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.