Monday, May 03, 2010

Denial is a bitch

Every once in a while, I write a post because I read something that makes my blood boil. This particular piece was written by Eileen Burbidge (@eileentso), an early-stage tech angel-investor, and as you'll see, there's nothing angelic about her.

In this case, she writes as a woman who contradicts herself by arguing that offering opportunities specifically for women is "patronizing", even while admitting that It’s not pleasant (or wise) if someone shuts a door on me strictly because I’m a woman.

And yet, she writes an entire post as if this never happens. And she writes as if, when it does, it means the women are not qualified.

Lady, you can't have it both ways. And I think you're in a denier.

By her own admission, she works in a male-dominated atmosphere, and yet she seems to completely miss the point. She writes,

I currently work in the @whitebearyard office space with a lot of men over 2 floors. I’m quite certain that each one of them (or at least most of them) are acutely aware whenever there is a woman in the office. Full stop. They know if a woman enters the office, steps into the floor or is here for a meeting. In this setting, women get a lot more attention than “just another guy”. And if a woman in this setting cannot make a positive impression or assert her value as a prospective vendor, partner, employee/consultant, then maybe she’s actually not qualified or capable enough – or not wanting it.

What really makes me angry is exactly this atmosphere. Full stop.

The sheer inability to understand what it's like for women who have been harassed and abused to the point where even just walking into a situation where all the men suddenly perk up and look you over, head to toe, is enough to make you want to turn around and go home.

The feeling that, no matter what you wear, or how articulate you are, everyone is too obsessed with your female dog-suit to really hear what you're saying.

And by everyone, this can include women. This woman in particular, sounds like the type who thinks no women are ever as good as she is.

My last job had this all-men, all-the-time atmosphere. I hated just walking to my office.

And the feeling never wore off, because there weren't enough other women around. The men never got tired of staring at me like I was a chunk of meat.

Now, they may not have had any intentions of making me uncomfortable, but nobody told them not to do it, or introduced me as an equal, either.

When you go on a job interview, when you're going to be nervous already, and this is the atmosphere, how would you feel?

How about if you're already highly sensitized to it after an entire career of being treated like an unworthy object? Do you think you're likely to do your best?

Of course not.

Does that mean you're not qualified? Not capable?

Of course not.

Does that mean you're not wanting it badly enough?

Fuck you, lady, for even insinuating that "badly enough" means we should be happy to put up with being treated like meat.

You have no fucking idea what you're talking about. I resent the idea that you get to speak for women in any field remotely related to technology.

You're the last kind of person I would want as an advisor to my career, or anyone else's.


Having said all that, reading the comments on this post, I get a completely different impression.

For example, there was this exchange:

“I have never heard a woman in tech say she did not receive something because she is a woman. Can you provide some examples of this, as it seems to be your primary reason for the dearth of women in tech?”

While I have heard of women saying this, I agree with you that I’ve never heard it firsthand (and it doesn’t represent my experience nor that of female friends and colleagues) — which is *precisely* the point of my post! I wrote this in response to quite a few other articles I’ve read over the past month or so “blaming” the issue on a systemic issue or bias against women, men who weren’t paying enough attention to hiring women or other such reasons — blaming and in my view complaining about things.

She also writes in response to a comment that tech is better than most industries (more on this in Part II)

So now I'm curious to see what she writes about in Part II. Which fields is she referring to? Business? And whether she might be right that guys in the Tech sector are better than in other fields.

My impression of guys in Tech is twofold:

(1) They tend to be relentlessly logical, which I like, because it means I can often convince them of my point of view more easily than the men in my field

(2) They have never worked with women, so they tend to have many misconceptions about what women are like, based on what they see in videogames and movies. In other words, we might kick ass, but we're still sex objects.

However, (2) can be overcome with (1).

Which is more than I can say for my field, or for the women who also contribute to the culture of denial.

Labels: , , ,


At 1:28 PM, Blogger Enginerd said...

Gah, I hate that kind of work atmosphere too. I had a job where even walking through the hall or taking an elevator was tense and awkward. Capable or not, it's ridiculous to expect to be taken seriously doing important work when you can't even walk between cubicles without it being a big deal.

That comment you posted hurt. "Please prove, using specific examples, that you've been discriminated against." Usually I find that people who have comments like that typically follow up by offering every single possible alternative, no matter how bizarre, to try and show how discrimination didn't happen and everyone is overreacting. Gaaaah.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every time I read or hear "I've never heard a woman...." complain about this or have problems with that from a d00d, MY SKIN CRAWLS.


At 3:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An all around toxic environment creates a vicious cycle: in a horrible environment where you constantly are treated badly, you will eventually run out of steam if nothing you ever do gets anywhere. In a toxic enviroment, apathy becomes a self-defense coping mechanism. But when you're apathetic and have no steam left, then you are no longer at the peak of your game. So then your work suffers and this gives "them" (the people in your toxic environment) all the more reason to treat you badly.

the only way I've been able to deal with it is to leave such a situation. when you're outnumbered, you can't change the environment.

(but it does suck to leave one such environment only to walk right into another one, just with a different cast of characters but same thing all over again. I now think this is what science is like in general)

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two quotes from that article, bold is my emphasis:

"Within tech, I don’t think we need to give more women a chance; I think we need to tell more women to go for it — if they want it."

"Go for it, but make sure you want it and deserve it"

How does someone decide on whether they deserve a career or not? Creepy. She's hiding a huge bitchslap in that too - if you don't make it in career X, then it's because you didn't try hard enough. Or you didn't really want it. And whether you failed or not, she has succeeded, because she's better than you are.

Yeah right.

At 4:20 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

OMG. Well admittedly I don't know exactly what's involved in her job. Sounds like it's non-tech. Whether she's respected in her job has less to do with technical ability. I've found if you're a woman working in/around tech/science but are in a non-science position, you DO benefit from being one of the few women. Expectations for you are so low as a non-sciencey person and as a non-male that they're astounded you can make them copies and send emails. So I guess if I spent my whole life in that kind of role I wouldn't understand discrimination.

Specific example...if that national average for women in my field is 10% but my workplace has only 3% of women in that field, what is the possible explanation if not discrimination?

At 11:13 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Exactly! See? Thank you! I got really mad, wrote this, and then wondered if I was being too harsh.

Makes me feel better to know that I'm not the only one who thinks she's doing the ostrich dance.

FrauTech - that's an interesting point. I've never been the one woman working around scientists without actually being a scientist, so I wouldn't have thought of it that way.

Someone brought that up in the comments, and in response she says that she majored in comp sci (as if the atmosphere in your college classes are a reflection of the workplace) (!).

Meanwhile, sites like are now making a point of emphasizing that women are blindsided by sexism at work BECAUSE they're coming from comparatively progressive college campuses where they experienced little or no discrimination.

At 4:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...women are blindsided by sexism at work BECAUSE they're coming from comparatively progressive college campuses where they experienced little or no discrimination."

... I've recently discovered that I was too used to that "little bit of sexism" - I used to be the only girl in most of my classes and now we're 5 female scientists at my institute - the most senior being a post-doc. I've never really felt I was in a very discriminating environment, we have lots of female visitors and I never thought their or my work was not taken seriously, or that I was some kind of token-girl.

Until I got a new co-worker - she's one of the most brilliant scientists I know, studied at ExtremelyFamousUniversity, and has also worked at one of their WellKnownSpinOffs(20y+) for a while. And she opened (not only)my eyes by publicly discussing examples of sexist behavior. I don't think that anyone at the institute now feels uncomfortable around her at all - I've noticed everyone's a bit more relaxed, and I've had some of the younger guys here come up to me and say "oh, she told this story about... - did I ever behave like that?"

I'm really glad she's part of the institute - someone had to be blindsided so that we all are a little less blind here.


At 10:21 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

t - sounds like a wonderful place to work. wish I could meet this woman. I would love to know how to open people's eyes in such a way that they appreciate it.

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous suckerforpunishment said...

OK, I'm gonna go ahead and pick a fight with this:

"based on what they see in video games and movies. In other words, we might kick ass, but we're still sex objects."

If your colleagues know you well enough to know that you kick ass, they're past the don't-know-her-I'll-apply-some-sort-of-stereotype (sex object) level of "thinking" (reacting, really). That's point 1, point 2 is: Men (straight ones at least) naturally see women as potential sex partners (you might even say it's in their nature), so don't make it out like it's movies/games fault. One reason it might be more pronounced with men who never worked with women, is that they have little experience in hiding it (ie. being polite in that situation), but let me point out that it's possible you simply notice it more, because you're the only woman around and thus feel vulnerable/like-an-outsider.

At the very least you must realize, that almost no one consciously treat women different (professionally) in this day and age. I'm guessing many, if perhaps not most, men make a semi-conscious effort at compensating for any prejudice they feel they have (sure, some may in fact be raging misogynists, but that's not what they tell themselves at night). If you are nevertheless convinced that you are in fact discriminated against somehow (people unfairly ignore your ideas / make diminishing remarks due to gender / guys do in fact stare at you noticeably more than at other people walking around the office), you are not doing them a favor by not pointing it out to them. In my opinion, by not doing so, you come perilously close to qualifying for the Female Collaborators you rant against.

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know its not going to sound great...but you should notice that the woman who wrote this article is Asian. While every other group in the West has gone about whining and projecting a culture of victimhood, the Asians have gone about taking responsibility for their failures and their successes. I am not surprised at all this bright young Asian woman prefers to work hard for her own achievements rather than blame imaginary enemies for her failures.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


You make some interesting points. I'll bite.

At first glance, your two points seem to contradict each other. Yes, I'm a sex object by definition to all men, but my colleagues are totally over it because they know me?

That's a little hard to get my head around, but I think I have a few male colleagues who would fit that description.

They're my friends, actually. They're not the problem. Because they know I kick ass. So they respect me for both my intellectual prowess and attractive physical presence. Right?

No, the men I'm talking about are exactly those who don't know I kick ass, because they've never spoken to me, or can't see it because their unconscious bias makes them incapable of hearing what I'm saying without a "stupid girl" filter.

Just because you're consciously trying to fight your own prejudices doesn't mean you're winning!

I often find that PC rules clean up people's speech, but not their actions. And interestingly, while it might clean up what comes out of their mouths, it doesn't make them necessarily better listeners.

re: not pointing it out, touché. But, um, my point was that it's VERY difficult to educate those who believe they are not prejudiced. Most of the problem is that they don't listen to to women as equals, so how is anything I say going to be heard?

Especially if you need to do this in such a way that doesn't create a bunch of explosive blowback. For example, if it's your boss. And he thinks you're a hypersensitive bitch if you try to point out how some of his actions might appear to be, you know, subtle sexism (unconscious or otherwise).

That's why I was so impressed with things like the Implicit Association tests. I love the idea of something like that as a way to teach tolerance (although I'm not sure the execution of that particular site is optimal).

Still, I can't see my advisors taking these tests without someone getting in their faces and screaming about how they need to get their shit together, because no matter how unbiased they think they are, they're wrong.

But it's not going to be me. I've tried. They said I was being hypersensitive and paranoid.

Thanks to the internet, I know I'm not imagining any of it, and I'm not overreacting.

Once you see, you can't unsee. The problem is getting people to see.

And listen.

Anon 8:01,

This comment cracked me up. It reminded me of an Asian comedian who made a joke about how Asians are all extremely racist, because they all think they're better, smarter, and more hardworking those those stupid white people and Africans.

Thanks for illustrating for us that some Asians are proud to uphold the stereotypes of being racist and sexist.

At 6:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home