The situation: There’s a discussion and the subject of inclusion of woman in the movement comes up. The panel has 5 men and 1 woman. In the audience, men outnumber women two to one. The complaint that women are hit on too much at meet-ups is met with comments about it being “biological” (which can be easily read as, “So suck it up”). Eventually one woman, feeling belittled and passed over in favor of men in the audience, calls the panel out for the use of terminology. In return, she gets jeers and a sarcastic joke.
From here, the situation could have gone in various directions. As a community that prides ourselves on intellectual honesty and the ability to recognize (and even celebrate) nuance, we could have:
All of these would have been mature, complex, yet worthwhile ways to take the conversation.
- Had a conversation about how panel discussions on delicate topics should and should not be handled.
- Discuss how a broad context of many different factors can contribute to making a minority feel unwelcome.
- Recognize the importance of the original subject and start over brainstorming the kinds of concrete steps that can be taken to make the movement more welcoming to women.
We chose none of these.
Instead we decided to spend the better part of a week debating whether the word “female” is offensive (though, to be fair, the guest posters themselves attempted, but failed, to take the debate elsewhere).
Virtually no attention was paid to the broader context. Most comments trying to explain how context matters were totally disregarded in favor of saying “female isn’t offensive!”
You know what can make you feel unwelcome? That when you try to explain why you find something unwelcoming, you are told (in no uncertain terms) that you don’t have the right to feel that way, you’re being oversensitive, or you have to get over yourself. There seem to be a lot of people who say they want to hear from women in regards to how inclusiveness could be improved, but they are absolutely unwilling to admit that they could possibly be doing anything wrong.
There’s a vulnerability in being offended that has been overlooked a bit. I think that non-believers can get used to being more often the offenders rather than the offendees, and can forget that it’s actually pretty taxing to experience feeling bothered about something you consider important, and risk being mocked or thought of as thin-skinned for speaking up about it. It shouldn’t be a point of pride to never be offended…”sucking it up” isn’t a virtue unto itself. Brave people don’t “suck it up;” they speak up.
It’s one thing to listen to the complaints of an offended party and disagree about their validity, and quite another to openly dismiss them as not worthy of any serious consideration. When someone complains about not feeling included, respect the fact that they are to some extent opening themselves up to being thought foolish. Take them seriously, even if you disagree.
Having said that, there is a certain incentive for women who are part of a “boys club” to keep things that way. The most non-inclusive comments can actually come from other women who want to solidify their position as being reasonable and unemotional, unlike those fragile hysterical women who are complaining. The same women who consider themselves feminists, proving that women are capable of cerebral pursuits currently dominated by men, will turn around and slap down other women with the same anti-feminist rhetoric that would drive them crazy if applied to themselves. This is something all of us women/females/whatever have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for avoiding.
The subject of men speaking up for female interests is a tricky one–it’s not always easy to tell whether it should be gratifying or annoying. It can be immensely gratifying to know that women aren’t the only ones who care about whether we’re included. It’s annoying, on the other hand, if those men appear to be speaking for us. I sometimes wonder if having “token females” on panels, or as the only ones giving talks about gender, is actually damaging to the interests of the rest of women involved by making it seem as if there’s a Single Female Perspective. Having a multiplicity of female (and male) opinions can relieve the burden of being expected to represent an entire gender and allow women to just speak openly as individuals.