There’s been a lot of talk in the industry lately around sexism at conferences, both in selection of speakers and behavior among attendees. With some sexist/outright creepo behavior, it’s pretty easy to tell where the line is (not that that stops some men from gaily trampling over that line). Most of us would agree that outright propositions or full-on groping are not acceptable behavior at an industry conference.

But you, Type of Dude to Whom This Post is Addressed, would never do something like that. You’re one of the good guys. You have no problem with women being successful, and you’re happy to have women speak at conferences. You’d certainly never just outright grope someone. But there are many more subtle behaviors that contribute to an atmosphere of sexism that you may not even be aware of. It’s hard for you to hear that they might be sexist, because you are a good guy and don’t think of yourself as sexist – but there’s room for improvement! So here are some additional things that you can work on.

Pet Names

Most women are actually not thrilled to be addressed by a pet name in a professional setting. “But Ruth,” I can hear you say, “I overheard so-and-so call you ‘sweetie’ at SMX West and you didn’t seem offended at all!” Well, that person is my friend. We have shared drinks and conversation and life lessons over several years of knowing each other in the industry. If someone knows me well enough to know that I actually am a sweetie, then they can call me sweetie and I’m not likely to mind. But if you’ve just met someone, avoid pet names like the plague until you really feel like a.) you’re friends enough that she won’t mind and b.) she is the kind of person who doesn’t mind a pet name from a friend.

This brings me to one of my main points here: context matters. It’s part of what makes it so hard to discuss sexism at conferences, because behaviors that might be fine between one set of people could be inappropriate among others. There are things that maybe wouldn’t be sexist in everyday life that bring an undesirable tone to professional interactions.

You did not SERIOUSLY just call me that.

You did not SERIOUSLY just call me that.

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Why I can’t just get over it: Calling me by something other than my name is condescending. It implies, whether you intend it to or not, that I am “less than”: that unlike my male peers it’s not important to know or remember my name. I know that you don’t mean it that way, because you’re one of the good guys. But the words we use are important and can have unintended shades of meaning.

The Pick-Up

Listen, guys. You have to stop trying to pick up women at conferences. You just have to stop doing it. Again, context matters: you’re not just hanging out at a bar drinking with your buddies, chatting up the attractive woman sitting next to you. You’re at an industry function, talking to women who are your industry peers. They’re simply not there to be hit on – even in ways that might not be creepy in another setting.

Don’t ask about or comment on our relationship status, especially if you’re expressing disappointment that we’re not single. Don’t ask us to come back to your room, even if it’s just to see your new tablet or whatever.

No touching. Please, please do not touch me. Don’t put your arm around me or “accidentally” brush my legs with your hands while we’re sitting near each other. Now, I’m a hugger. I hug my friends when I see them all the time – but again, those people are my friends. A chaste, mutual hug is very different from nonconsensual, vaguely sexual touching. It’s not necessarily sexual assault but is very uncomfortable. Rule of thumb: if I think we’re on hugging terms, I’ll go in for the hug. Otherwise please don’t touch me. Some commenters have pointed out that the previous statement makes me sound like it’s OK for me to force nonconsensual hugs on people, but not them. That’s not what I’m saying. Here’s what I mean: Go head and hug people with whom you’re on hugging terms. Otherwise, please don’t touch me (except to shake my hand).

leave me alone!

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The biggest thing that men can do to help defeat an atmosphere of sexism at conferences is never assume that because a woman comes up to you and strikes up a conversation, she must be interested. Let’s work to create an atmosphere where women can approach men for professional, networking conversation without worry of rebuffing unwanted advances. I hate that a man can walk up to another man at a networking event and just start a conversation about work, but when I do it, sometimes the man thinks I must be flirting. It means I get to have fewer of those awesome after-party conversations that everyone knows are the best source of learning at conferences.

Why I can’t just get over it: These events are about networking, and as long as men are trying to pick up women at networking events – as long as there’s even the idea in your heads that you might hook up tonight – it’s going to be tougher for women to network. That means we don’t get the same advantages from networking events that men do, which is holding us back in our professional careers, and that sucks big time.

Compliments

So let’s talk about compliments, because I feel like it’s so hard for a lot of men to grasp how complimenting someone – saying something positive about them, for Pete’s sake! – can be offensive. “It’s a compliment, you’re overreacting” is something women hear allll the time.

I like compliments! But I like appropriate compliments. Here are some examples of compliments that are appropriate:

  • “I like your blazer.”
  • “I really enjoyed your talk.”
  • “Your company has been doing some really cool things lately.”

Here are some examples of compliments that aren’t appropriate:

  • “I liked your blog post. And your picture is seriously cute ;-)”
  • “I think it’s really sexy how fast you can live tweet.”
  • “You’re a beautiful woman.”

Now I can hear some of your heads exploding. “WHAT?” I hear you say. “Why would you object to being told you’re a beautiful woman?” Because I am not at a conference to be a beautiful woman. My looks are not what got me where I am today, and by bringing them up you are (whether you mean to or not) implying that my appearance is the most important thing. That I should be more flattered by the fact that you liked my picture than that you learned something from my blog post.

The reason this is such a big problem is that women are judged by our appearances all the time. We are constantly presented with messages that our appearance matters more than anything else, and that it is intrinsically tied to our inherent worth as people.

At a conference, I saw Joanna Lord speaking on an otherwise all-male panel. When the moderator introduced her, he said “…the beautiful Joanna Lord!” Now I am 100% positive that he didn’t mean anything but nice things when he said that, and I’m sure that most people in the room didn’t even register it, and Joanna certainly is beautiful. But even something as innocuous as that still reinforces the idea that our looks are part of our worth. Otherwise, why bring it up? How we look should be immaterial to the value we’re bringing to conferences.

Why I can’t just get over it: By reinforcing the idea that women’s inherent worth is tied to their physical beauty, we’re reinforcing the idea that women should objectified. We’re also contributing to the idea that women are less than men – after all, men’s inherent worth can be entirely independent from their appearances. I know that’s not what you mean, Dude. You’re just trying to be nice. But it contributes to that idea nonetheless – so be aware of it.

Sexual Innuendo

LOL, u said buttz

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Adria Richards of SendGrid was recently fired in the aftermath of an uproar that started when she used Twitter to call out some men who were making sexually-charged jokes at a conference. There’s been plenty of discussion elsewhere as to whether her reaction or SendGrid’s firing of her were justified; I’m not going to go into that here. What I do want to do is break down why she felt the jokes were unacceptable in the first place.

It might not be immediately apparent why a couple of dudes snickering over the word “dongle” would offend someone so much. After all, they weren’t talking about her. They weren’t, as far as I know, saying they’d like to give someone specific a good dongling.

We encountered a similar situation at SMX West – an exhibitor had a cardboard standup with a cartoon beaver saying “Everyone Loves a Little Beaver.” The rationale was that their product helped you be busy as a beaver or some such thing, but come on, people: the innuendo was clear. But again, not directed at anyone specific, just a juvenile double entendre joke. (The standup was taken down pretty much as soon as event organizers noticed it – good work, Third Door!)

So what is the big deal? Why do women care if two dudes are going “heh heh, dongle” in the background? Because sex doesn’t belong at work events.

I know that it is hard for you, Dude, to understand how impactful this is, because you’re one of the good guys. That means you probably have no idea of the things the not-so-good guys do and say to us. I’ve had my thigh groped under the table at a conference dinner. I’ve had a guy make eye contact with me across the bar at a conference event and make the “jerk off” motion, complete with mimed finish (gross). I’ve had unwelcome tickles and pinches and even kisses, and I’ve been called “honey” and “baby” and “sexy” and told that my painstakingly-researched conference talk was “hot.” It’s a tough old world out there.

Why I can’t just get over it: Women are in the minority at most tech events, even in the search industry where we’re approaching parity faster than, say, web developers. We’re in the minority and we are dealing with a lot of shit that you might not see or hear. So do us a solid, Dude, and do everything you can to keep conferences from having any kind of sexually-charged atmosphere. The more dumb innuendoes are made between dudes at conferences, the more some of those dudes will think it’s OK to say sexual things to their female colleagues.

I know, Dude. I KNOW. That is so not what you mean when you say things like that. You’re just trying to make a joke. But words have meanings. Words matter. The things that we do and say can contribute positively or negatively to the atmosphere surrounding us. As one of the good guys, I really hope that you can help us on our quest to be your equals in the industry by considering the implications of what you do or say, and the context in which you do and say them.

Thanks for being one of the good guys. We’re all in this together.

Update #1: Several people have pointed out that “sexist” isn’t the most precise or accurate term to describe the behavior I’m describing – “inappropriate” or “unprofessional” comes closer.

Update #2: My post is a bit one-sided as it specifically discusses men’s behavior toward women, and doesn’t take into account women’s behavior, impact on queer individuals in the community, etc. I’ve chosen to discuss this because in my experience, these behaviors are most prevalent in men toward women. I think we can discuss the behavior of one specific group without the implied assumption that they are the only group that behaves this way, or that all other groups are inherently blameless. Certainly women commit most of the offenses listed above (Lord knows I have), as well. As to one-sidedness or balance? I don’t know what to tell you. This is a post based on my experience. I’m not a newspaper.