Oh my god, it's a girl!

A woman posting under a throw-away account explained why she does not post as openly female on Hacker News. In part, she said:
Whenever a female posts, you put away the boxing gloves and take out the kid skin gloves.
My read on it is that men do this for basically four reasons:

1) Attraction: Oh my god, it's a girl and she has a brain and is interested in some of the same things I am interested in. Maybe I can get a date!

2) Misguided attempts to encourage women to post more: Oh my god, it's a girl and we need more girls posting here. Let's be nice and friendly and make her feel all welcome and stuff so she will post more (thereby sucking all the intellectual content out of their posts and killing any reason you have to post there).

3) It's not really kid gloves, it's really walking on egg shells: Oh my god, it's a girl and what if she breaks down and cries because I argued with her (like my girlfriend routinely does) or what if I make a joke and she takes it all wrong and everyone will think I am some horrible sexist pig!

4) Shyness: A lot of the very intelligent men you find hanging out in certain types of online forums (like Hacker News) are very introverted and just awkward around women and some of them have gotten a lot of rejection, so they get nervous once they find out it's a girl.

My personal policies for getting men in male dominated forums to actually talk to me:

1) Studiously ignore most low content, warm-fuzzy posts. The men who are talking to you in hopes of getting your phone number won't get the attention they want and will shut up and go away. The men who are hoping to encourage women to post more will get a clue and find something more substantive to say. (Since low content posts are discouraged on Hacker News anyway, you can safely do this without it coming across as sexual politicking. I often upvote something humorous that was said to me without replying to it. They don't get the attention they may have wanted from me but they also won't likely feel dreadful for speaking to me.)

2) Talk to people who disagree with me. I try really hard to not fight with them. I stand my ground firmly but politely. No hissy fits (like their girlfriend/wife might have) and no making a big deal out of it. Most people eventually realize they can have a real discussion with me, in spite of the fact that, oh my god, I'm a girl.

3) Engage in polite public hand-slapping. If you are a minority female, at some point, someone is going to either hit on you or say something humorous that is really inappropriate. A lot of women simply don't reply to such remarks, which comes across as "giving them the cold shoulder". But if you studiously ignore them like that, it causes men to walk on egg-shells, dreading the possibility that they might do something unforgivable. Not speaking to them signals "that's an unspeakable sin" and turns it into a real big deal whether or not you will talk to them and generally puts a chill in the air for the entire forum -- not just for the individual who made the mistake. In contrast, addressing it in a good-natured, light-hearted "thanks, but no thanks" kind of fashion reassures men that they aren't going to be crucified for some stupid faux pas. At which point, most men will metaphorically go back to affectionately punching you in the arm like you are one of the guys and not fret that this could (metaphorically) lead to charges of assault or rape.

4) Treat awkwardness as an indicator of introversion, not a gender issue. As I understand it, there is some correlation between high intelligence and introversion anyway, regardless of gender. There is also some correlation between high intelligence and social issues, again regardless of gender. So I see no reason to treat this as specifically because, oh my god, I'm a girl, even though I realize my gender probably compounds the problem in many cases. If handled appropriately, the awkward introverts who can't get a date will eventually conclude you don't bite and they will talk to you without being so nervous (which, ironically, may eventually help them get a date with someone else and then women generally won't make them so nervous -- positive upward spiral).

It takes a little patience and perseverance. Men do initially walk on egg-shells and all that with me, just like they do with other women who show up in their mostly male online clubs. But it is possible to reduce the tension surrounding, oh my god, talking to a girl. And then it eventually becomes part of the culture and stops being some big issue.

(Originally posted elsewhere on 2010/12/25.)


Allaun said…
Unless your name implicitly hints at you being female, I'm uncertain how often this comes up. Of course, I don't really read comments all that often. >.< Is this something you've had to deal a lot with?
Yup. It is something I have dealt with a whole lot.
Louis St-Amour said…
Am I the only one who rarely reads or reads into usernames on forums? I know my bias is to assume posters are male but partly that's because I don't give it any thought -- frankly gender, like someone's name, becomes a bit of a hassle to remember. Since reading Design for Community by Derek Powazek back in the late 90s, I've stuck with the mantra that "you have to post and spread the content you want to see in a community" because it's often monkey-see-monkey-do online. And while I've seen more of this behaviour in video games, I find on topic-focused sites, the topic or interest in common should prevail over social dynamics. Consider stack overflow, say, or Powazek's honest examples from fray.com... If you set the right tone, consistently, you'll get the behaviour you expect. It would be interesting if HN had a section to feature "the best" conversational threads, for instance. Even 1% of quality interactions can be magnified to have a greater impact.
Allaun said…
I'll admit I sometimes exhibit this behavior in role playing forums, but I try to be self aware enough to avoid it. The following theory I've had has no basis in anything than my own personal observations. And it isn't meant to be sexist. But I think some of this behavior may be related to game theory. In this context, the possible dating pool is drastically lopsided. So the behavior you are describing, seems like the four choices the males usually default to as the optimal strategy, in order to expand the possible choice pool. I'll admit I'm transposing this behavior from a similarly gender limited group I'm apart of. But it's still fascinating to see "tribes" auto-select paths to increasing diversity.
Allaun said…
I should add I am not attempting to justify this behavior, I just realized how it may seem from the outside. >.>
SonoranCellist said…
I'm a guy, and for the past several years, when I have a question I can't answer through my own research, and the time comes to post in a forum, I always post using a female user name. And I do this because I *want* the kid gloves and extra attention. I like getting more attentive attention, and I lie about my gender to get it.
Michael McBain said…
If you were Italian, Michele would not immediately suggest you were female.
Michele from Melbourne
I am well aware that Michele can be a male name. It is not my name per se that marks me as female (I don't even go by Michele as my handle on HN). I was a homemaker for two decades, a military wife and homeschooling mom. I frequently speak from firsthand experience and it is nearly impossible to do so without thus identifying my gender. Plus, I see no reason to intentionally obfuscate it. I have been treated as identifiably female and like a "prominent female" on HN for some time. I have been largely absent for about 18 months and still get remembered and those folks who remember me typically also ID me as female. Please note the irony of someone accusing me of being oversensitive, as if my gender has not been a source of actual, objective problems, while remembering me well enough to make the accusation and remembering I am female when I have been largely absent for over a year and a half: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7134485
Louis St-Amour said…
That accusation implied backstory, and as a neutral third-party, I wondered at, then ignored that comment. It just occurred to me to share this cartoon, however. Struck me as the honest truth when I first saw it, though I didn't have a specific incident in mind: http://www.allenpike.com/images/2013/jerk-deathbulge.jpg via http://www.allenpike.com/2013/unprofessionalism/
Part of the backstory is that I am apparently one of the more prominent female members of HN and was posting as very openly female at a time when that was ...a rougher thing to do than it may be currently? (In order to support that statement, I have just moved another old post that I wouldn't get to organically for quite a while: Front Row Seats

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