Last week, a colleague of mine sent me an email with a YouTube link. It was a webinar she'd attended earlier in the day on Machine Learning. She wanted me to watch a 30 second segment of the video and let her know if she was just being sensitive. That women even have to worry about this is a blog for a different day.
Read his comment below & decide for yourself.
Speaker: There is, what's her name. She's been in Machine Learning with Microsoft for a long time. What's her name? I love her. Oh, Olivia Klose. She's got an accent. She's not hard to look at. She does a lot of demos on Machine Learning specific to Microsoft."
Then he moved right along into the topic at hand, as if nothing had happened.
I don't know this speaker, I have no ax to grind. His comment was at best, careless, and at worst a form of benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism is a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling & tone.
Whatever it was, the feelings it evoked were immediate. They were not at all sensitive. I was as angry as my colleague. HOW DARE HE? Then I reminded myself that I shouldn't be that surprised. Comments like this are something many women in IT deal with frequently. We're professional, damn good at our job, but then some guy in a meeting thinks it's appropriate to comment on our looks... as if that mattered at all. Taking away from the importance of our actual accomplishments and reducing us a "pretty face". It's something that really can knock the wind out of our sails. While I know it sounds complimentary, it isn't. We're there to teach or work, it isn't a beauty pageant.
Here's the upside. Here’s where I realize we’re making progress. Where I’m reminded there are some amazing Women in Tech allies out there, who want to do the right thing. A lot of men emailed, DM’d or tweeted their own little “Not cool, man!” thoughts. They’d noticed it being said and were upset on her behalf.
I reached out to the moderator of the session. I included the email I’d been sent, the link to the video and outlined the insensitive comment. I explained, much like I did in the paragraph above why exactly this was so bothersome. He reacted as well as I could have hoped. He immediately pulled the video down. He’ll be modifying it to exclude the comments. He asked how I’d like to handle it. He emailed HQ to explain what happened and the actions he wanted to take. He suggested in addition to this blog, that we turn this into a joint session to teach men in tech the damage that can be caused by comments like those made by the speaker. Like me, he wanted to turn this into something positive, into what elementary teachers refer to as “teachable moments”. The best I can hope for is a world where a professional woman can be described by the quality of her work and not by how easy she is to look at. Slowly but surely, it's getting better. For now, I’ll accept this as a step in the right direction.