Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

As #GamerGate and the associated scandals enter their second (third? fourth? this is what I get for working insane hours all summer) month, the commentary from all sides continues.   I found this post by Serious Pony, a feminist in gaming, to be particularly interesting.  She describes online threats, harassment, and an environment that is unusually toxic to women.  (Hat tip.)

As a former R&D engineer, now attorney, I’m no stranger to the plight of women in high-powered and male-dominated professions. Unfortunately, neither am I a stranger to sexual harassment.  (Description of my career path: I needed a lawyer, not to become a lawyer.)  My stepmom, who was the highest-ranking woman in her division of a multi-national bank before she retired from banking, is no stranger to sexist crap.  I have friends who are engineers, PhDs, and private equity rock stars, all of whom face sexism in their industries. Yet what is described by Serious Pony completely eclipses the problems they’ve had.

As one of my former colleagues said about being a woman engineer, “When you’re in college, all the men think you only got there because of affirmative action.  But once you make it through, they know that you’re capable and often respect you even more for doing it despite the hurdles women face.”  With the exception of a few people (although what doozies they were), that is a completely accurate description of my experience when I was in STEM.

A woman in STEM.  As Serious Pony, aka Kathy Sierra, wrote,

There is only one reliably useful weapon for the trolls to stop the danger you pose and/or to get max lulz: discredit you. The disinformation follows a pattern so predictable today it’s almost dull: first, you obviously “fucked” your way into whatever role enabled your undeserved visibility. I mean..duh. A woman. In tech. Not that there aren’t a few deserving women and why can’t you be more like THEM but no, you are NOT one of them.

“A woman. In tech.”

There is not much to say about Kathy’s experiences except that what happened to her is objectively wrong, and good thing that f—er is in prison. No person is deserving of having their social security number posted on the Web, being subjected to rape threats, or otherwise being, well, “harassed” isn’t a strong enough word for it.

So I will turn my attention to a different issue – the disconnect between the experiences of “women in tech” (i.e. gaming, social media, etc.) and female scientists, engineers, and financiers.

There is something about the “tech world” that causes every single person who is remotely associated with it to call themselves a “person in tech,” regardless of their actual role.  A person who writes cogently about Supreme Court decisions has more legal savvy than a food critic, but we would all snigger if he were to refer to himself as “in the judiciary” or “in the constitutional law industry.” Megan McArdle refers to herself as a reporter, not a businesswoman, despite sporting an MBA from the University of Chicago and writing almost exclusively about business, finance, and economics. But get someone who writes about the science other people do, or the technology other people create, and suddenly, they “in science” or are “women in tech.”  (Amy Alkon presents a fine example of this.)

“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” the title of this post, is a suggestion to women in the games industry.

It gets under people’s skin when Laura Schlessinger, who holds a Ph.D. in English, refers to herself as “Dr. Laura” outside of the English lit world.  Likewise, “Dr. Jill” Biden, who is “continuing her practice” while her husband is in office, is a EdD and the subject of a fair amount of snark for it.  The former “Professor” Barack Obama (now President Obama) was a lecturer of constitutional law, not a tenure-track professor.  Those renowned professionals, who normally would be praised for their accomplishments, are mocked because they are posers – not the medical doctors, psychologists, or tenure-track professors they imply they are.  It’s sad, because what they are is actually pretty darn impressive.

Sexist prats are going to be sexist prats, but this Deepwater Horizon oil spill of game industry toxicity comes about, in part, from the regressive roles played out by the “women in tech.”  By saying that being a writer, artistic designer, or gaming critic is being a “woman in tech,” feminists unwittingly imply that the best “women in tech” can ever hope for is a modern version of traditionally woman-centric careers in writing and art.  When men write the Python or C++ and women write the writing, those feminists simultaneously talk about what awesome STEMmy techie-techs they are.

Unsurprisingly, this “speak loudly and carry a small stick” approach to life creates problems for “women in tech” unheard of in other male-dominated industries.  Yes, sexism exists, but excellence is an antidote to a good chunk of it.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a group of men more supportive of women athletes than the male athletes: they see their female peers working hard at practice every single day.  This “abolish Title IX” crap comes from couch potato men who aren’t around athletic women.  As per my colleague’s statement above, engineer women face fewer problems once they earn their degrees.

“Women in tech” would do better to say that they are critics, artists, designers, or story writers in the games industry (a very cool  and fun thing) than they would to endlessly prate on about how they are “women in STEM.”  It’s not a “women ought to underplay their accomplishments” thing – I’m the last person to suggest that – so much as a being a writer or critic who calls herself a ‘woman in STEM’ might not be the best route to being respected for who you are.   Sexism sucks enough; unforced errors just make it worse.

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