This post isn’t going to be pretty because I’m still pretty angry about the topic. Let me be clear up front, though, I am as angry about my own reaction, or more accurately my failure to react, as I am about the sexism and just general boorish behavior I observed at Ignite. I am not holding myself or my actions up as an example of anything other than something that needs to improve – greatly. I’m also not claiming this kind of thing is unique to Ignite – that’s just where I was last week.
I’ve read thoughtful pieces on the crap women in technology have to put up with in their jobs, and especially at conferences. I can’t claim to understand it on anything other than an outsider’s level because I’m not a woman. I also believe that I work in an industry (higher education) where, from my perspective anyway, this sort of blatant sexism isn’t as prevalent. If anything, having had a woman as my longest-running boss, and working with outstanding women throughout my entire career, and even on teams that were mostly women, attending major tech conferences is a culture shock for me. I can at least say, having attended a couple of Microsoft conferences in a row, that the percentage of women attendees is higher than at other conferences, but we’re still talking single digit percentages at best.
I’m going to describe two scenarios I observed at Ignite, comment on each, including my reaction to them, then close with some thoughts for how I plan to improve.
Cat Call During BRK2188 – What’s New for IT Professionals in SharePoint Server 2016
This was a packed session in the Arie Crown Theater, one of the largest session rooms. I arrived a bit early along with a very helpful guy who had seen my plea to borrow a Fitbit charger, so I was a few seats in from the edge on the next to last section of seats on the left. I sat there talking with my helpful buddy until the session started, then my attention shifted to the speaker and a topic that is very important to my team at work.
I can be pretty laser-focused when I want to be, which is why when I noticed a couple of people walking to my left, my eyes shifted over quickly and my brain cataloged what I saw so I could avoid missing anything on this (mostly) new to me topic. I saw two people, both women, both rather nicely dressed, and both inarguably attractive. I remember thinking in the half second of brain time I devoted to this observation, “Pretty women – neat.” I’m a normal guy – I observe and even appreciate attractive women, but I was there to listen to the speaker, not look at women, so I refocused my attention on the stage and put the whole thing out of my head.
Or I tried to. Because as I was trying to replay the few words I had missed the speaker say when I was focused elsewhere, I distinctly heard a quiet whistle from somewhere behind me. This was my first, “You’ve got to be kidding me” moment, and it knocked me out of my “focus on the session” zone far more than observing a couple of pretty women did.
So that’s what happened. And here’s what I did – basically nothing. I sat there, stunned and, I guess the most accurate word for it would be disappointed? I remember thinking, “there is a Code of Conduct sign within sight of the entrance to this theater.” I also wondered what, if anything, I could have done about it, in the moment, with the session ongoing and, frankly, with me having no idea what loser behind me thought it was OK to whistle at a couple of pretty women walking by.
What could I have done?
I honestly don’t know. I almost said, “You’ve got to be kidding me” but didn’t for a few reasons, including the fact that my voice can be quite loud when I’m irritated and the session was underway. I almost wonder if that kind of societal inertia to not interrupt contributes to the problem in cases like this. Other people had to have heard this, and as far as I know, nobody said anything out loud. And I think that’s a part of the problem. Silence, even polite silence by people who are repulsed by the jerktastic behavior, is a kind of acceptance.
Teenage-style Dude Rating of Female Passers-by in line for the Attendee Celebration
I was standing in line waiting for the shuttle a few blocks from my hotel. I had my earbuds in, listening to a podcast. Both the folks behind me were talking amongst themselves and the pair of guys in front of me were, so I was content to just keep listening to something from RelayFM. I was particularly disinterested in the pair of guys since once of them was smoking and I was mostly trying to not gag. While I missed the bulk of their conversation, every few minutes I had to pause the podcast because we were right under a set of train tracks and the train was so loud I couldn’t hear the podcast while it passed overhead.
It was during one of these pauses and before I started things up again that I noticed the pair of guys watching a woman walk by. I didn’t notice her or anyone else walking by, mainly because the streets of Chicago are so crowded that I found it difficult to pay much attention to any individual. But what I heard from the non-smoking dude made it instantly clear they were playing a game I thought most guys stopped playing after high school or college, which I’ll call “Would you?” and leave it to the reader to figure out the rest. The non-smoking dude said, “No way, she’d have to pay ME to do her.” I considered cutting off those last two words, but you know, that’s what he said, so I’m leaving it in.
So that’s what happened. And here’s what I did – basically nothing. Again, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I looked ahead in line and saw no women. I glanced behind me and didn’t see any women within earshot. And I remember thinking, “At least no women had to hear this nonsense.” I also considered saying something to the two losers, but I didn’t, and I feel ashamed that I didn’t. I can rationalize not saying something, thinking, “Would it have done any good – would it have changed their behavior?” But the simple truth is I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t afraid of these guys – we’re at a tech conference after all, and even 2 to 1 I don’t worry two much about a couple of middle-aged IT dudes roughing me up. But if I’m honest with myself, and I’ve discussed this with my wife so I think I have to be here – I think it was a kind of fear that helped convince me not to call out them out. Fear of what, I’m not sure. Being made fun of? Being laughed at? Being ignored? I don’t know.
What could I have done?
Call them out. Period. Whether it would have accomplished anything or made them call me names or whatever silly scenario I can imagine. I could have spoken out, and I didn’t. I wouldn’t even have to be loud or angry about it. Something like, “Come on guys, this is a professional conference and you’re standing here wearing a badge with your name and employer on it – do you think saying crap like that is smart” may have been sufficient. I will say something that calm and polished didn’t leap to mind as I stood there, but that’s part of why I’m writing this – so I can think about it and be better prepared next time.
Why am I Writing about This?
Honestly, to hold myself accountable next time I observe something like this. If the relatively few people who read my blog or follow me on Twitter read some or all of this and think about it more – great. We need to have real conversations about this, and by we, I mean we men. Women have plenty of conversations about this, and up until now, I felt like I was completely on board with the problem and its solutions. It’s easy to think of scenarios where I, as a man, would “do the right thing.” See a woman being actively hassled by some jerk? Of course you step in to help. Tell some dude who is talking to you instead of your female coworker who asked the question he needs to speak to her? I’ve lived that in my own marriage, since my wife is the one who deals with contractors and mechanics. But when faced with a scenario that wasn’t that blatant, like the cat call or the juvenile talk, I didn’t step up – and I should have.
I’m going to link to an article a good friend of mine from high school wrote earlier this year on the topic of how “Good Guys” need to stand up when this kind of crap happens. The article is titled, What we talk about when we talk about ‘rape culture’ – An Open Letter to Good Guys. It’s a good read on an important topic, and something I’ll keep in mind the next time I attend a tech conference.
Note: I’m enabling comments on this post even though I disabled them site-wide a while back to avoid all the spam. I think this topic is worth putting up with cleaning out some spam.