On being sexist
I’m a sexist. I was raised sexist, I live in a sexist society and continue to spread sexism on a daily basis. Most of the time I don’t even notice, because it’s just what people say or because there is some truth to it or some other bullshit I tell myself so I don’t have to confront my own prejudices.
When growing up, my family (mom, dad, me) was my blueprint of the world. I extrapolated everything from this very tiny, unique ecosystem. Sure, over the years I added some stuff to it and I had a few major turning points when I had to take a step back and examine my life and values. But the basic stuff, the stuff you learn early on, that stuff sticks with you.
Like in most families my dad was the main breadwinner. My parents actually worked together for most of my childhood at the university, where my dad was the department head. From that and the fact that I saw it in all the families of my friends, I deduced that women earned less and held inferior positions to men, if they worked at all. As a kid, I thought the world must be fair. So if a woman earns less or has a lesser position than a man, it must be because he works harder, better, faster, stronger than her. And since this applies to all the women around me, it must have something to do with the sex. I knew there were exceptions, but those were basically freaks of nature. Not real women. Honorary men, you could say.
When I entered puberty, this was my state of mind: Being a girl sucked. You had all this pressure, coming from everywhere: You had to look pretty and clean and fashionable all the time. Girl groups were not just a group of friends; they needed constant maintenance. If you didn’t call your girl for a while, she might be starting to talk behind your back. You had to like their boyfriend, even if he was a racist piece of shit. And you always needed to be on top of what’s new and trending. Not saying, that this is how all teen girl cliques are. But it was how I grew up and what I learned about being female. Also I realised, that all the things girls are supposed to like and endorse, were frowned upon by society as stupid and unimportant girl’s stuff (like clothes and celebrities) as opposed to the very important, world-changing things men were doing (like politics or science).
By the time I finished school and started university I had devoted my life to not being my mother and I kept that attitude well into my mid-twenties, still struggling with it. I saw with how little respect my dad treated her and that was absolutely not what I wanted for my life. I avoided everything that could be considered female. I picked up traditionally male hobbies like playing video games, watching football, hung out with mostly guys and joked that there were less women than men in the room when I was alone. Really anything to say that I’m not a woman, I’m a man without a penis. Not because I felt I was trapped in the wrong body, but because I hated everything about being a woman in society. I figured, I wasn’t one of the “pretty ones” so really all that was left for me, was to strive to be one of the “brainy ones”. And as soon as I made that decision I thought that I could never ever try to be pretty ever again. Because then I would lose my credibility as a smart person and end up with nothing.
There were the odd Christmas parties when I would put on a nice dress. But the reactions of men around me enforced my worldview, that it was better not to. Though I still wanted to dress up nicely sometimes, I knew I had to pay a price in having to get through the night with all kinds of comments, when I just wanted to be myself, all facets of my personality, which includes sometimes wearing dresses. The comments mostly ranged from “Oh wow. You look like a woman! So sexy. Nice legs and boobs and stuff” to (yes someone actually said this to me) “Sorry, I find it hard talking about engineering topics with you looking like this. Can’t really take you seriously”. Really? I feel, that says a lot more about you than me. It’s not that some people saw me in a different light, when I changed clothes, what bothered me. It’s that all they could see was curves, boobs, legs and no brain.
In the 8 years of working with software engineers, I remember exactly one guy who wasn’t a close friend, who made a non-sexual remark about my unusual clothing: “That’s a pretty dress”. Now that’s how you compliment a woman.
A few years ago my demons caught up to me. I was so depressed, I couldn’t get out of my apartment to go to work. I had forced myself to get out of bed, into the shower and everything, but I just couldn’t bring myself to open the door and leave the flat. Instead I broke down crying, curling up in a small ball of fear and despair. That’s when I realised, I needed help. Since then, I’ve been in therapy, where I learned about how I have been beating myself up for decades for being a woman, making sexist jokes about the inferiority of women, and how that had led to a disconnect between what I am and what I wanted to make myself be, but could never be (i.e. a man), then hating myself for it.
The point I wanna make is: I know sexism. I went there and back again and I’m catching myself being sexist every day. I am not ashamed of it, but I don’t want to think that way anymore, so I keep working on it, calling myself out whenever I can.
And there are some things I need to get off my chest. It really is important that we open our eyes and care more. When I look back now, I can see how the subtle, inconspicuous every-day sexism, we so easily shrug off, shaped my world from the very beginning and nearly ruined my life.
I try to stay away from accusing people of mansplaining, because I feel this furthers the gender division. Sometimes people are assholes, not because of their gender, but just because they’re assholes. But that doesn’t mean mansplaining is not a thing. It’s not that all men who talk down to others are mansplaining, but if they do it, because the other person is female which makes them feel superior, it sure as hell is.
Men have been talking down to women forever, calling them “girls” to play down credibility as self-sufficient adults or condescendingly assuming, a woman cannot know about certain things. The way these men frame their statements (“Look, …”, ”Listen, …”, “…., Honey”) is degrading and hurtful but it has been going on for so long, it needs to be pointed out and given a name for people to see it.
Whenever a woman brings up mansplaining or sexism and some dude is like “Well you just want to see sexism everywhere, don’t you? Let me explain sexism to you: It’s whatever I say it is.” These are the things that go through my mind:
Fuck you. It’s not about you! If someone feels offended or hurt by something, you don’t get to negate it. Whether you belong to the group that is supposed to be discriminated against or not. At least try and be empathetic before you dump all over someone’s feelings and opinions. The fact that you don’t see it because it doesn’t happen to you, is exactly the reason why we still need to speak up on sexism, racism and all the other -isms that threaten diversity.
Woman: This is sexist
Man: No it’s not, because I say it’s not.
Woman: Why is your opinion more valid than mine?
Man: Because women see sexism everywhere. And let me tell you, there is no more sexism, even though I am right now criticising you for stating your opinion and assuming that you are not able to think as an individual but only as part of the female hive mind.
At least be proud of being an indifferent egomaniac and say “Yes I am sexist and I don’t care”, then at least I would respect you for being you. But stating, there is no sexism while demanding women justify their views and feelings to you, some random dude, because you feel entitled to it, is literally just a dick move.
Now that’s something that really gets my blood pumping. Whenever a woman says, she feels uncomfortable with being cat called in public, there is at least one man who is like “Just take the compliment! Man, I would be glad if women called after me!” Yeah, if some random chick you don’t find attractive started yelling sexual innuendos at you, I’ll bet you’ll take her home immediately. But if I say it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t think I’ll meet the love of my life by having him shouting insults at me, that somehow makes me the crazy one. Totally.
Just stop it. It’s not about giving women compliments. Yelling something objectifying at someone and then hiding behind your friends and machismo when you’re confronted about it, is not a compliment. It’s about aggression and assertion of dominance. And I for once do not appreciate it. I don’t need a guy to “just give me a good banging” or “show me what’s what” or whatever bullshit these misogynistic assholes tell themselves to justify their behaviour.
Sexism in Tech
Yes. There are more men working as software developers than women. I knew this before I started working in the field. According to this year’s Stack Overflow Survey 89.5% identify themselves as male, 7.2% as female. That’s crazy. Why would that be? Well sure, it could be that women overall are not as interested in engineering and technology, but I don’t think this is true at all. From what I have seen, the developer community is still a boys club. Just the fact that there is such a visible majority of men at most developer conferences I’ve been to, is intimidating to newcomers like I was myself at one point. When you haven’t really figured out, who you are as a developer, you try to identify via other properties like age, race or gender. If I were at a conference where 90% of the attendants were aged over 50 or all dressed in pink pants, I would probably be weirded out just the same. Not that I find anything wrong with that It’s just interesting, that those are clearly examples of strange conferences, but not that 90% of attendees are male or white (in Europe) because we’re so used to that. But this is why diversity in presentation is actually important and not just for show. It’s so everyone can find someone in the group to identify with. Of course there is also a value in diversity of opinions and I’m just speculating here, but I think that your best bet to get that, is to have a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and experiences.
But the reality I live in, is that a lot of the “culture” (e.g. job listings, conferences) is catering to the straight male demographic. Now from what I see most devs and companies are making a real effort in being diverse and open to criticism, but sometimes you get a verbal kick in the head for just questioning the state of affair.
I was attending this conference once, where they held the afterparty at the conference location. We were standing outside, smoking a cigarette, when suddenly all these pretty, dressed-up, model-type women showed up for the party. I really didn’t know what to say about this. But here is what I felt:
I was jealous. People had to either pay lots of money or work hard on their talks to attend this conference, but you get to just waltz in for free, because you’re pretty? That’s not fair! You have your pretty people parties to go to. Leave the thinking people parties to us!
I felt judged. So now the brain part is over, and it’s time to judge appearances? I cannot be as pretty as they are. I don’t even have time to put on makeup because I’m busy thinking!
I felt objectified. During the day it was all “we need more female speakers for diversity” and at night it was “Well let’s get something that’s nice to look at for the party. Maybe something that also moves and reacts. I know... Pretty girls!”. So what, is diversity just a commodity to buy and put on your portfolio without having to think about it too hard?
I hated myself for being sexist. I was like “Wait, these girls are pretty! They can’t be devs. They’re probably stupid and being pretty is all that saves them from living with a sugar daddy or their parents.” Yeah. I know, it’s a horrible way to think about people. But I’m working on it and am now able to see it without making excuses for myself.
When I started my apprenticeship as software engineer, I felt, I had to overcompensate to be accepted as “one of the boys”. No matter how diverse a company wants or claims to be, there’s always a line on how different you can be, without being shunned. And being a woman, talking about perceived sexism was often frowned upon. One team I worked with had a picture of a half naked model hanging in the window. I spoke about it with a colleague once and he told me to stop being so sensitive. I should rather keep working on my coding skills if I really wanted to raise awareness of female developers. So here I was at the beginning of my career being told that I needed to become a good developer first, before I had any right to speak up about my place in this industry. So that’s what I tried to do.
Under no circumstances did I want anyone to know that I was a real, tangible human being. I would rather act like this caricature of a person. If I presented myself as having no feelings, no one could hurt them. If I encountered something offensive or sexist, I would maybe protest, but only on principle, never revealing my personal thoughts and feelings. I never ever wanted to be myself, because I was ashamed of who I thought I was: “Just” another woman with no right to be there. Always feeling that I needed to be a better, more successful developer before I had a right to assert myself.
This changed once I started accepting myself for who I was. I didn’t feel the need to be as aggressive as before. I’m less scared of people hurting my feelings, because I don’t let them. I stand by my feelings and am not ashamed of them anymore. Now I know that being a woman gives me a perspective and insights, that are pretty scarce in the tech industry and are actually very valuable and not at all disadvantages.
So.. this was the longest and most personal thing I’ve ever written. It took me forever to finish this one, because I needed to dive into parts of my psyche that I try to avoid. They still hurt me so deeply, that I feel paralysed and depressed when I put myself back into that situation.
However, for better or worse I needed to get these things off my chest. If just one person can take this rambling as a new perspective to see things in a different light, I think it was totally worth it.
And lastly, I just wanna say that I don’t hate men. I’m married to one and some of my best friends are men! So… There!