Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A Culture of (Potential) Assholes: Sexual Harassment in IT

On a recent trip I had my eyes opened to the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the IT industry. I don't know why I was so surprised, but I was. It broke my heart to discover that friends of mine had to put up with treatment that I thought only occurred in bad HR training videos.

Before I unpack my thoughts on this issue I feel I must issue a disclaimer. I'm a man. I've been guilty of sexual harassment to some degree in my life. I do not want to give the impression that I am above this issue. I enjoy making comments laced with double entendre that are probably more than a little offensive at times. Only now, I am more aware of and sensitive to these situations than before.

Here is what I observed. I was sitting next to a female developer in a hotel lobby in the evening during a multi-day conference. We had just met that evening, and I was enjoying our conversation. We were both sober, while many of those around us were not.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a loud and drunken man, whom I had met briefly the night before, appeared. He made a few comments to the assembled group, then reached in his back pocket to pull out the envelope that the hotel gives you with your room key cards. Apropos of nothing, he hands the envelope, containing a key, to the lady next to me and says "my room number is written on there. I expect to see you in my room later."

He then walked away while she tried unsuccessfully to give the room key back. After she sat back down, another male developer on her other side, in apparent sarcasm, said "you took somebody's room key. You're such a whore!" This pushed me past my tolerance and I yelled at him "Dude, over the line!"

While this brief scenario doesn't indicate a trend, it did spark a series of conversations with several women in my circle of contacts. I discovered through these conversations that it is a nearly universal experience that similar inappropriate scenarios happen on a regular basis. What was especially disturbing to me was that the women couldn't believe that I was surprised by this.

I consider the people I interact with professionally to be my community. I believe fundamentally that we have to take care of one another so that we can all succeed. To discover that members of my community were regularly tolerating treatment that I would not put up with for an instant was mind blowing to me.

I learned that rather than viewing men as neutral peers on first meeting, the women often view us with suspicion and caution. It is as though we are all potential assholes in their eyes, guilty until proven innocent. This led me to second guess many interactions I have had with women developers, wondering if they suspected my motives.

It seems to me that the women in our industry are swallowing emotional poison every time an harassing interaction takes place. They appear to have too high a threshold of tolerance for bad behavior. The lady involved in the situation that prompted this post told me that she couldn't speak up because she would then be seen as a bitch and would lose business because people wouldn't want to work with her. Here are some quotes:

I just shrug off certain comments/advancements, because being in IT I feel like I need to be “one of the guys”, so I take it and move on.

That's what i hate - having to keep my guard up in order to respond professionally, because there's this expectation that i have to respond in some way, either by being offended or going along with the joke and showing that i'm cool, etc.

I've been plenty naive, falling for "yeah sure we're just friends" or "no I didn't mean anything by that" lines. After enough lost trust in people, I've probably become more aware and/or suspicious.

Protesting too much gets you nowhere except labled in one of various negative ways. In which case, you HAVE to pick your battles, and figure out what is truly offensive and worth speaking up about, and ignore the rest. Otherwise you're just the "boy who cried wolf."

This condition frankly saddens me. In discussing these discoveries with my friend Dustin Campbell, he reminded me that as men, we have a tendency to fix and rescue. The issue at hand defies my attempts at immediate refactoring. I asked the women what I could do when I witness an incident of harassment. They suggested that I take the offender aside and talk to him rather than publicly reacting and potentially escalating an uncomfortable situation. One friend made it clear that I should say that I find the behavior offensive rather than come across like I'm sticking up for a "little lady."

Henceforth, if I see anyone pulling any of this shit, I will take the person aside and have a discrete but direct conversation. If it continues, I will call the person out publicly. If it continues beyond that, I'll take whatever steps necessary to inform vendors and clients of the individual's character.

The day after my "awakening", I went to a Women In Technology meeting to learn more. There I heard that retention of women in the industry is at least as big a problem as recruiting them in the first place. The three biggest causes of women leaving IT are sexual harassment, lack of role models and lack of mentors.

When it comes to role models and mentors, there may be fewer women than men, but they definitely exist. I know quite a few amazing women developers. Now, I am even more impressed with these women because of what they have had to put up with as they progress in their careers. I invite all of my peers to join me in making the profession of software development more welcoming to everyone by looking out for your neighbor.



Wednesday, 11 March 2009 07:47:40 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I am surprised to hear it is as widespread as it is, but knowing guys - esp. those who have been drinking, I am not sure why I am surprised.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 07:48:39 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Not really much to add to that, but "wow". I've still never personally witnessed anything quite that shocking before, and not because I'm numbed over to that sort of thing. I too conjure up images of bad 90s HR videos. I hope I never witness this sort of thing, but will feel more comfortable taking a stand now, having read this. Thanks.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 07:58:01 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
One of the biggest problems for women in this industry is that they are dramatically underrepresented, so it's impossible NOT to feel outnumbered.

It is up to us men to be aware of and address inappropriate behavior - from ourselves and from our peers.

Thanks for calling attention to this issue, Alan.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:02:49 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
The incident you describe is so far beyond "over the line" it's almost shocking.

But I don't think it's fair to paint all men in IT with the brush of (potential) assholedom. One really important ingredient here is booze. While it doesn't excuse the behavior (in fact, I would hope if the offender's behavior became known to his employer and/or clients, I would hope they'd cease doing business with him), people frequently do things while drunk that they'd never do sober.

So while I think we *all* (men and women together) need to take responsibility for calling out and stopping harassment, I think we also need to be aware that for some people, alcohol is an intrinsic part of the problem, and may need to be addressed as well. In my observation, drinking is almost as strong a part of IT conference culture as it was when I worked in the theatre, and trust me that theatre people drink A LOT!

My guess would be that the drunk in your example, if asked the following morning, might not even remember having behaved in such an inexcusable fashion. I'd further wager that the person carelessly throwing around the word "whore" had been drinking as well.

I appreciate you calling this out, and raising awareness. I agree that we need to be alert to this kind of behavior and ready to call people on it (and be called on it, if it turns out we really are the assholes).
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:07:43 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Toi Wright
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:08:47 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I'm totally with you on this... We cannot stand for this kind of behavior... People need to be educated... This is simply not acceptable... Any more than racial hatred or other bigotry.

If anyone were to ever catch me behaving in a manner like this, I would hope to have the disgraceful nature of this pointed out to me.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:15:01 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
@Andrew I do not mean to imply that all men in IT are asshole, only that enough are that women in our industry are forced to treat all of us as though we are, at least initially.

While the incident I witnessed seems shocking to you and I, the women almost unanimously responded with "is that all?" Therein lies the problem.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:19:24 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thanks for saying this.

Having a feminist wife (and sisters), I have been made very aware of what women feel like in professions that are mostly run by men. Although she is not in tech, my wife constantly reminds me to be cognizant of this truth when interacting with women in my male-dominated field.

I have seen some disgusting behavior in our industry, and I hope this post will edify some of the offending people. A must read.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:29:48 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thank you for posting this, and yes I'm surprised you (and others) really never noticed this before. It's very prevalent. I personally have found that there's such a fine line between wanting to fit in and joke around and becoming disrespected. It's hard to know how to manage and reign in that sort of thing.

I agree with @Andrew that alcohol is a big facilitator of this behavior as well.

Being a minority in the field, women face certain preconceived notions by our male peers. Granted not all male peers hold these notions, but the ones that do really spoil it for the nice guys. We are [occasionally] condescended to, discounted, harassed or ignored - simply because of our gender. That will cause some of us to put up with a bit more shit in an effort to get that chance to prove our worth.

Overall, my experiences with my male peers have been really good ones - even at conferences :) But I have some life-long ouchies under my belt too.

I do feel it's important to point out that there are also those out there who use the odds in their favor in order to gain conquests (which even done discretely is without regard for the women as people) - seemingly very nice guys. So yeah - some men are pigs.

But - again - it's *SOME* - definitely not all.

Thanks again Alan for this post!
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 08:56:55 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
For the most part, the men I have encountered in the IT industry are cool. We all joke back and forth and it even includes sexual content, but it's still cool. I think it's more the "intent and delivery" of what is said than it is "what" is said. There are a few men who just downright creep me out and ANYTHING they say comes across badly. But overall, most men are okay.

What I encounter more in the industry is chauvinism. I literally watched a woman ask a male manager a question and he ripped her apart and refused to answer. Two minutes later a male coworker of hers walked into the office and asked the EXACT same question and the manager gave the answer in the nicest and calmest voice. I was a consultant for this company and ended up having to go over the manager's head and tell them that this man was impossible to work with and the project was being stalled because of his refusal to work with women. I was given a different contact person so the project could move ahead, but that manager continued in his position and continued to treat women differently.

I think your solution of male-to-male confrontation is truly the best solution. Men have to realize that their peers .. meaning other men .. do not approve of the behavior. A complaint from a woman just makes us look like a bitch or that we can't take a joke. A strong-willed woman who stands her ground is also considered a bitch .. yet a strong-willed man who stands his ground is considered an excellent businessman. Not fair!

Cathy Pountney
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:20:01 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Like Dana, I have encountered this on occasion but not really too often. It may be because my husband is my business partner, is as well known in my circle as I am and is almost always in the same places that I am. It could also be that I am not very sensitive to this and some comments just roll of my back without much thought. I have been flirted with a lot in my career and never really put it in the category of harassment. With the exception of one occasion, it has all been very mild... to the point where it is almost appreciated because it makes you feel good about your self.

OTOH, what I have encountered far more than I ever thought I would (as recently as the last year) is the "Oh you could not possibly know more on this subject than I because you are women." mentality. It was so bad one time that Mike had to leave a training session because none of the students would listen to me and would turn around to the back of the room and ask him questions.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:33:51 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
@Alan Agreed. And I think the approach you outline of confronting offenders by making it *our* issue (i.e. - "look, jackass, every time you do something like that you make it more difficult for ME and every other guy in this industry to avoid being looked at as a potential harasser") rather than attempting to be Mr. Knight in Shining Armor.

And the reason I said that we have to do this together, men *and* women, is that in less egregious circumstances, guys may not realize that what they think is just playful banter can be really difficult to deal with. If no one ever tells them, they'll continue to be clueless, and none the wiser.

I wish I had an answer for the "I don't want to be perceived as a bitch" concerns, but I don't think silent acquiescence is the answer. The true assholes need to be confronted, and I would hope that male peers would want to offer support in that effort. The clueless need to be educated. Neither is well-served by silence, either from men or women.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:43:23 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thanks for writing this Alan. Ah, to walk a mile in a woman's shoes :)

I think women put up with this type of behavior in any profession. Take a survey of your female friends and you'll see we've all had lots of different experiences. Dana and Cathy make great points--lots of very good people in this industry and a good sense of humor will get you far. However, the situation you describe is not only inappropriate, but defamatory. We're all professionals and have carefully created (or are creating) and guarded our reputations. So whether the jokes are sexist, racist, or homophobic, they reflect on the joke teller as well as the audience. Women are not the PC police, we want to have fun and be social too at conferences, so just think of us as peers, not people to protect, hit on, stalk, coddle, or put down.

Feminism aside, this is about acting like a human. Conferences are held in faraway cities, in hotels, with lots of alcohol, so just be a good person and look out for one another.

And I encourage everyone to go to a Women in Tech session at the next conference you are at. We need everyone to be aware of this--lots of talented people are leaving the field, let's make it a welcoming place for everyone. Also, look to see if there is a Girl Geek Dinner in your city ( or just have a chat with your own kids who will be in your shoes soon enough, but hopefully in a more loving world.
Laurel Ruma
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:55:40 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Alan, I think you're spot on with this post. While I haven't personally witnessed anything quite as overt as what you describe, I've certainly witnessed enough geek machismo (when NO women were within earshot, naturally) to not be terribly surprised by this... just saddened.

The response you outline is a good example for others to follow.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 09:58:02 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
This isn't an IT thing, it's not an American thing, it's a human thing. And it sucks.

I met my wife while we were both serving in the Air Force, an environment that's rife with Good Ol' Boy behavior. She had to put up with a lot of crap throughout her entire career -- and she was a commissioned officer.

I love the discussion you've started here, particularly the different approaches. I often debate the public/private objection approach. While I'm all over criticizing in private, I think some fundamentally critical things (racism, sexism, disco music) should be addressed in public to help raise awareness and change behavior. Not sure what I'll do next time I run in to this, though.

Good post!
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 10:09:36 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I have been to local and national conferences in several different professions now, and I have to say that the developer conferences take on a quite different tone and feel than most other professions. When I was a teacher, for example, the conferences had people in suits, or at least ties, and were attended by mostly women with a wide age range, but mostly >35+. There was a very formal tone in presentations, meals, and social events.

Development conferences have quite a different feel, whether it be a national event like MIX, a regional event like CodeMash, or a local Day of .NET. These have been a much younger audience overall, mostly male, and quite informal (t-shirts, booze, Rock Band, etc.). Presenter slide decks often contain, shall we say, "humorous cultural references", and things are not so "overly professional." It feels much more like a college club-scene atmosphere - in fact several social events at MIX were are Vegas clubs.

I have to say that developer conferences beat teacher conferences in almost every respect - they are fun, informative, and you typically leave while making plans to return the next year. But with the fun and informality come the "darker side" of the college-club-scene feel which is the testosterone/estrogen-filled rooms with events and side-events not ending until very often the early moring of the "next day." I'd ask you to count the number of times hotel security is called during a teacher conference versus. a developer conference.

All of this is not to excuse or explain why IT guys can "cross the line" at times, but that it goes further than harassment and is a symptom of a larger "cultural" issue that developers have. If developers want to be counted among other "professionals" then they need to 1) be really good at what they do (patterns, best practices, quality work) and 2) be "good" people (to their clients, co-workers, and community). I'd extend the call to hold ourselves accountable, and others in our industry, to being the best we can be.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 10:28:04 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Been there - done that - got the t-shirt, but the other way around where I was sexually harassed on a daily basis for a couple of years. Yes, the often done and rarely talked about female harassment of men, which most people think cannot happen. It is the reason I am so sensitive to the sexual harassment of women in the work place, and frankly the world. In college I worked in an electronics shop assembling circuit boards for dashboard testers. I was the only male in the shop of a dozen women. Each day I was "educated" by at least one or two of the women about what we could be doing together during lunch or in the evenings. It did not matter that they were my co-workers or my boss. It did not matter that I asked them to stop and how much I was *not* interested.

It is sickening when it happens, and worse when it is overlooked, and completely uncalled for on every level. While I understand why the victims let it roll off their backs (as I unfortunately did because I did not want to lose my high paying job at the time), I would think it would have the opposite effect from the current perspective if they did stand up for what is right and say something. If what most of the women here are saying about most men being cool is true, then it should have a positive effect.

Well written and well said Alan.
Rick Schummer
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 10:34:58 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Hi Alan,

While I am as horrified as you at the situation that you witnessed, I have to say that I've been fortunate in my 20+ years in this industry NOT to have experienced anything like that. No sexual harassment, ever. At many conferences that I attend (such as the one I went to last week), I'm the only woman in attendance. Small conferences, with lots of (male) friends around seem to be protective rather than intimidating. I hope that my experience is more typical than the crap that you witnessed. That doesn't excuse the misbehavior, but I do want to point out that I don't think that harassment is prevalent in our industry. I hope I'm not wrong.

And, like you, I find that public humiliation of such behavior is my default reaction. Of course, if *I* do the humiliating, it wouldn't come off as rescue. But I think it's OK to publicly humiliate the guy in any case. When it's behavior YOU find offensive and it has nothing to do with rescue.

As for the drunk who tried to leave his key for your friend, hmm. I can only muse about what my male friends might have done with such access.

Dianne Marsh
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 10:40:57 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)

I was thinking the exact same thing (re: room key.) Having a few dozen of your angry friends showing in his room after he passes out would teach him a well-deserved lesson that he's unlikely to forget.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 11:11:29 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
A former coworker sometimes said, "I have to remind myself: I chose this profession, I wanted to work in this field." I never saw any harassment (unless you include ribald humor, and there she often participated), but I saw condescension on multiple occasions. Ironic, since she was the only one in the place who knew a lot of the technology she used.

As for the incident that spawned this post: the lady should've taken the key and loudly auctioned off access to the guy's room and luggage. Embarrass the sucker. But given his drunken behavior, he may have been beyond embarrassment.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 11:31:04 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
The first thing most people ask when they hear about this type of incident is "Was there drinking involved?". Drinking is not the issue, nor the excuse. Misogynist attitudes start long before the first sip is taken, and alcohol or drugs will only lower one's inhibitions to act on those attitudes.

While I've had some incidents of sexual harassment I have had many more of dismissal, patronage, been looked down on and treated as if I have no brains because I am female. All these are related issues that stem from the core attitudes in both society (societies, in our global village now) at large that women are just objects, not so smart, don't belong working, etc... We need to work on changing the attitudes, and the behavior will follow (however, we also need to point out when behavior is not acceptable).

We need more education about these issues particularly from men like Alan, who has done an excellent job with this blog post at bringing this to light. As mentioned already, it appears to be bitchy or whiny when women complain of the exact same thing. I had recently written a blog post about WIT however I deleted some stories in it that were similar to this that have happened to me because of that fact. I didn't want to be seen as running a bitch-blog.

Rather than rescuing, Alan is taking a stand and stating his position that this is unacceptable to him, and that it should be to all. If more men would step up like this, in this positive and assertive way it will be a huge step for women in IT and other industries.

Thank you Alan.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 12:28:43 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I guess my reaction is more similar to the "is that all?" response many women have to the recounted incident. Yes, it's offensive, but it's fairly mild in the general realm of crap women put up with on a daily basis.

If you doubt my words, try to have a frank conversation with your wife/sister/daughter about this topic. If a woman is remotely attractive (physically or personality-wise), she will have to deflect numerous advances any time she is alone in public -- advances, meaning anything from purposeful, creepy prolonged staring to double entendre flirting by sales people to brazen chatting up by strange passers-by.

I don't know how correct this statistic still is, but in college, I often heard that "1 in 4" women are survivors of rape or attempted rape. Now THAT is a shocking statistic, although believable. If you bring up this statistic in a group of women who are comfortable with each other and you, you'll hear some crazy stories - stories of locking themselves in a bathroom to repel an attempted date rapist or crawling out a bedroom window to escape. It's more common that I would have ever believed, if I hadn't heard so many first-hand stories.

I think this is a common experience among most professions or groups. Technology might be a little more awkward just because we have more poorly socialized individuals than many other professions. But I bet if you talk to women in physics or chemistry or math, you'd here similar stories.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 12:32:00 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Alan Thanks for posting this and I agree with you completely. The steps you have outlined are a good way to approach this problem. The key is avoiding the "Knight in shining armour" approach this just makes the problem worse. You approach handles this very well.

I also attended the Women in Technology and feel it is up to us (men) to point out and correct inappropirate behavior of other men.

Thanks again for posting this getting this out into the open when it can be discussed and learned is an important step in the right direction.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 12:54:17 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
How nice to see a post like this written by a man. It was only when I reread some of my journals from the 1980s in the 1990s (when legislation banning this kind of behaviour had been introduced in Canada and guidelines for reporting and dealing formally with it had been in force for a while) that I realized how systemic it had been in the workplace. And gave my head a real shake about how much of it I had put up with as a young working woman (there *are* some advantages to being middle aged and self employed, I find).

In the late 90s I had a client start talking at the end of our meeting (and in front of a female colleague!) about dressing me up in a dominatrix outfit and giving me a whip. I just about fell down the stairs, since it was at the end of a morning meeting and presumably he hadn't yet been drinking. This kind of public sexual harassment is in a subcategory of its own, since it seems designed to humiliate. On the upside of course, you've got witnesses! On the downside, you've got witnesses. ;)
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 12:54:36 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)

The sad fact is that this is not limited to IT. Although, the situation you were in was NOT a work environment but a social setting. So, I don't think the legal term of "sexual harassment" really applies. Although I could be wrong there. It was certainly inappropriate behavior.

This is sadly a reflection of men in general. Most are not this way. But, there are enough to give us a bad name.

I cringe when I read the Chanell9 video comments. Invariably if the interviewee is a woman some knuckle dagger will comment on her appearance in some way. Why? This is not professional or correct behavior. You don't see people, especially females, making comments like this about the male interviewees.

We men can learn a lot from the fairer sex.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 13:14:25 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Harassment is determined by the recipient more than anything else. I've witnessed some horrible things, have been made extremely uncomfortable by a client, certainly offended a person or 2 myself and I've been offended by comments made to my wife that she's not taken offense to. It's a slippery slope. You really have to know the boundaries of your relationships and when you're dealing with people you don't have a strong relationship a lot of things are just better left unsaid. As for me, I think Andrew Dice Clay said it best - "Treat me like the pig that I am."
Mike Feltman
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 13:24:52 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Unfortunately, this is neither limited to the IT industry nor drunken men. I think lack of sobriety causes some people to let their true personality and opinions shine through.

It's blogs and conversations like this that help make it that much more unacceptable.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 13:47:34 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Oh, and then there are things like this:

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 13:57:52 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I can think of a few occasions where I was not comfortable with actions that I have witnessed in the developer community, but I didn't say anything. After hearing a few stories from female friends, and witnessing more recent events, I promise that I will never be quiet again.

People need to be held accountable for their actions. If one person doesn't hold others accountable for what is acceptable, then we life in a society with no accountability. This is not a place where I want to live. The world really is what you make of it.

If you see something that you are not ok with, or that you even find questionable, please say something. Ask yourself how you would feel if it were your sister, mother, wife or daughter in a given position. If you aren't outraged at something, then why aren't you. Check your head.

+1 on anti-knight in shining.

Ultimately, if you are going to speak, you can only speak for yourself. Some of the things I've been uncomfortable with have been about women in general, even when there are no women around. Stick to your convictions. Grow a backbone and speak.

Thanks for speaking, Alan.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 14:28:23 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
About that song/lyrics, they are horrible. But, look, two of their judges are women!
As long as women keep tolerating this kind of nonsense, it will continue to be there.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 14:45:39 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Great post, and great comments. My volatile sense of humor would handled the incident you describe differently: taken a sharpie out of my computer case, written "hot guy on guy action!" on the room card for all to see, and left it on a coffee table, or asked one of the men present to drop it off in the men's room and leave it by the sink.

Then again, I don't have to deal with much of this kind of thing because I am 'morbidly obese' and thus can pass for One of the Guys socially much better than most women in IT. Being a fat chick with glasses gives me license to be smart, as long as I don't get 'uppity'. (If your irony filters are not detecting any, please have them cleaned, btw.)
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 17:06:22 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I agree with the others here that the biggest problem, most of the time, is gender bias. In my career I've seen:

- Managers who will provide a project assistant to male project managers but not female ones (women can type up their own minutes)

- Female managers who have to share an admin, but male managers who get a dedicated assistant (same rationale).

- Male engineers are sent to client meetings and trade shows (because we can't send a woman to visit a client!)

- Female consultant who aren't allowed to have rental cars (it's too scary to drive - like getting into a taxi with a stranger isn't scary enough)

- Male managers (and CIOs!) who can never remember the female staff names, but can remember men they worked with 20 years ago).

- Job roles that cannot be filled by females and vice versa due to gender-biases.

These are not isolated instances. I have had to deal with overt and not-so-over sexual harassment, which I can get help with from HR. Gender bias, on the other hand, is ignored. In fact, I'm more likely to be told "stop being such a bitch" in dealing with gender differences than with harassment issues.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009 17:55:09 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)


Thanks for this post - one of the biggest problems fighting the sexism in the IT industry is that there are few guys who are willing to recognise it exists! I have the dubious advantage of seeing life from both sides of the gender divide, and have had the strange experience of gradually becoming more attractive over the last two years. The combination of larger breasts and longer blonde hair have definitely conspired to encourage men to assume that I don't know anything about technology (a notion I take delight in disabusing them of!).

Yesterday I also caused a furore with an article on The Register that went straight to number 1 - it was based on my blog post "Fire men first - they are 23% more expensive!" (

Amusingly, the comments on the Reg article (they had to close the thread after a couple of hours - something I've never seen!) served mainly to demonstrate just how much sexism there is!

FYI, obviously I don't condone making redundancies based on gender, and was instead calling for pay reviews prior to making redundancies since companies might find that some employees are earning a lot more for the same job.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 19:51:12 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
This is one of the more amazing threads I've seen. On the one hand, I've witnessed very few incidents even close to the one Alan describes.

I don't understand why companies and managers tolerate behavior that even comes close to approaching this. I think of our small company, and we'd lose some great talent if they weren't treated like the professionals they are. Great developers are hard enough to find. Why would you want to limit your company's potential talent pool by mistreating people?

To echo other comments, I think it is imperative for all of us to express out collective outrage against this kind of behavior. Not in that 'rescue' sort of way. But in that 'that's unacceptable' way.

Also, I really like the concepts of what to do with the room key. My own thought would have stuck him with the entire bar bill for the evening. Charge the entire tab to his room.

Let him explain that on his expense report.
Thursday, 12 March 2009 03:42:29 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Hi Alan,

If this was two of our "fellow" MVPs - the one that gave the key card envelope away and the "you took somebody's room key. You're such a whore!" - guy, I would have reported this to my MVP Lead since this is a clear breach of the General rule #1 of the MVP Code of Conduct.

Thursday, 12 March 2009 06:07:28 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Thanks for this post Alan

Ines Almeida
Thursday, 12 March 2009 07:17:52 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Very fun discussion in the eye of an Iranian developer. I thought female devloper are weaker in Iran because of lack of self-confidence. Here in Iran few developers are female.
Thursday, 12 March 2009 07:39:48 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
You need to rename the article. It wasn't sexual harassment in IT, it was sexual harassment in a hotel lobby.

But I'm glad it made you aware.
Thursday, 12 March 2009 08:16:07 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Women are too smart to work in IT. I mean who wants to work in an industry where if you don't 'study' every night (ie: read blogs, write code for fun, play with new languages etc), you will be left behind.
Thursday, 12 March 2009 18:53:01 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Disclaimer: male, from EU
Exec summary: So what?

I am stunned by the existence of this article, the need to write about this and quite frankly by the comments.

a) as mentioned, this was not in IT, it was not even at the office or any official premises, it was in a bar. This would have happened in any bar anywhere in the world, with any mixture of people present no mater what theirs job is. The important ingredients are drunk idiot and (possibly) cute chick.

b) whatever you lately (like what, 10, 15, 20 years?) call "sexual harassment" is around for thousands years and works both ways (M<->F). Only now it is "big issue". However it says something about the society, doesn't it? Why there is a need to create additional artificial means to handle life situations? Do you think "protecting" people by introducing new laws etc. will change theirs behaviour? Nope. What will change is that people won't be able to handle life situations they used to 50 years ago. If this goes on for a little while longer, we will all end up in a box, dressed in some sort of uniform, scared to stick our head out. Everyone will be perfectly "happy", politically correct, sober, empty, boring and totally unprepared for reality of life. Kids will be made in the lab and you will bring them to your sterile home.

c) did you try to visit "Men in hospitals" or "Male Hairdressers" meeting? Or any profession where females outnumber males? I guess there would be stories the other way around... or maybe not... because noone would bother and such meeting probably do not exist.

d) that being said those two guys in the bar were idiots, no argument there. The one who made the comment being much bigger. But, so what? Idiots are everywhere, deal with it and move on.

Now feel free to go and burn my karma.
Thursday, 12 March 2009 21:16:39 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
If I had been the woman who got handed the room key, I would have gone to a different bar, hit on the ugliest, drunkest, most repellent guy I could find, and then slipped him the key saying "Here's my room key - give me twenty minutes to change into something more comfortable, and then just let yourself in ..."

Friday, 13 March 2009 05:31:04 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)

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Friday, 13 March 2009 11:17:25 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
In 30 years in this business I've seen plenty of this; you can easily swap "women" with "blacks", "jews" and other minority groups. It's really a white-male dominated industry at the top. As a manager, I've had to intervene in many of these situations. As a casual observer, I've perhaps not pushed back as often as I should have.

I would also say that what gets said outside the presence of the offendees is even worse than what they might hear in person. It's unacceptable on a lot of levels (it's not good business, it represents a liability exposure, it's not a good employee retention approach, etc.), but above all it's anti-social behavior by beings who know better. It's simply the wrong thing to do.
Dave Bernard
Friday, 13 March 2009 11:34:16 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
For the kind of behavior you describe to be acceptable, a guy has to be really rich or good-looking (and preferably both). It's insulting; to insinuate that the woman would be receptive to that kind of treatment from an ordinary guy, as it implies that the woman is too pathetic to maintain reasonable standards. (To avoid accusations of sexual harassment, rule #1 is "Be Handsome.")

Most likely, the man was kidding, much as in the back-and-forth ranking or insult humor that many men engage in with their buddies. But not all men enjoy this, and even fewer women.

The proper response is probably to say to the guy publicly and on the spot, "Hey, not everyone enjoys insult humor."
Monday, 16 March 2009 09:59:57 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Harassment in IT is becoming more and more high tech. I was harassed then later stalked and ruffed by a co-worker's friend so the co-worker could send pictures around the office. This office was a good old boys club and the employee handbook had explicit language about not taking sexual images of other employees, vendors or customers and distributing them over corporate networks or via camera phones. Have never seen such explicit language in an employee handbook but apparently at this company it was a regular problem that had to be explicitly forbidden. HR denied it was happening when the problem was reported.
Tuesday, 17 March 2009 06:00:44 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
In a society where men and women refused to accept the boundaries set by God and described in religious books, each one will set his own boundaries and his own way how way how to react when his own boundaries are broken by someone elese or when what he thinks to be the boundaries of someone else are broken by a third one,etc
In a society that forgives driking alcoloh, that allows adultery, allows women to wear sex-attractive clothes, there is little hope for persisting satisfactory rules how to set clear boundaries.

Faithful spirits who find themselves in a chaotic society are allowed to be patient to a certain degree, to change their world if they can otherwise, the earth is vast : nothing deprives them from fleeing to other parts where reside the believers who obey God and live peacefully. That was the case for Mose Abraham before him and many many others. For the other spirits, they will soon accept things, then their hearts will change and they will see harrasment as logic, the degradation of the women honor as normal, the exploitation of the feeling of the woman as a free joy, the sexual exploitation of poor woman as a legitemate business.

I am a male.
Terrorist Opinion
Tuesday, 17 March 2009 18:51:58 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Wow! Everyone's responses are way too civilized here. I think the solution is to secure the pinhead's key from the female friend. Then you've got a whole galaxy of pranks you can pull on the dude to make him regret his actions for the rest of his life. The kindest one I can think of: from the lobby phone, order a whole lot of room service food sent to (and charged to) the room. Then quickly find a homeless person, give them the key and tell them there's free food there. Or go into the hotel bar, find another conference attendee who's had a couple of drinks, give him the key, and tell him there's a vendor-sponsored all night party going on in that room. The possibilities are endless, mostly far more sinister than I've described but you get the picture.
Wednesday, 18 March 2009 12:51:24 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Something that I wish to point out is that being drunk is no excuse for such crass behavior nor does it make the situation "understandable." Though alcohol reduces the ability for one to make sound judgments, it does not turn someone into an asshole. In truth, it only reveals what is there already by stripping away the veneer of civilization.

Such behavior is not acceptable under any circumstance or location. A bar or locker room is no more acceptable than a board room meeting. No one of any gender, creed, race, religion, etc. should be subjected to humiliation. This is true no matter what level of profession is involved. The maid that services the hotel room deserves the same respect and dignity as a human being as does the CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

As much as it rankles women (and rightly so) to be stereotyped as a sex object, I am also upset at having to endure the typical male stereotype of a sex offender. I find it extremely bothersome that I cannot comfort a female co-worker with a hand on her shoulder or give a child a hug without worrying that someone will think ill of me simply because I'm a male. Sexual harassment harms everyone.

OK. Rant over. :)
Thursday, 19 March 2009 10:12:55 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Sometimes the general public really surprises me. Why am I saying that? I look over some of the responses from people on this post (prank, ass kicking, ignore, etc) and I am not stunned in the least. What was done was reprehensible (the keycard AND the whore comment) - but then again so are so many actions that people do all of the time. "Pick up lines" are no better. But, this just exposes the deeper problem here - respect.

From a general perspective, most people start off having no inkling of respect for another. We judge people quickly and at the blink of an eye - we decide whether someone is worthy just in a few seconds.

Now put that in a more social situation. Ignore alcohol for a moment (that only accelerates the insanity). Even when people think they are giving advice or "being a friend" it turns into judgment:

"what a whore"

"better wear a condom"

"She puts out - you can tell"

"I'd F**k her"

Only people that have no respect for others would say these things. Even worse, they hardly have respect for themselves. I don't think this is getting worse - but I don't think it is getting better.

It makes me sick to think that people don't have basic respect for one another. How can we promote that? How do we as a society work to come above that? That is what I'd like to strive for.
Friday, 20 March 2009 11:08:12 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Hooray for the men who wants to live right! I too am surprised by what you witnessed, of course I know it happens but I completely agree with the strategy of males confronting males. It is simply masculine to want to stand up against stupid foolishness.

Glad you took the time to bring this one into the light and discuss it.
Sunday, 22 March 2009 15:17:56 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I, like other women, am shocked that more men are not aware of this issue. However, I agree that it is not limited to the IT industry.

Sadly, when I went into the IT industry I had the mind set that it was a male dominated field and it was just going to happen. I guess in some ways I still think that way because it is still very male oriented. I do believe things will change but we're just not there yet.

Posts like this and standing up for what you believe in are definitely a step in the right direction.

Great post Alan!!
Thursday, 26 March 2009 09:20:28 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
WOW! This is great that it is being discussed and sad that people (men & women) have to go through this. Hopefully the guilty will take a step back and review their behavior.

Having been in the industry for 25+ years, I too have witnessed comments that could be grounds for dismisal. I have never persued any action because I was concerned for my job. I did choose to walk away when the conversation started moving in the unpleasant direction. I also would leave early at the Conference parties where the atmosphere was obviously geared toward the males.

Years ago I attended a conference where the software company hired women to be in the booth and perform for their party in the evening. It was obvious who they were because they couldn’t answer any questions regarding the software and then I walked into the party and it was even clearer. I immediately left the party. In discussing it with other attendees, this company was well known for that type of behavior. Needless to say, it turned me off to their products and I recommended that we not purchase from that company. It was easy to do because their product wasn’t the best out there anyway.

Recently I attended another conference and was disappointed to see models hired to pose for pictures with the attendees. There were 2 women models and 1 male model. The male had his shirt off and the women were scantily dressed. Luckily for me, there were other activities in the room and I could avoid the side with the models. I am all for a good time but that was in bad taste (in my opinion). I left the party around 9:30 and found a few people outside discussing the same issue.

This type of atomosphere opens the door for unprofessional behavior.
Saturday, 04 April 2009 17:06:18 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
I see this very often in software & any male dominated landscape (which is most software shops). I've however worked in marketing and other departments, where the odds of the majority flip. In shops where the majority of coworkers are female, the exact same behavior actually begins to take place. My first honest to goodness, personally experienced sexual harassment was in an environment like this, directed at me. I found that I do what most women do and I shrugged it off. Unfortunately it did get annoying and I eventually just left that particular place of business - primarily because of sexual harassment. Often people find that odd, because I'm a guy - many guys even think guys should be happy to be harassed, I'm one to say, harassment is harassment, it's annoying and not fun either way. The crux is, how many individuals have to deal with this, and how many companies lose good people because of this BS behavior? Not a good thought.

Another observation I've also made, it appears, that when the numbers even out, slight harassment takes place but the glaring offensiveness of actions as you observed seem to decrease. When there is an even number of male and female staffers in a company, everyone just seems to decrease the level of "ostensibly stupid" actions & statements. This is generally an odd situation to be in, but it does occur sometimes.

Beyond these two observations I've made over the years one other statistic that I've seen is that women work in vastly greater numbers in technology in Asian economies. Maybe it was just Japan and China, maybe it's the whole economy of the pacific rim? I don't know, but Western European Culture should definitely study the traits and behaviors that allow and encourage women to get into technology in those areas. Because really, it's a sad state of affairs that there are not more women in the industry.
Sunday, 12 April 2009 04:46:34 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
If you’re slightly familiar with my blog, you know that I’m currently involved in a sexual harassment legal nightmare: the second day after meeting my new boss at my new job (as technical writer for a software company), the married SOB grabbed me, kissed my neck, and propositioned me three times! I notified the CEO and human resources. Nothing was done. I needed to be hospitalized, to take anti-anxiety/anti-depression medication—most recently, my job threatened to have me arrested for theft because I didn’t return their laptop as quickly as they wanted. Now, my lawyer is fighting with their lawyer (and I am finding out, painfully, that the law is very weak to protect/help victims of sexual harassment/discrimination. In fact, the law goes out of its way to protect small companies like mine from being sued for sexual harassment!).
Anyway, since this nightmare has consumed my life for the past several months and will likely consume my life, time, and attention for the next several months, I figured I might as well try to make something positive come out of all of this.

Despite my “CrazySexyMetalChick!” moniker, I’m actually an honest to goodness writer/scholar:
I have a B.A. in Professional Writing from Penn State, Summa Cum Laude, 2008.
I received the Penn State Professional Writing Program Achievement Award, 2008.
I was a news writer and copy editor for the Penn State Collegian.
I was published in New York Newsday at age 12.

By the end of this year, I should receive my M.A. in Liberal Studies from Stony Brook (I’d like to go onto the Ph.D. after that). However, I must complete a research paper/project. For my project, I’m considering a study of individuals’ experiences with sexual harassment, company policies regarding sexual harassment (both written policy and what is actually done—often two very different things!), the application of the law, the inefficiency of current laws, the differing verbal/nonverbal communication styles of men and women in the workplace and how this can lead to sexual harassment, etc.
I’d like to collect and examine stories of sexual harassment from women (and men), preferably current situations or situations which have occurred within the last 5 years.

1. I’m a Humanities/Social Sciences grad student. Everyone knows that such academic pursuits are strictly labors of love and as such, students in these pursuits deserve to be pitied and helped. Besides, maybe I can get my research paper published (not for profit, of course), and we all have an obligation to help push knowledge forward.
2. Sharing your story would likely be cathartic for you as well as for me.

I’ll likely be collecting stories until 9/2009 or 10/2009, since my paper will be due 12/2009. If you think you have a story you’d like to share with me, please email me: [email protected]
Thanks! Love yas!
Friday, 17 April 2009 13:33:52 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
This is a situation where we need old-fashioned face-punching. If that dude would have gotten a punch to the face, maybe he would've learned. Fucking pigs, making my half of the gender look like animals. /shake_fist.
Sunday, 19 April 2009 15:44:47 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)

thank you for this post on a to me very important topic. And sorry for a rather lengthy comment. I hope it's not going to feel too much like a rant.
First let me say I totally agree with Karen Lopez. I can recall quite a few examples of gender bias from my own experience for which I really tried to find a satisfying explanation or justification. They are not as dramatic as the examples Karen described but still can feel quite frustrating and are in my opinion based on exactly the same mindset.

For example it is hard for me to understand why during interviews female applicants need to see themselves faced with questions on family planning, like 'are you pregnant' or 'do you plan to get pregnant soon?'. One explanation I got was that companies need to make sure newly hired staff does not just disappear on parental leave after some months.

But why seem these kind of questions so seldomly directed towards male candidates? Is it assumed that founding a family only has consequences for women's careers while men can just continue working without any impacts and without sharing any responsibility a family implies?

And why all these comments on hairstyle, choice of clothes, etc? People probably just want to be nice, but how come such remarks are most often targeted towards female staff members? Is there some kind of general belief that all women like to be judged by and/or praised for their appearance/looks as opposed to their knowledge and professionalism?

Also, why do I need to explain in many situations why I, as a woman, chose a career in the IT industry? Out of where comes this disbelieving look I see on some faces when explaining that I work as software developer? Even if some people explain this with their own curiosity, do my male colleagues need to put up with that? I would not think so.

I am sure most of such remarks are not meant to do any harm, but for me this only shows a widespread and deep-rooted need to differentiate men and women in any kind of situation even in those in which other qualities like knowledge and competence should serve as measurement. In my opinion trying to see each other as human beings instead of constantly pointing out gender differences consciously or unconsciously would mean a huge step forward.
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