Feminist nightmares

Monday, July 31, 2006

Do you ever wake up from a nightmare about speaking in public where you’re naked and everyone is laughing at you? I understand that’s a popular one, but not one that visits me: I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking. However, I woke a few weeks ago from the feminist version of that nightmare: in my dream, I was at a technical conference and was trying to show some of the work that I had done, but was told that it wasn’t worth anything because I’m a woman.

In my mid-40’s, having spent the past 30 years facing down the boys in shop class at high school, then the ones in engineering school at university, then all the ones that I’ve encountered in the marketplace as a female engineer, you’d think that I’d be immune to this particular nightmare by now. Indeed, many younger women believe — foolishly — that there is no more sexism in the business world today. In fact, three days ago I heard a 16-year-old girl at BlogHer who is in an advanced math and science program say that she was accused of having her boyfriend doing her math homework when she received top marks.

My nightmare was undoubtedly triggered by an event the night before the dream: I was at the board meeting of a volunteer organization, and we were discussing new board members. I had put forward the name of a woman who would be great at helping to organize our events, which everyone was in agreement with, and there were two men put forward for positions including that of our retiring board secretary. One of our older board members (a man) said “Oh, I think that [new woman candidate] would make a much better secretary”, making it clear that he believed that secretaries should be women. I accused him outright of gender bias, one of the other board members jumped to my defence, and the issue was closed but left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another event that happened recently was at the Mesh conference in Toronto where Tara Hunt, previously living in Toronto but now in California, was to deliver a keynote address. The man who introduced her made a point of her moving from Toronto, then said “well, she has a boyfriend in California now, so I guess that she’s not coming back.” I was speechless at his assumption that her relationship was the thing keeping her down there, when she also has an exciting job which is the reason that she went there in the first place. At that same conference, once of the women volunteers organizing the event admitted to me later that at the networking cocktail party, one man spent a good deal of time hitting on her: seeing her only as a sexual object, not as a potential business networking contact. This is the enlightened mindset of today’s technologists?

Then, about a week later, I was at the BPM Think Tank in the U.S. where the format was a number of small roundtable discussions, each led by one person who could appoint a scribe for the session to take notes. At the first one, I sat down at a table of all men, and after the table leader didn’t get a volunteer to be scribe, he turned to me and said “Would you be the scribe? It’s just easier that way.” I accused him outright of gender bias, which he didn’t deny; I did act as scribe for the session but made it very clear to him that his policy of just picking the woman at the table to take notes was completely unacceptable.

Is there a moral to my rant, or even a point? Not really, or maybe just the obvious point that equality between the sexes in North America has not yet been achieved. It makes me feel a bit tired to say that; sure, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.

One Comment

  1. Kat says:

    I randomly found your blog when I Googled “feminist nightmares”. I am quite disgusted at the scenarios you mentioned, but very proud of you for not being afraid to accuse gender bias, within a group of people no less.

    My nightmares consist of not being able to escape being subjected to pin-ups and strippers… It’s disgusting. I wish my brain would stop stressing and just go to sleep, because I have enough to deal with when I’m awake!

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