Pretty much every woman who’s ever called out sexism and sexual harassment has met the same kind of response; ‘he didn’t really mean it’, ‘it’s just a misunderstanding’, ‘you must have misinterpreted it’, ‘I don’t mean this the wrong way, but are you sure you’re not exaggerating just a little?’.
It goes deeper than just a bit of mansplaining suggesting to women that what just happened to them actually didn’t. Many people simply don’t see sexual harassment, even when it’s happening right under their noses. It seems normal that young and often not so young women* should spend part of their professional efforts graciously fending off unwanted sexual attention in a way that doesn’t damage anyone’s ego or their own reputations.
Here is a definition of sexual harassment:
“Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.”
(Note to readers: if sexual behaviour is something you are trying to make happen in the workplace, it is almost certainly unwanted. Do you want to risk your colleague’s sense of wellbeing on the sub-1% chance that she really ‘wants it’?)
Another kind of response to complaints about sexual harassment at work is to flip it back onto the person who is calling the behaviour out and try to undermine them or make them seem less credible.
Another response – one that goes irrationally alongside saying something didn’t happen or isn’t happening – is to say it’s not such a big deal anyway.
Another response is to say that all women it happens to have a responsibility to report it, putting the onus on individual women to solve a widespread social and political problem.
Yet another response is to tell them to stay quiet as saying something will ruin their reputation because they will forever be ‘that woman’.
(This last one reminds me of a frequent debating topic the year I was on the McGill debate team; ‘that this House believes homosexuals in the intelligence services are a threat to national security’. Yeah. Only if you have a problem with homosexuals, i.e. the problem isn’t the person, it’s your opinions about them.)
I was grateful and glad that a prominent male member of the ICANN community had this to say of efforts to minimise what it’s like for women to deal with the every day sexism of a tech conference:
“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.”
But you know what? It’s actually not something we have to put up with. There are plenty of men – in my experience, most of them – who don’t think this kind of behaviour is normal or right. And most women, even if they’ve developed their own successful defence tactics over time or, like me, pretty much aged out of the problem, do not want other women to think this is something they have to put up with.
So – and this is addressed largely to the ICANN community, with apologies to regular CT readers for whom this sort of debate is so very 1997 – let’s look at some new responses to this perennial problem.
Let’s accept at face value that this stuff happens and it happens all the time, and let’s not try to minimise or undermine or explain away particular incidents. Let’s try something new; simply believing people when they talk about it because the barrier to talking about it is already dissuasively high.
Let’s situate our response to this behaviour alongside that other perennial at ICANN; inclusion and diversity. We would do a lot better to retain the many young women we attract into our arcane policy processes with a supportive environment that communicates clearly and frequently that dealing with sexual come-ons are not part of the job.
Let’s understand that this isn’t a question of imposing ‘Western’ values on different cultures. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a culture where it was considered desirable to openly proposition socially equal females for sex. Which goes to show this is not about sex. It’s about power.
Let’s remind ourselves that ICANN is not unique. Other communities, organisations and conferences have recognised sexual harassment and taken public steps to deal with it. Many of us have been doing Internet policy in a lot of places for a lot of years and are colleagues, acquaintances, even friends. It’s horrible to think that we or people we know and care about might actually have done this and that something thought of as just a bit of harmless fun is deeply upsetting to the other person. Let’s get over ourselves and recognise that we are not special or unique. We need to deal with this problem, too.
Let’s start with other organisations that have dealt with this problem, and look at sexual harassment policies developed by people like the Ada Initiative or others. Their policies may not suit our community precisely – barring people from meetings isn’t something we’ve ever yet considered – but they are a good start. In a well-worn recognised ICANN Bingo phrase, let’s not reinvent the wheel, here. Let’s take them as a starting point and get something onto the meeting materials and into our organisational DNA by the time we meet in Helsinki in June.
Let’s accept that this does not start and finish with our current rules on acceptable behaviour. If the problem is still here, the rules are not working. We need to communicate more effectively about what sexual harassment is – and with it the idea that the person doing it doesn’t get to define it – so that everyone understands what is and is not ok. (And while we’re at it, a lot of what currently pass as acceptable behaviours toward staff are emphatically not ok.)
Let’s show some solidarity and not personalise this issue, nor gossip about people on either side of it, but focus practically on how to shift our culture. Because incremental cultural change actually doesn’t happen by itself. People actively change their behaviours; institutions consciously develop, communicate and enforce new norms.
At an ICANN meeting, everyone is here to work. This space that we create every time we come together is not just our community; it’s our workplace, and we don’t come to work to be propositioned and objectified. Let’s sort out this issue so
all of us
can focus on what we do best.
(*I deal here with sexism and harassment against women, but I do understand while we deal with this most frequently, we are not alone in it.)