Women and men, across the ocean, and the vessel runs aground

I’m occasionally asked what it’s like being a "woman in Linux". It’s not such an easy question for me to answer: what’s it like being a man doing the shopping? what’s it like being an elderly person drinking Scotch? You can say lots of things about the shopping and the Scotch, but not a lot about the maleness or agedness of the experience.

I suspect most of my "woman in Linux" (in the user sense, I’m not a developer) experiences are pretty subtle: some of my unease in combative situations is undoubtedly socialised, and some of that socialisation is probably related to being a woman. But which bits? How much? Who knows. Questions about being a woman in Linux always leave me floundering.

Raven, a "woman in security", has an answer though. For her, the "woman in X" question is all about being hit on. Relentlessly.

I don’t get hit on relentlessly. I get hit on about as much as most men seem to: hardly ever. If I was going to draw parallels with Raven’s experience, I would draw them not with experiences of fending off the horny masses, but of fending off the hordes of people who’ve never met a woman as tall as I am.

At 190cm, I’m willing to believe I’m one of, if not the, tallest woman most people have seen, or at least spoken to. (I have, in the course of my life, seen about four women who are taller than I am, and I keep an eye out, trust me.) And I hear about it a lot. I’ve heard all the jokes. I’ve heard all the compliments. And I’d like to think I’ve heard all the insults, but I have my doubts.

I’ve even well and truly had enough of the empathetic tongue-in-cheek responses ("I bet people say that all the time, hey?") but I try to take them in the spirit they were meant: more empathy is more better, as a general principle. I don’t want to discourage people from walking a mile in someone’s shoes, especially if they’re someone who stocks shoe stores and can order in size 11s for once.

But there are a number of parallels with being hit on, and one of them is that not everyone is a well-meaning bumbling fool with a propensity to innocently hit on women or call tall women "lanky bitches" if they run into them around a corner. (I have never heard the word lanky unattached to bitch. What quirk of humanity spawned that meme?) A number of people dealing out this stuff are out to hurt people. In fact, a solid majority of people commenting on my height are complete strangers commenting with the intention of hurting or embarrassing me.

One of the most common responses to "I get hit on all the time&quot rants, after "wow cool what the hell is wrong with you, whinger?" anyway, is "I can see how that’s a little annoying, but you know, they mean well. It’s a compliment. Whinger."

That’s crap. Sure, some of them mean well, in so far as wanting to have sex with someone is meaning well (I think it’s neither a virtue nor a vice in and of itself, but some of the people who want to gift Raven with the spawn of their geek genes prove that Stephen Pinker’s gentle "good for your genes isn’t the same thing as morally good" warnings could be hammered into his books with a chisel and they wouldn’t be clear enough). But the reason people who get hit on a lot find it creepy isn’t because they’re weirdly hostile to the compliment of someone’s flattering and harmless attraction, but because being hit on can be genuinely creepy. And is. A lot of the time, it is.

A lot of the sexual attention I get is decidedly negative: it’s more or less suggestions of sexual violence from passing strangers (usually driving past, but occasionally they’re brave enough to mutter threats as they pass me on foot). I didn’t count that in the "I don’t get hit on" count: if I counted people who yell "suck my cock, lanky bitch" out of cars, I get hit on any time I’m out walking after dark.

I won’t pretend to speak for all women here: some women do consider the vast majority (or possibly all) come-ons as a compliment. I try to take them as they come. But I’m sick of the ‘compliment’ defence in general, it’s as bad as the joke defence. Sexual attention is neutral: when you get it a lot like Raven does, it’s as annoying as being asked about your height all the time, and it also is sometimes used as a way to hurt people, making them scared, or embarrassed, or leaving them feeling like shit the rest of the day. Some other times, it’s a compliment, or mutual, or otherwise wonderful.

And you know, most people can tell the difference. The people on the receiving end know the difference, and the people dealing it out damn well know the difference too.

The height analogy glosses over the fact that being constantly reminded of your gender (not always by being hit on) destroys the "we’re all geeks/friends/partners/collegues here" feeling. I’m lucky to escape that, and if I was offered the trade of being constantly reminded that I’m female — and therefore different — in a group of men against being reminded that I’m really tall — to some people, unattractive — I’ll keep taking the latter.

But in either case I can’t stand the stupidity of the "it’s a compliment!" defense. Nothing’s automatically a compliment.

Some things are meant to be a compliment, or friendly, or whatever, and are taken badly because the recipient has had a bad day, doesn’t like the same things about themself that you like, or has heard your complimentary little joke fifteen times that morning, and fifty times yesterday, thanks. Some people are cranky (OK, I confess).

But some things are never meant to be a compliment in the first place. Come-ons regularly fall into one of those categories. If you want to compliment someone, see if you can figure out what makes them happy, rather than deciding on their behalf what should make them happy, doing it, and then giving them a lecture when they complain.


I, too, get hit on virtually never, and I wonder about the difference between Raven’s and my experiences on that issue. Is it a matter of the network security field being a whole lot worse than the embedded software development field I’m in? Mine is probably equally male-dominated, but I have the impression there’s a much lower percentage in my field of the jerks Raven describes. Or perhaps it’s that I’m not as immersed in my field as Raven is in hers. I feel like I’m still a fledgling in my field; my employer doesn’t pay for me to go to conferences (as I don’t have anything about which to speak there), for instance.

Posted by katie on March 19, 2004 01:13 AM

At LUV (linux users victoria), I’ve not seen anything adverse to the one or two women we have. Nothing on the mailing list either – or at least, the posts I have read.

But I did hear about that big SLUG stupidity. I think SLUG is a lot bigger than LUV, but no idea really.

I would certainly like to think that this wouldn’t happen in Linux – most people seem mature enough. Perhaps the security thing might have been from script-kiddies?

Astronomy is way too petty and political, so its hardly surprising that women would be treated bad, and consequently lose interest after honours (we’ve got 4 out of 30 – despite there being lots of female summer students coming through).

Nice article, BTW.

Posted by TimC on March 19, 2004 01:33 AM

Librarianship is a fairly non-grunchy profession, as these things go… of course, the way this works is that the entire bloody profession has been grunched—our pay reeks and our image is worse. Nonetheless. Librarianship is blessedly grunch-…

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