"Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." – Donna Haraway

Smokey the Bear cautions readers that only they can prevent brohavior

Image mashup based on “only you…” by flickr user dreamymo

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 princessno, 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.

Image of three pairs of sunglasses and one hat from Sesame Street's

One of these things is not like the others

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:

a young girl trying to wink

“Learning to Wink” by Flickr user courosa

I hoped it came across more like this:

Lucille Bluth, from Arrested Development, winking grotesquely

Lucille Bluth winking

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.”

screen capture of the text message exchange

Texts between Contact and the woman

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.

Comments on: "A Cautionary Tale of Bro-havior and Benign Intent" (5)

  1. If this had been presented to you as a hangout over pizza and beer, I’d say that you were overreacting. I’d say yeah, you felt uncomfortable, but hey, it’s a bunch of guys hanging out and their egos are going to be doing battle. This seems to have been presented to you as a more professional meeting of the minds, though. I would have assumed that you would all have been speaking about issues on more thoughtful levels. You shouldn’t have expected to speak in proper MLA style, but it should have been safe to assume that you wouldn’t be discussing an entrepreneur in terms of her looks.

    “It seems strange to think of being an educated middle class white woman as underrepresented.”

    No matter your race, gender, economic status, etc., if there are many of One and few of The Other, then there is going to be an unfair balance. I think the majority is morally obligated to take extra care to be considerate to the minority because of this automatic imbalance. The tendency is usually for the majority to bond and the minority to remain the Minority/Other/Outsider. I have a feeling that no matter if you had done those 100 things differently, you would still have been on the outside. You would have just been a nuisance in their eyes and would still feel as frustrated as you do now. It was a lose-lose situation for you because you have no control over what **they** should have done. They were the ones who should feel bad for their words and actions, not you. You felt bad for even writing this post, even though, once again, you did nothing wrong.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Thanks for the comments!

      I agree that context is a huge part of this. Even if it had been pizza and beer with these same people, I still think it would have been problematic. Which is not to say that my guy friends don’t talk about hot women around me. They do. But the difference is that I know them and we trust each other enough that I am comfortable enough with them both for them to engage in that kind of discussion and to be able to feel safe telling them if they are being inappropriate.

      And thanks for addressing my conflicted feelings. I sent “Contact” a message to let him know I had written this because I like and respect him enough that I wouldn’t want him to come across the post inadvertently.

  2. In terms of my metaphor/analogy to rape culture, your comment of the burden falling to you to monitor the actions of others and to ‘protect yourself’ against something that marginalized you or put you in an uncomfortable position made me think about the way that women are taught to be on the look-out, to carry mace/pepper spray, to not wear short/revealing clothing, etc instead of teaching men not to rape.

    I would even argue that the above comment contributes to this idea that context or other factors somehow excuse or validate/invalidate your feeling of discomfort. Sexist remarks are sexist regardless if they’re over a beer or in a board room meeting. Rape is rape whether it’s over a beer or in a board room meeting, you know?

    I’m not sure if I’m making my case or not, but as soon as you said that you felt that the burden fell to you to, my mind jumped to rape culture.

    And I’m sure there’s something to be said about needing you as a woman to diversify the panel (which clearly wasn’t their original intention) and that you were a “component” and the whole thing just rubbed me the wrong way.

    The whole exchange made me feel some second-hand discomfort for you!

    [PS I really enjoyed your Viral Vaginas lecture at the CVMST Conference!]

    • Thanks for your comments! (and for your sympathy-in-discomfort! and your compliments about my CVMST talk!)

      Those are some really interesting parallels that I had not considered. If we extend your logic a bit further, it would be like the difference between learning how to combat harassment vs. learning not to harass, right?

      I can see then how even the context might not be an extenuating circumstance. I find myself wanting to return to the issue of disempowerment. The context of boardroom, beer with professional colleagues, and beer with friends matters only insomuch as it empowers or disempowers a person to speak up. In the third situation there might be just as much sexism, but I am in a position where I am able to say something about it. Which, as you point out, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still sexism and it is far from simple.

      Multiple people with whom I’ve shared the story have reacted strongly against the language of a “woman component,” which I think emphasizes the importance of language. Like I said, it was a *head-desk* moment for me.

  3. […] immediately called to mind the experiences I wrote about in my post “A Cautionary Tale of Bro-havior and Benign Intent” I think this is the same problem that many feminists have started to approach by using […]

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