Being an ally to a “OMG hot girl!1!!!!”

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

This questioner asked us not to quote the exact context, but was involved in one of those scenarios where a woman got involved in a technical discussion with a man and he very quickly diverted into a “by the way, hot geek girl whoa, will you marry me???!?” tangent. (Incidentally, if you’ve done this recently and you’re sure we’re talking about you… sadly we probably aren’t as it happens all the time.) The questioner writes:

I felt I should say something, but didn’t really know what… So, what would you have hoped I’d say when involved in something like that?

What do you think a man should say if he disapproves of this kind of thing, and it’s a fast-paced discussion (IRC, chat, Twitter, Facebook, emails flying around, that kind of thing)?

23 thoughts on “Being an ally to a “OMG hot girl!1!!!!”

  1. Meg

    My response would probably just be, “don’t be a f*ckwad.” In a fast-paced discussion I’m not going to convey the dehumanizing, objectifying, sexist results of his behavior and why his behavior is unacceptable. The best I’m going to do is shame him into S-ingTFU.

    The slightly more polite version might be, “she’s here for the , apparently unlike you”, “You are officially now ‘that guy'” or “dude, you never get to act surprised when someone complains about sexism in the community ever again.”

  2. A.Y. Siu

    I’ve never really been in that scenario in real life. On the Ubuntu Forums, though, it happens all the time. I sometimes say something like “This is why Ubuntu Women exists” or I just give the user an infraction or warning. Sometimes I just let the woman handle it. It isn’t my job to save her from annoying gawking guy geeks. Geek women are usually strong enough to stand up for themselves.

    1. Rick

      It can admittedly seem like a fine balance to strike, but: while it’s not an ally’s job to play the White Knight rescuing the hapless damsel, the task of dealing with inappropriate behaviour in our communities shouldn’t fall exclusively to women, either. Maintaining an atmosphere that’s friendly and welcoming to everybody benefits all of us, so we all need to pitch in. Otherwise, women end up spending their time duking it out with douchebags instead of coding, testing, and doing the other ‘fun’ stuff that we’re all here for.

    2. Mackenzie

      Hi AYSiu :D

      PM me with links to threads. I’m happy to deal with them. I usually catch the “LOL their r woman here???” (admit it, those sorts can never remember the difference between “woman” and “women”) posts in the UW subforum, but I can’t keep up with the Cafe. This is the reason my subtitle on the forums just says “girls can be geeks too!”

  3. Keith Ealanta

    I’ve once been in a similarish situation where a friend of mine insisted on making that sort of comment to a girl in our computing class. She ended up fleeing the room, so I kind of tore him a new one in front of the rest of the class, pointing out to him that (a) he’d made himself look a complete prat, and (b) we’d all much rather she was around than otherwise, and now we’d have to choose between him and her and that everyone there would choose her.

    It is hard as a guy to communicate to the sort of person who makes that sort of comment though – usually you can’t just point out the sexism (well, not usefully). In the end you have to make them understand that they’ve made their own life worse. I’ve used some pretty dirty tactics on other guys who’ve done similar (“What? Are you gay? I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to chase a girl like that away!”) and sometimes on mailing lists and similar I’ve just commented that no wonder everyone sees us (the list members) as a bunch of sad losers if we can’t even hold a civilised conversation with a woman.

    I realise my own comments are not without issues (particularly using gay as an attack).
    The hardest part is at the time not to use the girls good looks as an element of the response – It’s easy to say “don’t chase the pretty ones away”, but that leaves every other girl in the room wondering if they look good enough to warrant considerate behavior.

    1. Mary Post author

      I debated approving this comment, because of the use of homophobia as a weapon to defend women, but ended up approving it because you noted that it was problematic yourself. But to emphasise, I, as a geek woman and geek feminist, would very much rather not see that one used. To use your own argument: there are gay geeks in the room too, and you want them there! It’s unacceptable to make geekdom safer for women at the expense of another marginalised group.

      Fundamentally, the problem is that you want to argue “women are people!” And if someone doesn’t already believe this, saying “you just treated that woman like not-people” doesn’t make a lot of sense, because he thinks “well yeah, of course I did, because she isn’t people.”

      I think in general the approach in these “no time to explain” circumstances is to make it clear that you don’t admit that kind of behaviour as acceptable near you.

  4. Teaspoon

    Call it what it is.

    “Thanks for that fine example of sexism, dude.”

    And while, yes, many women (geek or not) are capable of standing up for themselves, many men that engage in sexist behaviors won’t actually hear their behavior called out unless another man says something.

    1. quaid

      +1

      Part of being a supportive friend and human being is to speak up for your friends. All too often there is a ‘code of silence’ that comes up; men feel uncomfortable breaking the silence. It’s one reason we need to speak up, to give ourselves and other men permission to speak up. It’s all the more awkward when you are feeling that human connection to all people involved. It becomes easy to think, “Wow, that was uncomfortable, I don’t want to call that person out on the behavior and make all of us feel even more uncomfortable.”

      Yes, discrimination is uncomfortable, it’s never going to feel OK, certainly not by ignoring it. Not speaking up is detrimental to the self. In the end, it’s about helping and supporting the humanity in all the people present, not just the people using and receiving discrimination.

    2. koipond

      I like this one too. I was going to post the many lines or sarcasm that I tend to use, but in the end I like this one a lot. It’s simple and directly to the point.

  5. Alice

    As tempting (and satisfying) as it is, I don’t think explicitly calling it out is that helpful in the end. We want these guys to still talk to technical women, not avoid them altogether.

    A warning glance (to the tune of “that is not appropriate right now”) and an immediate change of topic to something relevant to the situation (e.g. whatever the original technical topic was) would probably be more effective. A discreet but friendly “she gets that all the time, actually, and it’s not as much fun as you might think” might also be good, in lieu of a full feminist reprogramming which probably would take longer than the circumstances would allow.

    1. Cessen

      Thanks so much for that link. Seriously awesome stuff in there.

      In particular, for some reason it never occurred to me to communicate that these things actually bother *me*, personally. But they do bother me, and I should put that up at the forefront when calling people on these things.

  6. Cessen

    In reality, most of the time I’m at a bit of a loss for words. But in my imaginary land where I’m perfect:

    “Dude, you’re being an asshole. Show some respect.” In a clearly serious–but not grave or unapproachable–voice.
    And if they follow up with, “Hey, I was just joking.” then:
    “That’s not really meaningful. Jokes can be asshole-ish too.”

    But like I said… in reality, I fumble my words, or screw up somehow, or just fail to speak up. Usually I think of the perfect response ten minutes too late. Still working on it…

    When I think of it, I try to engage people as genuinely as possible, rather than resorting to tactics of some sort or another (for example, sarcasm is a great way to shut people down or “win” an argument, but it’s a really shitty way to actually get through to people). But that’s a hell of a lot easier with male privilege, of course. And I certainly don’t expect it of anyone else.
    It’s also a lot easier in less “rapid-fire” types of situations.

  7. Kaonashi

    A male friend of mine worked in daycare for a while as a temp, often switching between daycare centers. Almost always he was the only man working there, and being young and fairly attractive he got this treatment every day from the female staff. he told me his way of dealing with it was with humor or sarcasm, like for example “behave yourself, there are kids around” or “I’d take you up on your offer, but you still smell like diapers”.

    Now I’m sure the situation doesn’t translate directly to geek women for various reasons (for one thing I’m guessing my friend rarely felt threatened and could more easily play it cool), but I think there’s something to his way. A serious confrontation has its place, just as a witty, disarming sarcasm.

    I’ve engaged in this kind of douchebaggery in my youth, but not with any bad intentions, so it didn’t take much to make me realize there are better times and places for geek affections. I was 15 at the time, though. I’d expect that someone who keeps this behavior up at 25 usually requires a more stern reminder.

  8. Jayn

    I can’t recall offhand ever getting this question (aside from my husband :P), though I’m pretty sure I have. My gut reaction, though, would be simply “No” in an of-course-not/are-you-crazy tone of voice, and maybe taking a step or two away. Though, since I’m pretty oblivious to flirting, that would probably be my actual thought process.

    1. Mary Post author

      Since a few people have talked about in-person reactions, just a note that the original question was more about textual mediums where you can’t express surprise or disapproval with body language.

  9. Ann (kudra)

    I tend to ignore such comments when they are made in person, as most people will get the message that the comment was inappropriate when everyone ignores it and continues with the original discussion. If the person persists, and restates the comment, I comment that it isn’t really appropriate.

    On an online forum, however, I don’t think that ignoring it is the best solution. I’d incline more toward a response about the inappropriate nature of the comment. I do think it’s up to other people to say this, not only the target of the remark. Oftentimes the correction has a much greater impact if it isn’t just the victim speaking up, because people who make these sorts of comments in the first place are often inclined to conclude that the victim “has no sense of humor” than that there was anything wrong with the comment in the first place.

  10. spz

    A visitor in a chat I frequent went “OMG there are girls here”, and got a prompt and succinct “behave like an adult” from one of the guy regulars. I think that managed to get the point across quite well.

  11. TroubleEntendre

    “Why would she want to marry somebody who thinks that her interest in firmware updates is a novelty act?”

    Or something along those lines.

  12. Ingrid Jakobsen

    I don’t know if any of these would work, but this is the angle I’d go for:

    “I thought this was a technical site, not a dating site. I think I’ll go look for a more professional place to hang out.”
    “I’m here for the tech, can we get back to that?”
    “Do you have anything _useful_ to add to the conversation?”

  13. amberella

    I usually go with “Take a number,” and then continue the conversation at hand. Getting all blushy and embarrassed isn’t going to help the situation, and I realize that most of the time, their intention was to complement me, not be a sexist douche. Play along, move on. I’ll take a “Woah, impressive; marry me!” over a “What is she doing here; she won’t understand!” any day.

    1. amberella

      I just realized I didn’t really respond to the “ally” question in that I’ve never had anyone step in to defend me in that manner. I’d tend to get by on my aggressive ballsy-ness in those environments, so being “defended” is directly antithetical to me handling the situation myself and would probably result in some good-natured teasing of my “white knight” to re-assert that I’m perfectly capable of speaking on my own behalf. I could see how shyer/younger/other women might have a different reaction.

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