The Gray Zone

There is currently at least a couple of discussions on Hacker News about sexism in IT. In this case, a prominent female engineer has quit GitHub and is publicly leveling a lot of ugly accusations. Discussion of such things is also frequently ugly, often dividing up between those folks quick to attack the woman in question and those folks quick to defend her and attack the folks she is accusing.
As for the topic at hand, my cynicism tells me that I'd bet the farm on everything she's said being accurate. I do, however, wish to withhold judgment on both sides without being accused of enabling the decried behavior. That's an alarming trend from a certain vocal group in this industry, a "with us or against us" mentality that bothers me a lot. I've been called a "rape apologist" in the past for simply saying I didn't have enough information about an alleged rape to reach a conclusion.

Excerpt from a comment on HN
I think that The Glass Ceiling exists largely because people are trying to avoid a gray zone area that is really unavoidable. I am not sure what the solution is -- what we need to do as a culture in order to accommodate the existence of this gray zone -- but I do not think these kinds of shit shows are really it.

Most humans of either gender are heterosexual. The kind of networking and close working relationships that lead to advancement are comfortable for two (or more) clearly heterosexual males because if they are openly heterosexual, then there is unstated agreement that this is not a sexual situation. But put a heterosexual woman and a heterosexual man in close working proximity and the waters suddenly get very muddy.

Fairly intimate, trusting behavior between two heterosexual men is platonic bonding that leads to business deals. With a man and a woman (for the sake of brevity, I am going to stop saying "heterosexual" every time -- just assume that is what I mean), they themselves may feel confused as to whether or not they want this to be "just business" or if they want a romantic relationship to blossom. Even if they are 100% clear about it, their closeness may create problems because other people may assume there is an affair even if absolutely nothing is going on.

I think the essence of The Glass Ceiling boils down to this: My experience is that men are either not very willing to talk to me one-on-one or, if they are, talking shop is the last thing they had in mind. They are looking for romance, not looking to help me professionally. When I say this to other women, they generally express immediate agreement. Men often deny it, criticize it or just stop talking when I say such things.

Most professional power and money is in the hands of men. Men in positions of power do not want scandal to smear their name. But they are human. They are not immune to the existence of this gray zone. They are not immune to feeling warm feelings towards a woman at work and wondering if it might be mutual. They are not immune to seeing someone's warm behavior towards them and wondering how to interpret it -- whether it is "just friendly" or whether it is an invitation to a romantic relationship.

This gray zone exists because there is a vast space to cross between just meeting someone and becoming intimate with them, whether romantically or in a platonic but trusting relationship (like a business contact). Even if you decide up front that you are in a relationship, you are not interested, etc. it does not make you immune to the gray zone. Married people sometimes have affairs. People determined to remain alone sometimes happen to fall hard for someone new who has qualities they never expected to find together in one person.

I think the path forward is finding a way to tolerate this gray zone and accommodate it without simply shutting women out professionally. So I really do not think these shit shows help women break into business. I think they just reinforce the current paradigm where the people in power -- mostly men -- have reason to err on the side of shutting women out in order to protect themselves from potential scandal or accusations or similar.

I don't know for sure what the path forward is. But as I indicated earlier today on HN, I have relatively recently returned to actively participating on HN after leaving in part because I felt being a woman on HN was more down side than up. So, having made the front page three times and having returned to what feels to me like a less hostile environment, I am currently feeling like choices I have made to try to avoid shit shows may be paying off.

Time will tell if that (making the front page, feeling more welcomed generally, etc) will last or if I will, at some point, return to feeling like my gender is a show stopping issue on HN.

Addendum: To my shock, this has been on HN while I was away from keyboard (and puking my guts out, so I am reading the discussion but may not reply to any of it): Linky


heretoo said…
Nicely written. Comes across as friendly and open for discussion.

I thought I might point out something which from my own reading, I believe to be incorrect.

"Most professional power and money is in the hands of men"...

Actually, "..Fleishman-Hillard Inc. estimates that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. over the next decade.."

Justin Mayer said…
@heretoo: What Michele wrote is correct. The link you posted is talking about *shopping* — not business. It's no surprise that women make many of the purchase decisions across a wide swath of consumer spending categories — we already knew that. But that fact says almost nothing about women's professional stature in the business world.

What you are talking about — consumer spending — is not related to the discussion at hand.
William Payne said…
Pretty good analysis.
Xxiem said…
This was a really good read. Thank you.

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