I set the scene in an earlier post: at any conference that I attend, especially when working a booth, I am expending energy every moment to prove that I am there as a technical contributor to my company and the event – a role which, for men, is taken for granted.
Now let’s look at an incident that occurred at a tech event I did not attend, and conjecture about how I might have reacted had I been there. Below is a description from a male attendee of a company-sponsored party at Sun Microsystems’ Java One in 2007:
“…the good fun event turned into a sexually explicit strip show with “Grinder Girl” running a grinder over her metal clad genital area. I was stunned. When I recovered, I started feeling cheated and betrayed. I was thrust into a situation where my ethics against objectifying women and remaining loyal to my wife (watching an exotic dancer is a betrayal of her trust) were being challenged. I looked around at the women in the crowd. They were both embarrassed and shocked.
This is an industry that is struggling to attract women and minorities, and Sun Microsystems puts on an exotic dancer at one of the largest technology shows in the Industry. That is despicable.”
You can read the full story in the first anonymous comment here. I was not a Sun employee at the time, and don’t know how or if the company responded.
Suppose I had been there, or at any other industry event where the entertainment turns out to be some kind of sexualized performance. (No, I’m not going to argue about what I mean by a “sexualized” performance. For now, let’s say that it’s something most onlookers would agree was to some degree sexual.)
So, there I am in a room with thousands of people, most of them strangers and most of them men, watching a performance designed to arouse sexual feelings. How would I feel?
Immediately defensive and vulnerable. With good reason.
I would know that many of the men around me would be watching my reactions, to judge who I “am”:
Am I dismayed by what I see just because it’s sexual? Though not my natural response, this might be my safest one in this context. Almost no culture in the world today is comfortable with women openly expressing sexuality or interest in sex.
If I did display even the mildest enjoyment, some of the male onlookers would be shocked, and some titillated, by my reaction. For a woman to publicly demonstrate that she enjoys something sexual risks being taken as a signal that she is “up for it” – welcoming any sexual attention. (Whereas any man watching could cheer, applaud, catcall, and whistle, with no fear of bodily consequences.)
I have already expended effort at this conference to prove that I’m here for my technical knowledge, not my body. Having some women present as sexual entertainers brings into question the role of all women at this event. However, even if there were male dancers on the stage, that would not affect the default assumption that all male conference attendees are at the event for their technical skills and knowledge.
Any entertainment or humor based on sex or race will cause discomfort, but any reaction may elicit counter-reactions of “Can’t you take a joke?” If the entertainment was someone singing and dancing in blackface, or telling anti-Semitic jokes, the problem would be easily recognized and no excuses accepted. But, when the entertainment object is a woman, women are supposed to just deal with it, even if it makes us genuinely uncomfortable. “Don’t be so damned PC!” “Do you have to take the fun out of everything?” Some people would be watching me to see: “Is she gonna be cool about this?”
Men can also have this problem: the commenter who shared this story was very unhappy, but his reaction was to quietly walk away and discuss it with a like-minded colleague, and then to comment anonymously on a Sun blog post, instead of, say, writing a post under his own name, or taking it up with his sales rep at Sun. Perhaps he, too, feared being judged “uncool” or “a troublemaker”.
In sum: there is no good way for a woman to react in a situation like this. And people are watching to see how we react. What was supposed to be a fun evening turns into a harrowing public examination with no correct answer.
With all of this running through my mind, I would have felt uncomfortable, even vulnerable. Like the anonymous commenter, I likely would have distanced myself from the performers and the people watching them, and perhaps left the party altogether, abandoning opportunities to network and socialize with my industry peers. I would have been effectively “othered” right out of an industry event, in an industry that I have to fight every day to be part of.
I’d love to live in a world where I didn’t feel that way about a display of skin. A world where sexuality can be a celebrated part of everyday life (and even a safe, respected career choice), and we can all simply enjoy performers (exotic or otherwise) as part of the entertainment.
But… we’re not there now. And we’re especially not there in the tech industry. In today’s tech industry, women constantly have to prove that we are present at events (and hold our very jobs) because of our technical capabilities – not to be decorative, or as someone’s girlfriend. Our industry is not mature enough for sexualized roles and entertainment at events not to be a problem. Maybe someday we will be, but that time is not now.