What Women Tell MeSat, Aug 6, 2016 in Commentary Best Of
Someday I’ll write a companion blog post about what men tell me, but today I want to write about what I’ve learned by listening to women over the last few years.
Why do I care? It’s because women tell me things that men rarely, sometimes never tell me. I failed to notice this for the longest time, but when I started to, I decided to sit up and listen, hard.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that men don’t care or talk about these types of things. In fact, many of these episodes of sexism came to me through a man’s Twitter post. BUT WOMEN RETWEETED IT TO ME.
I will now present things I have heard only or mostly from women, in many cases without attribution to the original author or the woman who drew this to my attention (because I think that’s the safest thing to do).
The Virginia Governor’s UVA Board Appointment Announcement
The Daily Progress, my local newspaper, featured a story about some high-profile appointments to one of Virginia’s most influential positions. Emphasis mine:
Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday named four new members to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors and reappointed another. The new members include two major donors to a McAuliffe PAC, the wife of the former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party and an ophthalmologist. These are the new members: …
- Elizabeth M. Cranwell, of Roanoke, a public relations professional. Cranwell is married to former state Democratic Party Chairman Richard “Dickie” Cranwell. Cranwell graduated from UVa’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1986.
Why is Elizabeth M. Cranwell’s biography all about her husband? I understand that there’s an argument that the significance of her appointment is partially because of her husband’s political connections. But leading the phrasing with that identifies her as her husband’s property, minimizes her own abilities and accomplishments (which appear to be significant, on further research), and is just all-around sexist. Would it have been acceptable to talk about her and then end with a mention of her husband? Yes, it would have.
Sexual Harassment of Gretchen Carlson
Watch this video of a woman dealing with sexual harassment on live television, and see if you can imagine yourself in this situation. If this happens in front of the camera, what do you think happens off-set?
Overdoing It Isn’t Optional
While listening to women I’ve heard again and again that they have to outperform in a way I am not required to. As one person put it, the choice is to succeed and risk burning out, or taking care of herself and risking being passed over for a promotion or otherwise losing ground she’s fought for so hard and long. Many studies prove that this is not an imaginary consequence, it’s simple reality.
One woman noted that it was a tough decision for her not to attend an industry trade show late in her pregnancy, even though her doctor told her not to go. She took the doctor’s advice, but still felt fearful she’d damaged her career.
As a man, when I hear these things I realize I don’t have to think about this type of stuff. It just doesn’t occur to me. (That’s the definition of male privilege, by the way.) As I said on social media, I don’t feel that I have to make this type of choice. (Three women and one man signaled their approval of that statement).
Women, Confidence, and Competence
Why aren’t there more women in leadership positions? This study indicates that it could be because we judge women’s competence and ability differently than men’s.
Our study, which has been accepted for presentation at the Academy of Management’s conference in August, shows that men are seen as confident if they are seen as competent, but women are seen as confident only if they come across as both competent and warm. Women must be seen as warm in order to capitalize on their competence and be seen as confident and influential at work; competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not.
And why do so many incompetent men hold leadership positions? Perhaps because we mistake hubris for ability, and men are more arrogant than women?
The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.
Dozens, even hundreds, of studies show that men perceive assertive women as abrasive. So women have to tiptoe around everything in the workplace. Several women reacted to this humor column ironically coaching women on ways to be non-threatening, by saying it actually is how they have to act and advise each other to behave. An excerpt:
Downplay your ideas as just “thinking out loud,” “throwing something out there,” or sharing something “dumb,” “random,” or “crazy.”
Men rarely or never share this type of stuff with me. But, then again men literally never see this word in their performance reviews either.
Why Call Out That She’s A Woman?
When women are celebrated for their achievements, they’re often qualified as exclusively women’s achievements. It’s a thinly veiled leftover from the “separate spheres” sexism of decades past, reminding us that this doctrine is not really in the past. From a Huffington Post article about Serena Williams:
“There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?” the reporter asked.
When she opened her mouth, her answer was short and quick, but decisive and telling.
“I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time,’” she said.
In a sentence, Williams politely made clear everything wrong with the way the question was phrased. For almost her entire life, the 34-year-old has been exacting her punishment on her opponents. Few have done what she has done, and by the time she’s ready to retire, likely no one will have. To box her into the category of “female athletes” ― to say she is great, but just great “for a girl” ― is a dig, accidental or not, that she has every right to call out. And more so, that she should.
A Woman’s Historic Achievement Celebrated by Pictures of Husband
The day after Hillary Clinton became the first woman in 240 years to be nominated as a major US party’s candidate for President, many mainstream newspapers (Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and many others) featured giant front-page pictures of her husband or other candidates, but not her. Understandably, women expressed outrage about this.
I expected that men would be incensed too, but I really didn’t hear much from them about it.
See If You Can Spot It
Here’s the anonymized “about us” leadership page from a venture-backed startup. This is real, not fake; I’ve just omitted names. There’s only one woman on this page. Can you guess which one?
- President and CEO
- Co-Founder and Executive Chairman
- Chief Financial Officer
- Vice President of Professional Services
- Vice President of Software Development
- Chief Technology Officer
- Senior Vice President of Engineering
- Senior Director, Marketing
Hint: who’s last in the list? Who’s not a C-level or VP-level?
Hypothetical question: if they’d hired a man for that role, do you think he would have been titled Vice President of Marketing, or Senior Vice President of Marketing?
The women I follow on Twitter don’t talk about technology in sexualized terms and don’t appreciate men who do. The architecture isn’t “gorgeous,” and the features aren’t “sexy” or “hot.” They’re “impressive” instead, to use one possible alternative word.
They also don’t appreciate people who talk about other people as “rock stars,” “ninjas,” and the like. They call this out often. I don’t remember the last time a man did.
Celebrations of Humane Treatment In The Workplace
Womens’ experiences in the workplace are dramatically different from mens’. Women whom I follow emphasize how much it matters to them that:
- Managers explicitly allow things like personal phone calls at work. Why is this a big deal? Women are most often the “default parent” responsible for things like scheduling dental appointments and a myriad of other things that need to be done for children.
- Fathers should have paid leave when they have a new baby. The assumption, widespread in many workplaces, is that women can and will do the child-rearing and the man can and should go back to work the next day. As if, even if she does most of the child-rearing, she isn’t going to need any help!
Men typically don’t share this type of stuff with me. They (we) enjoy the privileges of a male-oriented society without having to ask. As a result, even though there is no reason that the things in the following image aren’t as important to men as women, I saw only women share this image in my social media streams. Men seemed indifferent to it. Women have shared with me that they often feel taking these types of “liberties,” or even just asking if they’re OK, will raise a flag that could be used against them later, consciously or unconsciously.
Sexist Stuff Seems Normal To You
Women’s voices (including my wife) have been the main reason I now regard many things as sexist which I used to take in stride. They share things and point out the sexism I didn’t see before. Needless to say, men rarely if ever do this.
Watch this series of interview questions posed to Hillary Clinton over the years:
Is all of it it blatantly sexist, in your opinion? I wouldn’t have thought so myself. I thought there were some pretty sexist things in there, along with places where maybe, just maybe, someone was being a little bit too sensitive. At least, that is, until I listened to how women reacted to it. It’s a series of subtle and sometimes unsubtle implications, which are definitely and unambiguously sexist.
Here’s how a female writer (of course!) at Vox summed it up:
Pundit after pundit, in decade after decade, asks why voters don’t like Clinton. And pundit after pundit answers their own questions without realizing it. Is it possible that people could like a woman who is independent and opinionated?
It’s not just a little bit sexist. It’s flaming sexist. The problem isn’t oversensitive women, it’s that I’ve not yet learned enough empathy for a reality other than my own.
Conference Culture Matters
Women, more so than men, call out unacceptable behavior at conferences, especially those in male-dominated industries such as gaming, security, and tech.
If it weren’t for listening to women I don’t think I’d feel so strongly about the need for codes of conduct at conferences.
Women are typically the ones who post pictures of cringe-inducing things at conferences, such as a booth with a woman dressed in basically nothing, ostensibly selling cloud storage or something.
Women are the ones who stand up for women who’ve been attacked or made uncomfortable at such conferences.
Many more women than men (that I follow, anyway) have retweeted this man’s expose of a DEFCON incident that defies my language skills:
The tweet’s text is “Hacker Jeopardy. Category is “Dicks”. Men play. Women give them beers. Why aren’t there more women in security?”
DEFCON is one of the biggest security-related conferences in the world. In case you missed it, here’s a close-up of what’s happening at the table:
Women Don’t Need A Bunch Of Pink Stuff
Next time you’re in the grocery store, drug store, or whatnot: take a walk through the sections of the store that are targeted towards women. Feminine care items, hair accessories, and the like. You’ll almost surely see “female versions” of unisex products. The difference is typically packaging, coloring, and bullet points of product attributes meant to be “feminine.” Does this bother you?
It bothers many women I know. A lot. It’s insulting to them. Bright yellow and non-ultra-soft earplugs are fine, thank you. I’ll cite the source for this one because she’s quite a public figure. Her comment: “BEEN WAITING SO LONG 4 THIS! Do they double as tampons? Or are they just great at blocking sexual slurs?”
Some Other Stuff
Here’s a laundry list of things archived in my Pocket account that I’ve read and tried to internalize, and which were brought to my attention by women:
- In many societies women are routinely murdered by their families for any display of independence (“honor killings”). When this happens, people often say “the murder was wrong, but so was her behavior.”
- Google may effectively expect women to perpetuate the circumstances holding them back. link
- Women on public radio are routinely criticized for having the wrong voice, though men using the same vocal techniques receive no such pushback. link
- Kudos to Massachusetts for making it illegal to ask a job candidate’s current salary, which tends to perpetuate pay inequality. link
- Companies who take the most basic steps to examine whether they are paying women equally immediately find out they aren’t. The implication is that most companies haven’t bothered to ask, or, if they have, don’t feel the need to do anything about it. link.
- Expense policies cover stuff that men need, but not things that women need, and companies ask employees to do things that are hard for women and easy for men. Translation: companies care about things that men care about, one reason it’s important to prioritize diversity early. link
- Masculinity is the common thread in all of the mass shootings in the US recently. What is masculinity supposed to mean, anyway? link
How Could I Forget?
I’d like to close with one of the truly eye-opening moments I’ve had in the last five years.
When I quoted Paul Graham once in an inspirational tweet, I heard from some women who think he’s pretty sexist. I asked for clarification and was directed to read the second footnote on one of his essays about founding a company:
One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon.
I felt like I saw both sides of this, but when I asked my wife, she almost burst out laughing. “Of course he’s a sexist A-hole,” she said. “Why does he assume that only women are likely to have children soon, or that if a male founder has small children it won’t impact his performance?” She reminded me that when I left my job to found VividCortex, we had infant twins and we made the decision together.
How could I have overlooked this first-hand life experience while reading Paul Graham’s words? It’s because I’m a male in a male-dominated societal structure, so what I experience moment to moment as “neutral and unbiased” is actually steeply slanted. It’s like I grew up on a hillside, one leg longer than the other one. I don’t notice it until I turn around 180°.
That’s why only/mostly women share this type of stuff with me, because men don’t have to be conscious of it.
To all the women who’ve helped me learn to think more about your point of view: thank you. I know I’ve been quite the difficult case sometimes. I know it’s exhausting and sometimes dangerous for you to continually try to educate men such as me. I would like to think I’m getting better and that I’m helping sometimes instead of just being a burden. To the extent I am, it’s your success, not mine.
Repeated Disclaimer: I’m not saying that men don’t care or talk about these types of things. In fact, many of the episodes of sexism above came to me through a man’s Twitter post. BUT WOMEN RETWEETED IT TO ME.
I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.