheer - they're outsiders who support it by showing off how hot they are.

The "science cheerleaders" don't actually cheer about science. They don't show off their scientific skills. They don't show that they know or care anything about science. Taken in the context of the society that they're part of, and the traditional role and purpose of a cheerleader, they're basically removing themselves from any role as an actual participant in science. Cheering isn't part of the activity being cheered. A football cheerleader doesn't play football; she supports the football player. A science cheerleader isn't doing science; she's supporting the scientists. And in our society, when you put together a group of hot women in hot costumes nad have them cheer about science, the basic message isn't "Women can be interested in science" or "Women can be scientists". It's "science is cool, and you girls can support it by showing off how fuckable you are to all those smart science dudes".

At best, what the science cheerleaders do is say "You can be interested in science and still be hot". But put in context, that's a very sad message: what it says is "As a woman, your primary responsibility is to be hot; you can be a scientist too, as long as you're hot."

Most people don't want to think of themselves as being sexists or racists. Our self-image is that being a racist or a sexist is bad, and we're not bad people. So we reject the idea that we've got these deeply ingrained racist and sexist attitudes. The problem is, we are sexists. We are racists. We're not deliberately racist or sexist - but we all share the common context of our society, and it is ridiculous to pretend that we have somehow overcome that. And that causes some of the most pernicious problems of discrimination. The majority of discrimination today isn't conscious and deliberate. It's subconscious: it's the attitudes and beliefs that we have internalized, which color our perceptions in ways we don't even recognize.

I've done a lot of work recruiting, interviewing, and hiring people. And when you look at that, it becomes ridiculously obvious just how strong those subconscious biases are.

For example, in an experiment I've actually witnessed: Give a guy a bunch of resumes with names removed, and stripped of any content which could show the gender of the candidate, and they'll pick out a bunch of resumes. If you look at the resulting selection, you'll typically find that the number of women's resumes who get selected are slightly above the proportion of women in the population. (This is another manifestation of sexism; in order to succeed, women need to be better than the corresponding male candidates; in a technical job, the average woman candidate will have better qualifications than the men she's competing with, and in a blind resume search, that will result in the women being selected at a higher rate, because they have better qualifications.

Now, take the same batch of resumes, and an equivalent batch of screeners, but leave the names/gender identifiers on the resumes. You'll get a dramatically different result. In the resulting pool of selected resumes, you'll find that nearly all of the top male candidates from the initial round - better than 90% - were also selected in the open search. But of the women selected in the blind search, less that 20% will get selected in the open search.

And it's not just men who do this. Use women as screeners, and you'll see something similar. It's not quite as as extreme - with women screeners in the open search, about 40% of the women from the blind search will also get selected. But still, the majority of women will be excluded, when the only additional piece of data is gender.

That's the problem with the science cheerleaders. Not that there's something wrong with cheering about science. Not because it's impossible to be both a cheerleader and a scientist. The problem is that given our societal biases, the science cheerleaders play right into gender stereotype, and end up reinforcing the message that the primary role of women in science is sexual and supportive. You can be a female scientist - but if you are, it's important that you do it in a way which shows your sexual subservience to the men. You can be a female scientist - as long as you're also a hot chick who's sexually available to male scientists.

As a closing point, before you start flaming me: just ask yourself, honestly: what would you think if a group of men dressed up in speedos and filmed a video cheering about science? Not doing any science - just dancing in their speedos chanting "science is cool." In fact, can you even imagine a bunch of really great male scientists agreeing to dance in speedos while cheering?

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Vox Day on Women in Science

Mar 12 2008 Published by under sexism

After yesterday's post about the great women of computer science, I noticed my SciBling MarkH over at the Denialism blog had discovered Vox Day and his latest burst of stupidity, in which he alleges that the greatest threat to science is.... women. Because, you see, women are all stupid.

The bizarre propositions of equalitarianism always sound harmless and amusing at first because they are so absurd. What the rational observer often fails to understand, however, is that these propositions don't sound the least bit absurd to the equalitarian proponent because the average equalitarian is fundamentally an intellectual cave-dweller with no more interest in reason or capacity for logical thought than a hungry kitten. The idea of biology classes being taught by lesbian professors who believe that heterosexual procreation is a myth or calculus courses being taught by women who can't do long division may sound impossible today, but tell that to any software developer, and he'll be able to provide you with plenty of current examples of computer science engineers, some with advanced CS degrees, who have no idea how to even begin writing a computer program.

Women love education; it's the actual application they don't particularly like. Whereas the first thought of a woman who enjoys the idea of painting is to take an art appreciation class, a similarly interested man is more likely to just pick up a paintbrush and paint something - usually a naked woman.

This is... I don't know a word that sufficiently expresses the stupidity of this. Vox has a long history of being a moron with delusions of intelligence, but this one really takes the cake.

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