Because I'm all about the "good enough."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Actually, you're both right.

I normally don't like to write about gender issues.  It's not that I don't have opinions on them; it's just that it would be like taking a public stand on other controversial topics that may (or should) not have anything to do with my profession.

But it seems that the pot has come to a rolling boil these days over sexism and other kinds of harassment, and since I think I understand both sides of the arguments, I thought I'd just come out and say that everyone is (mostly) right.

I think the fundamental problem is that there is a continuum of acceptable conduct and/or speech that at some point crosses over into unacceptable.  The problem is that the dividing line is very blurry, and people who are most in danger of crossing it resent attempts to define it too closely or to move the goalposts without notice.  In fact, it's pretty hard to define it completely without writing a huge book on it.

Harassment is bad, no matter who does it or to whom.  Harassment should be defined as well as is possible and should not be tolerated. 

I can understand how someone can write in his usual style -- blunt, verbose, with a touch of condescension -- and not mean it to be any different just because the current target is a woman as opposed to a man.  I can also see how a woman can take it as an inappropriate attack.  They're both right.  In a case where someone is treating a woman exactly the way he would treat a man, it's not sexism on his part.  At the same time, if that treatment happens to match sexist acts that the woman has experienced, to her it's certainly more of the same.  There is no getting around the mismatch, and it can't always be remedied.  

So when harassment or sexism is contextual -- something is a normal behavior when doing it to a man, but not to a woman, for example -- then I can see how it can be very confusing to someone who doesn't innately experience the difference.  People can wind up perplexed rather than informed.  It can look like one team has a secret rulebook and there might always be a rule or two that could be violated without warning.

The key here is "without warning."  Feedback, like salad, is best when it's fresh.  (I don't know where that analogy came from.  Work with me here.)  Feedback needs to be immediate and unambiguous, which means that it can't always be subtle or polite.  When it comes to unwanted actions of any kind, people have to speak up right then and there.  Women need to be able to yell, push, or punch someone in the nose if all other tactics fail.

A long time ago, in a club in a country far, far away, some drunken guy grabbed me around the waist in what presumably was an attempt to dance with me.  I shoved him away.  The international language of "no" was clear, and I didn't have to do it twice.  Were his feelings hurt?  Probably.  Did I overreact?  We could sit here debating that for hours.  But the fact is, it worked without any need for escalation.  He could have had harmless intentions, other women could have found it charming, and at the same time I still felt it was an unwanted and obnoxious act.  Short of putting the decision to Schr√∂dinger's cat, we're always going to have two states here.  And if we're all going to get along, we have to recognize that and build bridges to deal with both of them.

There are some forms of harassment that we can all agree on:  using threatening language, launching  attacks that do damage, calling someone names.  And most of the time, those types of harassment are clearly intentional.  As a community, we can and should work together to fight that kind, because it's a shared standard.  Where a reasonable person could claim that something is not intentional, however, we need to recognize that and respond in a way that gives feedback, not accusations or punishment.  We can also recognize that this feedback may not be well received, but we can work to make sure it's understood.  And anyone who agrees with the feedback can and should speak up to support it -- not to make it worse, not to escalate it, but to strengthen it.

What we don't want is to wind up in extremes:  where both sides feel attacked, albeit for different reasons.  We don't want women, men, ethnic minorities, people of size, people of age*, or anyone else to be wary of attending a conference for fear of intentional harassment.  We also don't want people attending conferences to be scared of unintentionally offending someone through the mismatch described above.  We want people to be able to write what they think is normal language, and get a second chance if they mess up once.  In all of these cases, though, if you keep getting the same feedback for the same actions or language, maybe you'd better take the lesson to heart, whether you understand/agree with it or not.

* Hello.