Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Sexual Harrassment and Developers

Today I read yet another awful tale from a female attendee at a conference. This one was worse than average because it includes an actual sexual assault and involved the lady in question’s own boss, co-workers and friends. What happened to this lady, and numerous others, is awful.

So what’s this post about? Well, two things really.

The first has been annoying me for some time; when this kind of incident happens, certain commentators come out and tell us that there is some kind of widespread problem of sexism in the developer community and that that is the cause of these incidents. This is, in my experience (which we’ll come to in a bit), untrue. There is a problem of sexism with some people, both male and female, and some of them happen to be developers. It might seem to some female developers as if the problem is widespread, but as this excellent piece from Ian Gent points out, the fact that there are relatively few female developers means that they will (unfortunately) see a hugely disproportionate number of incidents. You might say that means that it’s important to do something about the people causing them, and I’d agree with you. It is, however, a long way from being a “widespread problem”.

On the other hand, and this is important too, sexism can be quite subjective. Not everybody agrees on (for instance) what remarks are and are not acceptable, and sometimes even when two people both think something is inappropriate, they may cite entirely different reasons (for instance, the TechCrunch idiocy is, IMO, stupid, unprofessional and crass, as opposed to sexist), and there have also been incidents where not everybody agrees that the line was even crossed. That last one was presented by many people (including some I follow on Twitter) as an example of sexism, and vigorously defended as such, but actually for many of us, the nasty aspect of it was that someone was fired for making a joke, privately, to his colleague. OK, a mildly blue joke, but sacking them for it was wildly disproportionate, and it backfired horribly on the lady who complained about it too. There’s a good summary on Venturebeat.

The second thing is an observation. Male software developers are a fairly socially inept group, and a reasonable proportion have had relatively little interaction with the opposite sex. This is not to excuse bad behaviour, but it is perhaps worth being aware, if you are a woman attending a tech conference or working in a tech company, that the people around you have more in common with Sheldon Cooper than with George Clooney, and so you might need to make it quite obvious if someone is doing something you don’t like. The poor lady who wrote the post I linked to above said at one point that her boss was kissing her but she “didn’t reciprocate”. That may very well not be sufficient. Remember, some of the people at a tech conference may never have been kissed. They don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like (and, actually, people do do it differently — some people really don’t kiss back very much, whereas with others it’s really obvious they’re into it). If someone is doing something you don’t want, tell them, CLEARLY. Don’t try to save their feelings, don’t try to be subtle; they may not get it.

Now, I’m sure the same people who feed us the widespread sexism meme will get very annoyed at what I just said, and bang on about how it’s never acceptable and the woman needs to say “yes” and so on. Look, we all know what the law has to say, but unless you’re spectacularly naïve and inexperienced you also know that that isn’t quite how the real world works. It isn’t even quite how most of us want the real world to work… most of the people I’ve kissed or been kissed by didn’t look me in the eye and go “Yes!” — it just happened — and nobody wants to sign a ten-page form before coming within two feet of each other.

The trouble is that implied consent, which actually is the norm, is difficult to convey and difficult to interpret; even more so if you’re socially inept and drunk. What is clear, even to someone totally socially inept, even when drunk, is a clear “No”, coupled if necessary — and hopefully it won’t be — with physical resistance. This also has the benefit of making it obvious to anyone else present that there is a problem. Most people will intervene to help you, if they know there is something wrong. If, on the other hand, something is happening and you aren’t doing anything to stop it or giving any indication of distress they will probably regard it as none of their business.

“But you don’t know what you’re talking about”. I can hear it already. Well, actually:

  1. I’ve had to fend off unwanted advances, from men too (and yes, men are more aggressive sometimes than women). So yes, I’ve been on the receiving end, as it were. Being clear about it works.

  2. When I was at school, I managed to make the life of one of the girls in my class utterly miserable. I didn’t mean to — it was the last thing I wanted — but, partly because I didn’t understand that she was not and would never be interested in me, I upset her.

    To be clear, I never touched her, so we’re certainly not talking about anything like the incident I linked to above, but I needed to be told that I was upsetting her. Looking back, I can see that she tried to be subtle about it, but as a teenager I was about as socially inept as they come and there was really no chance of me “getting it”. Had she clearly told me that I was upsetting her and asked me to stop behaving the way I was, much heartache could have been saved for both of us.

    As it was, she burst into tears on her way home, I heard about it second hand, and I spent the next five days pretty much in tears the whole time about how I’d hurt her.

    I’m ashamed to this day of this episode in my life, and it put me off even trying to have any kind of relationship for quite some time afterwards, just in case I got things wrong again and upset someone.

So I do have some perspective on this issue.

Let me re-iterate: if someone is doing something you don’t like, please TELL THEM. It’s no good letting them carry on doing it and expecting that they will notice that you aren’t kissing them back, or that you’re ignoring them, or some other such thing. Also, go for clarity. “No” is good; it’s simple, to the point and should have the desired effect.