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What’s not ok even with the door closed

Sarah Parmenter has posted about just how ugly it gets for women in tech. She recounts a horrifying story about how as a speaker at a tech conference she was methodically assaulted online. I want to believe that this was a rare and random act, but apparently it happens more than we know because it’s not something generally the victims want to get yet more publicity about.

Thanks to the rise of feminism, the change in behavioral norms over the past 50 years has eliminated many of the superficial, public expressions of misogyny. Not all, of course, but in the circles that I’ve moved in, the change has been noticeable. There are many fewer casual male expressions of discomfort around women, many fewer belittling or sexually objectifying comments. That’s good, but it doesn’t tell us if private expressions have changed, and, more important, how thoroughly the disempowering assumptions and structures are being undone. (And, yes, I know that I must certainly be blind to my own pernicious assumptions.)

For example, I remember in the late 1990s going on a media call to the Boston Globe with a group of male developers with whom I worked. The reporter had some cutting questions about the utility of the software and about competitive threats. The five of us walked quietly back to our car, but as soon as the door was closed, the guys had a good time dismissing the editor’s comments because “she must be on the rag.” Also, she was attractive and several of the lads expressed a desire to relieve her of the stress that brought her to under-appreciate our offering. Needless to say, not only were the editor’s comments perceptive and accurate, had they come from a man we would have taken them as a conversational challenge to which we would have risen, rather than as dismissing them as carping by a bitchy, hormonally-prejudiced girl.

These were young techie men who I’m sure sincerely supported gender equality policies. The degree of their discomfort and, yes, loathing of women had never manifested itself before. This was not acceptable banter, any more than, say, racist comments would have been. Yet when the door was closed and it was just us guys, it might as well have been 1950. I was shocked.

I have to say that I haven’t seen that sort of behavior among men with the doors closed since then. I don’t know if that incident was anomalous, or if I happen to travel in circles that don’t tolerate that type of sexism, or at least don’t tolerate the overt display of it. Or maybe as I’ve become old, my presence drives all the boyish “fun” out of the room — you can’t really talk about girls when Dad is in the room. I’d like to think we’ve changed. But it’s so hard to know what goes on behind closed doors.

Until someone opens them, even at personal cost. So, thank you, Sarah.

4 Responses to “What’s not ok even with the door closed”

  1. I’ve never had any of those sorts of negative experiences; the men in tech I’ve worked with have been welcoming and friendly, even when I’ve been talking about gender issues. (As you know.)

    I still have the plan in my head for how I’m going to track IPs and which friends I’m enlisting to moderate comments and so forth if/when I end up having to deal with some horrible stalker troll. Because I basically assume that, being in tech and public and female, the threats are a matter of time.

    I would rather not have to have any neurons dedicated to this.

  2. Thank you for this article. I reposted, twittered and sent it out to my data base. I have been in tech for many years, and I have seen it get worse. From video-games where the female characters are scantily clad (Yes, I always were a string bikini when I am fighting crime) to tech companies that actually view themselves as progressive. The challenge is that so many developers, no matter what platform are young and generally immature (by age).

    We do not have mature men and women who are able to say, geez, not really okay for the bonus “Prize” -your reward-is raping a woman in the back of the car. Yes ratings systems have come in, and our useless.

    In the age of Youtube and other widely used sites….we are re-introducing and deepening stereotypes. Worse, our younger kids are getting introduced to visuals that are inappropriate for their age. Ask 9 year olds if they know what “I was kadahfied” meant. You can look it up on-line and see Momar Kodahfi’s last moments of life where he is sodomized. Kids use that as part of their language-every day.

    If you think I am exaggerating, look at what Washington Republicans have focused on for the last two years, eroding women’s rights….ensuring they lack access to birth control, or in Minnesota, the legislators wanted to make sure “When you are getting beaten by your husband, just remember why you married him”.” I could give you the sources for this, it is just too disheartening look them up again.

  3. What the two posts above said. I’m a bit older than you, and I have seen a gratifying improvement in respect for the rights of women. But I’ve also become aware of how little the younger generation of women are even aware of the awful price women activists paid in the early decades of the 20th century to get access to the ballot box.

    And the verbal atrocities of the Republican politicians in last year’s campaigns have lit an activist fire in me that I did not know I had. I wrote the following letter to the editor of our local paper, and it was published and much vilified by conservative readers in our deeply conservative community. But it also received supporting comments.

    For Daughters, a Fast Trip through Women’s History

    Today’s daughters, like many young people, may suppose that the way things are now is how they’ve always been. For women, nothing could be further from the truth. Through eons of history, women in most societies have been subservient to men. In the Old Testament, the Christian Bible speaks of women as possessions of their husband or father, much as a cows, goats, or human slaves. Many religions today restrict women from being ministers or priests.
    In the 19th century, slavery in the U.S. was outlawed, bringing us closer to a concept of human equality. Still, in many states, women could not own property. By 1850, women began campaigning for equal wages, education, career opportunities, and property rights.
    Reformers’ main goal was access to the ballot box. Decades later, women won that basic right through a hard-fought battle. Suffragists picketed the White House and Congress for many weeks until they were arrested and jailed. In jail, they staged a hunger strike and were forcibly fed for more weeks. Politicians, embarrassed about such harsh treatment, eventually passed a constitutional amendment giving women the vote in 1920.
    Even after women won the vote, family living patterns changed slowly. During World War II, many women worked outside the home while men were at war. Most soon returned home as veterans were given preference for a shrinking number of jobs.
    The next big push for change came in the 1960s as part of the civil rights movement. Though the response to women’s demands was less violent than the fire hoses and beatings visited on African American protesters, many citizens defended the traditional role of women as full-time mothers and homemakers.
    Factors for change were the availability of reliable birth control measures coupled with educational opportunities for women to enter traditionally male professions. Young women became doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, military officers, airline pilots, astronauts, and even professional athletes. Thanks to Title IX, this year, U.S. women captured more Olympic medals than U.S. men did.
    Part of the feminists’ agenda in the 1960s was the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, first written in 1923 but not introduced in Congress until 1972. As the political pendulum has swung back from progressive to conservative in recent decades, this goal has not yet been achieved. And today women are still far from receiving equal pay for equal work, despite laws outlawing discrimination.
    The most divisive issue of the feminist movement from the 1960s to the present is abortion. Although illegal prior to the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, abortion has existed in most societies since ancient times. Wealthy women could pay a doctor to perform this procedure safely and privately. Poor women, however, were often victimized by unscrupulous abortionists or their own desperate attempts at self-abortion.
    For almost 40 years, conservative propagandists have exploited the abortion issue among religious communities to gain and hold political power. Recently, the rhetoric has been raised to the point of attempting to pass abortion laws across the country that allow no exception for rape victims or for the health of the mother.
    Despite his condemnation of Rep. Akin’s ignorant claim recently that a woman’s body could “shut down” conception during rape, Republican vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan co-sponsored Akin’s U.S. House bill denying women’s right to abortion with no exception. Also, during this presidential campaign, women who defend the right to control their own bodies through birth control have been demonized as sluts.
    Enough already, Rush Limbaugh, Rep. Akin, Rep. Ryan, Gov. Romney, and their supporters. Please leave each woman’s decisions about her body to herself, and get the government out of bedrooms and doctor’s offices. My plea to daughters everywhere is to consider whether you want to go back to an era of women’s complete subservience to men. Let’s safeguard our hard-won progress by stopping the Republican war on women in its tracks.

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