talking gender – a long digressive juicy post

woolf camp
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

I was prepared to talk during the Bloggercon “Bridges” panel but not quite for Elisa’s question of “Are we ready for men to be allowed on BlogHer panels?” I didn’t even know where to start. I mean, “What? No! Are you kidding? Maybe after the patriarchy’s smashed…” And then kind of in frustration I said something like “What the heck. What man would want to, why would a guy want to come into one of the very few women’s spaces that is set up for women to talk and listen to each other and for women to figure out what it is that they want to do as women, and demand that women listen to them? WTF, men? ” Apparently that was shocking and controversial. Obviously, I am not a separatist. But I am a fuzzy separatist. That is to say, I believe strongly that where there are unequal power dynamics *overall in society* then it is quite valuable to have identity-based conversations – because different conversations happen when you do. Then, the people having that conversation get a sort of base of power, of validation, of figuring-out. You get somewhere new. I believe very strongly as well that you then need to communicate outside that focus group. thus the “bridges”.

This is a pretty complicated topic… I think sometimes it takes trying it to see the point of it, and to see what use it can be! Think of it as a thought experiment and as something that has to be both ongoing and temporary.

When you get a group of women with computers and blogs together, what do they talk about? What’s important to them? What do they know and not know and want to know, and how can they teach it to each other or figure it out? No one is going to figure that out while we are judging ourselves by what men think is good and important and significant.

So, back to Bloggercon. I said something else that I think annoyed and shocked a bunch of the guys in the room and probably some of the women as well — that it only takes one loud dude to make a roomful of women stop talking to each other. I want to give a couple of examples from Woolfcamp, an unconference about blogging and writing we had at Grace Davis’s house earlier this year. It was a lot of fun, it sparked tons of energy, and I learned a lot from organizing and attending it. It was around 25-30 women, some babies and kids, and maybe 5 men who braved the OMG Sparkly Ponies slumber party atmosphere that we deliberately cultivated to express our girl cootie pride.

Here’s the two incidents. At the start of one of the days of Woolfcamp we did a sort of “go around the room with a brief intro” session. It was quite touchy-feely. A lot of us were sitting on the floor and there was lots of heartfelt confession of vulnerability.

(Which I have to digress about. Women often communicate by the mutual offering of vulnerabilities and uncertainties. This can come off as annoying or bewildering self-deprecation, but in a group of women, it functions well. I say “I’m not sure about this idea, and gizmo theory, and I’m not an expert, and here’s the three mutually contradictory ways I feel about it, and here’s what I do know, and I wonder what my priorities are and what I’ll do.” Then you say “Me too, sort of, and I’ve always worried that I don’t know how to widgetize well enough.” And then we have established our mutual trust and non-arrogant stances, and begin the actual information exchange and work together towards confident steps to action. It is an approach to the process of conversation. The same conversation between women and men often goes like this: “I’m not sure about my gizmo theory abilities, and…” “I’m so sorry. That sucks. Maybe some day you’ll know what you’re doing. Here, let me tell you how to do it.” *guy now puts woman into the category of incompetent whiners* *woman gives up on actually having a productive conversation with guy*)

Caution: I am now going to pick on Marc Canter, and I really like and respect Marc, and I’m only picking on him because I know he can take it…

Okay so back to Woolfcamp. We’re all sitting around in a circle being girly hippies. People are stating why they’re at Woolfcamp, why they blog, what cool stuff they do, and also… a lot of insecurities and conflicted feelings. Then it comes to be Marc Canter’s turn… And it was absolutely like he was from another galaxy. He was up above most of us, up at the top of the room, physically dominating the situation. He talked extremely loudly, with a lot of speech patterns like “I’ll tell you exactly what the problem is…” And rambled about DRM and RSS to a roomful of women who mostly did not know what he was talking about and had no idea what his deal was. They’d never heard of him. I’d never heard of him, though I knew what he meant about DRM and I’ve heard that rant before. But what he was *actually saying*… the subtext of what he was saying… was “I have not listened to you. I don’t know who I am and why I’m here, and if I do, I’m not telling. I am an expert, and you are my students, and will listen, because I’m the person here who knows what’s really important. You are ignorant about Three Letter Acroynm, and if you were really geeks, you would know, and since you don’t, I’ll do you the huge favor of explaining it at length.” So, what happened? The room was horribly tense. A bunch of people just weren’t listening. A few women got up and left the room as unobtrusively as possible. I am an aggressive, assertive person and yet it took me a while to work up the mojo to bust through Marc’s wall of blustering. I had to get beyond being pissed off and transcend about five levels of meta-meta-meta to say something calm yet effective. I don’t for the life of me know what came out of my mouth, but it was smooth. It was polite. It shut Marc up in some magic way that saved face for him. We moved on. There was a giant collective sigh of relief. Later, in corners… in private… quite a few women came up to me to giggle about what had happened. “OMG it was like one thing was coming out of your mouth and it was all calm, but I could *see* the thought balloon over your head that said “SHUT THE FUCK UP.” Or… most telling – from a woman who does not identify herself as a feminist – and the thing that men most need to know about this story… “I was so angry at what was happening in the room that I didn’t know what to do or say, and so I went into the kitchen and started washing dishes because I was so pissed.” You know what, that happens all the time. Secession happens, because there is no way to get across what is messed up about a situtation and about the communication dynamics. It takes so much work to go across the differering perceptions of reality! I’m trying to do some of that work, by talking about this kind of thing.

I know that Marc makes an easy example, because he has a very strong personality and is very equal opportunity about who he pisses off. (And – another digression – I value that kind of person a lot, and it takes an asshole with a thick skin, like me, to say some of these things; i.e. it is our cluelessness or not-caring-what-other-people-will-thinkitude, and our not following the rules, that stirs shit up and makes a productive conversation happen.) But, Marc is just the obvious easy example, and this dynamic exists all the time in many situations, not just in the geek conference world.

– are you being an expert?
– are you lecturing?
– are you being loud, backing a woman into a corner, or towering over her physically?

If you are and
you’re not being paid to be a teacher, then you are probably making some chick so enraged that she would gnaw her own arm off rather than come to your conference… If you’re lucky then she will sleep with you just to make you shut up…

Okay, that was rude.. but half of you are laughing. ;-P

Please understand that I’m also saying this as a woman who grew up loving competition, harsh situations, games, boasting, winning, chest-beating, and showing off… I can get very much into that scene. I try to keep it out of my actual life in situations where it is not effective, and I don’t do it for my own ego, or I try not to. If there is a point, like winning a board game or making money, then hey, go for it. It does not make for productive brainstorming, user-developer sessions, teaching, product development, or interesting conversation… and it does not attract women in general to participate.

Okay, story two is actually more of the same. We were talking about “nifty techie bloggy tools”, discussion led by Sarah Dopp.

The deal is, in our roomful of kick-ass interesting blogging women, no one believed they were qualified enough to stand up and lead. We had to bully each other into doing it with a lot of petting and persuading and poking and jokes, a lot of encouragement. By the end of Woolfcamp, women were calling each other on self-deprecation… not letting each other put ourselves down… basic consciousness raising results which made me very happy. So, even Sarah, who among the craft bloggers, complete newbies, literary women, fat awareness activists, etc. stood out as a person who was actually a *programmer*… even Sarah had to have her arm twisted to lead the Nifty Techie Bloggy Tools session, even when she had prepared for it and had a handout. During the session she went through her handout and all of us in the room were cross-talking, were recommending things and confessing ignorance of other things… And part of what was good about what was happening was that we were all talking to each other, participating, and finding out that.. hey! I know something valuable to contribute, too, even though I didn’t know I did! Unfortunately.. then Chris Heuer, who I otherwise and at all other times love to death and who is a genius of unconferencing and encouraging participation, came in and… yes you guessed it. Stood in the doorway, weirdly yelling at all of us sitting on the floor about all the things he knows that we don’t know and how we *should* know them and how can we not have known them OMG! You could see the newbies in the room shrinking. And again, there was a panicky telepathy… what to do? The thing is… no one could deny that he knew more than we did, probably, about blogging tools. We would in theory like to know. But not quite at such uninterrupted length…. So, since no one could leave the room and since… well I confess, I was exhausted and could not get it up to derail him… What happened was that most people in the room stopped listening, and pointedly started quiet conversations with each other, like bad kids in class, even scribbling notes. And the IM-ing grew fierce. Sarah, who was leading, did not know how to make him shut up without … The thing is, it takes practice. It takes practice on both sides, on the shutter-upper, and the person being told to shut up. We need to be able to say, “You’re hijacking a good thing that was happening in this conversation, and now that will stop.” Without that being made a huge deal, or the focus of the conversation. And without having to then take care of the shutted-up person’s feelings. We also need to practice shutting up gracefully when asked. (I say, as the same person who kept talking about confrontation and anger to Mike Arrington who was moderating and trying to shut me up… )

It was so weird, because I have never before or since seen Chris do anything like that… and again, a bunch of women in the room had that “omg, that thing that happened! and he wouldn’t quit! and we weren’t sure what to do or say!” conversation afterwards. But they did not have it where Chris could hear it. Maybe Grace did, actually… and I meant to, but never got around to it. Everyone wanted to, I felt, but they would normally feel major barriers against doing it in front of everyone else, the thing to do would be to do it privately to his face, with much praise and consideration and ego-boosting: in other words it takes quite a lot of time and energy to get past basic defensiveness of “What! I’m not sexist!” No… in your mind you’re not… you are even so cool as to be at a feminist conference… and yet “how you are” intrinsically is not the issue, but instead, “how you just behaved not by your own perception but by the perception of *a majority of women who had established their own cultural norm*.

So, that is why I do not support men on panels at Blogher… Because we all need to develop more of those skills.

And because men who get to hear the conversations that develop when women are talking – they are lucky, and should value the opportunity to hear the conversation in the kitchen… when we are angry and can’t explain to them why in public, because it would be rude, and we’re washing the dishes instead… That is a really good opportunity for anyone. If you talk all the time you will not hear anything.

12 thoughts on “talking gender – a long digressive juicy post

  1. What kind of man goes,”Oooh! Oooh! I know what those Blogher women need on their panels! Me!” I mean, even if a man just wants to be helpful, there’ll be other times and other venues.

  2. This was a good post, Liz. Good solid examples about what’s wrong with women and what’s wrong with men – and why we do still need women led spaces and even women only spaces.

    Part of me wants to say it sucks that we, as women, need to exclude men in order to grow or lead or challenge each other. We shouldn’t be sideswiped by men in the way woolfcamp was by Marc and Chris.

    But then as soon as I begin to think “it sucks that we need to exclude men” I am in this “hey wait, I love women only spaces or women led spaces and if we didn’t have them, there would be a huge empty space in my world…”

    Ack the conflicting feelings. Let’s fix it, but let’s not fix it so well that we never feel like we deserve to separate ourselves from time to time. There is nothing as awesome as a glittery pony party of women!

  3. Hi Liz…great post! I’d like to think I would speak up in such situations, but I know that on any given day I might just tune out and start doing my own thing instead.

    I’d like to clarify one thing. I didn’t ask the question “Are we ready for men to be allowed on BlogHer panels?” I asked: “What would it take for the BlogHer community to accept men on BlogHer panels?” It’s a non-trivial difference in my mind, because the first wording implies “now” and is a binary yes/no kind of question. The second implies “future.” And it forces us to think about more of the issues you bring up in this post.

    I put you on the spot because I knew you were one of the strongest (and completely unapologetic) advocates in the room for women’s spaces and women’s voices.

    Your response and this post tells us all that the answer is way more complicated than “when other conference have more women speakers.”

  4. The thing is, BlogHer is way, way, way more interesting than your average tech conf, and in this I include things like SXSWi. There’s a tendency in any kind of tech-related conference to name panels after buzzwords (tagging; AJAX). Blogher gives all of us — men and women — a way around our socialization so that we can get at the driving forces of blogging, which are primarily emotional even if they’re expressed in terms of technology. Let’s face it, if a guy took a tech conference and used all the same topics as BH2006 it’d be a great conference, but he’d get a lot of pushback, and plenty of bloggers would make fun and post complaining, mean entries on their blog saying that “so and so has gotten all fuzzy.”

    Society is, temporarily, making it easier for a woman-organized conference to get at what makes the blogosphere tick.

  5. you know, it’s not just women that are frozen out. There’s a bunch of bloggers/people, Marc included, that shout louder and treat others in a condescending way that’s really detrimental to blogging as a whole. the best solution would be to ignore them.

  6. Loudness can be a virtue in many contexts. It is great in a crisis, or in certain hierarchical teaching situations, or when you need to speak truth to power and someone’s got to do the speaking and flak-catching. It has its points, as aggression and anger also do!

  7. Bummer. And no one mentioned it till now.

    The thing is that the behaviour you observed of me was not so much sexist in so much as it was excitement misdirected from a mind that has not had adequate opportunity to be heard. But you are right, rather than being grounded with the energy in the room, I must of come off as a pompous loud moth, which is not where I am most of the time. I don’t recall weirdly yelling BTW – given that I was standing and am often just loud though, I can understand your perception of that. If I recall that conversation in the bedroom, Kristie, Bill and Sarah and others were actively engaged in the discussions, and I don’t believe I broke it up as you characterized, but I do respect your opinion on the situation because it is your perspective on the event not mine and you obviously had a lot of conversations about me and that incident with others.

    Not that it is an excuse, but I have fought the ADD demons for most of my life – blurting is one characteristic that I have had a great deal of difficulty with and have worked hard to overcome. Thank you for realizing that this is not my spirit, but an incident – but I sure wish someone would have said something to me. Since actively seeking out training in facilitation techniques and learning more through our work in the real world, I am hopeful this is no longer an issue (though I might have an off day or two here or there for which I will need to ask forgiveness).

    The reality is that people need to learn to talk to one another better – the fact that this little incident was an ongoing conversation behind my back the rest of the weekend (and apparently since then too) is quite discomforting. There is no good reason for not being able to address these sorts of things as they come up and be done with it. No one would have been ‘hurt’ by you or Sarah or someone saying ok, Chris, let’s hear from someone else now.

    You are right though, I dont think I am sexist and I can not even fathom how speaking out and sharing (whether loudly or quietly) has anything to do with being sexist – other than the fact that I was one of 2 people in the room with a penis and my actions were judged through the lens of the feminists in the room.

    I love you Liz, I take no offense at this, but it is just odd to me that you would blog this before speaking to me about this personally given all of the times we have hung out since. You know where I am coming from with this and I understand where you are coming from – at least now I know about how this was perceived and can be even more conscious of it going forward. But I dont think it was sexist and I feel that to characterize it as such is unfair.

    It is a human issue not a gender issue.

    PS – Liz, please explain to the commenter Denise that I did not sideswipe Woolfcamp – or at least based on what others have actually told me, that I was a positive contributor to the conversation.

  8. Chris you were extremely positive and a fabulous contributer and I have a huge amount of respect for you! And I want to learn from your group dynamics & organizing experience.

    For the record I am also a very enthusiastic blurter and do the same thing. When I do it, the effect is different.

    One problem in the room was that no one else (including me) could figure out on the fly how to intervene. I suspect part of that was that most people didn’t know each other well and so, didn’t know if there would be a negative reaction. I would normally have said something – I think I was just super tired.

    You are probably right too that I should have said “Hey, about that time…” to you in person or privately before blogging it. Sorry!

    But, I don’t mean to criticize you as sexist — but to point out, here is a dynamic that happens and when it does, what to do and how to do it? My point is that in a roomful of other dudes, one of them would have interrupted you way before without giving it a thought. Therefore you are not used to having to think about it. My point was not that you are “sexist” but that you are used to a level of privilege… Also, in an established community women get more comfortable interrupting or redirecting a person, because it’s understood that it isn’t a hostile move, because people have some history and context.

    There are all sorts of female-female considerations too. For example as a woman who speaks up a lot, I get some hostility from other women that’s like “Who does she think she IS…” a fair bit of the time i.e. that I’m acting biggety – with a minority of women after the fact saying (privately) to me that they were glad I spoke up and articulated whatever it was. I’m always intensely happy if other women talk a lot in a group situation because then I am less of a target.

    It’s so complicated – I’m just trying to open up that level of conversation to be public.

    The discussion was there without you, but was more like “blarrrrgh!” “What was that!” “Poor Sarah!” and then Grace explaining that you were totally not LIKE that and then us both resolving to “just say something” as soon as we realized there was “something”.

    Did you notice other times during the 2 days how many times people said something in a group, and prefaced it with more apologia than the actual question? Like “Probably this doesn’t really matter, but…” or “I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but it seems to me that…” At which point a bunch of other women go “Oh, no, go on!” I’m not saying you have to talk like that, but if you notice it in a group situation, it’s something to consider. It’s like a gap of communication style that has to be crossed one way or another – either by adopting it as a sort of foreign language, or teaching not doing it to women. Listen for disclaimers, qualifying statements, and abdication of the existence of “real truth”. It could be seen as an indication of intent to arrive at group consensus rather than to “determine who is right”. Or maybe it will be useful just noticing it’s there and having an interpretation for it other than, “This person is lacking knowledge and confidence, and needs to be taught something.”

    Chris, thanks for talking about this with me and try to forgive my own perhaps non-assertive and impolite indirection.

  9. Thank you Liz – you and I have no problem around this though I was taken aback by what I read. I understand your point better now, but you can see in Denise’s comments how others perceived your original post, which was not the reality of the situation insofar as I or my fiancee Kristie experienced it.

    Though I like Marc for the many of the same reasons you do, I was also turned off by the way he started telling everyone what they needed to be concerned with – so to be compared in such a way to him felt quite disconcerting.

  10. Thanks to Bill for circling back to this post today. It was exactly what I needed to read. (And I wish I could have stayed on for Woolfcamp last year… maybe we can do something in Chicago?)

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