Four episodes of sexism at tech community events, and how I came out of them (eventually) positive


It is a sad but undeniable fact that our industry remains rife with gender issues. Coming through any form of sexist encounter is incredibly difficult and I can only be grateful that mine were minor enough, and my general situation and support framework strong enough, for me to come through them largely positive about remaining in tech. I tell my stories here as just some examples of situations that happened to me and that I am sure happen to women in technology each and every day. To show how inadvertently harmful they can be, how absolutely normal it is to be upset by them, how they add up day by day, year by year to make us feel marginalized and unwelcome, and to suggest some ways of dealing with them. I also want to show the importance of having a Code of Conduct at events, both to indicate what is and is not appropriate and to provide a safe and obvious way for things like this to be dealt with.

Warning: This is a long post – Ten minutes or more reading time plus possible triggers.

Background: I am a happily married mother of three with no intention or desire for any extra-curricular relationships.

Caviat: These were relatively minor and not encountered in the actual workplace, rather in at community events . I absolutely support reporting industry sexism to the relevant person and escalating it – which if you feel like doing so is ALWAYS an appropriate course of action

1. The passive-aggressive sexist

In my early thirties, having had a 10+ year career in I.T and as a second year PhD student I decided to present my initial findings on pair programming at the local chapter of the British Computer Society (BCS). The audience had one woman (someone from my laboratory) to perhaps forty men, but I was pretty used to that. If memory serves me correctly, I think I might have just found out I was pregnant with my first child, although of course it was too soon to make that public.

Despite my nerves and slight nausea the talk went OK, there was an informal chat and snacks afterwards and I mentioned that I might join the group and come along to other talks. I got on by bicycle and cycled home.

A couple of days later I received an email. I wish I still had it so that I could quote directly. It was from a guy who was at the talk and part of the core group of organisers. He said how much he had enjoyed my talk (with no mention of the content apart from saying how “sweet” it was that I stopped talking and said “bless you” when someone in the audience sneezed[1]). He went on to explain how disheartened he was that after I left, the core (male) group stayed around for a while, bemoaning the fact that a woman might join their circle, wondering how to put me off, but agreeing (apparently) that there was nothing they could do about it and consoling themselves that at least I was “fit”[2]. He finished the email by inviting me out for a drink. I’m guessing as some kind of consolation prize.

I thought for some time about whether to decline the drink, stay in the group, take the inevitable being talked down to, sneered at and eyeballed. Show them how their view of me, and of women in tech in general, was misguided. But some days I just don’t have the energy. I replied as politely as I could muster.

My learning from the encounter: It’s perfectly OK to withdraw from the situation and decide that today is not the day to try and change the world. Self-preservation comes first.

2. The Inappropriate Linguist

Perhaps five or six years later, and working independently as an agile coach, I found myself doing some associate work for a tool vendor. Again, I was at a conference, this time an agile event. I’m not sure what I presented; ironically it may have been a workshop on Trust. That evening, over a beer at the venue, I got talking to someone relatively well known. They told me I would not like to hear their views on coaches who worked with tool vendors. Actually, I was interested in hearing their view, and suggested I could deal with what they had to say. It wasn’t what I expected – I was called a “RallyWhore” and a “ToolSlut”. Now, the logic behind this wasn’t the problem – I was actually pretty open to having a discussion about the ethics of working with a tool vendor – but the demeaning and sexualized language used really shocked me. Just to be clear, I love swearing. I am definitely not a language prude. It’s the degrading and gendered nature of these particular words that made them difficult for me to hear in an industry already so rife with negativity towards women. I don’t know whether that was the intent or not – I honestly believe that it wasn’t, that the person I was speaking to may well have used the exact same words to a guy.

Perhaps for that reason, the next day I found the person I had been speaking to. I explained how shocking those words “Slut” and “Whore” are to me personally as a woman. I explained how open I was to having the conversation but how those words completely shut me down. He apologized. I believed him. Eight years later we remain friends and regularly chat at conferences to this day.

My learning: It’s absolutely OK to make it clear when the language being used makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s completely possible that the person using that language is not aware of the effects of the language they are using.

3. The Bully

I go out to the pub at the end of the first day of a conference. I have quite a few drinks (I’m not great in large social groups). So does everyone else. Lots of people come and chat to me, some asking advice about this or that related to what I presented. At one point someone relatively high-profile makes themselves known. He keeps poking me in the arm when I am trying to talk. Repeatedly. Even after I ask him to stop several times. He actually bruises my arm, although I don’t notice until the following day. He replies sarcastically to every comment I make. Eventually he announces that the people who have been coming up and talking to me during the evening have only done so because he “dared” them. They begrudgingly admit this is the case. Finally he loudly announces I should “stop jiggling my breasts about and pretending to be intelligent”. I give in and just leave.

Eventually, once I am back in my hotel room, there are tears. What’s interesting though is that the next morning I still feel incredibly sad. I consider not going back to the second conference day. I phone a couple of friends for support and advice, one of them knows the person and offers to “have a word”, but this doesn’t feel right. I decide what to do. I’m afraid of this person’s influence – maybe I will never speak at anything ever again – but it feels like the only closure I can get is by confronting him. I go and find him. I find a quiet place to have the conversation and explain clearly but calmly how the evening made me feel. How hard it is to be a woman in tech anyway. How hard it is to come to events with a massive male majority. He says: “I was drunk”. I say: “That’s not a good excuse”. Then he actually thanks me for the feedback and apologises. Sincerely. He offers to follow me around apologizing to me all day. I decline the offer but feel a little resolved. It takes me two years to muster the confidence to go to another tech event. I make sure I have a support network around me. That was more than five years ago. Most surprising of all we are now friends. I even told him I was writing this blog and he said “I completely support you”.

My learning: It’s absolutely appropriate to remove yourself from a situation where you don’t feel comfortable. It’s really hard, but was really helpful to have the conversation and spell out how someone’s behavior made you feel.

 4. The Predator

Once more at a tech conference, I am with a group of people and am introduced to a well-known person in our industry. We all go to dinner as a group, but as a vegetarian my food is on a different floor. Said man says he often eats vegetarian food and offers to go with me. I refuse but he comes anyway. We chat a bit awkwardly and he keeps trying to fill my wine glass. I find the conversation a bit oddly intimate, like he keeps pushing me to be indiscrete, but I’m polite and manage to cover my glass with my hand a few times. I have noticed that this is a bit of a pattern with sexual predators. Coax women to discuss something indiscrete, just a little at first, and then use this to excuse something highly inappropriate. As we leave to rejoin the group he opens the door, brushes against me, raises his eyebrow creepily and says “ooooh, I nearly touched your tits then”, to which I reply “you know I’m a kickboxer, right?”. He immediately (fortunately) disappears.

I go home from the conference and talk to my husband about it, he says he sounds like a creep. I feel like I must have done something wrong, in some way suggested or indicated that this behavior would be OK. Let this happen. I know I am chatty, in fact mostly I find it hard to stop talking. Maybe I said something that could be construed as flirtatious, maybe…. This is a common thing I hear, this self-blaming, this doubt.

Many years later I start to hear more and more similar stories about the same person doing similar things. Making unsolicited advances. Being inappropriate. I realize that it wasn’t my fault and now I wonder how I ever could have thought it might have been. It’s like the jedi mind trick of predatory behavior to make the victim believe it is their fault.

It’s completely OK to be chatty, to drink alcohol, and still to not want to be bothered with inappropriate sexual advances.

My learning: It’s completely OK to seek advice and speak to others for perspective. In fact I recommend it.

5. Conclusion

While none of these events might seem extreme or shocking as one-offs, when many many women start to mention similar stories, we begin to realize how endemic these situations truly are. How they not only affect the (I hate this word) victim, but also how other women see them play out and think that they too do not belong. Or that this kind of behaviour at tech events is OK.

So as of today, I only speak at events with a Code of Conduct and I’m trying to be more attentive to the way other women are treated at events too.

Please know that if anything happens at an event that you feel uncomfortable with, whatever gender you may be, I will listen, I will believe you and I will understand.

[1] I’m autistic – “bless you” is what you are supposed to say when someone sneezes.

[2] “fit” is English for “hot” (if you are American).


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