Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It's Hard Being a Short Woman in Tech

In The New Statesman, Laurie Penny argues that tech is inhospitable to women because it’s run by resentful nerds, “some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least.” She’s responding to a piece of writing by Scott Aaronson reflecting on how his painful nerdolescence makes it hard to identify with being called privileged. Penny’s piece is an attempt to set Aaronson straight. Nerds’ childhood trauma, she argues, is nothing compared to the “structural oppression” experienced by women and ethnic minorities:
Scott, imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that. Or how about a triple whammy: you have to go through your entire school years again but this time you're a lonely nerd who also faces sexism and racism.
She says that Aaronson’s writing is “painfully honest, but also flawed” because his childhood suffering blinds him to others' suffering and oppression:

“…I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright.

The structural oppression faced by women and the individual hardship faced by nerds are different beasts, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s possible to compare them in the way that Penny does. For one thing, structural oppression is a lot easier to measure, since by definition it impacts clearly defined demographic groups. But when it comes to teenage nerdishness and the loneliness and bullying that go along with it, we don’t have as clear a sense of the impact. There’s no way of knowing who was a teenaged nerd and who wasn’t without asking each person individually, and even if you do, most men probably don't want to reveal that they spent their virile youth as Starcraft-playing virgins.

Since we don’t know who the nerds are, it's hard to say how their nerdiness impacted them. And it certainly doesn't make sense to demand, as Penny does, that Aaronson identify as privileged, when we can’t accurately assess how much nerds like him have struggled. Maybe nerd-boys' feelings of sexual rejection, combined with living in a culture that measures manliness in terms of sexual prowess, translates to lifelong feelings of loneliness and a higher risk of depression and suicide, and maybe these feelings of inadequacy have professional as well as emotional repercussions. For all we know, male nerds could be worse off than female nerds in this regard.

Penny seems to believe that the male-skewed gender ratio in Silicon Valley is proof enough of the superior life outcomes of nerds. But that’s not fair, because successful Silicon Valley nerds are a tiny minority of all the male nerds in the world. What about nerds who don’t have a good work ethic, or simply aren’t that smart? Penny talks about how, when she tried to escape from her teenaged loneliness into the heady abstraction of science, she was met with gender discrimination. But that’s not necessarily worse than a male nerd who can’t escape into science at all, because he doesn’t have the intellect for it. 

I'm not suggesting that social scientists start asking men if they used to be nerds so we can more precisely compare the relative struggles of different demographic groups. Different groups struggle in different ways, and there’s something unseemly about arguing over who has it worse.  There are so many ways to slice privilege; it’s not a linear scale, with white males +1, gay men and women -1, black gay men and women at, I don't know, -2. Struggling is everyone’s birthright. Penny reminds Scott that he doesnt know what it’s like to put up with “structural misogyny,” but neither does Penny know what it’s like to put up with being a nerdy, bullied teenage boy (which is not the same thing as being a nerdy teenage girl, like she was). 

Ethnicity and gender don’t tell the full story when it comes to life struggles. You could be a white guy with mental health issues, a black lesbian with a trust fund and low self-esteem. You could be me: I’m 4’10", and everywhere I go, people mistake me for a child. When I’m out with a group of colleagues, all of them younger than me, some of whom I manage, I’m the only one who gets carded. Waiting in line at the butcher counter, the butcher ignores me because he doesn’t see me over the counter. Once, when I walked into the conference room to present my work, the client asked if I was the boss’s daughter. 

I assume that this bias against me has also affected me in ways I’m not aware of. This pisses me off. I’m outside the normal range for height and there’s nothing I can do about it. (Even trying to look professional is hard, since grown-up clothes don’t always come in my size!) But it’s okay, because everyone is outside the normal range for something. Right now, being a women in tech means you’re "outside the normal range" for gender in your field. That means that sometimes people assume that you work in marketing or HR, and while this is infuriating, it’s no more sexist than assuming I’m a kid is height-ist. Of course people aren’t accustomed to meeting female engineers; there simply aren’t that many of them. 

All of this is to say, maybe the whole women in tech conversation sometimes mixes up cause and effect. It’s not that gender discrimination keeps women out of tech, it’s that too few women in tech leads to gender discrimination. In other words, it’s not an ideological problem, it’s a practical one. The way to solve it is not by asking men to do more soul searching about their male privilege; it’s by working to get more women in tech through practical means like mentoring programs, exposing more kids to computer science, etc. As more women enter tech, people will get used to seeing female engineers, start-ups won’t feel like fraternities, and sexism will fade to the background on its own. 

If only my condition offered the same such hope! My only solace is that eventually I’ll reach an age when getting handed kids menus is more flattering than infuriating. Either that, or I’ll have to move to Asia. 

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Because this needs to be said, too

Earlier this week, a graphic designer named Justine posted an account of her boss's sexual assault on her at a CodeMash conference. As a woman in tech, its disheartening to hear how she was treated by her superior, and even more disheartening to read anonymous Internet commenters suggesting that she got what she deserved. But if there's a lesson in all this, something more empowering than "men shouldn't assault women," I think it's that no matter how many successful, confident women I see in this field, there are still some out there who don’t know how to stick up for themselves.
On the first night of the conference, everyone was at a bar drinking and having a good time. At one point, a drunken Justine lies down on the bar to do a body shot, and is surprised when her boss, Joe, is the one who takes it off of her. Joe, also drunk, starts rubbing her back and kissing her forehead, which she notes is not uncommon behavior among her coworkers.

But then things start to get more uncomfortable. Joe puts his hands down the back of her pants and starts kissing her. Next he puts his hands down the front of her pants and starts fingering her. She tells him to stop, reminding him that he has a wife and kids at home. When he doesn’t, she feels like “a deer in headlights staring into the eyes of the two male bartenders hoping someone would help me.” Eventually, a coworker (who has also written an account of the incident) notices that something doesn’t seem right and asks her if she wants to go out for a smoke. When they get outside, she breaks down in tears.

In the months after the assault, Justine falls into a downward spiral of anxiety, anorexia, alcoholism, and depression. Joe is terminated after an HR investigation, but he’s allowed to publicize that he left voluntarily. Several months later, with her life in shambles and feeling like her “reputation at the company had been stained,” Justine is offered the same deal.

By Justine’s telling, this is a story about how women in tech can’t win. We’re under tons of pressure to keep up with the dudes, but when we try to act like they do, they put us in our place with cutting remarks, mansplaining, or, when things get really bad, sexual assault. Justine felt this pressure to keep up acutely on the night of the assault:
At some point it was suggested that I do a body shot. I’ve never done one in my life but at the insistence of many people, attendees and bartenders I decided to lay on the bar. I just wanted to prove myself as one of the gang. Someone who was up for anything. I cannot explain to men how hard it is being a woman trying to play it cool in an industry of men. I want everyone to think I’m cool and relaxed so I try and just play by their rules. Regardless I got on the bar and lifted my shirt as far as I was comfortable.
Is this really what it means to be a woman in tech—lying down on a bar and hiking up your shirt in hope that people will like you? I hope not. This is a story about men behaving badly (or rather, one man behaving badly—Justine mentions several other male colleagues who were very supportive), but it should also be a story about a woman learning to behave better. Throughout the ordeal, Justine shows herself to be a woman who easily succumbs to peer pressure, who doesn’t know how to stick up for herself, and is not very resilient:
In recent months this year I’ve been arrested, charged with a DUI, involved in second intervention classes, lost contact with most of my friends, broken up with my long term and very supportive boyfriend, lost interest in speaking with my parents out of embarrassment, gone into credit debt, become a borderline alcoholic and continued my eating disorder for self punishment.
I’m doubtful that this can all be chalked up to fallout from the assault. It seems more likely that the anxiety, binge drinking, and other issues she struggled with after the incident also played a role in getting her in trouble in the first place. That she was drinking heavily on the night of the assault doesn’t make it her fault, but it also doesn’t absolve her of responsibility to be more careful the next time

Instead, she ups her drinking. Even while still at the conference, she says, “everyone did a really good job of making sure I was drunk enough to not have to deal with what was going on.” It’s worth noting that her sentence structure shifts the responsibility for her drinking onto other people. She didn't decide that she wanted to drink and then pour herself one, nor did she decide that she didn't want to drink and ignore the people who offered her one. She let other people decide for her. 

Justine narrates her story as a series of events that happen to her; she floats along like a leaf on the wind, tossed about by self-doubt and male encouragement. Even after the assault, she doesn't feel indignant so much as afraid that she did something wrong and might get fired, that her t-shirts are too suggestive or her lipstick too red. It's an attitude that made her feel trapped in a situation that she might otherwise have been able to extricate herself from, hence her climbing onto the bar when “it was suggested” that she do a body shot, and silently beseeching onlookers for help when her boss started kissing her.  

None of this is to indict Justine, who suffered something horrible. She was doing the best she could at the time. But if women may sometimes feel intimidated and defeated, we should encourage each other to push past those feelings and stick up for ourselves. After all, men sometimes feel horny and emboldened, but that doesn't mean we expect them to put those feelings ahead of their consideration for other people. 

This attitude does more than help protect women from assault—it allows us hold our own in a male-dominated industry every day. We shouldn't have to drink as much as the guys, eat as much as the guys, tell the same jokes as the guys, or otherwise try to follow them around like awed kid sisters. We don't have the power to fix everything, but we do have the power to fix that.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

40 Days of Denial


I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that one day we are all going to stop existing. When I think about being dead, I picture myself slightly conscious and utterly bored for all eternity. Even writing about it now, I can feel the spindly fingers of existential dread wrapping themselves around my throat. When this happens, I usually just stop thinking about it, preferring to live with the illusion that I am somehow exempt from the laws of the universe.

Gravity, the new Alfonso CuarĂ³n movie, dwells in this territory. In a terrifying early scene (they give it away in the previews), Dr. Ryan Stone is installing a piece of equipment when she becomes untethered from her station and is sent hurling through space. As she spins out of control, the camera zooms out and we see her tiny figure against the vast blackness. Moments ago, she was brown eyed and demure as she batted off George Clooney’s flirtations. Now she’s a meaningless fleck of dust, no match for the cosmos.






As far as plot goes, Gravity is predictable and straightforward: throughout the rest of Ryan’s adventure in space, we can feel the pull toward a happy ending. But at the same time, the possibility of a happy ending is destroyed barely ten minutes in. Seeing Ryan almost subsumed into the emptiness is an uncomfortable reminder of her insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things. Even if she’s standing on firm ground, she’ll never forget the fact that she’s hurling uncontrollably toward death. And so are we. 

I once read an interview with Woody Allen where he said, “One must have one’s delusions to live. If one looks at life too directly, it becomes unbearable to live.” Gravity serves us reality and denial on the same spoon. It’s a Hollywood sci-fi flick with enough action to distract from the constant background terror of knowing that we, like Ryan, are one day going to die. Like so much entertainment, it’s a diversion from the knowledge that we will lose everything that is dear to us. But even as Gravity offers an escape, it also delivers, in the form of Ryan’s vulnerable body spinning through space, a reminder of precisely that loss. The gravity of Gravity is this pull between palliative and pinprick, opiate and omen.

Just before seeing Gravity, I had been talking about 40 Days of Dating. I found the project kind of confounding, but I couldn’t articulate why. Strangely enough, Gravity provided the answer. Death is The Big Undeniable that we can’t help but deny, but there are plenty of other, smaller tragedies that we meet with mild self-delusion. Dating is one of them.

40 Days of Dating is a project created by Tim and Jessica, two young Brooklynites who’d been friends for years but never dated. They wanted to confront the issues that had prevented their romantic success; she tended to get attached, while he was a self-proclaimed commitment-phobe. So they decide to play at being a couple for forty days. The rules of their experiment included seeing each other every day, keeping separate blogs of their thoughts, and meeting weekly with a therapist. When the forty days were up, they decided whether they want to become a ‘real’ couple (spoiler: they don’t).

The experiment purportedly tests whether it’s possible to grow intimacy in a petri dish. But it doesn’t answer that question so much as it raises another: what’s the difference between fake dating and real dating? Not much, it turns out.

Over the course of the forty days, Tim and Jessica start to look a lot like a couple. They have sex. They bicker. They write cute love notes. But in the end, the pressure gets to both of them. He’s enjoying the moment enough that he’d rather not think about the future. She’s enjoying the moment enough that she can’t stop thinking about it. He senses her anxiety, and resents it. She senses his resentment, and becomes even more anxious.

You don’t need to be part of a dating experiment to experience this kind of vicious cycle—real dating has enough of it already. So why did they bother with the experiment at all? Why not just date? Perhaps they wanted to be different than they were before, different from everyone else who’s failing at dating. You can’t blame them for wanting to escape, but of course, they failed.

There’s no experiment that could rescue them from who they were, just like there’s no Hollywood movie that could rescue us from our mortality for more than the two hours it makes us forget about it. We may feel safe in the theater, sipping a soda and holding hands with our sweethearts, but we’re as doomed as Ryan was spinning through space. Movies might feel like an escape from life, but they’re just more life, happening right before our eyes. 40 Days might have felt like an escape from dating, but it was just more dating. We can’t escape, because there is nowhere to escape to; this is all there is.

That sounds pretty bleak, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. After all, Ryan stares these limits in the face and decides she still wants to survive. And who knows—maybe if Tim and Jessica had stared dating in the face they would have survived too (but then they wouldn't have Internet fame and a movie contract).
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why Kickstarter was wrong to apologize: seduction guides can be good for women

On Friday, Kickstarter posted an apology for allowing a seduction guide to get funding through its site:
Let us be 100% clear: Content promoting or glorifying violence against women or anyone else has always been prohibited from Kickstarter. If a project page contains hateful or abusive material we don’t approve it in the first place. If we had seen this material when the project was submitted to Kickstarter (we didn’t), it never would have been approved. Kickstarter is committed to a culture of respect.
They removed the page from their site, announced they were banning seduction guides in the future, and donated $25,000 to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

The apology received thousands of comments, mostly enthusiastic praise; a handful of people thought Kickstarter didn’t act harshly or swiftly enough, and a handful accused it of being part of a feminist conspiracy to destroy men. All of these responses missed the mark. The guide may have been a little sleazy and ridiculous in parts, but its main tenet—that men should be straightforward with women about their desires—is good for women.

The guide, written by Ken Hoinsky, was pulled from a series of Reddit posts. The section on “Physical Escalation & Sex” inspired the most ire, particularly this excerpt:
Decide that you're going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg & back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don't ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances…Pull out your cock and put her hand on it. Remember, she is letting you do this because you have established yourself as a leader. Don't ask for permission, grab her hand, and put it right on your dick.

Lots of people worried that this was promoting sexual assault. Indeed, if Hoinsky were advocating that men walk up to women in bars and take out their dicks, these critics would have a point. But that’s not what he’s doing: he’s teaching men how to seduce women, and that kind of behavior would almost certainly be counterproductive. The context in this excerpt is important: he’s talking about how to escalate a situation towards sex when a woman has already expressed some interest and receptivity. It’s the second to last of nine chapters explaining how to help women feel comfortable enough around you to be open to sex, starting with making small talk, flirting, getting her number, and going on dates.  

Of course, just because a woman has been receptive to some of a man’s advances doesn’t mean she must be receptive to all of them—a kiss doesn’t necessarily set off a chain of events that ends in a vagina. But that’s not what Hoinsky is advocating at all. There’s a big difference between telling men that being upfront about their desires will help attract women, and telling them that being upfront about their desires makes them entitled to women. Nowhere does Hoinsky imply the latter; if he did, what would be the point in putting so much effort into wooing women into bed?

When Hoinsky tells men to “grab her hand, and put it right on your dick,” he’s saying: you are an adult man who doesn’t have to be timid about your desires. He’s also implicitly saying: your partner is an adult woman who can express her own desires—including a desire for you to back off. And he’s very ready to accept that this is a real possibility:
If at any point a girl wants you to stop, she will let you know. If she says "STOP," or "GET AWAY FROM ME," or shoves you away, you know she is not interested. It happens. Stop escalating immediately and say this line: 
"No problem. I don't want you to do anything you aren't comfortable with."Memorize that line. It is your go-to when faced with resistance. Say it genuinely, without presumption. All master seducers are also masters at making women feel comfortable. You'll be no different. If a woman isn't comfortable, take a break and try again later. 
All that matters is that you continue to try to escalate physically until she makes it genuinely clear that it's not happening. She wants to be desired, but the circumstances need to be right. With some experience, you will learn to differentiate the "No, we can't... my parents are in the next room... OMG FUCK ME FUCK ME HARD" from the "SERIOUSLY GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME, YOU CREEP" variety of resistance. 
Of course if you're really unclear, back off. Better safe than sorry.
This implication—that it’s okay for a woman to be in an uncomfortable situation, because she can speak up for herself—is the part that has a lot of people freaking out. They worry that Hoinsky is telling men to put too much pressure on women, and that some women might not speak up out of fear or intimidation. To prevent that from happening, they argue, we need to teach men not to do anything without getting explicit permission.

I can understand the sentiment, having been in plenty of sexual situations where I didn’t know how to slow things down. When I liked a guy, I was often afraid that saying no to sex would make him lose interest or think me a prude. But those fears didn’t abdicate me of my responsibility to be visible in the relationship. I had to either deal with the discomfort of speaking up (and risk losing him), or deal with the discomfort of feeling bad about myself for not speaking up (and risk losing myself). It’s not the guy’s job to save me from that choice by asking if I’m okay every step of the way. Looking back, I’m grateful for all the discomfort caused me by horny, aggressive men—it was a much better lesson in sexual autonomy and self-respect than sensitive, gentle, permission-asking men could have ever provided me.

Sex brings men and women together, but we’re still different minds and different bodies. When our desires conflict, we shouldn’t automatically implicate the man: men and women both have a responsibility to make ourselves visible.

Hoinsky’s seduction guide is good for women because it treats us like human beings capable of making our own decisions and deserving of respect (note that Kickstarter’s apology referenced a commitment to a culture of respect). It also gives us exactly what we always claim to want in our partners: more openness and vulnerability, because what could be more vulnerable than a man showing his attraction to you in the face of possible rejection?
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