From the Ellen Pao’s sexual harassment case to Susan Fowler’s expose of Uber, the press is suddenly paying a lot of attention to the issue of women’s experience in technology. I thought I would add mine. To protect the guilty, I will not be using names of institutions or individuals, but sharing my experience both as a woman in technology – albeit from the angle of law and policy – as well as a consultant, and, finally, friend and confident to the many women who over the years who have reached out to me.
First things first. Without the financial and emotional support of my father, who was at first reluctant to let me go, I would not have been able to attend college. (Mom, too, but the focus here is on sex and gender played out in terms of power …) Read this next sentence with deserved emphasis: Without the support of my ex-husband, I would not be haunting these pages or anywhere near technology. An electrical engineer, he generously introduced me to the internet at its public dawning and opened a door for which I remain forever grateful. My sons, furthermore, are good boys to women, allow me to say, and continue to teach me about everything from machine learning to information security coursework. In my technology career, I have had the tremendous fortune to be in the company of and influenced by many, many wonderful men: Brian Hawkins, Mark Luker, Jerry Campbell, David Smallen, Marty Ringle, Steve Worona, Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik jump quickly to mind, but I could fill the page with the names of many other leaders as well as colleagues.
Furthermore, I would like to make an observation that praises the vast majority of people, both men and women, in IT. By comparison to the other professional worlds that I have occupied, IT people as a rule do not “swing,” cheat on their partners, or indulge routinely in workplace dalliances. That was a great relief to me when I started work in IT. Maybe it was just good fortune, maybe I just got older or developed tunnel vision, I don’t know, it is not a scientific observation, but it is a positive for individuals and in support of children and families. Take a bow, good people.
That said, power differences played out in status, money, position, and personality between men and women exists in it. I joined an IT team when I was 42, previously married to a man, with two young children, and self-identified as being in a relationship with a woman. In other words, not young, pretty and available as are most of the women who are reporting out now about detrimental experiences (in the marketplace and not higher ed, it should be noted), mostly of the sexual harassment kind. I therefore did not experience anything like what they report (although I did as a student twenty years earlier, including, when I was an undergraduate, inappropriate behavior by a distinguished male English literature professor more than forty years my age and being felt up on a dance floor by a married young history professor from a nearby college when I was a graduate student at a conference party.)
As a middle-aged woman, my observation is how some blindly ambitious men would try to kill me with fake-kindness as they stepped on my face on their way up the ladder. Surprise tactics were the modus operandi. For example, we would be going into a meeting, chit chatting away, only to have the same male colleague attack frontally a policy upon which we had been working together for years (but for which I was ultimately responsible) or learn of a predetermined, sabotaged vote after the damage was done or pulled out of a meeting and told to do this or that just because ... in other words, anything for which the desired result would be to lower my position and raise theirs. I have lived and observed obscene compensation differentials predominantly, but not exclusively, between men and women. I have known, to say the least, of many forced retirements executed against women in manner that would make an ancient Roman proud (that is to say, with only mildly suppressed violence and glee). Allow me to add, women can play supporting roles to such abject discrimination in a manner that should (but often do not) make them ashamed.
Then there are the small things. Systematically interrupting or talking over women. (Not that some women don’t do that too, but we are talking about predominant patterns. Still, I gotta say: I have male colleagues who never do that to me; rather, on too many occasions, I am the guilty party.) Here is one that makes me laugh: certain body postures designed consciously or unconsciously to suggest sex and power. The one for which I have had to restrain myself from bursting out loud is the lean-back-in-the-chair-tilted-on-two-legs raising the crotch to table level as introduction to a long dissertation on something or another opined with long, drawn-out, arrogance. Why didn’t I fire up the video on my phone? I could have retired on the YouTube proceeds!
Because apart from the absurdity of it all, it is not funny. Women play that sex thing with the excessive cleavage, hiked up skirts and stiletto heels. What those extreme examples do not seem to get is how much they are playing into the sex and power game. Moreover, it is much more prevalent in the market than in higher ed. My guess is that the high-stakes, market-tech culture plays these scenarios out on many higher doses of steroids. The obvious legal liabilities such as sexual harassment or reputation pale when the whole world appears to be an oyster.
We are in a moment of sex/gender correction. How much correction is the real question. Do blindly ambitious men really care about women who are not their mothers, wives, or daughters? Do they really care about gross gender inequities in society? Why do we allow them to succeed? How much do we all – men and women – get sucked into the game? (Net/Net Personal Opinion: I am truly blessed to have many good, if not great, men in my life, personally and professionally. On the specific topic of sex/gender workplace discrimination, I have been more sinned against than sinned, but I would be less than honest if I did not also intone a “bless me father …” for some of my behaviors, gender related or otherwise.)
American law and history bequeaths a categorical analysis to social policy. We think of civil rights in categories: race, class, sex, gender, disability, etc. While useful in some moments when, like scientists, we try to control the experiment of our society, this kind of categorical thinking is ultimately a detriment to seeing what is imperative to see: the whole greater than the parts, the forest for the trees. Abject discriminatory behaviors must be addressed not merely for the injustice suffered by individuals but because those behaviors speak to the overall health of society. For the second week running, I will therefore conclude on a dogfood theme. The least we can do in higher ed is to shine a thoughtful light on our own lives and behaviors in IT and strive to model a quality of justice in which we can all believe.