Today I have really stretched my powers of procrastination. I have voraciously read Twitter, engaged in multiple discussions on Facebook, and even *gasp* read a bunch of saved content on Instapaper (surely a sign of the apocalypse?). The problem is, I am not fooling myself. I know I have been avoiding writing this post. I feel conflicted about it even as I sit down to write it. I think I may even be procrastinating by talking about procrastination. Because the truth is, this post is uncomfortable to write.
It’s uncomfortable because I wish 100 things had gone differently. And it is uncomfortable because I am going to critique some people who I think were actually trying to be nice. But I think this cautionary tale needs to be told.
Once upon a time, there was
a princess… no, a kick-ass superheroine…in reality, an ordinary professional woman. This woman had worked really hard to earn a doctorate and had been really fortunate to land a tenure track position teaching and conducting research at a university. Her field has much to do with media and technology. As a result of this, the woman often finds herself in contact with people outside of the Ivory Tower of academia. And she generally thinks this is a good thing. In fact, she values opportunities to engage outside the university.
So the woman was intrigued when she received an invitation to a discussion-based event from a friendly professional contact. This contact is a smart, innovative, and friendly person, but not a career academic (let’s refer to him as “Contact” from here on out). The idea Contact was pitching the woman was that his friend, “Organizer,” chooses a topic and brings together an eclectic group of people to discuss it. The woman’s male colleague was supposed to participate, but he was going to be out of town and Contact thought she would be a good replacement. The woman was initially a bit skeptical of this event. Though she knows about the topic, it is not her primary area of expertise. And Contact actually made things a bit worse by emphasizing how “exclusive” the event was to be. The exclusivity was actually kind of antithetical to the openness and sharing the woman typically values. But Contact really seemed to want her to attend and assured her it would be rewarding. So she reluctantly agreed.
Ok, so everyone gets that it is me, right? So I can drop the third person? It’s getting to be a bit cumbersome.
Weeks passed. Though I remained somewhat hesitant, I kept my word and went to the event. I was a bit late due to traffic and was flustered when I arrived. When I walked into the room, Organizer, Contact, and the three other participants were already seated and engaged in conversation. Cue more fluster: I was the only woman. For those playing along at home, that’s 5 men, 1 woman.
I momentarily considered leaving. Instead I chose a seat and met the others. Organizer noted that the other person who was supposed to be there (also a man) could not make it. Had my male colleague not had a conflict, there would have been no women present. There was then an awkward formal-ish introduction period in which Organizer said he would introduce each participant, suggesting that he would save everyone the embarrassment of speaking about themselves. Except Organizer didn’t really know me. So he instead asked Contact to do it. It was a strange thing to be in that room, already feeling like a part of the Sesame Street game “One of these things is not like the others,” and being spoken for in a way that, though kind and complimentary, is not how I would have chosen to articulate myself. Of the other participants, Guy1 and Guy2 were local entrepreneurs. Guy3 was also a professor, though in a very different discipline.
As the discussion began in earnest, I was able to relax and engage in the topic. There were off-color jokes here and there, based on race and gender. At the time I cringed and took a drink of wine, but if you asked me today, I could not even tell you what they were. To their credit, the other participants let me speak when I wanted to and seemed to listen. For the most part, I enjoyed engaging with them.
Things took a turn for the strange again, however, at a particular moment in the discussion. Guy1 brought up a local entrepreneur who is a woman. We’ll call her Lady Entrepenur. Most of the other participants know Lady Entrepreneur and the group lamented that she has had multiple ventures that seemed very promising but fallen just short of success. When Guy2 asked, “What is she up to these days?,” Guy1 said that he did not know but she is “hot.” This sparked a rapid fire series of confessions in which three out of the five men bragged that they have asked her out. A fourth suggested that they look up her picture.
Perhaps I looked stunned. Or perhaps my eye was twitching as I sat there trying to decide if I should say that maybe a better way to her heart was to offer to mentor her in her startup ventures (all three who had asked her out have had some success). Or perhaps Organizer realized that this situation was likely to make me feel uncomfortable. He said something indiscernible to Contact and Contact responded along the lines of “Oh, I’ve seen her and another woman talk about things on Twitter, she won’t put up with anything.” Organizer said to me, “If any of this makes you uncomfortable, just let us know.” I pointed out that this request put quite a bit of burden on me. To which Organizer responded, “Really, if it makes you uncomfortable, just say so. Wink at me or something.” One of the other participants joked that I was (or would be?) winking all night. I was really unsure how to proceed. It did seem like an awfully big burden was being placed on me, when clearly the others realized that this situation had the potential to be uncomfortable. So I went with comedy and gave the biggest, most dramatic wink I could.
Though I felt a little like this:
I hoped it came across more like this:
After that the conversation got back on topic and proceeded until the end of the event. I had plans after the event and was the first to excuse myself and start to leave. As I said goodbye to Contact, I overheard one of the other participants say “underwater sex.” I internally shook my head and thought, “I can still hear you.”
I thanked Contact and left. I met my partner and two friends (all men) for dinner and related the events to them. They confirmed that it had all been a bit…bro-tastic.
Later that evening, I received a text from Contact. During the exchange he expressed that he hoped I had had a good time. I decided to be honest and responded with “Yes. Real talk: a few uncomfortable moments being the only woman but overall good.” I wanted him to know since Organizer has future events in the works. Contact responded to assure me that he knew I could handle myself and emphasized that they really needed “a woman component.”
If we hadn’t been at a Korean bbq restaurant where a grill was part of the table, I might have done a literal *head-desk*. In the days since, I’ve continued to think about the entire sequence of events.
Those hundred things I wished I had done differently? I wish I had asserted my right to speak for myself during introductions and emphasized that my work includes issues of diversity and inclusion. I wish that I had been more blunt and just told Organizer that yes, I thought the discussion of Lady Entrepreneur was inappropriate. And I wish that I had responded to Contact’s text to let him know that in his attempt to reassure me, he was inadvertently dismissing my concerns. Okay, that’s only three things I wish I had done differently. And I should probably give myself some credit for pointing out that it was unfair to me and for not just laughing it off, but still…hindsight is 20/20 and it carries a big stick…or something…
Though this was incredibly frustrating, I wasn’t traumatized. This wasn’t the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in. It wasn’t even the most uncomfortable situation I had been in that month. I wouldn’t call it sexual harassment. And that is exactly why I chose to write about it. Because on one hand, it seems so benign. But on the other hand, even though the people who were in the position of privilege in this case (the men who outnumbered me 5 to 1) seemed to have genuinely good intentions and seemed to be aware of my position as the outsider, it wasn’t possible to keep the bro-ish behavior at bay. Though some people whom I trust thought I should use the names of the people involved, my intention is less to shame them than to share this perfectly “textbook” case in which an environment that has so much potential for success can be made uncomfortable for the person(s) in the underrepresented position. It seems strange to think of being an educated middle class white woman as underrepresented. But privilege and power are complex things that require that we be constantly mindful.
I shouldn’t have had to handle myself. The burden should not have been on me to manage the behavior of people whom I don’t know, who know each other, and what’s worse, who clearly know better. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about women in tech, brogrammers, and hypermasculinity in tech culture, and I chose to write about this event because as much as I felt disempowered in the situation, this was mild in comparison to what others face in other environments. I don’t think anyone meant to make me feel uncomfortable, but they did. I don’t think anyone meant to make me feel like if I spoke up, I would be the spoil sport who ruined their fun, but they did. I don’t think anyone meant to make me feel disempowered or like my reaction wasn’t valid, but they did. And even though I wish I had done
100 3 things differently in the moment, I hope we can still learn from the situation. Because remember, only YOU can prevent Bro-havior.