And she’s cute, too!

Today’s guest blogger, Juliet Kemp, is a sysadmin, technical writer, and environmentalist.

The other week, I got an email from someone who had read one of my articles. This is something that happens from time to time, and normally it makes me happy. It's good to hear that people appreciate what you write.

So I opened up the email, and sure enough, it started off with a compliment about the usefulness of a particular article that I'd written. Great. Warm fuzzies abound. Unfortunately, the warm fuzzies vacated the premises in the next paragraph, in which the (male) writer concluded with the sentiment that it was nice to read such good articles written by "a cutie".

I think I may have said something very rude at that point. It certainly left me feeling uncomfortable and a little creeped-out.

The problem I have with this isn't just in the assumption that it's OK for a total stranger (who I've never even seen in person) to comment on my appearance. It's in the implication that the technical merit of my writing isn't the important part here — that what's important is how physically attractive I am. (And in particular with the form of words used, not just "cute", but "a cutie", which is a very neat way to suggest that everything important about a person can be encapsulated in their appearance.)

But hey. Maybe this guy was just ill-informed, right? Maybe he really did just mean to be complimentary, and didn't know that what he was saying might well cause discomfort or give offence.

So I took some nice calming breaths, and I emailed him back, saying: "Hey, thanks for letting me know that you like my writing, but the rest of your comment made me uncomfortable. And I'm sure you don't mean to do that, or to come across as creepy, so I'm letting you know that it was inappropriate."

Next day, I got a reply. He started off by saying that my response (finding his comment inappropriate) was as expected; then that he wouldn't mind someone calling him cute; and then went on to elaborate on his opinion of the attractiveness of "most" women in tech (low), and of the competence of those women who were attractive (also low).

Without even getting into the broader points (I'll do that in a moment), this man is saying "I expected this to make you uncomfortable, but I said it anyway, because I think it should be OK". This isn't even just cluelessness: it's deliberately causing distress. It's on the same continuum as the guy who gropes women on public transport, because he wants to and he doesn't care what they want.

I gave up at that point, but for the benefit of those playing along at home, here are the issues in play:

  • Issues of privilege and systemic gender inequality mean that it just is not the case that you can swap genders over and say "it would be fine this way around, so it's fine the other way around". These things have different meaning depending on your position, and men and women are starting from different positions (with different social expectations of their behaviour, and different access to power).
  • Not to mention the all-too-familiar "I think this, which differs from what you think, thus your response is invalid".
  • Techie women aren't cute? Cute women aren't techie? Those who claim to be both are mostly lying? We're back to a set of assumptions about what makes women worthwhile: appearance. And a projected opposition: you can be either attractive or intelligent, but not both. Women are only allowed to fit into one of two pre-defined categories, rather than existing as the 3 billion or so complex individuals that they are.
  • It is simply not relevant what someone looks like in this context. By drawing attention to appearance in this way, what's coming through is that what matters here isn't my (or any other woman's) technical ability, it's our physical appearance. This is not a standard which is applied to male geeks (and hey, it wouldn't be acceptable if it was).

(This link about exceptionalism also contains some useful thoughts about these issues.)

The thing is: this isn't an isolated incident. It would still be shitty even if it was; but it isn't. Other geek women I spoke to had similar experiences, and in a couple of cases deliberately kept photos of themselves offline in order to avoid such problems; there's plenty of evidence that people who openly operate online as "female" get significantly more harassment than those who operate as "male". And often far worse or blunter than this particular incident, which made me uncomfortable and angry, but at least wasn't threatening. That's a typical female experience in itself: to tell yourself, well, this was unpleasant, but it wasn't, y'know, dangerous. Frankly, fuck that shit.

It's all part of a continuum. Think of women as primarily important for their appearance, and that informs your interactions with them. It's patronising, degrading, and it's fundamentally not acceptable behaviour. Compliment me on my technical skills, by all means, but don't suggest that that's just an adjunct to what really matters: that you think I'm cute.

And, of course, this puts women off engaging in what is already (as has been extensively discussed, here and elsewhere) a very male space. This, exactly this, kind of behaviour, is what creates a space where women are not comfortable to contribute. And that sucks even more than the ignorant behaviour itself.

40 thoughts on “And she’s cute, too!

  1. Mark Terranova

    I really enjoyed what you have written. I appreciate how you tried to engage/ teach the idiot. In this case it was a lost cause; he was sexist because of a ridiculous philosphy.
    Others though are sexist because of ignorance (education might help.) Next time you ‘call someone out’- you may help lead them to a path of ‘elightenment’. Some men play anti-feminist bingo & don’t even know it. This isn’t just a matter for women to teach men about either. Men need to ‘call out’ negative actions from other men (& themselves.)
    If you do mis-speak or otherwise put your foot in your mouth – apologize – move on. Don’t forget to thank the person for giving you the time & respect – to think that you might be capable of a change for the better.

    1. Cat

      Mark-

      The thing is, though, we don’t have some kind of obligation as women to educate losers. It is entirely okay for us to simply say “This is a not-okay behaviour, male person, and you must stop.” And then to walk away. As you say–it’s nice when someone can bring herself to attempt to educate the loser who just insulted/offended/assaulted her, but it is by no means necessary or required. I’ve had too many experiences already with people who, on whatever issue, respond to criticism with “Well, I didn’t know, you have to explain,” and then utterly fail to listen, and usually go on to compound their error in the process of defending or rationalising their behaviour.

      1. Mark Terranova

        Cat

        I appreciate what you said. You are absolutely right. A person has ZERO obligation to correct others; especially creeps. When confronted with BS, it’s OK to say nothing or tell them to eff off.
        I am part of a geek-group that is half women. I try to be aware of them getting the double-standard treatment. They get asked questions people would never ask a man; stuff I personally find insulting. When that happens; us ‘uppity folks’ speak up.

        When I see injustice – I say something. Sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain stupid- 90% of the time – I’ll speak up (10% silence = personal safety.) That doesn’t mean your wrong if you don’t speak up. I’m outspoken. I feel the need to do this. I like the idea of helping create a safe space. I am not comfortable with the notion a person having to change – just so they don’t hear crappy things. All I can do is tell the idiots to shut up, & maybe hope to educate a few others along the way.
        I’m a long ways away from being ‘enlightened’, but, I’m trying. I thank the people in my life who have had the patience to point out my foibles. I understand that I speak from a place of ‘priviledge’. With that in mind – I welcome criticisms from those willing to let me know when I am off-base, mis-guided, or just need to shut up. It is up to those of that have the energy, feel up to it, or are willing to be the change you want to see in the world.
        It can only help those who are silent (as is their right.)

    2. Mackenzie

      It’s also really time-consuming to respond to each one, especially when they’ll nit-pick and need you to re-explain it 20 times before they’re satisfied.

      ETA:
      Read “satisfied” as “they think maybe you have a point, but you’re still only one person and probably exaggerating and being hysterical anyway, so they’ll need further evidence in the form of 100% of the women in this field that they know corroborating your story. If 1 has not shared your experience, you’re lying.”

    3. Mary

      Also, enough men respond extremely badly to being called out that women have been trained to do it as little as possible, for fear of anger and violence, although in geek circles being worn into a tiny little pile of dirt by the “but… but… but…” insistence that you prove your feelings exist and are justified from first principles is more common as Mackenzie notes. Fugitivus has a good (but note trigger warning) post about women’s social training not to object to men’s behaviour.

    4. Juliet Kemp

      Hi Mark,

      As others have said – yes, it may be that calling someone out will produce a useful outcome, but my experience is that *most* of the time you don’t get a positive reaction. I think one of the things that pissed me off here was that I spent valuable energy *trying* to be that positive person who assumes ignorance rather than malice, and hey look! it was malice after all.

      This isn’t just a matter for women to teach men about either.

      Your statement that it is up to men to educate/call out other men as well is bang on. However, this particular sentence you might want to reword – there looks like there’s an assumption in there that it *is* women’s job to educate men (and then *also* a job for other men). And as others have said: that’s a job that is at best tiring and at worst actively unpleasant. I prefer the assumption that it is everyone’s own job to educate *themselves*; and that anyone assisting another person in that task is doing *them* a favour.

      1. Mark Terranova

        .

        Thank you for what you said. You are right. I appreciate the constructive critiques. I want to be able to stand up for what is right; but, not at the expense of offending (or slighting) those I am trying to ally help. We will bring up these ideas at one of our next meetings. Great post – I really like the dialog it has created.

  2. Jen

    Definitely a situation I and other tech women I know have encountered as well, with similar reactions and results. The other unfortunate effect of this type of thinking is that it causes smart women feel they have to play down their appearance or deliberately make themselves unattractive in order to be taken seriously.

    1. Mackenzie

      Yes, THIS! I’ve dressed effeminately to a grand total of ONE technical conference. It was the Ubuntu Developer Summit. Most of them know me online, so I figured once they got the name put to the face, everything’s cool (of course, in the time before they learn that the young lady in the skirt is Mackenzie, there could be confusion, but meh, many have seen photos online). For other cons, loose-fitting t-shirts have always been the rule. I do intend to wear a skirt and well…dress like I do in the summer…for OLF this year though. I’m a speaker, and there’s a photo of me in the speakers list online. Hopefully that’s enough of a cluebat.

      1. Mark Terranova

        Ubuntu is the first non-gender specific distibution (as far as I know.) There is a group of us starting to pull people aside (and correct them). When some of us in the Bay Area see sexist behavior we *cough* RMS *cough* or maybe mention anti-feminist-bingo. It goes over some people’s heads. Others have responded kindly & been thankful for suggestions to better improve their reception.

        I am sorry that you must ‘downplay’ your appearance. That’s sad. I look forward to people being able to express themselves in dress, hair (or lack of), in THEIR style & without having to worry about harassment.

      2. Mackenzie

        Mark:
        I’m not sure what you mean by the distro being non-gender-specific, but the reason I felt OK dressing normally was that I’m fairly well established in that developer community. Hacker cons, though? Don’t attend ‘em without a guy alongside to deflect come-ons.

    2. Juliet Kemp

      Mm – and that further sets up/confirms the perceived opposition between smart & attractive…

      I was going to say, it’s about as aggravating / restricting to have to dress down to be taken seriously as it is to have to dress up to be taken seriously, but actually I don’t think that’s entirely true. Given how much of “dressing up” (in the ‘makeup, heels, etc etc’ sense) is about coding for sexual availability, I think that a) “dressing up” isn’t exactly about being taken *seriously*, it’s about conforming to a particular, restrictive and negative, view of femininity; and b) going for the signalling-non-availability clothing isn’t as damaging. However! It still sucks that this is something that women have to *think* so damn hard about. I want to be able to wear what I please without having to agonise over the messages I’m sending by it.

  3. Simon

    “he wouldn’t mind someone calling him cute”

    A similar line of thinking, if it may be dignified by that name, came in the Watergate hearings when Bob Haldeman’s lawyer was overheard calling Senator Inouye a “little Jap.” The lawyer was baffled by the fuss over this. “I wouldn’t mind being called a little American,” he said.

  4. Aliza

    Yes, I see that over and over again. Women are judged on their appearance in belittling ways that many men often don’t seem to understand.

    Sadly, I’ve been unable to avoid trying to turn that to my benefit, at times, especially when dealing with colleagues who have only met me online or over the phone.

    1. Juliet Kemp

      It’s tempting to take advantage of these things sometimes, especially when they’re so often to one’s *dis*advantage :-/ And the more covert/subtle forms of this can also be really hard to do anything about, because of the likelihood of being told that you’re just imagining it or whatever.

  5. Mackenzie

    Unfortunately the post I made on my blog called “You know Linux? Marry me!” Doesn’t Fly back in 2007 was not the end of these sorts of responses for me. Hell, a couple weeks ago some guy IMed me and told me he wanted me sitting on his lap demonstrating how to use sshfs to mount a remote filesystem (after trying to “save” me religiously).

    1. Liz Henry

      You know what really chaps my hide, the thinking behind the comment on your 2007 post that says,

      “If you would like fewer men to hit on you at conferences, teach your female friends to use linux. Bring them. Far fewer men will be interested in you.”

      Yeah… because I really feel motivated to bring my friends to be sexually harassed by my side!

      1. Mackenzie

        /me re-reads all the comments on the old blog post

        Hey, Carla commented on my blog? Cool! And um… the CalPoly student sound just like the guy in this post. Hrm.

      2. Juliet Kemp

        Not just that, but that’s basically saying: it’s not the behaviour that’s the problem, it’s that one individual is getting all of the bad behaviour. If you spread the bad behaviour out it’ll be fine!

        i.e. “it’s the fault of the women for being so rare, not of the men for being sexist & inconsiderate”. Gah.

      3. Kat

        I read that differently, and so I see it with a little more charity and less frustration. I see it as “when you aren’t the only one and women are commonplace here, you won’t be the exotic weirdo who gets attention for being the only one.” Not that men swarming female geeks because they are rare is a good thing, but making female geeks non-rare and thus not so interesting as to attract unwanted attention everywhere (as opposed to simply causing the attention to be spread around more) *would* be an improvement…

        (I do go to tech conferences where I am one of a tiny handful of women–though I almost never get hit on, or maybe I’m oblivious to it.)

    2. Juliet Kemp

      That is indeed an impressive quantity of FAIL. Out of interest, how did you react to sshfs/lap guy? (ignored/sent scathing response/something else…)

      1. Mackenzie

        Repeated my requests that he stop hitting on me, repeated that I had a partner, etc. He thinks partners only count if married though. He’s blocked now. Saved the log and showed it to my friends. They say “11.5 out of 10 on the Creep-O-Meter.”

  6. Dorothea Salo

    I am smiling, but it probably looks more like a grimace.

    This was the first big blogfight I ever got into. In 2002. I damn near quit blogging over it.

    I left an otherwise-congenial group of techies over the sexualization of women (not aimed at me this time; after all, I’m fat, homely, and no spring chicken). That was in 2007.

    And yet it doesn’t stop.

    Thank you OP for expressing the problem with such eloquence.

  7. DM SHERWOOD

    Yeah well (I’m male by the way) its a matter of when it is proper to foreground sexuality in an intelectual context. I DON’T think its wrong to flirt to half playfully hit on someone attractive in a work situation- if one does that one disses 1/2 the office romances that have ever been.Its wrong as this creep was doing to undercut a woman as a competant equal because , say, she had a cute ass (the guy wouldn’t accept it was self-evident that he’d got his job because and only because he was the bosses son. Why because he had a 9″ Penis and therefore was a thicko QED).
    The problem as i see it is everything is in flux.There are no guidelines for when a propersition is cool and when it is gross. & no way for a woman to calmly make her point that yes she has a sex drive and maybe (not that its any of your buisness) she’s slept with 1/2 the guys in the firm but that she doesn’t fancy you and have it stick without rancour and resentment.

    1. Juliet Kemp

      I disagree. There are guidelines. It’s not OK to proposition someone in a work context. It’s not OK to comment on their attractiveness. Working environments aren’t and shouldn’t be about constantly having your attractiveness policed and/or discussed.

      It’s not just about being able to turn someone down with no hard feelings (although sure, that entirely should be possible). It’s about not having to constantly be *dealing* with being asked; not having to constantly be aware that your sexual availability and attractiveness are what’s seen as “important”, rather than your technical ability.

      Sure, people who work together, or attend LUGs together, or whatever, sometimes wind up getting together. But there *is* a basic guideline here and it’s about treating women as real people, not just as a set of physical characteristics with a handy ability to recompile a kernel as a bonus. Key concepts here are about friendship, about interacting with a whole person – and not just the sort of “friendship” where you’re angling to get in a person’s pants the whole time.

      More generally, your whole comment indicates an attitude to women that’s prioritising sex over other things (‘propositioning’? descriptions of sexual history?), and that comes across as distasteful.

    2. Rick

      I DON’T think its wrong to flirt to half playfully hit on someone attractive in a work situation- if one does that one disses 1/2 the office romances that have ever been.

      First, I submit that if a pass is blatant enough to be described as “hitting on” someone, the office isn’t the place for it. It’s the responsibility of someone making romantic overtures to do so in a non-threatening matter. You can be pretty sure the person on the receiving end is going to have a different idea about this than you.

      Second: the workplace can admittedly be a sort of incubator for attraction; painting with a broad brush, you spend half your waking hours in close proximity with intelligent people who are interested in a lot of the same things as you. That being said, why is there such a focus on trying to sleep with every woman a man might share an office with? Why not, oh, make friends with your co-workers that seem to be cool and get to know them as people instead?

      The problem as i see it is everything is in flux.There are no guidelines for when a propersition is cool and when it is gross.

      There’s not a set of Official Rules that apply to every situation because (surprise!) women are individuals who have their own ideas about what what attention’s welcome and what’s not. The notion that it’s somehow unknowable whether or not one’s conduct is ok is a total canard. I’m not the best person to talk about intrapersonal dynamics and it would take a small book anyway. Instead, have a a look at the link that Mary pointed out earlier (trigger warning)and stick around for some of the other bits that Harriet’s written, too.

      & no way for a woman to calmly make her point that yes she has a sex drive and maybe (not that its any of your buisness) she’s slept with 1/2 the guys in the firm but that she doesn’t fancy you and have it stick without rancour and resentment.

      On the contrary, when a women indicates that she’s not interested, the man in question can say “No problem; sorry for the awkwardness” and leave her alone instead of being a rancorous, resentful asshole. Easy!

  8. Jennifer Jacobs

    This issue of being labeled as attractive and technically proficient manifests itself on many different but equally problematic levels. When I was in a freshman in college I would have older male CS students, upon identifying me as a member of their subculture invite themselves into my room and impose upon my space.

    Now in my career I have lost several male colleagues and collaborators over the issue of me not being available emotionally to them. Even with the most open minded men in the tech sector, an expectation is placed on attractive single women to be open to relationships in the workplace. In my case, once I make it clear that there is no possibility of a romantic relationship of this nature, the guy gradually cuts off all contact and and any chance of a working relationship disappears.

    The cult value placed by male geeks on the attractive female geek is so distorted through it’s portrayal in mainstream media that when men encounter a woman who somewhat falls in line with their perception of this stereotype, any technical abilities on the part of the woman are viewed in terms of their novelty- their skills become another element of their “cuteness” rather than a professional skill set. Often all discussion of technology becomes sexualized. I once had a guy explain to me how he could hack his blackberry and convert it to a wireless modem and then asked me if hearing about it turned me on.

    Reading this post, despite its importance, left me at a loss, because it aligned so completely with what I had experienced along with many other women, but have never discovered a way of effectively dealing with it. How can we address this issue without irrevocably damaging our careers and relationships?

    1. Juliet Kemp

      How can we address this issue without irrevocably damaging our careers and relationships?

      I think part of the answer is just to keep having these discussions; to keep making it publicly clear that this behaviour is not acceptable, and thus to keep moving the social norms along. That’s a slow change, though, at best, and as you say, it’s to some extent working against other social influences, which makes change far harder. (And this plays into more general cultural ideas about female sexual availability, of course.)

      Part of me says, well, hey, if not being sexually available to someone means that they’re not around any more, then that’s probably someone you’re well rid of. However, I know it’s not as straightforward as that when it affects *working* relationships.

      I’m not sure I have any good answers, either. :-/

  9. Ron Sidell

    Another male geek’s perspective

    I agree that many people, and most men, are unaware of how hurtful sexual harassment can be in the workplace. Most men also mistakenly believe that it would be fine with them if they were at the receiving end of this kind of treatment. It is unlawful to do anything that creates a “hostile work environment,” and that law is supposed to protect every one of us; no matter what sex, no matter what race, no matter what sexual preference. The law is clear about one thing in particular: a hostile work environment is in the eye of the receiver. If I feel harassed, it doesn’t matter one bit how my harasser(s) feels about it.

    That said, I have seen many people of both sexes treat the workplace as if it were a relationship/sexual hunting ground. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that humans are animals too, and despite our fancy clothes and high tech gear, we often behave like… well, animals.

    Changing another person’s behavior is nearly impossible, and its even harder to change their core beliefs. I think that trying to teach an adult, when you are the one being harassed, is not worth the effort. Better to draw a firm boundary, as in (please?) stop doing that behavior and by the way it’s illegal and can get you fired.

    I am tempted to suggest turning the tables on jerk/idiots like this guy, with something like “Well thanks, that’s a real compliment coming from such a butt-ugly dude as yourself.” But satisfying as that might be, I think it would just reinforce more bad behavior.

    Perhaps the only way to really effect change in this area is to educate young people. We all need to work together to make this happen. Training of adults in a work setting can help somewhat, but not as much as I would like.

    Ok, that’s my 10 cents on the subject :)
    Best regards to all

    1. Bene

      I am tempted to suggest turning the tables on jerk/idiots like this guy, with something like “Well thanks, that’s a real compliment coming from such a butt-ugly dude as yourself.”

      Not to play educator, but I had to respond:
      As a matter of safety both physical and emotional, imo it would be very difficult for a woman to use that kind of response either in the workforce or even socially. I’m not a wimp, but I would make an honest effort never to go there unless I had a whole posse to back me up or something was said to me that I just could not leave go. The kind of invective that gets thrown at women even casually is painful. Responding with insults to unwelcome overtures can be seen as ‘inviting’ even worse on oneself.

  10. Leigh Honeywell

    Thank you so much for posting this, Julie. I sent it to someone I know from the local infosec community who sent me a similar email recently, though I’m pretty sure his intentions were nowhere near as douchebaggy as your correspondent’s. I do hope he reads it.

    -Leigh

  11. Melissa

    Reading Juliet’s post reminds me of the creepy kid from Ghana who emailed me after reading my blog, claiming to be “Linux Chix STALKER” asking me to apply for him to stalk me. He even sent a photo of himself along with it.

      1. Melissa

        No. I chose not to give any reason for people to hate on me for, y’know daring to make it known who may be a threat, just in case. Just sayin’.

  12. laura

    My mother (who has a PhD in English, an MD, and a masters degree in science, just for good measure) usually responds to being called cute by saying, “You know, I have worked very hard to be a number of different things in my life. ‘Cute’ is not one of them.” I love my mom.

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