Speaking the language of the ememy prolongs the end of sexism

I read this post (via the Geek Feminism Blog) and I just have to respond. The post is titled “Why women in tech need to stop whining and start to nurture our own”. I think the gist of the post is that women need to encourage other women to be techies. I can agree with that. What I can’t agree with is the language she uses to address women who speak out when they have experienced discrimination (and yes Margaret, women still face discrimination in the workplace).

I think the best way to explain is to tell a story that happened to me about 5 years ago. I had just started a new job as a Linux sysadmin in a small company. During the first week, one of the blade servers we were planning to deploy had some issues. I did a little troubleshooting, determined it was a bad component, and called tech support. We had purchased the server from a big corp that sells that sort of thing, and we also had tech support.

I figured this would be an easy call. I had all the facts, all the symptoms. I needed the tech support person to gather the info and dispatch the part. Of course, tech support people make you go through some troubleshooting on the phone with them – only fair they shouldn’t send out parts unless something is broken.

Here is where it got weird. The guy on the phone asked me: “Let me ask you something – do you like to bake?”. It took me aback, but I played along. I needed the part…I figured he was making small talk till a screen he needed came up. So I said “yeah…..”. And he goes, in a very belittling voice: “Ok well this is going to easy, just like baking a cake. Inside the server is all of the different ingredients, and we are going to mix them all up and have a nice cake!”.

I was SHOCKED. I told him: “Is that seriously on your tree? I am an experienced UNIX sysadmin, I have technical degrees, I just need you to get to the point where you dispatch my part”.  I think he apologized…but it still it rattled me.

Here’s where speaking the language of the enemy becomes dangerous. And let me be clear – the enemy is not “MEN”. The enemy are a-holes. This support guy was a total a-hole. The guys I worked with back then were not a-holes. When I told them what happened, yeah they laughed their butts off. The term “then you bake a cake” became part of our culture when someone couldn’t figure things out. But they also couldn’t believe I didn’t tell the guy off – they knew I could stick up for myself.

Why didn’t I stick up for myself? I could have never imagined I’d encounter that type of thing, especially from a vendor that we were paying for support no less! And  I had a job to do – I needed that part! I just wanted to get through that call and get a part tracking number so we could deploy the server.

So if some women in tech have never experienced sexism, that is truly wonderful. Lots of us have. Bless your heart if you have never had to deal with the second-doubting that comes when you realize you have been discriminated against. We need to be able to talk about this, we need to share strategies for dealing with it, we need to remind each other that it doesn’t come from all men, it comes from a-holes (of both genders!).

But calling us “whiners”, that discussing this means you are having “little girl temper tantrums”, or that we are creating “silos of pity parties” is speaking the language of the enemy. This is the same language used to shape our world view as little girls – be quiet, don’t complain, stay in line. When you grow up and face discrimination this sort of social shaping kicks in – you don’t fight back as aggressively as you should. This sort of language makes the problem even worse.

And I swear I better not hear anyone tell me if I want to make a cake! ;)

5 thoughts on “Speaking the language of the ememy prolongs the end of sexism

  1. Nice one! Good distinction between ordinary guys and a-holes. We’ve all met our fair share of a-holes.

    You know what also gets my goat, though?

    After having fought for generations to be treated as equals, it’s now okay to man-bash. To tell sexist jokes or use stereotypes that simply are no longer acceptable in respect of our own gender. I watch these man-bashing ads on TV, or hear people in public spaces saying ‘he’s a bloke, he can’t multi-task’ or ‘he’s a bloke, he thinks with the wrong head.’

    Seriously? Let’s all just grow up.

  2. (got here from geekfeminism)

    I used to have a t-shirt with a happy homemaker looking chick on it standing in front of a blackboard full of chemical notation, and she was saying “IF YOU CAN BAKE A CAKE, YOU CAN MAKE A BOMB”.

    I’m always caught off guard when I encounter that level of sexism. And then I’m too busy internally spinning my wheels with “wait, did they actually just say that out loud??” to actually bring the “I’m sorry, what did you say you ignorant ass?” hostile reply.

  3. Great post. You’re right – a lot of the sexism we face in tech is of this more subtle sort, when someone doesn’t think you can do your job. What’s worse, this type of behaviour can make me *not* want to ask a question from that person when I do need guidance, as I fear it will reinforce the perception. Of course, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in some environments! I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by non-aholes :-)

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