Inadvertent Sexism

Part of the Reflections on That Conference 2013 series.

I hesitated writing this one. The topic of sexism in tech culture (and specifically at tech conferences) is a hot topic and frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. Like many guys, I’d like to think it’s not really that big of a deal. I’d taken the sexual harassment “webinars” and I’d never seen anything overt like that at Groupon. That means we’re in the clear, right?

Except that’s no longer the (primary) problem. With the exception of certain San Diego mayors, most guys have gotten it through their heads that outright sexist discrimination and harassment is unacceptable. Now we have to deal with inadvertant sexism, the language and actions that unintentionally reinforce a “boys club” tech culture and make women feel out of place or unwelcome.

I noted several cases of inadvertent sexism at That Conference, but I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I was the worst offender.

Foot, Meet Mouth

The conference kicked off on Monday morning with breakfast before the first keynote address. I entered the cavernous dining area, scanning the room for friendly faces. Three other coworkers from Groupon were at the conference as well, one of whom had been acting as my mentor. I knew that he, like I, had brought his wife and family to the conference, so I was looking forward to meeting them.

Up ahead I saw a table where my coworkers were sitting. I knew everyone except the woman that was sitting to the left of my mentor. She looked roughly the same age as he did and they looked comfortable chatting. As I sat down, I introduced myself, and she gave me her first name (let’s call her “Sally” here).

Trying to start a conversation, I said to Sally, “So, I hear that the whole family is here?” There was a notable pause and a puzzled look, until she slowly responded, “Ummm… We’re not together…”

Uh oh. The woman that I had assumed to be my mentor’s wife was actually an attendee that had joined us for breakfast. Embarrassed, I apologized for the misunderstanding and we all tried to laugh it off, but I knew that I had just committed some inadvertent sexism.

That’s not the worst part, though. It turns out that I was the second person to have made this mistake! Only thirty minutes into the conference and two blundering idiots had already said something to Sally revealing they thought she was an attendee’s wife rather than an attendee herself.

Different Perspectives

From my perspective, the mistake was understandable. I had come to the conference with a certain set of knowledge and a cultural context. I knew that my mentor had brought his family and I did as well, so the idea of people being with their spouses was primed in my head. Entering a new situation, my brain went into pattern-matching mode as I subconsciously tried to make sense of my new environment. I saw a table with Groupon employees, spread evenly across the table with an empty chair between each of them, except for the woman that was immediately to my mentor’s left. I didn’t even think about it, I just felt like I understood the situation. From my perspective it was dumb and embarrassing, but unintended and harmless.

But how did Sally perceive this? I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine the questions that must have gone through her mind…

Am I doing something that is causing this misunderstanding? Have these guys never seen a female attendee at a conference before? Are people not going to take me seriously as a professional here? Was it a mistake to sit with these people I didn’t know? Should I have eaten breakfast alone, or tried to find a “ladies-only table”? Am I embarrassing this guy next to me? What about his wife, is she going to have a problem with me being here? What is my husband going to think? Is the whole conference going to be like this? Was coming a mistake?

I can’t say for sure, but knowing that even one of those questions may have gone through her mind makes me feel terrible.

Listening for Subtext

What could I do now? How could I keep myself from making inconsiderate comments in the future? I knew I needed to get better at listening, at hearing the subtexts in our language and actions that go unnoticed without careful examination.

I decided to focus on this through the rest of the conference and try to pick out things that normally wouldn’t bother me, but could make a woman feel less welcome. Here are a few things I observed:

  • A speaker, trying to make a point about the difficulty of training new developers, said, “Not to be stereotypical, but you can’t just turn a nurse into a programmer over a cup of coffee.” Sure, but why did the speaker choose “nurse” as the occupation; most people usually associate nurses with women. If the speaker understood there was a stereotype of some kind there, why did he continue talking about it?

  • A speaker gave a story about a TSA pat down and their reference to his genitals as “resistance”. He loudly said, “Sir, that’s not resistance, that’s my scrotum.” This got a big laugh from the guys, but I wondered if women could be bothered by it. I imagined swapping the word “scrotum” with a female body part, and the resulting joke seemed more gross than funny.

  • I heard the phrase “The Mom Test” used a couple times, referring to a UI being too complicated if your mom couldn’t understand how to use it. Is the gender-specificity needed or warranted? Could we communicate the same thing with the “Parent Test” without singling out a gender?

  • There were a couple instances when I heard women referred to as “girls” by a speaker on the podium. For example, there was an image of the ladies from the “Women in Tech” panel on the screen, and the speaker referred to someone as “the second girl on the left.” Again, while not intentionally disrespectful, this casual language doesn’t give these professional women their dues. It would sound weird to refer to the “boys” on a panel of male professionals, right?

Concluding Thoughts

The next day I bumped into Sally again and she introduced me to the gentleman standing next to her: her husband, who had come with her to the conference. “This is one of the guys that thought I was married to someone else,” she joked with a smile. I apologized again, and she said there was no need. I’m grateful that Sally was gracious and patient in the situation, giving me a deserved ribbing but then letting it go.

It takes work on both sides. A willingness to avoid both making offense and taking offense. An attitude that seeks to listen and understand before speaking. A gracious spirit that is quick to apologize and quick to forgive. A love for the people we come into contact with every day, and a desire to build an environment and culture in which we can all thrive.

Have you found ways to discover the subtexts hiding within your language and actions?

About Me

Chris Powers

Chris Powers has been leading software development teams for the last twelve years, and he loves sharing his passion for building teams and software with audiences nationwide. As a Clean Coders author, Chris is producing an educational video series entitled "Clean Code in the Browser". Chris is a Director of Engineering at Sprout Social and lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. In his free time he enjoys drumming and tabletop gaming.

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