People are People, Not a Gender

A lot of people have written recently on gender equality at conferences in my industry which has spurred on some thoughts of my own. If you’ve followed my other posts, you know that I attended my first WordCamp in Europe this fall, so I don’t have a ton of experience to offer on conferences specifically. However, as a women in a male-dominated subject while studying Chemistry, I have had experiences in being the minority gender.

Gender Influences Perspective #

Before I get into detail about what I’ve been reading about women in WordPress specifically, I’d like to talk about a book I’m almost done reading currently: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent. This is one of the most interesting examinations of the differences between men and women I’ve ever read, and has influenced my perspectives on gender tremendously already.

Norah spent large amounts of time dressed (and living) as a man, which included joining a bowling league, spending time at a monastery, dating women (though she is a lesbian, this experience was far different), and working as a man. Some of the most interesting points for me were the perspectives she gained on the way women evaluate men, especially in dating circumstances.

In her experience, women treat men as a gender rather than as individuals. While men typically appraise women physically, women appraise men on all of their actions, but also put the burden on men to prove that they’re different “from all other men”, implying that being a man is undesirable, or that men are not worthy of consideration until they prove themselves above “the fray” or the average male.

The way we perceive gender helps our brain categorize interaction and give us scripts for social experiences. Norah laughed at experiences she had while dressed as a women during her experiment, as her short hair left some people questioning her gender, and thus had no idea how to interact with her at first. Whether you want this to be true or not, gender does affect perspective and interaction. That does not mean we should just accept this and let it affect our interactions to their detriment. We can acknowledge this, then learn and be better.

(The rest of the book is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.)

Gender and Work #

There are a few really important points here that we need to consider and apply to our professional relationships. First, men are not “all men” and women are not “all women”. We are all individuals. We are all people with our own set of quirks, faults, talents, and predispositions. To state that “men” act a certain way with “women” perpetuates the idea that we are simply our gender.

I am not my gender. I am Beka Rice, who happens to be a woman. My gender is independent of my talents, personality, and shortcomings. While gender may influence some of this or the way I act in some situations, it’s not who I am. It’s not fair to say gender dictates the behavior of all males or females.

Most of what I’ve read about gender and WordCamps has been about protecting women from harassment, or establishing a protocol for handling harassment should it arise. While I agree that everyone should be able to attend a conference without feeling uncomfortable or like they need a spouse as a body guard, I think we’re missing some of the point here.

Gender and WordPress #

Sarah Pressler just wrote a post on how her opinions changed after attending WordCamp Phoenix (which references a lot of the other posts I’ve read on the subject if you want to check them out). While in the middle of professional conversations, people made unwanted advances. She was hit on at the conference, and while out socializing. If you’re a male, you probably won’t understand how this can be demeaning, but I’d implore you to try for a second.

As a female, you’re sometimes treated as incapable until proven capable. This is usually the opposite for men – you’re given the benefit of the doubt. I experienced this frequently as a Chemistry major. People sometimes questioned my ability until they learned I was the top student in the class, then opinions shifted. My male counterparts told me they never experienced this. Am I crying for attention or respect? No. I earn it anyway and in spite of this. I understand that some people will have biases I can’t control and move on.

Notice that I say “usually” or “sometimes” a lot in relationship to discussions on gender. Not everyone makes these assumptions, and I appreciate when they don’t and look at me for my accomplishments or who I am rather than my gender. However, it can be very frustrating to be seen as a female first and person second (and it gets worse the more attractive the woman is it seems). I’ve never been a man, so I don’t know if they experience the same thing ever. But that’s what happens. Doubt it if you want to, but most women I know have experienced this at some point.

I don’t dwell on the annoyance of being typed by my gender. I move on. If someone does make me feel uncomfortable, I call it out there and then, and if I can embarrass them for the behavior while we’re talking, I will. This is more brash an approach than most people would take, and that’s okay. I don’t think all women have to act the same way as me, nor should they have to in order to be able to participate fully in a conference.

Am I trying to make you feel sorry for women or cry “Woe is me?” No. Not in the slightest. I don’t feel bad for men, and I don’t think they need to feel bad for women. I’m simply saying that this is a cause of the issue and it snowballs from there, which we must understand before we can fix it. As a woman, I want my interactions to be based on my merits as a person, not on my gender. I want the same thing for men. Thus the issue to me is not related to male or female, but to appropriate professional expectations for everyone.

Setting Expectations #

Women, you’re not your gender. Men, you’re not your gender. Women, men are not their gender. Men, women are not their gender. Easy enough, huh?

First of all, we need to understand this and be open to the fact that we shouldn’t judge the new people we meet as part of their gender. Some people just aren’t good people, or they’re good people that do dumb things. This shouldn’t be generalized to the person’s gender. It’s an individual problem that should have individual rather than conference-wide consequences.

We should be able to have high expectations of people – of both men and women. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is a good person and follows the rules, regardless of the individual’s gender. I don’t think it’s a male or female problem; I think it’s an expectation problem. However, typically women are often the recipient of inappropriate behavior. I don’t think we can conclusively say that men don’t suffer from this just as much, as I think men are probably less likely speak out against being propositioned by a female.

I think a professional code of conduct for the conference is probably the best approach to clarify what this individual behavior should be. I know some people take vacations to go to WordCamps, but the conference itself is a work event. Set a code of conduct for the work event specifically – no harassment, mutual respect, and treat people as coworkers. If someone doesn’t abide by this at the conference, they absolutely should be removed or banned for repeated offenses.

Outside of the conference, it’s the real world. Some people will act like idiots. If you’re socializing outside of the conference and someone does something that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll have to take care of it as an adult. Don’t worry about keeping the conversation civil or being nice – make them just as uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this may be at a venue tied to the conference indirectly, like at the hotel bar, but that’s not part of the conference and it will be on you to respond.

I know most women don’t want to do this because then people will say, “Wow, what a bitch,” or something similar. Whatever, but be aware that you’re making a choice then to not demand professional behavior. If I’m in the middle of a conversation and someone says something completely inappropriate to the conversation, like, “You look great today,” I’d hope I respond with the usual snark like, “Thanks, I’m glad that you’re engaged in this professional conversation. Maybe you could contribute instead of checking my outfit out?”

The person saying that might just be clueless. It’s up to you to decide. But if they try to make you uncomfortable, I think you absolutely respond in kind. If it’s outside of a professional conversation and of the conference and someone makes you uncomfortable, act like you would in the wild. It’s not a conference problem, it’s that individual. If this makes you more timid to start a conversation as a man or woman, please just stop and think about context. Am I at a work event? Act like a professional. Am I outside of the work event? Engage ‘decent human being’ mode.

Conversely, I’d implore us all to remember that we represent ourselves and businesses both at the conference and outside of it. If you act inappropriately of offensively towards someone at a hotel bar, that may come back to bite you. Personally, if you don’t apologize or try to make it right, I think you deserve the consequences.

I’m not judging Sarah’s actions by any means. I wasn’t there, I’m not her, I have no idea how the conversation went down. Please don’t think I’m saying we all need to put men in their places or that all women have to deal with something the same way I would. I am saying that you can’t blame the problem on the conference or on men as a whole. If it happens during the conference, there can be repercussions. If it happens outside of that, you’ll have to deal with it as you see fit.

The expectation needs to be that, at conferences, we won’t tolerate disrespectful behavior. Outside of conferences, we have to set this expectation ourselves and with the help of our friends.

After Parties #

Both men and women act like idiots sometimes while drinking. That’s what alcohol does. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge a conference on an after-party, especially when you know that people will be socializing, nor do I think it’s fair to say that the conference organizers must police social events. I’d treat it the same way that I treat going to a bar with friends. I may have to deal with assholes (both of the male and female variety). I think we should stop treating after parties like part of the conference, or maybe conferences should have multiple events to respect that there’s different strokes for different folks.

In Summary #

I didn’t have any problems with any of the men or women I met at my first WordCamp. I spent a lot of time with some of the guys from WooThemes, like Coen, Daniel, Stuart, and Jay, and had dinner with Brent Shepherd (WooCommerce extension developer), Troy Dean (WP Elevation), and Jean Valea (WP Mayor). I had a great time with all of these people and felt more welcomed than I expected to feel. I hope others are able to have similar experiences at their WordCamps, but I think that settings professional expectations may have to become a part of the experience for this to occur.

I don’t think this is a “tech industry” issue. It’s not a WordCamp issue. It’s an issue with individuals – with people that do dumb things or are just plain disrespectful. Set the expectation that it won’t be tolerated at conferences, and deal with offenses appropriately if they occur. If it happens outside of a conference, I think we need to handle it responsibly and in proportion to the offense. I also think we need to forgive people for making mistakes if they do something drunkenly and apologize, and give them the opportunity to be better.

If someone harasses you, depending on severity, go to the police or make an ass out of them. Call them out right there and then. Don’t be that chick that took her agenda to the stage when somebody made an inappropriate comment about forking and dongles to her in an elevator. Call the person out and demand an apology. If they still act like an ass, tell people. They deserve it for acting in a disrespectful way. If it doesn’t happen directly to you, help out anyway. But most of all, treat people the way you want them to treat you, forgive them if they admit their mistakes, and act like professionals.
 
Update: I guess I could be a bit more succinct (ya think?). I don’t think any of us knows if harassment is more common at a conference than in the world at large (though if there is data on this, please send it my way!). While I don’t think we need to accept harassment any point in time, realizing that it could happen and should be dealt with makes sense. I don’t think the responsibility should therefore lie with the conference organizers if it occurs outside of the event (I consider the hotel and possibly the after party to be outside of it). If someone says something inappropriate to me at Starbucks while I’m on the clock, is it something my boss should deal with? Nope, deal with the person and move on, and involve police if the issue is serious enough. If it happens at work do I involve my boss? Absolutely, and this is where people should be removed from the conference if they don’t apologize, and possibly blacklisted for repeat behaviors.

I’m not making light of anyone who’s had a negative experience like this. I’m just saying let’s carefully consider whether this is a WordPress issue (i.e., more likely at a conference than on average) or an unfortunate aspect of being around people that don’t know how to act. Regardless, we should make sure we set appropriate expectations both at conferences and within our social groups, and follow through on them.