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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.

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Rob Parten
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Rob Parten,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/18/2013 | 12:29:47 AM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
Regulating a behavior will never work. Just why do people still commit crimes when there are laws against it?

If the employer chooses to keep the douche around then just quit, who is holding the gun to your head saying "stay here"? If you're unable or don't want to quit the crappy place of employment than it is all on you. So what they get their hand slapped once, they're just going to get better at not getting caught and IF they form their own business, you and those similar won't be considered. Once again, it all comes down to moral behavior, some of us have, some do not. However, regulating it with rules isn't going to help. I defer to what I said originally: If you don't like the job, quit. Don't like the area, move. Don't like any other companies out there, start your own. Welcome to America, land of possibilities and undeniably you get a better position for certain contracts than I would if I were in competition with you based on a characteristic I had no control over.
Rob Parten
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Rob Parten,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/18/2013 | 12:23:53 AM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
For some of us who either: 1. attended military schools or 2. were in the military and have that mentality follow them, you'll find directly the opposite; thus, what is unacceptable to one is acceptable to another.

I generally like others ideas; however, if you come to me saying "Let's use RIP instead of OSPF" and when your response to my questioning that is "Because it meets all our needs and is easier to configure" tells me you're lacking the understanding of what we're trying to do and that you don't understand what is going on. It would be better to admit you're out of your league and let others know than to comment just because you can with an unsubstantiated response. Those kinds of responses will solicit the "beat down" of a person, especially in a highly technical field.

It is what it is. I worked for a place that didn't know the meaning of stopping when a joke was carried too far but was surprised with my very nasty and loud reaction to the individual who thought it was funny....long after I stopped laughing...kind of reminds me of the show "Boardwalk Empire" when the guys are making fun of the salesman. As bad as I would like to have placed a hot iron against his face like the said character in the TV show, I realized prison isn't a great place, I like my freedom and I could just quit; thus, I walked in, told him adios, went out to grab a few beers and get another job 1 week later. My total time spent at said horrible place of employment? 29 days on a 3 month contract...I don't put up with crap, and neither should anyone else.
Mrs. Y
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Mrs. Y,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/17/2013 | 1:47:50 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
That may be the world you want to live in, I do not.
It is neither efficient, practical or respectful of other human beings to use aggression of any kind.
ejarosh554
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ejarosh554,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/16/2013 | 3:31:17 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
This is purely a matter of confidence and competitiveness. This is not a nurture environment but it is respectful of the work. Men spend plenty of time beating each other up and is no different than the multi-gender professor environment at a university (Watch Big Bang on TV, not so far off the mark). This is not about gender. When you join the circle your going to get bruised and battered. This is not about kindness but what is scientifically and logically correct. If someone is wrong they will be slapped down. If they think they are not then go back to the drawing board, put the work in, and prove otherwise. Time for some thick skin.
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/15/2013 | 8:20:33 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
I wouldn't equate an expecatation for civility and professional behavior as dictating morality. I'd prefer an environment where everyone acts like a grownup, but sometimes you get stuck working with a jerk. In those situations, it helps to have policies and rules that can be employed to address inappropriate behavior.
Rob Parten
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Rob Parten,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/15/2013 | 3:10:11 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
I agree. But I also believe we shouldn't carry over our frustrations to other businesses and people who were not part of the original problem.

In my opinion, this should spark the desire to create your own environments where you staff people who don't behave in such childish manners, not an environment with rules and regulations in an attempt to dictate morality.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/15/2013 | 3:05:45 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
Rob, I think you and Michele are actually saying the same thing when it comes down to it: Concentrate on the work and let it speak for itself. That should be how everyone should operate, but unfortunately there are some environments where people are allowed to act inappropriately and it does have a negative effect on the people around them. I think it's up to business management in those cases to step in and stop that behavior.
Rob Parten
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Rob Parten,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/14/2013 | 10:48:04 PM
re: Women in IT: Suffer Silently Or Be The Bitch?
I enjoyed reading the article; however, I have a problem with this:

Women can be simmering with resentment, hurt or frustration over situations for which they and their coworkers may not be the initial cause. But once there, it's hard to wash away."

I recently talked with an individual who, like myself, come from the ghetto of South Florida. We were both disadvantaged, lacked any real proper upbringing, and were clearly labeled by the rest of society. We both realized playing the victim card was going to keep us down and get us no where so we bit the bullet and took matters into our own hands and beat the label we had applied to our foreheads. I feel the same way about women doing this in engineering because they're scorned from past experiences.

Why should I suffer with an attitude because someone else treated you wrong? Want to know something? I ain't him and what will piss me off is relating me to him; thus, check the attitude at the door and lets all just get to work, sans our attitudes. Personally, I don't care if you're multi-gender and your skin color is 4 different kinds of polka dots, if you have a brain and a passion for networking, then we'll get along just fine. If you're an idiot or someone who is just "getting by" we're going to have problems because I have a passion for this and will run you over like a freight train.

I don't think "regulating" morals and professionalism is going to work, it will only create more barriers because groups of people will create islands to protect themselves while still being themselves. Being this "bitch" you're talking about will only further isolate yourself and reinforce their flawed assumptions about women in STEM roles. If you don't like where you work, find a new job. Don't like the jobs that are here? Start a company. Don't like where you'll start a company? Move. We are a land of choices, make them and if there are none available you like, pave them.

You simply cannot regulate morality, didn't the prohibition era teach us anything about how trying to regulate moral behavior by removing something only creates more problems we'll have to resolve later? How is this any different?
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