A friend of mine posted this on Twitter:
I really respect the amount of self-awareness it takes to ask that question! It’s easy to disavow the trolls sending rape and death threats, but it takes much more courage to acknowledge that you might be perpetuating harmful attitudes in less-obvious ways.
[Author’s Note: I felt like it was important to establish some context, but you can also skip the 101-level discussion and jump right to the list.]
This question hints at two important concepts: implicit biases and microaggressions.
We have all internalized harmful stereotypes about women — it’s part of growing up in a culture that inculcates gender roles from a very early age. Our culture has deeply-embedded patriarchal power structures (ditto racist and classist and ableist and transphobic and homophobic and so on…) that we all absorb and have to intentionally question and deprogram. We all, regardless of our background or our conscious beliefs, have implicit biases that affect the way we see the world.
Groups that are dominated by one sort of person tend to develop ways of talking and thinking that implicitly center the identities and experiences of that one sort of person, which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, because it communicates to outsiders that they are different (at best; unwelcome interlopers or second-class citizens, at worst). It can introduce, or exacerbate, the further self-fulfilling prophecies of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. It can put pressure on people to conform to a certain type in order to succeed.
This context is the heart of why inclusive language matters, why a seemingly-harmless joke isn’t that harmless, and why small things seem to sometimes get blown out of proportion.
Which brings us to microaggressions: “social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.”
These are little things. Things that many people do without thinking about them and certainly without intending anything by them. Things that individually are meaningless, but in aggregate set the tone of an entire community.
Little things reinforce stereotypes and implicit biases instead of challenging them. They insulate members of the dominant group from having to confront their own biases. They communicate underlying attitudes and community norms. Language may or may not shape the way we think, but it is a powerful signal about what sort of behavior is and is not acceptable, and what your personal expectations are.
Worse, those little things can subtly reinforce the attitudes of actual abusers and signal that they are welcome in our community. (Example: rape jokes are seen as tacit nods of approval by actual rapists.)
Communication is tricky even on the best of days; the best defense against misunderstandings is to develop a finely-tuned sense of empathy, and try to notice as much as possible what we’re doing that might create distance from someone else and keep us from questioning our own assumptions about the world.
Sometimes it’s hard to see these things without getting defensive, or going too far down the road of guilt and excessive self-flagellation. I think it’s important to realize that every single one of us makes this kind of mistake, no one is immune. The determination of character, in my opinion, isn’t whether you slip up, but what you do about it afterward.
If you care about others, nothing feels worse than realizing you accidentally stepped on someone else’s foot. I really think it’s a natural reaction to bristle a bit, to try to minimize it, to protect ourselves from feeling bad. Once I recognized that defensiveness as a natural part of the process, it was much easier for me to realize I was doing it, then apologize and move on instead of digging myself deeper. It takes practice.
The good news, though, is that little things are easy to change. Personally I believe that if you can change the outward tone of a culture, you stand a good chance of changing the actual beliefs and attitudes of that culture.
Caveats: not everyone notices or cares about every single thing on this list, and I’ve probably missed some that my own privilege blinds me to. This is a list specifically focused on sexist microaggressions; while some of the things on this list might also apply to, for instance, transfolk or non-binary folks or people of color, I can’t claim to speak for anyone other than myself.
The post is written as “things men do”, because that’s the question that was asked, but of course anyone can (and does) perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Finally, this list is written for those who, like me, try to err on the side of being maximally-inclusive. Many of these things are common in our culture, and while I try to model good behavior, I don’t correct others’ usage unless they ask. I consider this an application of the robustness principle.
1. Using “guys” to mean “people”.
I fear I’m earning a bit of a reputation for this one among my colleagues, as I sometimes good-naturedly respond to “Hey guys, ?” with “I’m not a guy, but ”. Yes, most people intend this in a gender-neutral way; no, it is not actually gender-neutral. If you think about it, “guys” is only gender-neutral in a situation where maleness is the assumed default.
Many women don’t notice or mind this, but to some in our male-dominated field it can be a tiny, pointed reminder of the extra work they have to do just to fit in, be seen, be taken seriously.
Personally, it can also make me wonder if I’m being seen at all; I often read a message to a mailing list, or in a chat room, that begins “hey guys” and wonder whether the speaker realizes that not everyone on the list is a man. Worse, I worry it sends the wrong message to other women who might observe the exchange. For instance, if a woman was thinking of getting involved in WordPress development, could all the “guys” messages on the wp-hackers list make her think there aren’t any women in that community?
Don’t do the “guys and girls” thing either, which is marginally better but still makes it feel like an afterthought. Try: “folks”, “y’all”, “everyone”, “team”, “channel”, or just “awesome people”. :) If my own experience is any indication, it’ll sound weird for a month or two and then become normal.
2. Similarly: “girls” for “women”.
Yes, I know it’s the best we have as an informal analogue to “guys”, but it infantilizes women and sounds patronizing. It might subconsciously encourage us to take women less seriously. In general, “girl” should be used to refer to female children only. Like “guys”, this will sound weird for about a month and will then become normal.
Some folks are reclaiming “lady” for informal usage, but I’ve found that can be a bit loaded (personally, I don’t think of myself as a lady; when I was a child, my grandfather would reprimand me for wearing jeans or climbing trees, because those things were “unladylike”). YMMV, but for people you don’t know well, I would stick to “women”.
3. “Mom” as an example of a non-technical user.
I know: your mom, like a lot of people, may not be very good with computers. (My mom, on the other hand, while she doesn’t really give herself credit for it, is quite good at figuring computer stuff out. She programmed with punchcards in college and can do things with Excel that I have no idea how to do. It’s my dad who always needs computer help.)
This tired old trope erases the vast number of computer-literate women who happen to be mothers, as well as encouraging condescension. Again, the context here is a society and a professional field where women already struggle to be taken seriously; no need to pile on.
This trope has its own article on the Geek Feminism Wiki, which suggests alternatives: “When the purpose of the statement is to convey the idea that something is “really simple”, ideal nouns will refer to non-human or purely technical categories, such as cat, non-technical user, Ubuntu user, or “newbie.””
4. Using avatars that are male by default.
If the default (or unset) avatar on your site reads as male, you’re making an implicit statement that your “normal” user is male and anyone else is an exception. Personally, I think using a non-gendered (even non-human) avatar can really showcase an app’s creativity.
5. Describing software or algorithms as “sexy”, “hot”, etc.
By sexualizing something that does not need to be sexualized, you’re creating a college-frat-boy type environment, as well as implicitly conflating quality with sexual attractiveness. If I work with you, I want to know that you’re enough of an adult to be able to appreciate something (or someone) without wanting to fornicate with it.
Anyhow, it’s vague. What is so great about it? Is it really efficient, does it solve a problem in a new way, does it scale really well, does it have a great UI?
Related: Referring to hardware (or cars, or whatever) by female names or pronouns. Yeah, okay, grand naval tradition and all that, but it’s still kind of weird. Can you not tell the difference between women and objects?
6. Assuming women they meet are in non-technical roles.
If you meet a woman in a professional setting, like a conference (or the afterparty!), your first assumption should be that she’s there because she’s interested in the material. This seems obvious, but most women have had the unfortunate experience of being assumed to be “the marketing chick” or there with a boyfriend.
Under no circumstances should you ask a woman to prove her technical knowledge to you (even in jest).
Additionally, there’s a lot of implicit misogyny when you feign surprise upon discovering that a conventionally-attractive or feminine-presenting woman is also a geek. If you tell a woman approvingly that she’s “one of the guys” or “not like other women”, well, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’ve got some assumptions you need to rethink. (And I’m saying that as a woman who was proud to be called both of those things at one point.)
So, don’t say something like “Wow, I would never guessed you were a nerd!” Technical women often have to walk a fine line between looking properly “nerdy” (at the risk of coming across as sloppy) and looking put-together (but risking being taken less seriously).
7. Fetishizing “hot geek girls”.
It’s not a compliment to get comments like “Wow, a beautiful woman who’s also into kernel hacking?? Will you marry me?”
Rule of thumb: Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a man! It’s disrespectful to focus on someone’s appearance instead of their accomplishments.
The “fake marriage proposal” is extra weird because it’s grounded in a measure of success predicated on one’s desirability as a sexual or romantic partner. Women are people in their own right and have value independent of their relationships to men. A radical idea, I know.
An unsolicited “I find you attractive!” remark isn’t a compliment, it’s a note from a boner. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of women in technical careers didn’t get into them in order to serve as eye candy or find a date.
We don’t want to be singled out and given extra attention because “ooooh, a woman!”. Yes, being a woman in tech has its unique challenges, but no one wants to feel like they’re only getting attention because of their gender. We want to be treated normally, like human beings who happen to share some perfectly ordinary and normal interests with you.
8. Denigrating things by comparing them to women or femininity.
Don’t casually accuse someone of being “girly” or a “pussy”, or say that they “fight like a girl”, or make fun of them for liking “chick flicks”. Stop policing masculinity with comments about men who cross the line into “too feminine”.
Be on guard for unnecessarily-gendered terms (hysterical, shrill, “man up”, “grow a pair”, ballsy). Notice how those examples are all predicated on the assumption that acting like a man is inherently good, and acting like a woman is inherently bad?
Those are some of the most overt ones, but this kind of thing is weirdly common. I recently called out a cyclist friend for referring to the lowest gear as the “granny gear”.
9. Stereotyping women’s needs… or ignoring them.
Emery boards as conference swag? Really? Protip: Women use battery packs and stickers too.
Conversely, many apps just outright ignore features that disproportionately affect female users (like the conspicuous absence of period tracking functionality in the Apple’s new Health app). The whole issue of swag t-shirts is a big one in this category.
Which brings us neatly to…
10. Using dark UI patterns.
If you write software that enables harassment and stalking, or makes it difficult for users to protect their personal information, you’re disproportionately driving women off of your platform or making them do extra work. Respecting user’s privacy and emphasizing consent in software design is fundamentally an issue of equality — not just gender, but across the board.
11. Repeating generalizations about gender essentialism.
“Women just aren’t interested in programming/math/logic.” This is a thing that people really think, and say out loud. Statistically, the variation between individuals dwarfs any biological differences, and perpetuating these stereotypes has a real, harmful effect.
Even complimentary stereotypes, like “women are better at communicating” or “women have a better eye for design” contribute to the problem by encouraging a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” approach to gender. This is also known as benevolent sexism.
Similarly, don’t reduce the gender gap in tech to a problem of “getting more women into the pipeline”. The reality is that women leave the industry at every stage of their careers. Solving the pipeline problem is necessary, but not a magic bullet.
On the flip side, don’t excuse bad behavior with “boys will be boys” type excuses. Dismantling gender stereotypes is also about having more respect for men — believing they are just as capable of empathy and self-restraint as any other adult human being.
12. Assuming every woman in tech feels the same way and/or wants to discuss her experiences “as a woman in tech”.
We’re not a monolith, we can’t all speak for each other, and we often want to just talk about our work instead of being seen as women first. See the Ada Initiative’s great post, Breaking The Unicorn Law.
13. Staying quiet when other men do these things.
Finally: this is everybody’s work. It’s not just the responsibility of those affected to speak up — we all play a part in setting the standards for the communities we’re a part of. Leigh Honeywell has a great post about how each of us can help, in the infosec world or anywhere else:
We aren’t doomed to being the harassment and sexual assault capital of the tech world. We can make a difference. And it starts with each one of us standing up for what we think is right, in the moment when it happens.
The concept of “privilege” seems to often come across as an insult, but I think it’s also a statement that you have power in a particular situation, and it’s possible to use that power for good. Those with more privilege have the power to amplify the voices of others, to challenge the status quo without fearing the consequences of speaking up.
Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. These things serve as a starting point, an MVP, if you will. It’s certainly possible to do more, if you’re willing to devote the time and energy, but these suggestions are the “low-hanging fruit”: small, simple changes that will build the foundation for a better tech culture.
Other great posts along these lines:
- Geek Feminism: Resources for Allies
- Julie Pagano: So You Want To Be An Ally
- Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change… and other people socialized in a society based on domination
- Deconstruction: How To Be A Male Ally
- What Men (And Everyone, Really) Can Do to Support Gender Equity in Tech