Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sexism in the workplace? Really?

It seems that two of my subjects have met! 

PZ Myers (1 2 3 4 5...) has shared an article from Jill Filipovic. Filipovic is already famous for her work on 'feminist' utopias and fashion weeks.

So, what topic does an associate professor of biology and a Manhattan lawyer want you to learn about?

Sexism. More specifically, sexism in the workplace.

PZ's lead in:
I endorse this message [...] Jill Filipovic points out that sexism in the workplace is alive and well. [...] The line is blurring between the physical and virtual world, and we’re not going to reduce a serious physical problem if we encourage it to flourish in a different domain.
Filipovic's article is titled, "Sexism in the workplace is alive and well: Adria Richards is its latest victim"

Filipovic begins:
The Adria Richards story isn't a new one: Woman publicly says something about sexism. The internet hordes descend. Woman is on the receiving end of rape and death threats. Woman disappears for a while, sometimes forever.

Here is a corresponding reality: a woman publicly says something about sexism, she is catapulted into the limelight and she stays there. Perhaps that's why we're reading the opinions about the tech sector from lawyer in Manhattan relayed through a biologist in Minnesota.

Filipovic comes out with some direct examples:
Adria Richards. Kathy Sierra. Anita Sarkeesian. Zerlina Maxwell. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Notice anything weird about this set?

Only two were participants in something that could be described as a "workplace".

Only two are members of the "tech" sector specifically.

Adria Richards was participating in a tech conference as part of her job.

Kathy Sierra writes programming books and blogged about technology related topics. She received negative comments and threats on forums.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist blogger. She created a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project that would highlight female 'tropes' in video games. She received far more funding than she asked for, and much negative feedback from male gamers.

Zerlina Maxell is a "writer and political analyst" [direct quote from Filipovic's site] that went on FOX and received negative feedback.

Right now, how is this holding up Filipovic's topic, "sexism in the workplace"?

Seems flimsy.

Filipovic continues to recap donglegate, adding:
"Richards was personally bombarded with rape and murder threats."
It seems like the only qualification one needs of a "bombardment" is a single example, which Filipovic provides.

Another example is already present in the previous discussion about online threats.

The key piece to recall however is that these threats do not differ substantially than reality faced from famous people that Filipovic doesn't discuss.

Filipovic states that we can apply focus on whether or not it is right to publicly shame conferencegoers:
Of course it's possible to disagree with Richards' actions while still focusing on the real problem: misogyny online and in tech spaces.
Completely agreed here, but care to define "tech spaces"?
But it's really not possible to pontificate at length on what Richards should have done without obscuring the fact that when women speak out, we're met with rape threats.
Filipovic doesn't want to spend time talking about what is and is not correct behavior at tech conferences. Filipovic would rather us all be informed that Richards received a rape threat.

The context surrounding the situation, the volumes of discussions about the events at PyCon, may be dropped entirely. Filipovic regards this as not important, once Richards receives a credible threat.

At that point, debate over. Stop all the pontificating! Somewhere, males are behaving badly again!

Filipovic suggests that there isn't really anything much at all to discuss at all.

There are only things to report. Tuesday's news is much like Monday's news.

Somewhere, males are behaving badly again!

It's a nice abstraction, since the headline applies to war, theft, politics, and Twitter 'feminist' drama just as well.
Others, most notably Deanna Zandt in Forbes, have explained why the focus on what Richards could have done differently is the wrong question. It's a question routinely lobbed at women who are sexually victimized: Why did you go home with him if you didn't want to have sex? Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear that? Why did you stay at that party? Why were you walking down that street? Why didn't you yell louder or fight back harder? Why did you fight back, knowing it would only make him angry?
Now Filipovic is comparing those that disagree with Richards' tweeting of the picture to someone that would directly berate a victim of rape.

Which is especially interesting, because Richards received criticism before her victimization.

Filipovic, in a certain sense, is asking us "How could you dare say that? Have you been reading what the other people have been saying to her?"

Nobody is waking up this morning and thinking to themselves that Adria Richards deserved every message she received.

The wrong question: "What could Adria Richards have done differently in order to avoid rape threats?"

The right question: "What could Adria Richards have done differently in order to prevent public shaming of the subjects in the photo, prevent dismissal of the subjects of the photo, and preserve the image of PyCon?"

The latter is the question that people have been asking.

Back to Filipovic -
If it sounds like I'm comparing the people who threaten Richards with rape to actual rapists, and the people who tacitly justify those threats with hand-wringing over what Richards could have done differently to rape apologists, it's because I am. Despite attempts to characterize the internet as a space suspended outside of "real" life, cyberspace is real. It is a place where actual human beings connect, communicate, mobilize and work. And online harassment and misogyny very closely parallel harassment, misogyny and sexual violence in the "real" world
Asking yourself "Did the man have to be fired?" doesn't mean you support rape. Where does Filipovic get this idea?

As for the idea that people that issue threats online are more likely to be violent in "real life" - yes. This is plainly obvious. This is a "no shit" moment.

Enter the history lesson:

Long before the internet, the law in England and early America offered little recognition of women as sovereign beings. [...] Even after slavery ended, black women raped by white men almost never saw justice. 
As women gained greater social status and secured a wider array of legal and economic rights, the laws changed, though rarely quickly or thoroughly enough. Rape turned into a crime against an individual woman, but evidence of her past sexual relationships, clothing or unrelated behavior was regularly allowed into evidence. Rape statutes required that a victim respond to an assault with the utmost force, and often required corroborating evidence or eyewitness accounts to secure a conviction. In practice, accused rapists often walked if a jury could be convinced that the victim didn't fight back hard enough or didn't seem like a nice, chaste girl. 
In the much discussed Steubenville, Ohio case, defense attorneys for two young men charged with assaulting an unconscious teenage girl argued that she consented because even though she was drunk, she wasn't so drunk that she couldn't have said no. Her assailants, too, were such nice boys – they received fawning media coverage before, during and after the trial. The local football coach, who allegedly knew about the rape and tried to cover it up, still has a job. Whether the case would have even been brought to trial without the dogged efforts of a blogger (who, for her service, was rewarded with a lawsuit) and eventual New York Times coverage is an open question.
Now we've dove into:

  1. A short history of laws against rape.
  2. Racial prejudices in the enforcement of the law.
  3. Specifics of a recent rape case
  4. Arguments the defense presented in a rape case (Just imagine, a defense lawyer presenting a defense! The nerve of these lawyers!)
  5. Allegations of crimes committed by certain people. (If you fail to report a crime, that is a crime, especially if you're in a position of authority - e.g. football coach)
Where is Filipovic going with this?
The problem here is misogyny, online and off.
 Ok, now everybody just hates women.
It's a cohort of trusted intellectuals – the legal system, big-name writers – positioning themselves as fair and rational by critiquing a victim's actions as much as violence and harassment.
Oh yes, that damn legal system of ours. The one where those accused of rape that cannot prove that sex didn't take place generally make the argument that the female involved had the capacity to consent.

Why does this keep coming up?

Yes, it seems that when a female enters a courtroom the defense team still makes a case - even if the case is based on flimsy reasoning in light of the facts. A lawyer like Filipovic should understand this.
It's the impulse to remove gender and race analysis -- arguing that men get death threats, too, or that Richards is simply "difficult" and not perhaps only perceived that way because she's a black woman pushing back against the norms of a mostly white, mostly male industry.
Now it becomes clear why Filipovic mentioned slavery earlier. It was the run up to an argument about racism.

Do you want to write an article about sexism, but also mention that you dislike racism, homophobia, transphobia, and world hunger?

They have a word for this - "intersectionality".

The theory is basically that every maligned group shares a common underlying issue so all the problems can be addressed at once.

It comes in handy when you want to write an article, but really cannot be bothered to focus on anything.

We shouldn't accept rape and death threats as a woman's price of admission to the internet. We shouldn't accept rape and death threats as a consequence of not playing by the always-shifting rules of the online boys' club. We shouldn't accept rape and death threats as punishment for making trouble, not asking politely or somehow behaving outside of the bounds of geek social culture.
 And we don't accept these things. This is a classic straw man (or straw person?) argument.

Does Filipovic sincerely believe that things that happen on the internet are somehow blessed by the male demigods of the internet?

Filipovic concludes:
We certainly shouldn't punish women on the receiving end of those threats, as SendGrid did when it fired Richards. Change only comes when we stand with those who are wronged – even the loud ones, the imperfect ones and the trouble-makers.
This entirely misconstrues SendGrid's reasons to dismiss Richards and makes absolutely ridiculous assumptions about the situation surrounding her dismissal.

It's easy to see why Filipovic's conclusions ring hollow.

The article does not bother to even describe Richards' role in the company - For example, just what is a developer evangelist?

If Filipovic wanted to continue analysis of sexism in the workplace, she could have addressed this and brought in more data points from women working desk jobs.

If Filipovic wanted to discuss women in tech specifically, she could have started with gender breakdowns in technical schools and then carried that through to how technical office environments can be intimidating or welcoming depending on different choices businesses make.

Discussion of women in the workplace, the tech sector and the boardroom could lead one to think deeply about the careers of Sheryl Sandberg, Julie Larson-Green, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and even Arianna Huffington. The latter interviewee might even give you a place to publish your work.

What did we get instead?

Instead of a blistering critique of systemic sexism, what the reader is given is a meandering walk through self-employment, slavery and Steubenville. Anything approximating an argument is lost in blind rage.

How could one write an article about sexism in the workplace without a single suggestion about what workplaces ought to change?


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I found your argument about "intersectionality" especially useful. I certainly haven't found any useful discussions on these matters without the various issues being disentangled so they could be examined on their respective merits.

    At the theater recently I turned in my seat and asked the couple behind me to hush because they were distracting me from the show. They didn't seem overly upset. I've been hushed too in the past.

    I never realized until recently how close I was, in those moments, to the precipice of disaster. ;)


  2. The intersection part is very interesting because it's often used against feminists. As you wrote, "The theory is basically that every maligned group shares a common underlying issue so all the problems can be addressed at once.":

    Example of this kind of reasoning:
    Quora: What are some things that feminists do to oppress women?
    When feminists perpetuate or turn a blind eye to the racism, homophobia, transphobia, cis-centrism, classism, xenophobia, ableism, and other oppressions within their movement.

    "This is, by far, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) issues of the "popular" feminist movement."

  3. Jesus Christ you're obsessed with people you don't even know personally - what the hell's wrong with you?

  4. Jesus Christ he makes blogs about people distorting facts for their own agendas how dare he!