What It’s Like to Be Invisible

A lot of people ask me, what’s it like to be a woman in tech? Is it so bad? Are men always hitting on you?

I think we’ve mischaracterized the problem.

Yes, people hit on each other in business settings. Men and women alike have been the subject of unwanted sexual advances. It sucks to feel objectified, and nothing I’m about to say makes that excusable.

But personally I find being hit on far less damaging than something that’s happened at several events I’ve attended recently: not being seen.

This is true even when I’m a speaker. If I’m standing near a man, someone will inevitably come up and talk to the man, assuming I’m his plus one.

And when men introduce their wives, they often leave it at that — “oh, and this is my wife, Mary.” (Mary smiles and nods, and the man continues talking about whatever he said before, directed mostly at the other man). I’m left wondering, is that Mary’s role in life — this man’s wife? Why don’t I learn anything more about her? And why isn’t he more curious about what I do?

I’ve asked my male friends why this happens. The younger ones do it less, as a rule — perhaps they’re more attuned to the damage caused by making another person feel invisible. Or perhaps they’re used to better gender ratios at school and work.

The older ones shrug it off. Most of them say, “that’s just the way it is. Most of the women here are wives or girlfriends, and I don’t find much common ground to speak with them.”

Contrast this to most women’s behavior when standing next to a man who does interesting work.

I’ve never — not once — seen a woman introduce a man as her husband/boyfriend/coworker/friend and simply move on. There’s always a lead-in — “this is my boyfriend Mark. You’d love what he does — he teaches history at a charter school and knows everything you can imagine about WWII.”

We accord men respect. And we display the same respect for each other, too.

When I’m with women friends, if someone approaches us (rare in a roomful of men, to be honest), the woman always takes a second to say what I do and why it matters.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me in the past year, especially if I’m with a male friend or coworker. The men in my life mostly understand, and so when a new person approaches they make an effort to describe what I do.

But not all of them, and not as a rule.

Men: if you want to help women achieve gender parity in all aspects of life, which is one of the greatest struggles of our time, you can do something. Introduce the women in your life as full human beings with interesting stories, talents, and ambitions, rather than accessories.

And if you witness a man doing what I’ve described above, gently but firmly call him out. Talk to his wife, girlfriend or colleague. Bestow on her the same respect usually reserved for other men. And play a part in making another human being feel valuable, rather than a satellite around someone else’s sun.

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