Tag Archives: feminism

Twenty Years of Being a Woman at Tech Events

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were Read More…

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were contracted for the duration of the event to work in a booth, taking business cards and giving out schwag. That work is useful and needed, but was not what I was there for.

I understood early on that I was an anomaly. A few times I even played on it: wearing a miniskirt while on booth duty, then waiting in glee to see how long it would take people to realize that I actually knew what I was talking about. (In Italy, it is not unusual for women to wear miniskirts to professional events.) But, even when I played with it, I wanted to be recognized for my brains and technical knowledge, not for my body.

No matter how I dressed, it was always an uphill battle.

I myself have not experienced overt harassment at a tech event, though I know very well that it happens. I experienced a more subtle (and probably unconscious) form of harassment in having to prove my technical knowledge, over and over. In most people’s minds, a woman in a booth by default is fit only to swipe badges and serve coffee. Then: “Oh, you actually know something! How unusual!” It gets… tiring.

There were more blatantly sexist things going on around me, constantly. Some memorable incidents include:

CeBit, Europe’s equivalent to Comdex/CES: In 1994, three female Italian colleagues staffed a booth for our small company there, and were very popular with (male) partners and customers. The following year, the company sent three men. The same partners and customers would walk up to the booth and ask: “Where are the girls?” – then walk away in disappointment, without leaving so much as a business card. (Of the two groups of three, each time, one person was technical and the other two were sales/marketing.)

But the real attention-getters at CeBit were the svelte women walking around in skin-tight ski suits printed with a Swiss cheese design – a marketing campaign by the government of Switzerland. Men chased them around the pavilions to take photos.

CeBit also featured beer tents which, in the evenings, quickly became rowdy with businessmen drinking and singing. I didn’t go in. Being among few women in such a situation, my best hope would have been to be mistaken for a waitress. No doubt I missed some industry networking opportunities.

The Adult Entertainment Expo used to be co-located with CES in Las Vegas, to “help exhibitors minimize travel expenses and maximize networking opportunities.” One of the years I staffed a booth at CES, we were in the same building as the Expo, leading to scenes in the common hallways of male tech staff chasing after women porn stars for autographs and photos. I was amused, but there was a blur to this situation that I didn’t like: was I there as a subject or an object? Given that most of the women present were there to be looked at, one way or another, people might understandably be confused. At least there was no doubt about the women porn performers’ starring roles in their products, while I, as a woman, was not assumed to be a co-creator in the technology I was selling.

CES hasn’t changed: it continues to feature “booth babes” in scanty clothing (or practically none). This is now sanctified as “tradition” and because “sex sells.”

The idea that women exist primarily for men to look at so permeates tech events that there have been multiple incidents of men posting photos of “the babes of [event]” – including women who were there as attendees and speakers – and claiming that those women should feel flattered!

Then there was the tech scene in Italy, which I’ve written about before.

And I almost forgot to mention, because it’s been so immutable a part of the tech conference experience forever, the very small numbers of women speakers.

In sum: The full impact of how women are presented, perceived, and treated at tech events cannot be fully felt or understood via any single incident, no matter how egregious. What weighs on women in tech is year after year after year of these incidents and attitudes.

So, when we react with rage to the latest example of sexism in tech manifesting at a conference, we’re not being “overly sensitive”. This is a severe allergic reaction, built up over multiple exposures. It’s all the more discouraging to see how little has changed in twenty years – little improvement, and no end in sight.

Read next: Sex and Tech Events

The Unsubtle Sexism of Advertising to Mothers

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc. It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” Read More…

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc.

It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” denies that they have any other identity or role than to bring up children (and buy things for them). In the world of ads, they’re not even women any more, let alone individuals. Their lives have meaning only in the context of their relationships to others: their children.

(What percentage of ads speak to “parents” or even “dads”? There’s probably a study out there somewhere that can tell us, but I’m sure that percentage is small.)

Advertising matters: it reflects and amplifies the culture that it comes from and is aimed at. It shows us what we “should” aspire to. And it is blasted at us constantly, in all media and locations, at almost every moment of our lives. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, advertising affects our thinking. That’s what it’s designed to do, and by now it’s a science that does it very, very well. The goal of advertisers is, of course, to sell products. But, as a very strong side-effect, ads shape culture.

So think about all those ads aimed at “moms”. Not women. Not people. Moms. Busy moms, happy moms, beautiful moms, perfect moms. Moms who might also have jobs, but who always put their families first.

Think about how that constant barrage affects you and your attitudes towards women, how it has affected you all your life.

Start saying no. Women, insist on being an individual first, and being addressed as such. Because that’s what you want to be, and what you want your children to grow up to be. But you have to fight for it, consciously resisting every insidious force that tries to make you define yourself first in relation to others.

As for advertisers: you can and should do better. What you put out into the world has effects. Bad ones. Rethink your role in modern society, and try to be a force for good. Not just for selling. You’re people, too, and you have obligations to your fellow human beings.

Yes, All Girls

I’m trying to remember how young I was when I first realized that, as a girl, I was more likely to be a target than boys were. It might have been when I joined an inner-city Pittsburgh school for 5th grade. I had problems fitting in there. I was already a weird, traumatized kid, just Read More…

I’m trying to remember how young I was when I first realized that, as a girl, I was more likely to be a target than boys were.

It might have been when I joined an inner-city Pittsburgh school for 5th grade. I had problems fitting in there. I was already a weird, traumatized kid, just returned to the US due to my parents’ divorce after being raised in Thailand. It’s not surprising that I was teased a lot in school. Many kids were (and still are, only now it’s called bullying.) But there’s always specific content to teasing. Let’s examine the taunts that were leveled at me.

One of the things I was teased about was my butt, which stuck out, or at least people told me it did (perhaps I was a bit sway-backed). A pop song that had been popular before I returned to the US in 1971 had a line about “Bertha Butt, one of the Butt sisters”. I had never heard the song, and was baffled (and hurt) when one of the boys in my class sang that line at me. Over and over again.

Another excuse for teasing was my clothing. In Thailand, I had not owned any clothing suitable for the Pittsburgh climate, and, my dad having left his job to go to grad school, we couldn’t afford to buy much. So I kept what clothing I had, even if it didn’t fit very well. In 1971, fashionable jeans were bell-bottoms with cuffs that swept the ground. Mine were too short, and flapped around my ankles. “High-water jeans!” the kids yelled. “Where’s the flood?” It was so bad that, even in later years as fashions came and went, I cannot bear to wear trousers that don’t reach my shoe-tops.

I was given a tooled leather headband to wear, to keep my long, straight, hippie-fashionable blonde hair out of my eyes, in a hippie-fashionable fashion. I loved it – until I wore it to school. “Dog collar!” the kids all shrieked (which was illogical, I thought in one corner of my mind – it wasn’t around my neck). I took it off and never wore it to school again, maybe never wore it again at all. At least that was an optional accessory, not something I needed to wear every day, like the jeans.

It is perhaps telling that these 5th-grade insults were about my body and how I dressed it. I was different from my peers in Pittsburgh in far more fundamental ways, and we all knew it, but this was the easiest line of attack. And it worked.

Another girl in my class was already reaching puberty and sprouting breasts. This was uncommon for 11 year olds in 1972. I don’t recall her being teased directly – the boys in our class were a bit too young to be anything more than puzzled – but the girls muttered in shocked whispers that she already had her period! As if this was somehow her fault, and made her indefinably dirty. Again, it was all about her body.

Then there was the incident in the alley. We lived in an old brick apartment building on Ellsworth Avenue. My dad used to send me the two or three blocks up to the drugstore on Walnut Street to buy his cigarettes (yes, they sold them to me). The shortest route was through the parking lots and alleys between and behind the apartment buildings, a route which, while not cramped or dark, was usually deserted.

One day I was almost home from a cigarette expedition when two boys a bit younger and smaller than myself accosted me in a parking lot behind our building. I didn’t know them, though they probably went to the same school as me. They didn’t seem to want anything specific, but they flanked me and began taunting me in a definitely threatening way. As I took a few hurried steps to try to escape, they grabbed my arms, and one of them attempted a punch that landed as a glancing blow on my cheek – not that painful, but shocking. I had never been hit before. I took the only defensive measure I could think of: I yelled “Get the fuck away from me!” This shocked them; 11 year olds didn’t use the word “fuck” in those days, even in the seedier parts of Pittsburgh. They hesitated long enough that I was able to break free and sprint up the fire escape to the window of our third-floor apartment. I was terrified that they were following me, and arrived crying.

When my dad heard my story, he rushed downstairs, but the boys had disappeared. He called the police, who came, heard me out, and nodded wearily: these two young boys were already familiar to them. The police escorted me and my dad to the home of one of the boys, where we met the mother and told her what had happened. I don’t remember what she said, nor do I know what punishment the boys may have received. I never saw them again. But I never walked in that alley again, either.

That attack was not sexual in nature. I’m not even sure what their intent was, and maybe neither were they. But it probably would not have happened to a boy. As a girl, even a slightly bigger and older one, I was perceived by these boys to be vulnerable.

Soon after the start of 6th grade, I changed schools because the bullying progressed beyond verbal. Then a bunch of other stuff happened, so that, after repeating 6th grade, I ended up doing 7th grade in a school in Norwalk, CT. I was still a weirdo, and the teasing continued, no longer physical, but now focused on my relationships.

There was a boy in my class, John Stumpf. With that name, he of course was teased. He was also a kind and serious boy, at an age when most boys, as far as I could tell, were mean and acted like they were stupid, even if they weren’t.

We liked each other. The other kids noticed. “Put your head on his sho-o-o-oulder…” they would croon, referencing yet another pop song I wasn’t familiar with. “Hold him in your arms, Deer-dee!” (They delighted in getting my name wrong, too – how dare I have a weird name that was hard to pronounce?)

No one in our class was “going together”, though we were certainly aware of the possibility. The girls were all well into puberty, and the boys were now old enough to notice. Budding breasts are tender – that’s why you so often see pubescent girls clutching binders and books protectively to their chests when walking through crowded school hallways. The boys knew this, and some took special delight in slamming into us. They knew that it hurt (a lot!), but also knew that we were too embarrassed by the cause of the hurt to say so or complain about it.

John and I actually defied our classmates, at first. We hung out together at his house after school. I helped him with his paper route. We talked. Cleaned the Habitrails of his pet hamsters. I don’t know whether we really felt romantic or not; maybe we were both just lonely, and happened to be compatible as friends. John’s mother was thrilled that John “had a girlfriend”, and she drove us to our first “date”: a Hitchcock movie (“Family Plot”) followed by pizza.

But after a while we couldn’t take the teasing at school anymore. We “broke up”, avoided each other in shame, and never spoke again.

My best friend was Amy, another lonely weirdo, in my grade but a different class. Neither of us had many other friends (maybe none, at school), so we hung out together at recess and lunch, and visited each others’ homes after school and for weekend sleepovers, listening to Barry Manilow and trading stickers.

My classmates couldn’t leave this one alone, either. They’d walk by as we sat together in the playground, and shout: “Lesbie friends!” At least, because we did not have classes together, the barrage was not constant, and our friendship survived it.

Soon after the start of my 8th grade year, in 1976, my family moved to Bangladesh, where my dad was the local head of Save the Children. I turned 13 that November, and had been growing breasts for a while. Now that they weren’t hurting anymore, I didn’t think much about them, and neither my dad nor my stepmother Nancy noticed that I didn’t own any bras. Nancy was small-breasted and, as a matter of feminism and fashion, rarely wore a bra at all, so it may not have occurred to her that I might grow breasts big enough to need support.

In 1977, after it had been decided that I would go to boarding school in the Indian Himalayas, it was difficult to put together a wardrobe fit for that climate, that would fit me. Again, no one thought of bras. Until, as recounted earlier, “I took a dip in a cold river (wearing a T-shirt) during our 9th grade class hike, exciting much comment [among my classmates]. Then my family had to scramble to get hold of some bras somehow.” I had transgressed a norm that I didn’t even know existed.

However, in both Bangladesh and India, I was learning to be cautious about how I was perceived by the male gaze.

There were school rules intended both to protect us and to “not offend” local sensibilities. Girls couldn’t wear “revealing” clothing; shorts were only allowed for sports. “Public displays of affection” between girls and boys were forbidden. Boys could go on overnight hikes in groups of three or more. This option to take off on a whim on just about any weekend was a great freedom that some of the boys took full advantage of. Girls could not go on overnight hikes except with adult chaperones; such trips were far harder to organize, and did not occur often.

We girls had few problems during Saturday excursions in our “hometown” of Mussoorie, because most of the people we saw in the bazaar knew the school and had known us individually for years: they were the shopkeepers and restaurant owners who sold us food, the tailors who made our clothing, the mochis who made our shoes, and often they were related to people who worked at the school as bearers (food servers), cleaners, etc. We were more or less family to them, and therefore treated with respect. Most of the time.

Except that time that I went to the local hospital for a chest x-ray, which required me to strip to the waist, put on a hospital gown, and stand up against a cold metal plate. The male x-ray technician was the only other person in the room. He came up behind me and grabbed both my breasts, moving and squeezing them, on the pretext of positioning me correctly for the x-ray. It took me a few long seconds to realize that this handling probably wasn’t actually necessary. He stepped away before I summoned the courage to say anything, and, after the fact, I was too confused and embarrassed to complain. No doubt he counted on this, and I probably wasn’t the only one he did it to.

Outside Mussoorie – or when outsiders came in, during the hot weather tourist season – it almost didn’t matter how we dressed or behaved: as foreign females, we were assumed to be “easy”, and many Indian men treated us accordingly. Staring, cat-calling, groping on crowded buses and trains – most of us experienced all of this, some worse. As far as I know, no one from our school was ever raped in India, but… I might just not know about it.

We were all trained to be extremely cautious. Don’t go out alone. Even in a group, if it’s made up of only girls, don’t get into situations where you’re trapped and outnumbered. Don’t look lost. Don’t ask for directions. Don’t show your legs or any portion of your chest. Don’t go out at night. Ignore the stares and comments, don’t answer back. Don’t look men in the eye. Don’t trust strange men, in any situation. (Don’t drink or do drugs went without saying: we were teenagers at a Christian school.)

All these rules became so deeply ingrained in my habits and psyche that I stopped noticing or thinking about them, and probably still don’t most of the time. Wherever I am in the world, I unconsciously censor my own behavior, dress, and movements, to stay safe. I now enjoy the novel (to me) sensation of feeling attractive, but… not too much. If a man looks at me too long, or in the “wrong” way, I get nervous, and wonder if I should be dressed differently.

Perhaps the worst part is: forty years on, the world isn’t any safer for women. My daughter grew up in Italy, a “civilized” country (Italians are offended to be compared with Indians), but I had to teach her the same lessons that I learned, to help her stay safe. And this shit still happened to her.


Related reading:

Life Without Buffy

We’re suffering Buffy withdrawal. Angel, the show which spun off from Buffy four years ago, is good, but it’s pretty much guy-centered. I have no complaints about watching all the good-looking men on “Angel,” but I miss the presence of powerful women, and the role model that Buffy provided for my daughter. Ross started watching Read More…

We’re suffering Buffy withdrawal. Angel, the show which spun off from Buffy four years ago, is good, but it’s pretty much guy-centered. I have no complaints about watching all the good-looking men on “Angel,” but I miss the presence of powerful women, and the role model that Buffy provided for my daughter.

Ross started watching Buffy when she was 10, and at age 14 said that she would have grown up a different person without the show.

Hurt, I responded: “You weren’t exactly lacking for a strong female role model at home.”

“Yes, but Buffy made it cool.”

Which is a very good point. Being a strong, self-confident female is not easy at any age; strength is a characteristic not appreciated in women by most cultures or individuals (male or female). It wasn’t easy for me to grow into my strength (compounded, as it is, with geekiness), and I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it as a teenager, if I even had it then. And I spent most of my adolescence in the nurturing environment of Woodstock School, more accepting than most schools of student diversity. So I wouldn’t know how to advise Ross how to feel comfortable in her own skin at this age and place, if it weren’t for Buffy.

But don’t take my word for it. “[Father John] Pungente used Buffy as a role model for conveying solid values for teens. ‘She is smart, willing to learn about herself and live with who she is, even if she happens to be a vampire slayer. She is independent, reliable, maybe too much a Type-A personality, but still an entirely credible 1990s teenager. Other shows deal with teenage problems – love, sex, peer pressure, school work, family problems, body image, dreams, insecurity, self-esteem – but Buffy adapts a literary and film genre for television. The vampire myth and the sexuality it evokes speak powerfully to today’s teenagers.'” (MARTIN O’MALLEY: Orange County blues, CBC News Viewpoint | November 14, 2003)

A point often overlooked by writers about “Buffy” is the role of Xander, Buffy’s average guy friend who, unlike her other friends, has no special powers (magical or intellectual) to help him fight the forces of darkness, both interior and exterior. “You know, Xander is as important a role model as Buffy and people will never really get that, I think, most of ’em. But, the fact of the matter is that I had a two-fold intent, which was to create a role model in the idea of a girl who’s a genuine leader and the role model in a man who is not only comfortable, but turned on by that.” Joss Whedon, MSN Interview

Hear, hear. The world needs not only more women like Buffy, but more men like Xander. Unfortunately for Ross, I don’t think she’ll find many such in Italy, and even fewer in her age range.

Reflections on Machismo: “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates”

Tom Robbins has long been one of my favorite authors; every one of his seven novels is a gem, infused with his uniquely loopy sensibility and style. This novel (Amazon UK | US), published in May, 2000, was eerily timely in its discussion of West vs. East and Muslim vs. Christian, in the context of Read More…

Tom Robbins has long been one of my favorite authors; every one of his seven novels is a gem, infused with his uniquely loopy sensibility and style. This novel (Amazon UK | US), published in May, 2000, was eerily timely in its discussion of West vs. East and Muslim vs. Christian, in the context of a story about a renegade CIA agent, an Amazonian curse, the third prophecy of Fatima, and a band of excommunicated nuns in the Syrian desert. Among many other things, Robbins glances at a topic which has long puzzled me:

“…the sexual insecurities that among men of the Middle East achieved titanic, even earth-changing proportions; insecurities that had spawned veils, shaven heads, clitoridectomies, house arrest, segregation, macho posturing, and three major religions.”

Many of the world’s cultures and religions focus to an amazing degree on controlling women, and especially women’s sexuality. (As Robbins points out, it’s a global phenomenon: “The Levant had no monopoly on penile insecurity.”) It is true that much of this nastiness is enforced by women themselves upon their daughters unto the nth generation, but it’s all intended to “benefit” the men.

For example, the “logic” behind clitoridectomy is that, if a woman can’t enjoy sex, she won’t go looking for it outside of marriage. Less brutal methods for ensuring fidelity include covering her up so no one sees her, and and locking her up so she never gets the chance. In many cultures, the punishments for a woman’s infidelity (or even imagined infidelity) are far more severe than for men: death by stoning, murder by the husband and his family, or societally-condoned mutilation.

I guess these men are all afraid that they just aren’t man enough to keep their women satisfied.

Italy has a reputation (in America, at least) as having a “macho” culture, but this doesn’t work the way macho does in other places. Most Italian men would rather prove their virility by seduction than by force. Every now and then some silly pollster does a Europe-wide or worldwide survey on “who’s the best at…” Italians are generally rated the best lovers, a result widely reported in the Italian press. ; )

I’ve met a young Irish woman working in Milan as an au pair. Recently she and three friends were out drinking at a bar. One was mildly propositioned by a man, whom she turned down. Later, apparently, something was slipped into their drinks. The woman who had been propositioned has confused memories of winding up somewhere with the guy, with her pants off, but when she said “No,” he desisted. She and another of the women then slept all weekend, leading them to believe they had been drugged. When they confronted the man a few days later, he looked guilty, but pointed out that they couldn’t prove anything.

I’d never heard of this “date rape drug,” though it’s apparently well known elsewhere, and a fairly common danger in some parts of the world. The Irish woman told me that, home in Ireland, she would never touch a drink in a pub or disco unless she’s seen it poured and picked it up from the bar herself.

I told the story to some Italian women, and they agreed that this is a highly unusual event in Italy. The reason they gave was an insight into the culture: “No Italian man would want to go to bed with a woman unless he’d earned her.”