Monday, February 22, 2016

A quick 'what not to do'

Lately, I've been dipping a toe into wearable electronics (clothes and accessories that light up or make noise, that kind of thing). On Saturday just gone, the nice folks at DAQRI sponsored a few of us to work on our own projects in the vicinity of their stand at Career Zoo. They paid us in components, and we drew interested passers-by to their stand. It was a win win situation for everyone involved.

Over the course of the day lots of people came over to ask what we were doing. We talked several people through the project we were working on, recommended Adafruit enough that I thought several times that they should be the ones sponsoring us, and had some really excellent chats with people. I mostly let my excellent sister, who has more experience with this stuff than I do, do the talking.




I'm not sure whether (the also excellent) Vicky was specifically tasked with recruiting women for this role. I do know that everyone in the group except her husband was a woman. I wasn't really aware of it though, until a man, probably not quite old enough to be my father, but approaching that age, came over to us and 'hi, I'm female friendly!'. No, sir, you are not.

'Female friendly' is a useful term when it comes to events and spaces, particularly in tech or other male-dominated fields. It's good to know before committing to something that I'm going to be welcome, and that there is at least an implication to the men there that they should be on good behaviour in relation to people that don't share their gender. Drawing attention to gender in these situations can be dangerous, risking invoking stereotype threat, among other potential problems. But often, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

But in the case of this gentleman's statement, there were no such advantages. We were the ones in the position of authority, it was not up to him to make us feel comfortable there, all that we needed was for him not to make us feel uncomfortable. And in that he failed miserably. His statement served to draw attention to our female-ness, said, in fact, that that was what was interesting about us, more so than what we were doing. The other two women at my table noticeably, understandably, went cold once they'd heard this statement. I managed to give a polite, brief introduction to what we were doing. But he had taken me out of my comfort zone. For the next hour or two I would occasionally think about that interaction and shudder slightly.

I was sorry, afterwards, that I didn't say something to him about it. After all, the fact that he was familiar with the term, and tried to use it, implies that he meant well, that he was trying to be nice. He may even pride himself in trying to make tech spaces welcoming to women. I wish that I had had it in me, right then, to tell him how badly he was failing. But I didn't.

If you don't get why this bothered me, that's okay. You don't need to understand why it's a problem. But please understand that it's a problem. And please, please do not draw attention to the 'female'-ness of women in tech spaces. Just don't do it. Thanks.

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