Today is the 3rd day of Women’s History Month here in the US and today is Super Tuesday and we have a bunch of older white men and a two women vying for the Democratic ticket.
And yet, I started my reading with a response on a blog of fellow #SQLFamily member, Monica Rathbun that comes down to “I don’t see a problem, therefore it’s your fault and you should change what you’re doing.”
So I want to go back and talk a bit about privilege. But before that I want to talk a bit about my childhood. I was fortunate in many ways growing up; a good grammar school, the ability to attend a very good high school and fortunately I got into a great college. That said, my family was never rich and I know at times either of my parents were carefully counting pennies. So in some ways I was privileged in others, not so much.
But that’s not the form of privilege that really mattered. The privileges I was born with were more intangible and can’t be measured by a bank account or resume. They’re more subtle. But today I want to talk about a specific ones: being a man. This is a circumstance of birth. It would apply no matter where I was born in the US and regardless of my economic situation.
What exactly does this mean? For one, it means I don’t recall thinking much about it until college. Yes, I knew about feminism and discrimination before then. My mother was a divorced woman in the ’70s running her own business. She was (and is) someone I am proud of. But in general, discrimination was something I read about, not something I knew.
But then there was the time I was sitting in the backyard of a college girlfriend’s sorority house talking with her and a friend of ours. Our college, RPI, had a ratio of 5 men for every woman that attended, so again, I knew there were problems. But, I didn’t realize what privilege meant until the friend mentioned that she always submitted her papers to her professors with just her first initial and last name. I was a bit confused. She explained to me that she found she received better grades when her professors didn’t know it was a woman submitting the papers. I was taken aback. Sure, I knew RPI’s ratio was problematic, but I had always assumed that once a woman got into RPI, that for the most part, she was judged on her merit, not her name. I was clearly wrong. (And honestly, even that’s not quite accurate about not being aware. I had a friend who had dropped out of the architecture program 5 years previous, in part because of a sexist professor).
Now, it would have been easy, even trivial to say, “Nah, you’re just imagining it.” I mean I had never seen it happen. I only had her word to take for it after all, compared to my entire life experience of not seeing it. Well actually I had her and my girlfriend’s word for it since she chimed in too. I choose to believe them. I also, by the way, started to do the same thing with my papers at times. I’m not sure how much thought I really gave it, but I’m pretty sure I figured the more semi-anonymous papers submitted, the harder it would be for professors in general to catch on that perhaps it was women doing it.
Now, I’m sure some readers (and I’m betting mostly the men) are saying, “yeah right” and since most of my readers are geeks, they’re probably thinking, “show me the data.” That is somewhat fair. So let’s take a look at a shift in orchestras in the US. Up until 1970, the top 5 major symphonies in the US were predominately male with over 95% of the positions held by men. Now, I’m not an expert in music, but I suspect that women like music as much as men. So, obviously something was going on here. At some point in the 1970s and 80s, most major symphonies made a minor, but very important change: they put the musician behind a screen during the audition. Now the judges knew nothing about the performer and could only judge them on their music. A surprising thing happened. The number women selected for symphonies increased. Removing the ability for bias at an early stage helped close the gender gap.
So, can I prove my friend’s assertion that removing her female sounding first name helped her grades? No. But can I believe it? Yes! Can I believe she and my girlfriend were victims of bias? Certainly.
So let me go back to Monica’s blog. First of all, if you haven’t read it, please do. In fact, given the choice between reading hers and reading mine, read hers. She’s talking from her personal experience. I’m only speaking as a reflection of that. I also want to add that my hope (and goal) here is not to usurp her voice or the voice of any other members of my #SQLFamily, but ideally to bring them to the forefront.
But for a minute, back to my privilege. I want to mention a few things that my privilege has allowed me to ignore, often without realizing it.
- I’ve never wondered, “did they select me to speak because I’m a man?”
- While yes, at SQL Saturdays I’ve tried to dress professionally, I’ve never given thought to “will someone find this too sexy?” or “will someone tell me I should dress a bit sexier.”
- No one has ever told me, “you should smile more, you’re more handsome that way.”
- I’ve never once been concerned with if my technical abilities were being judged on the size of certain body parts.
- I have never thought, “will that person hit on me after I’m done talking?”
- I’ve never had a woman monologuing during the Q&A instead of actually asking me a question about my presentation.
These may seem like silly things and you may think I’m making them up, but I can assure you that if you ask the women around you, they’ve experienced at least some of these, if not all of them.
Now like Monica, I’m going to present a few good points. I’m very fortunate to be a member of two great communities, #SQLFamily and the National Cave Rescue Commission. However, let me reiterate that neither are perfect. Sexism and bias exist in both communities and I’ve seen it first hand. But I’ve also seen a lot of efforts in both to recognize folks based on their skills, not their genders.
But we can get better. And here I’m going to talk mostly to the men reading this, in part because I think we have to do a lot of lifting.
For example, I’ve caught fellow attendees at SQL Saturdays doing that monologuing thing. If you don’t know what I mean, try this experiment the next time you’re at a SQL Saturday (or honestly any conference, but this is probably more true at technical ones). Go to an equal number of speakers who identify as male and female and sit in back. Then start to note what happens during questions. While not universally true, in my experience, when it’s a man presenting, most of the questions are actual questions and typically on topic. But, often when it’s a woman presenting, the “question” is often a monologue of sorts. Yes, often it’s in support of the presentation’s topic, but it’s generally the questioner talking about themselves, not them trying to enrich their knowledge by learning from the speaker.
Learn from your mistakes, don’t double-down. I’m going to call-out Rick here on Monica’s post who doubled-down. Not only did he dismiss Randolph’s response, he tossed in a diminutive of Randolph’s name. Now I’ve met Randolph at Summit and Randolph’s a cool person. But even if I didn’t know Randolph, I wouldn’t use a diminutive of their name without their permission.
Recently, I replied to a tweet of a friend mine who is active in the WIT community. I thought I was being supportive, but her DM to me was basically, “WTF Greg?” My initial response was equally tone deaf. But, she took the time to explain to me why she found my response to her tweet problematic. Now sure, sometimes it’s a blow to ones ego, “but I thought I was being supportive!” But when the person you’re trying to support says they don’t find it supportive, don’t dismiss them and don’t go off in a huff. Accept the fact that they didn’t find support from your efforts. Take it as an opportunity to apologize and to grow. And think of it this way. They had a choice. They could have ignored you completely, or called you out in public and possibly shamed you, or take the time to pull you aside and educate you. I’m grateful she took her time for the last option.
Almost finally, if you’re reading this and still thinking that gender bias isn’t an issue, or you’re thinking, “but none of the women I know have mentioned this to me” stop and think about it. Maybe they have and you’ve been oblivious or ignored their experiences. Or, and this is perhaps worse, they haven’t mentioned it to you at all. If not, you might want to wonder why.
Finally, as I’ve said, I don’t like to call myself an ally. I’m honored when others consider me such and I strive to me such. But, as I noted before, I’ll make mistakes. I can’t promise to be perfect, I can only promise to try my best and to try to learn from the experience of the great women around me.
P.S. If you do dismiss the experiences of my colleagues, in #SQLFamily or NCRC, please don’t bother attending my talks or discussions.
P.P.S If I ever fail, call me out. I’m continually striving to be a better person.