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Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?

Do we need anti-harassment policies to protect women and other minorities in IT? Unfortunately, yes. But the most successful STEM women are those who ignore their detractors and risk being labeled a "bitch," confronting challenges head-on.

Do we need anti-harassment policies to protect women and other minorities in IT? Unfortunately, yes. But the most successful STEM women are those who ignore their detractors and risk being labeled a "bitch," confronting challenges head-on.

On Nov. 3, the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), which handles technical management of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) activities and processes, posted an anti-harassment policy. The policy stated that IETF meetings, virtual meetings and mailing lists are intended to be used according to professional standards, and that the organization would not tolerate "unwelcome hostile or intimidating behavior, in particular speech and behavior that is sexually aggressive or intimidates based on attributes like race, gender, religion, age, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity."

Reaction to the policy varied. I found it personally rewarding to see a response from Systers, one of the largest email lists of technical women, founded by Anita Borg. The group sent a public note of thanks, signed by luminaries in the field including Radia Perlman.

The skeptics questioned whether the new policy would make any difference. Perhaps the technical community grows weary of hearing that it doesn't support diversity and safe environments for women to participate in public forums. Perhaps the IETF is simply making a lame attempt to cover its rear in an industry fatigued by complaints about minority under-representation and open hostility. Doubters asked if policies such as this actually help balance the scales for women in IT, and whether they go too far--or not far enough.

The IETF policy is one in a recent trend toward attempts at a more respectful environment for STEM women. In 2010, the Ada Initiative, an organization dedicated to supporting women in the open source community, promoted a conference anti-harassment policy. The initiative was in response to a perceived pattern of sexist and demeaning treatment of women at technical conferences.

The co-founders felt that there was no established policy or process for dealing with incidents, so they initiated an effort to educate conference organizers on unacceptable behavior and the appropriate response to a complaint. They wrote a template that has been used by more than 100 conferences to create anti-harassment policies.

The success of this effort has been besmirched by misjudgment in its application, however. The policy resulted in the Pycon 2012 Donglegate controversy, in which what many thought was a harmless double entendre involving the word "dongle" was overheard and repeated on Twitter, negatively affecting three careers.

Another incident with a disappointing outcome was the recent dispute within the Linux Kernel Development Mailing List. In an email to the group, which became a cause celebre in the media, Intel developer Sarah Sharp demanded more civil treatment by list members. While Sharp's request for professionalism didn't specifically reference sexism, it is significant that she's the minority in a group of highly technical and competitive men. It's also worth noting that Linus Torvalds responded by accusing her of playing the "victim card."

When I first started in engineering, I didn't realize I was expected to play by a different set of rules. I was often told to "take it down a notch" or "keep my head down"--often by other women. Then there was that Kobayashi Maru of interpersonal relations, the unspoken label that gets applied to assertive women: bitch. Accusing women of "playing the bitch card" disempowers them, hijacking the conversation in a completely hostile fashion. When men attack women online, either abusively or with humor, it's an act of violence.

[Read why the jack of all trades is in vogue again in "The Return Of The IT Generalist."]

It took me more than a decade of suffering in silence before I came to the conclusion that I didn't need anyone's permission to demand my place at the table. Many of the men I know don't really get it. They say, "I respect women. I'm gender-neutral at work." They're often thoughtful, caring guys, but fail to realize there's a lot of history to undo. Women can be simmering with resentment, hurt or frustrated over situations for which they and their coworkers may not be the initial cause. But once there, it's hard to wash away.

While I applaud the success of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, they're not my role models. They don't represent the STEM women struggling to make it in technology. They're at the highest levels of management, and I doubt they ever had to fight for a line of code or justify a technical design. Books like Sandberg's "Lean In" feel as condescending as Marie Antoinette telling the French peasants to eat cake.

My response to Sandberg is: "I'd like to lean in, but I keep getting kicked in the face. My heroes are stoic soldiers like Grace Hopper and Marie Curie. They simply ignored their detractors, with their success becoming the sweetest revenge."

So, do I think the IETF policy goes to far? Not by a long shot. But you won't find me silently weeping into my keyboard about it. I'm going to support efforts such as the Ada Initiative, the IETF anti-harrassment policy, The Society of Women Engineers and the Anita Borg Institute. They may not always get it right, but there's no crying in engineering. The only thing for STEM women to do is confront difficult issues head-on, with professionalism and optimism.

Michele Chubirka, also known as Mrs. Y, is a recovering Unix engineer with a focus on network security. She likes long walks in hubsites, traveling to security conferences, and spending extended hours in the Bat Cave. She believes every problem can be solved with a "for" ... View Full Bio
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