Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

You’re a girl! Now, a quick quiz on HTTP…

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

How do you react when people (generally older men) treat us (young women in tech/engineering) as show dogs? I’ve had a number of people give me an off-topic pop quiz when they were there for my technical expertise. Sure, when they come to my place of work they are probably expecting to be served by someone older and are surprised by me, but that’s no excuse for quizzing me on whether I know what http stands for when I’m trying to make sure they can get to the specific web page they need to after they leave my office. In the past, I’ve smiled and answered their question, because my reflex on being asked a question is to answer it. However I can’t imagine they’d take my refusal to perform as anything other than admitting I don’t know the answer (not that I need to for my job, but I don’t really need to appear unintelligent in front of potentially prejudiced clients), and I can’t be too rude at work.

12 thoughts on “You’re a girl! Now, a quick quiz on HTTP…

  1. deborah

    My response to that is far from ideal: I usually try to answer the question and then (cheerfully, as if we are all in this together) turn it around and quiz them as if they, too, were show ponies. Preferably with a question that is slightly over their head, although of course this only works if there’s a technology vector where I know more than my questioner.

    Obviously this isn’t ideal — turning the rudeness around and repeating it is never the right solution.

    1. Ericka

      Answering a question and then asking my own was the way I was going to go, too. Be cheerful, be polite, pretend it’s a game, instead of that it is someone questioning your ability to do your job. Make sure that if the prejudiced client can’t answer, you answer right away. Hopefully this should cut the irrelevant questioning off, but if it doesn’t – keep it up. The biggest problem is that this can land you in a situation that really is a competition and that could get annoying very fast.

      The other possibility is, when they ask a stupid and irrelevant and simple question (like the one you mentioned about http), if you’re able, say “Oh, I’m glad you’re interested” and launch into a long-winded and technical explanation. Go on for a minute or so and then cut yourself off and say “Oh, I’m sorry, we were trying to get you this specific piece of information.” then go on with the original explanation.

  2. Natalie

    I usually answer, and then direct the conversation back at the asker. “What are you doing with HTTP?”, “Why are you interested?”, “I didn’t know your project involved HTTP, where do you use it?” (in of course the most cheerful and curious manner). This will lead to a bit of awkwardness if they were just asking to see if you knew the answer, and can lead to an interesting conversation if they weren’t.

    An alternative, probably better for this particular situation, is to act like they asked out of ignorance (“hyper-text transfer protocol, but, tee-hee, don’t worry, I forget what it stands for all the time too”). This will hopefully either lead to a change of subject, or they’ll say “I was just checking if you knew”, in which case I’d sigh and say “oh, I know, it’s so hard to find good people these days, the last five guys I interviewed didn’t even know the difference between a get and post request, so sad”, of course very sweetly and shaking my head sadly the entire time. Then they’d either agree, or say “no, it’s just because you’re a young woman”, in which case you can do whatever you’d normally do if someone does something openly sexist (“yell, complain to your boss, throw them out, etc.”)

    I find this strategy works quite well for a lot of different situations, acting as if people couldn’t possibly be sexist, imagining why they might behave the way they do for other reasons, and responding accordingly. At best, it makes them think of the reason for their behaviour, gives them an easy out this time and allows them to continue the conversation acting differently. At worst, it calls out their sexism, making them state it out loud, so that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were indeed sexist, and it’s easier to justify your reaction to it.

  3. John C Barstow

    Natalie, that’s a fantastic strategy, and one that can easily be adapted by others facing discrimination. I especially like the effect it has on those types who, in their own mind, couldn’t possibly be sexist.

  4. Lucy Kelvin

    If you intend to put them in their place, pretty much as suggested above. Best thing you can do though, is simply demonstrate your competence. I’m of the belief that such dinosaurs are dying out anyway. I see a lot less of it now than when I started out.

  5. Sulamita Garcia

    First thing that came to mind was to ignore the question, or answer “Oh, c’mon sir, you can do better than this, you can ask me about how to list the contents of a installed package – in Debian AND Fedora – or how to block a SSH connection from outside in a firewall. Even what is file system journalling I would accept”. Am I too bad? :)

  6. Roberta Guise

    If you’re sitting when approached, before you say a word I suggest standing up and walking around the desk/table to the person. That way, using only body language, you’ve established yourself as an equal and retained your power. You could even start walking while answering, which would force the person to follow. Keep your walking pace at a good clip.

    If you’re feeling really daring, you could pat the person’s arm once.

    Women need to claim the physical space as much as all the other spaces….

  7. Elena

    I’ve never actually had a pop quiz. I have had techy people start lines of conversation that were obviously meant to subtly check my level of knowledge, but I am confident in what I do know and also confident enough to admit when I don’t know wnat what I can’t do. The only way to lose is to try and blag it.

    It’s best not to play games. Life’s too bloody short and self-respect too bloody precious. A good answer is often, “Why, what do you trying to get done?”

  8. Miriam Hochwald

    HTTP: Highly Tiresome Technical Prattle

    Then fire a question or series of them about something specific that they are unlikely to know the answer to. For instance refer to an article in a tech journal (also by page and author), seeking their “unique learned” perspective??

    …. Or you could just answer and include “Do you think my lipstick matches my shoes? Fair play. Must be done with an absolute straight face.

    …. since when is the ability to speak geek representative of ones ability to do the job? Personally I can’t keep up, and have spent a great deal of time an energy trying to fill all the prescribed social conventions of ICT competency.

    +1 Sulamita Garcia – like your style.

    Miriam Hochwald

    Founder & Director of Girl Geek Coffees

  9. the scrum mistress

    If you are determined to interpret such questions as some sort of sublimated sexist dig then tell them you don’t know but if they ask the tea boy he will be able to tell them. That makes you over-qualified and puts them on a professional level with the tea boy.

    Or you could try treating them like a human being and answer the question if you know the answer or say you don’t know if you don’t. I love talking about what I know and I don’t think that every time a man (or woman) asks me a basic question about my trade it is some sort of plot to undermine my authority, abilities, or qualifications based on what I have in my pants. That is just paranoid.

    Most of the time I am the first person they have ever spoken to (man or woman) who knows the answer to something they are merely curious about. Share your passion and encourage people to become more technically conversant. Don’t try to make the other person uncomfortable. It won’t do you, your career, or your gender any favours.

    If you treat someone like a human being in a way you would like to be treated maybe that will encourage them to treat others in the same way.

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