Why (white) men should not (mostly) write about gender disparity in technology

Dear Internet,

In 1994 or ’95, I started getting interested in computing and even more specifically, the INTERNET. This all stemmed from a class I took at the time  (taught by a woman) succinctly titled, “An Introduction to the Internet”; which would be all command line interface until the college installed Netscape .9 in the open computer lab later that year. Color. Photos. From. Finland. WOW.

That class changed my entire life.

I got my first paid gig doing tech support at a local ISP in 1996, which lead to another gig in San Francisco, which lead to other gigs that took me around the country. My last pure tech job was as an Senior Internet Systems engineer at UUNet/Worldcom, which I spent my days configuring routers, studying for the CCIE, and other network engineering fun things. As WorldCom was going through a bit of a rough patch, I took this as a sign to head back to university, finish my undergrad in English (where I had started nearly a decade prior) and figure out the rest of my life. I moved back to Michigan and started classes at Aquinas in January of 2003.

I completed my undergrad in the spring of 2005, my first masters in the spring of 2008, and my second masters in the spring of 2010.

None of my degrees have anything to do with computing or technology, which was very much on purpose. My creative brain needs a lot of hand holding while my technology brain does not. While there were gaps between my technology jobs (school and all that rot),  I’ve always kept my head wet by keeping up my interests. My current position is the perfect job for me since it combines my education AND my experience: I’m a systems and web librarian at a local college. All of my senses are tingly.

I’m giving you this background not because I think I’m unique in my education or my foray into technology, but to illustrate that I’ve been in the technological world for a very long time and I have very rich experience of being a woman in a man’s world. I knew getting into tech back in the early ’90s  women were not as dominant and they were just starting to get into the peripheral of the scene. When I went to Def Con in 1997, the number of women who were hackers at the time were just beginning to be as dominant as the ones who came along to support their partners. In the next couple of years, the more cons I visited, the more women were becoming an integral part of the scene and less like visitors from another planet.

As this is such a male dominated landscape, I’m no stranger to sexism or sexual harrassment that was and still is clearly abundant in the world of technology. This is the one constant that has not changed since that first class I took in 1994.

To wit, within the last week alone, two seperate vendors did the following:

  • One sent an email explaining that to turn on the server I had just received by documenting I had to push the big green blinky button
  • After explaining to the vendor I was going to use sudo for installation of Enterprise backup and walked him through the steps, he still explained what sudo was and why I needed to use it

This is in addition to my day to day life where sexism runs rampart, whether it is intended or not. Last week, the beer guy who kept talking to TheHusband about the deliciousness of beer when we picked up a bottle of Guinness Black even after I pointed out it was for me; the car sales people who kept approaching TheHusband when we were shopping for cars even after we pointed out I was not only the primary person driving but also the purchaser. The comic book store clerks (5 out 6 we’ve visited) who kept trying to suggest titles to TheHusband even when it was I asking to buy such and such issues. So forth, and so on.

For many men, most I would think, don’t even think they are being sexist. Some even think they are being helpful. Our culture is so ingrained that something designed as being very male (beer, car shopping, computers, comics) belongs to the male of the party, they  without thinking about it direct all conversation to the male even if it is the female who is inquiring. I’m betting that 9 out of 10 men do this unintentionally and subconsciously, there is no thought that what they are doing is sexist.

I’ve long come to accept this is part of my life, as my interests in male dominated areas (comics, technology, sci-fi/fantasy) continues to grow, so too will the sexism (unintended or not) continue on. I’ve developed a thick skin to the daily sexisms because fighting each and every turn is exhausting, and often futile. So I pick my battles when I can and fight on like a good warrior for these battles.

This is one of those battles.

Ealier this week, Roy Tennant, who writes at Library Journal’s The Digital Shift, published an article called Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

I’ll wait while you go read.
I’m going to go make some tea while you’re going through the comments.
I may also start a new cross-stitch pattern while you’re going through that.

Are you back? Good.

Here are the problems I have with Roy’s article, and later his comments.

  • When pointing out his suggestions were just as sexist, or at the very least patronizing to the very people he was trying to help, he told me, the very type of person he was trying to help, I was wrong.
  • When giving him suggestions on how better to further the action or dialogue, he ignored them.
  • When several of us pointed out that as a white man, he had the utmost of privilege and that his suggestions were born from that privilege, unintentional or not, and ergo why his suggestions sounded patronizing even when he thought they were’t, he took that to mean we were attacking him personally even though we were attacking his argument.
  • Ditto for the number of times he keeps discussing how much of a feminist he is on this site and other social media as well as alluding his critics are off the mark. Let me point out once more  the criticisms have come from the very people he’s trying to help. No one is disputing your feminism Roy, we’re critiquing your proposed solutions and your dismissiveness of our experiences in your follow up commentary.
  • When I disputed that the experiences he was writing about were not the same I experienced, so he should not generalize, he said, “yet I’ve heard the opposite from other female colleagues — that such jokes create a hostile environment for women. For now, I’m still with them.”  The problem with this is you cannot expect special treatment for women (tampering down of jokes/commentary  in the work place) if you want to be equal. You can’t have it both ways. It has to apply to EVERYONE or apply to NO ONE. It is not equality if special considerations are made. This was the huge problem I had with this list, because tampering down jokes and being respectful to a woman should not just about women, it should be for all humans.

What really gets my goat, however, is Roy’s apparent ignorance of his own privilege on this matter as he keeps beating it around social media how much of a feminist he is, so he’s right and we’re wrong. It was pointed out to him in the comments that as a white male, he enjoys specialized treatment, which he may not even be aware of but as a white male he does certainly enjoy. He told the person,

Karen, the fact that you think you know me is laughable. Indeed I have “given up privilege” as you put it. For but one example, I voluntarily left the LITA Top Tech Trends panel to make way for the committee to add more women, a number of whom I nominated in the process, and subsequently when the panel at one conference was again male-heavy I complained about at the session. I notice that they’ve largely been better about it since.

So. Giving up privilege, to him, means he left a panel on a professional association. And then complained about it’s male dominatedness later on? And that’s it? This is supposed to make me feel better? Nothing here about his personal life. Nothing here about what he is doing at his own company to promote women in technology or in other very public spheres he’s active in. Because an empty seat on a panel for a small subset of the profession is so helpful to the rest of the female gender in getting them into technology?

Right.

Ultimately what is causing me the most frustration is what also makes me the most depressed. Here is someone who has power, who is known on a large scale in the profession, who can’t even acknowledge that his approach to this very worthwhile topic is perhaps not the way that it should be? That maybe, instead of labeling myself and others critical of his approach (again, the very same marginalized group he is attempting to promote) as his “attackers,” he could step back for a moment and at least acknowledge our commentary might have some substance?

(Bears repeating: No one is disagreeing this topic isn’t worthwhile. I am disagreeing with this execution.)

This fight for equality is not even close to being over yet, nor will it be even in my lifetime. However, the unfortunate part is that it is people like Roy, self-styled (white) male femimists, who have solidarity for our cause, who want to be supportive of our needs, are the very same ones who are often our worst detractors. I believe Roy genuinely thinks that he’s doing a very good thing by writing about this topic, even if I disagree with what he wrote. I also think this is why he’s so defensive of any critique of his actions because he thinks he’s doing something to help the downtrodden, how on earth can this even be remotely bad?

Do not ever be afraid to be critical of anyone, regardless of who they are, when they start discussing means and ways of experiences and feelings when it is clear they have no experience in what they are discussing. You, and only you, can own your experiences and feelings. Do not let others dictate how you should live.

Roy asked for ways to change this, which I gave him a list which was ignored. Here is more to add to that list if you want to support women in technology:

  • Donate to the Ada Intiative.
  • Start/chair an interest group for women in technology in LITA, the technology arm of ALA
  • Start a GeekGirl Dinner in your area.
  • Use Meetup.com to start/find groups in your interests (there were loads of Women in Technology interest groups on MeetUp).
  • Depending on where you work, what you do; start off-site initiative for women to have a hack-a-thon
  • Find local hacker space communities to start a women’s initiative
  • Use professional conferences to propose panels / groups / discussions to get more people aware but also to pay it forward
  • Create a women in tech book club at local bar/ coffee house
  • Donate time to do mentoring to high school and middle school girls
  • Donate to or become a sponsor for a nearby women’s conference, like GeekGirlCon

Wanting to bring a voice to a marginalized group is a very good thing, but dismissing the concerns or critiques of that same group when brought up to you is bad. Do not generalize your assumptions of women as a whole in a particular area (in this case, technology) because your sample of that experience will be small and it will not be representative of all voices. Do not presume, as a male, to know my experiences and also, to dictate how I should feel about them. I can only speak of my experiences in my life, I cannot speak for other women, but the broader, much larger vile act of sexism is very, very real. Everyday Sexism is documenting this in spades.

Once this is posted, I’m donating to the Ada Initiative. I welcome any civil, commentary on this topic but keep in mind any obnoxious trolling will be deleted.

Fight the good fight,
ttfn,
Lisa

Edited: Nov 4: Added link to start a SIG at LITA in the to-do list