The firestorm that occurred on Twitter today in reference to a slide from a recent talk at Atlassian’s AtlasCamp made me realize how hard it is for some men to understand sexism. Their attempt to empathize with women listening to sexist dialogue begins and ends by swapping out gendered words and seeing if the result offends them. Of course, for the most blatant forms of sexism this will help a bit; these guys understand that “women are inferior to men” or “women are to be seen and not heard” are insulting statements. But most sexism is not so blatant.
You can’t understand sexism without understanding context, and you can’t understand sexism without focusing on effect rather than intent. If you’re confused about why someone is offended or if you’ve dismissed the offense they’ve taken, try stepping back and thinking about it in context.
The question isn’t “is this slide offensive?” The question is “in the context of a society plagued by systemic sexism, in an industry historically and contemporally exclusive and dismissive of women, in a conference dominated by male attendees and speakers, is this slide offensive?”
Straight men have the most power and visibility in our society. They have the most chances to tell their story and to frame conversations around their understanding of the world. They (we) have been doing this for so long that society takes the straight male perspective for granted. Referring to gender as incidental because “it would have had the same meaning if a straight woman or gay man said it about their significant other” is ignorant of the society and industry in which we live and work. We so rarely hear from women and queer folk at tech conferences that it’s frankly insulting to use the assumed presence of their voices to defend a straight male’s perspective.
Next time you think someone is overreacting to something a straight man has said at a tech conference, think about the context of those words. Think about how female attendees already feel like outsiders because they’re assumed to be from marketing and because male attendees are more interested in picking them up than networking professionally. Think about all the creepy touching and groping women have had to deal with at this or previous conferences (#YesAllWomen). Think about whether there were any female speakers or organizers for that conference (a quick glance says no for AtlasCamp). Think about whether any gendered language has been used to refer to men in the entire conference (probably not), and if so whether it was in reference to powerful or empowering ideas (e.g. “best man for the job”, “it’s like superman”, “this will make you feel like a man”).
It may seem like a lot of unnecessary work to think about all this context. It may seem like an academic exercise. But there are those who can’t help but be bombarded with these truths. There are those who are consistently disenfranchised and dismissed and who can’t help but live in the context. Empathy requires stepping into someone else’s shoes and walking around in them. Only through extended interaction and observation and meditation can we truly gauge the effects of actions.