Golden Uterus Redux

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The following is a comic recap of the events that transpired after I posted How to Scare off Female Developers. I made it just for you!

A comic wherein Mark Jaquith's seizing of the Gold Uterus distresses the amazonian locals. An angry brogrammer golem rises from the fringes of society. The world looks on aghast.

The fallout was worse than the explosion.

I wanted to wait a week or two before posting followup so I could gain some perspective after stepping away from the matter for a bit. Looking back, I can say that Mr. Jaquith’s original tweet pales in comparison to some of the comments left here and on Hacker News. I originally posted to vent the frustration I felt from struggling with negative attitudes about women, and Mr. Jaquith just happened to be saying something asinine at a time when I felt in an authorly mood. But then to see the full spectrum of male attitudes about females in the workplace laid out at my feet, it was like some some bogeyman I’d long suspected had been hiding under my bed suddenly crawled out to pay a visit. So my worst suspicions were confirmed.

But cooler heads prevailed.

Although I was alarmed by the bad attitudes that reared their heads, I was pleasantly surprised at the number positive, thoughtful commenters who chimed in. It was comforting to see the comments and perspectives of so many upstanding people. It definitely gave me hope that while, yes, there is a problem, there are also problem solvers who are actively trying to fix it.

The solution is for men to call this bullshit when they see it. For some reason when women complain about things (like unfair treatment) it is seen as nagging and written off as an indictment of women; when men complain about things (like in your example) it is not used to critique men as a whole. I'm aware this is anecdotal. When more men start calling each other out on being sexist then we will see progress. gatlin

In my original post, I went out of my way not to draw parallels between sexism and racism, although it would have been easy to do with the example material I worked with. I feel these are similar fights, but I honestly haven’t been keeping an eye on racism in the development community, and thought it wasn’t the appropriate place to start that discussion. But commenters ended up making their own connections between the two, as in this comment:

The problem is theirs, not ours, so long as we stay aware and continue to speak out against their behaviors. Racial bigotry is a disadvantage in making a living today (at least in communities I choose to live in) because we do not let "off color jokes" slide with an embarrassed smirk. Gender bigotry needs to be shown the same public shaming or it will stick around. gruber76

And the Slow Clap award goes to sslemon’s comment:

First off, I agree on your thoughts about the tweet by Mr. Jaquith is off-putting at least, and at the most.. well, I'm sure we all have our own ideas on how we'd like to respond, verbally and possibly physically. Secondly, props for calling it out. I know I've made less than stellar comments, and I've been called out on it once or twice (by female and male developers), and it actually stung for a second, when I redirected the words at myself. If the behavior is not consciously recognized, how can the behavior be changed and subsequently improved? This type of behavior is not just in the workplace; I see it a few times around in the department (I'm a graduating senior this May), and most of the time (it's not terribly common anymore; the female population percentage has progressively increased), it's shrugged off. If it is cultured in the educational circles, then it just propagates upwards into the higher levels, whether academic or professional. Finally, I doubt this behavior is restricted to just this field; I think it even goes further down: the dominating group (not necessarily males, but those in power) behaves in a way as to what they perceive to be preserving their dominance. What that group fails to see is that change, in the longer term, is always good. By taking sides (the dominant group always picks itself), the discussions seem ready to boil into debates instead of constructive conversations that allow both sides to move forward. Holding back the ideas of one part halts the progress of the whole sum. sslemon

And at no point did I feel the conversation devolved into an attack on me personally. If this were the comics business, where we have these throw downs on a monthly if not weekly basis, it most certainly would have gone that way. It’s good to know that the web development community is that much more mature and able to argue over the post itself and not the person who posted it.

Common Themes

A couple of things just kept coming up in conversation, both online and off. I attempt to address them here.

"But so-and-so is a girl, and she's cool with it. Aren't you just overreacting?"

I don’t remember electing so-and-so as Supreme Ambassador for All Women Ever. I don’t remember every woman everywhere consenting that so-and-so’s opinions would represent all of ours. There will always be women with differing opinions. Even if half of a population is distressed by something, the opposing opinions of the other half should not be interpreted as a reason to dismiss that distress.

"You're taking it the wrong way!"

This comic by Kate Beaton says all I need to say to Mark Jaquith and the other people crying out, “You’re taking it the wrong way!”

Handy social tip: Don’t ever tell someone how something should make them feel. We all mess this one up from time to time, and it’s a miscommunication that spans genders. Humans don’t like feeling like little kids being told how to feel and react, and if you’re the one who “said the wrong thing” there’s no nice way to explain yourself that doesn’t involve either losing some face or escalating the situation. It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is how you makes others feel. This is why you need to weigh your words carefully before unleashing them upon the public, especially about things that cross gender issues.

Should you ever find yourself in this position, I advise against using the expressions “you took it the wrong way” or “overreacting.” And the apology, the acknowledgement that you have hurt someone, is the key. I use this formula, “I’m so sorry. insert one-sentence non-combative explanation of your intention I was being facetious/didn’t know all the facts/wasn’t trying to tell you what to do/put my foot in my mouth. You’re important to me, and I don’t want to upset you.” (And non-apologies don’t count! Non-apologies usually start with, “I’m sorry my comment made you feel…”)  If you apologize in earnest immediately, you can defuse a potentially explosive interaction.

"Why is a 'golden uterus' comment offensive? I don't see what's wrong with it."

Many women have been in a heated conversation with men about something near and dear to us: Our reproductive rights, bearing children, in general things going into and out of our vaginas. Some women, who may have trouble conveying why they do not agree with their male counterparts’ opinions about an organ he does not possess, may be forced to resort to a phrase like, “Who has a uterus in this conversation? Yeah, that’s what I thought.” To dismiss what is, at least to me, a quip of last resort could easily be extrapolated into a dismissal of all those uncomfortable arguments.

Mr. Jaquith says he was trying to make a joke. But he didn’t think of how his words could easily be taken as dismissive of women–or an endorsement of dismissing women. He has 7000 followers and didn’t think that one of them, male or female, would “take it the wrong way?” And then for other males to come in after him and say, “No, you’re wrong. He meant it like this,” or “You shouldn’t be upset by that because of x, y, and z.” That’s the heart of the issue. That attitude is my problem.

What can you do?

If you are a man...

Call them on it. Women have two options when they experience male chauvinism: Complain and risk getting shunned and shut out as a “harpy” or a “bitch,” or say nothing and let the behavior continue unchecked. As a man, your words carry more weight. Your coworkers look up to you, rely on you, respect you. You’re “one of the bros.” If you’re not cool with something, it’s not just some uppity woman getting her panties in a knot. A line has been crossed. This is something you and you alone can do to help make the community more woman-friendly and awesome.

Good guys don’t let the bad guys walk away.

If you're a man who is afraid he might be a jerk...

Listen to this convenient podcast from a Nerd of Advice. Actually, all dudes, listen to this podcast. You might still learn something or see something in a way you didn’t before. (And the part about Arkham Asylum was pretty darn hilarious!)

If you are a woman...

Call them on it. What you need more than anything is empathy. Try to get the other party to understand how their behavior makes you feel, and how they might feel if the tables were turned. Use humor to keep things from getting too awkward, but never apologize for how you feel. (And when I say call “them” on it, I mean other women, too. Women can be big misogynists, too. Open up discussion.)

Don’t give up. It’s easy to get discouraged. Many female students turn away when they encounter the brogrammer fraternity. Keep going! Go around them, through them, over them. Find the real developers and stick close to them. Don’t turn back. We need you in here.

If you run a conference...

Have more female speakers. Heck, have a few panels geared toward women. That’s all it takes to send the right message.

Think hard about having speakers from the adult industry or any other organization that might make women attendees feel uncomfortable. Comic conventions (and often stores) are loaded with stuff that can make women who aren’t used to it feel weirded out. And that might have something to do with why the comics industry struggles to reach women. The “boys only club” feel of that industry is something I was glad to escape when I transitioned into web development. I don’t want to turn around and find it following me.

He Said She Said: The "Golden Uterus" Timeline

For archival purposes, I have collected the play by play of the original Twitter thread that started it all. (Note: Jane Wells is the UX lead on WordPress, by the by. She’s pretty outspoken with regards to women in tech.) It’s a little out of order, but you get the gist.

She puts out a call to the ladies just as bacon and toast hit the table.

I sincerely apologize for my misspelling of “when” as “win.” In my defense, my hands were covered in sticky jam.

Oh, I’m sorry, with all the senatorial hearings about birth control coverage, I thought he was generally sweeping aside valid female perspectives on all levels, not just motherhood. The speed of tweeting doesn’t leave much time for reflection or deep interpretation of people’s 140 characters. My bad.

And then I posted How to Scare off Female Developers.

Mr. Jaquith is scandalized.

And then he blocked me on Twitter.

Mr. Jaquith did have a reply to my post–which he shared on hacker news, not here, for whatever reason. (And yes, I did google the “Golden Uterus Complex” before I wrote the post. I found it so grating and offensive that I felt compelled to vent publicly.)

Actually, I feel the whole “Golden Uterus Complex” is a generalization about women–one that dismisses a woman’s opinion any time she brings up the very real implications of having female sexual organs. Yeah, it can be used in some fairly harmless ways (i.e. “I’ll raise these kids how I want because I had ‘em myself!”), but it can also be called upon in some very serious ways, ways that Mr. Jaquith must not have considered (i.e. “It’s my uterus, so I’m in charge of what happens to it because none of you have ever had to deal with owning one, thank you.”).

The above thread shows how easily things can get out of hand when people do not take the time to weigh their words and think carefully about the reactions of others. We’ve seen this before with Penny Arcade’s “dick wolves” incident.

A final word

Ok, guys: I’m not the only woman with an opinion. Don’t take what I write as the Will of Women Everywhere. I’m just one woman. I have concerns and feelings that other women share. But not all women will feel the same way. For instance, I have no problem attending a conference with a panel about challenges facing high-traffic adult industry sites. But other women will have problems with that. Likewise, there are going to be women who don’t have any problem with some kinds of insensitive and anti-female behavior. They are not all women, either. And just because they’re cool with something, I and other women might not be. When in doubt, just ask yourself how something would float past your mom or your sister. And whatever you do, never hold up just one woman and point to her as a justification for anything.


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