The dangers of chatting & other lady taxes
Recently there has all kinds of discussion about discrimination of all kinds and micro-aggressions and whether or not and how language impacts people who aren’t white men. I saw a series of tweets (shout out to Sara) about an article that has haunted me because it rang so, so true and I don’t think most of the (very well-meaning) men in my life understand how exhausting it can be to exist as a woman, in tech or otherwise.
To be clear, I very much fall into the “pretty fucking lucky” bucket in life. #blessed, if you will.
I’m white, well-educated, and have a good job. I have never (knowingly) explicitly been passed over for a role or gig because I’m a woman. On the awful to way-more-awful scale of assault, my experiences have been on the low end. That scale of assault is whole other topic, which is awful in itself, but I digress. In total, I have a pretty good life.
But still. I have experience with injustice, bias, inequality and the complication of emotions that can come along with those experiences. And mostly, the exhaustion of the constant calculation. The lack of focus on productive pursuits because of said worry and guilt. Let me tell you a story to explain.
Last week, I stopped at a Starbucks to get a little work done in between meetings and randomly met a dude in an unrelated but sort of related field to me. He interrupted me to ask if my WiFi worked, and when I responded somewhat pleasantly, he struck up a conversation. We chatted about what we each did for work, where we’re from, etc. He had a seemingly impressive background and I am in the midst of building up my consulting practice, so I thought maybe I could parlay this random contact into some business. I hear stories all the time of colleagues meeting someone on a plane that they ultimately hire or do a project with. We exchanged business cards. All was going swimmingly in the “woman networks to expand burgeoning business” world.
I’d gone back to typing, and he interrupts me again.
“Blah blah blah and you’re so nice to talk to blah blah blah and you’re so pretty…” and I drowned out the rest of what he said.
Here’s what you might not have guessed if you are not a woman. My immediate reaction was the flight half of fright-or-flight. It was mid-day and I’m in a public place and I felt the need to flee. Suddenly a friendly conversation with a possible business connection had become threatening. Did he touch me? No. Did he get too close to me? No. Did he say anything particularly vile about my body or in a threatening way? No. But he didn’t need to in order to make me feel uncomfortable.
Because here’s the thing; we live in a world where responding to a question about WiFi becomes an invitation to comment on how I look and enter a conversation about very non-WiFi-related things.
Side note: I was wearing my (very sparkly) wedding and engagement rings and had mentioned that I was one half of a “we.” Not that it would excuse it, but there should have been no mistaking my conversational content with flirting.
Luckily, I really did have to go so that I wouldn’t be late for a meeting, so I excused myself and scurried off, feeling a little confused and upset but not having time to fully digest. My day goes on, I get another completely unrelated business opportunity, and I forget it.
Then he sends me a LinkedIn invitation. And here’s where the calculating begins. Did I imagine that he was flirting with me and he really just does want to connect about business? Do I ignore it and cut off this potentially good connection? Do I accept and possibly open myself up for further discomfort? The uncertainty of potentially uncomfortable situations is mad-making. After far too much energy and time, I decide I’m in the business-building phase and what the hell, I accept.
Shortly after, I receive a message asking if I’d like to “meet for coffee and talk.” Talk about what? Is this a business chat? One of those famous catch up over coffee and leave with a big deal chats? Or are you trying to vaguely ask me out? Because my answer varies vastly based on your intention.
I still don’t know how to respond. I’ve spent hours of days I should be doing many other things deliberating about how or if to respond. This afternoon I should have spent a few hours on a new project that kicked off and a pitch for another potential project, but instead, I wrote this.
I’ve done an informal, very-small poll of my male friends and colleagues, which beyond taking even more of my time, confirmed that not one of them has ever encountered a similar situation.
That is the lady tax. That energy, that brain space, that time, that thought that next time I should just keep earbuds in and ignore the initial question, and the follow up worry that I’ll never be a successful business person if I cut off every possible networking opportunity, and the associated guilt of maybe misinterpreting the whole thing.
Just think how much more ass we ladies could kick if we didn’t have to spend our energy this way.
Actually, we don’t run this motha. But we should.
Amanda Stockwell is President of Stockwell Strategy, a UX research practice focused on lean research methods and integrating user knowledge with business goals to create holistic product strategies. She has focused most of the last decade focused on finding innovative ways to understand people and embed that knowledge into overall process. She’s lead teams that provide research, design, and UX strategy services and frequently writes and speaks about her experience. Check her out on Twitter @MandaLaceyS and view her #LinkedInLearning courses on Agile UX Research, UX Research Basics, Card Sorting, and Interviewing.