Thursday, September 30, 2010

GHC10: Are You a Salmon, Too? BoF

This BoF, on gender discrimination and sexual harassment, started out in a very interactive style, when the panelists asked us to discuss amongst ourselves the following question: "When you asked to go to this conference, did people ask you 'When are they going to have a conference for men?'"  While nobody sitting around me got that exact response, we had various levels of questions from colleagues and management, like, "It's a women's conference, obviously not technical", "why do you need to go to a conference for women?", "why do you want to study hardware, I didn't think girl's were interested in that".

Sharon Mason, Rochester Institute of Technology, started out asking all of us to think about the experiences they were going to share with us and what we would do in these situations. Saying nothing, when you're confronted, is not the best option. This became a very interactive session.

Kristen Kielbasa, University of Albany student, gave us our first taste of strange behaviour from male colleagues. She was asked where she had just gotten some chocolates from, and when she responded "at the awards event for women", and her colleague responded, "Oh, we don't care about women". I guess even the enticement of free chocolate isn't enough to get a man to care about someone he works with every day.

Once the comments started coming from the audience, it became clear that it wasn't necessarily that these men don't care about women, as an individual, but that they don't understand how isolated women can be in technology careers and comments like that are not funny, but hurtful and further isolating. Some advice for responding to the above man were, "Does your mother know that?", "Why should 50% of the population make decisions for 100% of the technology user base?", "Why did you say that? What did you mean?"  Great conversation openers so the person you're talking to can think more about their own comments and start a discussion.

Sharon Mason, was involved with organizing a women in technology group lunch and a male fellow student said, sarcastically, "I'm glad my tuition is going to fund women's lunch. When do we get to have a men in computing lunch?"  Her response, which I think is fantastic, "Anyone, male or female, that supports women in technology are welcome to attend our lunches."

Jennifer Goodall, State University of New York, Albany, had a note in her .signature about the women in technology group she is involved in and it was included in an unrelated email she sent to a listserv. She received five bizarre email responses from men on the list, not at all about the message she sent, but about her .signature.  One of them said that it wasn't necessary for women to be paid the same as men, because they can just marry a man that makes more money than they do to supplement their income!

The general opinion of women in the room was that some people cannot be won over, are aggressive towards women in general, and are only looking for a reaction.  Though some did think that it may be a chance to take it as an opportunity to educate by asking an open ended question, like "what do you mean by that? Why do you think that we don't need more women in technology?"

As more women came up to share their stories, it became painfully clear that sexism and misogyny in the workplace and in universities are alive and well in present day. Some of the stories are clearly men that don't realize what they are saying may be hurtful or make women feel more uncomfortable, like "Wow, I can't believe there's a woman here."  Others are truly horrifying, especially when many of these men are just claiming that it's all just a joke, said in fun. I heard things like: "We only hired you because you're cute," "Someone might lose their job over this project, it's okay if it's you because your husband can take care of you", "I heard you like 'meat'".

Things to keep in mind, often women get higher grades and graduate at higher rates. We aren't dumb, we just hear it often enough in university and work settings and can start to believe it. Others recommend having the facts available, like "women don't actually have different admission standards than men at this school", "there are lots of women that made great technology advances, like ..."

Lesson for men: If you have to keep saying, "I was only kidding", "I only say this sort of stuff around you because I know you're cool with it", "Encouraging technical women just furthers the diversity gap", etc, please realize it is hurting and discouraging women. It seems these types of wounds take a long time to heal and may have permanent damage on retention of women in technology.