Here at ICANN Costa Rica, a debate has erupted about the casual sexism women experience at technology conferences. The Czech hosts of our next meeting ran a booth asking people what they’re most looking forward to in Prague; seeing the sights, drinking beer, or ‘girls’. A complaint was made and the offending “light-hearted promotion” was withdrawn. So far, so humdrum.
“Guys, you might do something which, after a few drinks and alone in some exotic place with one of the women of the ICANN community, may seem to you to be a “misunderstanding” or simple social faux pas. You may find that, well, obviously it wasn’t all that bad because the next day she had the discretion not to make a big deal out of it, or otherwise call you out and embarrass you.
Please do not make the mistake of believing that what you did was okay, understandable, or that you were just having an unlucky evening. The reason you are not called out at the microphone for exactly what you are is that she has to continue to be a cooperative member of the community of which you are unfortunately a part. It’s part of what she has to put up with here.”
John puts his finger on exactly what can happen at these gatherings, and why it continues. Of course there’s a continuum of risk when a woman manouevres herself out of the power of a sexual predator, going all the way from a clumsy pass to attempted rape. I’m not the only woman to placate and flatter her way out of a ‘date rape’ situation and, once safe, be livid that the tactic I used to escape allows the predator to keep thinking he’s a nice guy who just didn’t get lucky.
What’s striking to me about John’s intervention is how happy I was to see it. I asked myself why it’s such a big deal when a man calls out the daily sexism women deal with simply as a cost of doing business.
Partly, it’s tactical. Just as John says, most women put up with this nonsense because they don’t want to be branded a whiner. We don’t call this stuff out publicly because it harms our reputations. And I know a lot of guys in our community will be given pause and listen this time, simply because another man is speaking. But, more than anything else, it’s good just to know someone else is noticing.
It reminds me of a light bulb moment I experienced as an exchange student at McGill, in Montreal, when male classmates made it their business to help women get home safely at night. It had honestly never occurred to me that men would feel our struggles were their problem, too. (In fairness, it was 1993.) Here on CT, I always feel irrationally grateful when fellow bloggers or apparently male commenters call out the sexism of some comments. Dan Davies has long been a true gentleman in this regard.
But it’s also troubling that my genuine gratitude implicitly accepts that casual sexism or sexual predation in the workplace aren’t really serious until a man notices. And also that women should navigate patriarchy on the protective arm of a sympathetic man. Once we’ve accepted that, it’s a short hop, skip and jump back to letting them vote for us so we don’t have to bother our pretty little heads.
The position of male feminists is an awkward one, and most of them are both perceptive and gracious enough to realize it. I’m troubled by my own perhaps overly grateful response, but I try to accept the help in the spirit in which it is given.