Lately, and a lot over the past few days – I have read about and been involved in conversations about the struggles some women have in various networking and conference venues, online and in person, with some men. Is this a new moment in gender relations, the new 4th wave feminism, american machismo being smacked down? I started a post yesterday about it, quit after three hearty paragraphs and wiped them out. It was going to be too much work, how would I keep it blog post length and not as long as War and Peace?
But, after a day of rumination, I have reconsidered. Of course this is a blog post not a white paper, and keeping it brief presents a lot of challenges (I keep writing and deleting to give you an idea)…
These conversations of late, bursting at the seams with frustration and quite often anger involve the tech and atheist communities and the inhospitable environment women sometimes (some say often or usually) find. There is theory that because there is a large crossover of membership in these communities the problems are interlaced. I believe the problem isn’t unique to these communities and isn’t unusual in male dominated venues and professions. If you are feeling lost right now, you need only search ‘sexual harassment at conferences’ and grab a cup of coffee, the list is long..
According to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control, non-contact, unwanted sexual experiences were the most common form of sexual violence experienced by women. One-third of women will experience this type of sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with 12.8% of men (Hey baby! Women speak out against street harassment on cnn.com).
It’s bizarre the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took so long and such a fight by so many in our history to afford equality in the workplace. We all know now, 40+ years later, what is acceptable behavior in the workplace, from managers and peers. Yet, even in the highly regulated environment of most workplaces, sexual harassment still exists. Not a day goes by that claims across the country are not filed by those facing unfair and illegal discrimination and harassment. The Federal definition of sexual harassment is:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
But the Federal protections guaranteed by Title VII don’t protect us against ‘street harassment’ – that which occurs in public life. Outside of work, harassment is dealt with on a state-by-state basis, with varying definitions. Though it may be unwelcome, catcalling and propositions alone aren’t considered crimes. When improper touching or threats occur there are more options for action and legal recourse, though even being groped on public transportation typically goes no where when reported.
Back to these conversations about the tech and atheist communities. Some women are calling out inequality and and sexual objectification. Some report incidences of not only unwelcome sexual advances but threats and attempts to make them feel unqualified and inferior. It’s happening at conferences and online. Sometimes it’s subtle and often not quite criminal but unwanted sexual advances that make people (in this case women but clearly it can happen to any gender) upset, uncomfortable and outraged.
What can be done about it? How can respect and balance be achieved when mixed genders get together ? Here are some of my thoughts on it:
- Leadership by example, peer pressure and positive reinforcement are proven strategies for fostering good behaviors. There are many strongly egalitarian men who are role models for others. Know who they are in your world and ensure they are encouraged to participate in your communities on and off line. Let them know they’ll be expected to support positive behavior and nip the negative.
- Mixed messages weaken credibility, all genders need to walk the talk as advocates for equality and respect. Think personal branding. Forgive me for these odd but real examples; don’t let others shove money down your tank top at an event and then talk about people not respecting your personal space. Don’t stand at a podium and sexually proposition a conference attendee (even in humor) and then talk about how other men don’t respect women – present yourself as you wish to be known .
- Do not be vague or non-assertive in an unwanted situation. Make your feelings and needs immediately clear – “I feel uncomfortable when you stare at my chest, you must stop” and “I do not want to be touched, stop” are two examples of positive assertiveness. If someone doesn’t apologize and back off let them know “this isn’t a no means yes situation – no means no, leave me alone”. If the behavior is not corrected, walk away and tell someone in a leadership role, the facility manager, and if there was illegal action, such as a threat to harm you – you must report it to the police. Wishing the person will go away or huddling in fear without speaking out will not likely have positive outcomes and the individual will assume the behavior is acceptable to you or that you are an easy target who will tolerate whatever is going on – or worse, that you like it and want more of it.
- Sometimes people are not completely aware of their own behaviors like staring or being too close for your comfort, some are touchy feely types and some are not a good judge of personal space. State your feelings and needs firmly with the expectation the behavior will stop. Save the public flogging – if someone violates your boundaries but they correct their behavior and the situation ends, humiliating them publicly isn’t respectable practice. By all means – if you are being attacked or threatened with harm defend yourself in whatever manner you deem most helpful; yelling, physical self-defense, mace, etc.
- Sarcasm is like a boomerang. Be careful what you dish online, it’s likely to come back to you. When an individual has aggressive behavior (sarcasm qualifies) it’s likely others are going to take the bait and bite back. If you don’t want that type of dialog, don’t initiate it. Set the tone. This is common in social media, online forums and blogs. Pretty soon, it’s a 200 comment thread that is like a plague of locusts. Yes, it’s your space on your page or blog – but if it’s visible to the public and you have comments enabled, expect not everyone to agree with you and many people to take your same tone and fling it back at you. Horrific tragedies like the mass murders in Newtown CT and the gang rape and death of Damini attract a diverse and often unkind commentary in online news sites. Take a lesson from them – these websites understand the value of public discourse and that it isn’t always very civil but it is largely self-policing. I can’t stomach the hate I read sometimes, whether it’s trolls or simply ignorant or mean people – but humans come in all flavors. I watch the peer smack down and I too participate when moved to do so. On the other hand, using your space to have meaningful discussion on topics of importance to you is a wonderful way to help affect social change. Again, be mindful of your tone and demeanor – they tend to have a mirror effect. If you are snarky expect snarky back. If you are accusatory, call people names or use foul language, expect it in comments from readers too. If you don’t care and want a free-for-all then have at it. If you don’t want to hear the opinions of others, don’t enable comments. If you are threatened, you must report it for your safety.
- Online community and event organizers have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of their participants – moderating content and comments, safety strategies and staff training for events – should not be afterthoughts but part of the launch plan. Treat your consumers well and establish guidelines and protocol for incidents and you’ll experience more positive growth too. I have yet to see evidence that the new fashioned conference policies I see appearing make any difference whatsoever. If people don’t know appropriate adult social protocol by the time they arrive at your event, your policy isn’t likely to impact their behavior. A good practice is to have a customer service table that serves as a place to take any concerns during the event. It should be manned at all times with an individual who knows event protocol and how to contact all key event and facility personnel and the authorities, and it should be pointed out to each attendee at registration.
- If you are uncomfortable about attending an event you fear you may be harassed at, ask the event organizers ahead of time what measures are in place to ensure it will be enjoyable to all who attend and who you should reach out to should a situation occur. If you don’t feel comfortable with the response make suggestions and ask for a commitment they will be adopted. If you are not feeling valued and that there is collaboration – don’t attend. Let your friends know. Boycotts are strong motivators. Let me back up here and ask – Do you really want to go to a venue you won’t feel comfortable at? Make your needs known but don’t try to strong arm organizers, understand the power of consumerism and good proactive customer service. If events do not meet your needs, consider organizing one of your own with like minded collaborators.
- There are unwanted sexual advances and there is sexual harassment. One may unfortunately lead to the other but they are not the same thing. Both need to be dealt with appropriately. Misandry is not the answer and overuse of the word misogyny isn’t either.
- Individuals who have difficulty with interpersonal relationships should seek out help through a mentor or professional guidance. There is plenty of it out there. Causing someone else or yourself fear or humiliation should be the last thing you want. If it is what you want – that’s unacceptable and there’s help for that too. Accept that no means no and read this article.
- Finally, as parents there is a lot you can do to ensure your children have an easier time with these types of challenges in their teen and adult lives by educating them in the home about respect and the injustices of double standards, appropriate social protocol, healthy assertiveness and interpersonal relationships.
We aren’t going to fix poor and certainly not deviant behavior via social media – schools, mental health provider and corrections systems can’t fix it in real life. But we can help rational individuals in our communities who may be overstepping or a bit awkward to understand and practice appropriate behavior with good communication, instruction and leadership.
Have you experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at a conference? What kind of conference was it? Share as much as you are comfortable with in comments or the contact button up top that goes straight to my inbox.
P.S. If you have sustained sexual or other trauma and suffer from post traumatic stress and associated triggers, consider therapy to work through recovery. Find others who are kind and empathetic to your pain – there are many online and community based groups for self-help as well that may be beneficial.
Image via http://www.mookychick.co.uk/feminism-politics/feminism/top-10-feminist-quotes.php