On Work Environments And Well-Intentioned B*llshit
It’s been roughly a week since the Adria Richards story first went viral. (For those hearing about this for the first time today, read the first 200 or so words of this article, and make sure you have food and fresh coconut water in that cave you’ve obviously been hiding in.) Predictably, this story has created multiple sub-stories about the tech industry, sexism, racism, trolling, concern-trolling, sensitivity, victim-blaming, sexualÂ harassment,Â patriarchy, and a dozen more of our trendiest blog buzz terms.
***My take? I think degrees of wrong matter. And, saying that Richards—who has been the subject of multiple death threats and was let go by her company—“got what she deserved” for tweeting that picture is akin to saying that if a person steps on your shoe at a club, you have the right to kill them. I think a minor wrong—the guys making the jokeÂ¹—led to another minor wrong—Richards taking and tweeting the pic (Yes, I think she was wrong for that). These minor wrongs are the social more equivalentÂ of cutting someone off in traffic. Understandable,Â unnecessary, and ultimately forgettable. But, they led to a greater wrong—one of the jokesters getting fired—and this led to a chorus of increasingly greater wrongs—Richards receiving death threats and also getting fired.Â Basically,Â theÂ equivalentÂ of getting cut off in traffic. But, instead of it stopping there, you find the person who cut you off, follow him home, burn down his house, and sell his pet pit bull to a dog-fighting ring. This was an orgy of increasingly wrong wrongness.***Â
I’m not very interested in those aspects of the story, though. Well, lemme rephrase that. They’re interesting to me, but not as interesting as some of the questions about gendered behavior it brings up.
Before I continue, I need to point out the fact that there are people who believe that gender roles and/or behavior are unnatural and solely a product of socialization. Basically, while it’s true that (generally speaking) men tend to act/think a certain way and women tend to act/think a certain way, these differences only exist because they’ve been taught to us. If free ofÂ societal andÂ cultural influence, the only real differences between men and women would be anatomical.
I do not agree with this. While I do agree that certain gender-based expectations are definitely the result of socialization—and can result in (at best) unreasonable expectations and (at worst) using gender-based biases to discriminate and hate—I believe that men and women have some fundamental differences that go past anatomy. These differences don’t make either gender inferior—but they do make us different. Obviously, neither men nor women are monolithic. There are inter-gender exceptions and variances found among all of us. But, saying “men tend to act/think a certain way and women tend to act/think a certain way,” while general, somewhat limiting, and kinda stereotypical, isn’t untrue.
Anyway, whether it’s a locker room, barbershop, ball court, or place of business, if you put a group of men together—and have no women within ear or eyeshot—men are probably going to act a certain way. The tongues might be a little freer, the jokes might be a little dirtier, the air might be a little mustier, and the social dynamics—and the various roles (leader, organizer, alpha,Â contrarian, etc) we find ourselves in—might be a little more clearly defined. Â (I’m sure these types of changes also occur in environments solely populated by women. I imagine the air being a little sweeter, though. Kinda like mango salsa.)Â
When you introduce women to these environments, though, behavior tends to change. Sure, you may have a few menÂ threatenedÂ by the change who refuse to adjust, but most will eventually self-police because, well, there are woman in the room now. And men who’ve been raised right know that you should adjust your behavior accordingly when women are in the room.
And, this is where it starts to get interesting.
Men—professional men, college-aged men, men in schools, seminars, classes, and conferences—are (rightly) taught that women are just as capable, smart, resourceful, determined, and tough as men are. In a business/professional sense, you’re also taught to treat women the same way you’d treat other men. If you’re not able to do this, you face possible reprimand, you might be fired, and both you and your workplace could be sued.
But, men cannot treat women the exact same way men typically treat other men because, well, (generally speaking) if left to our own devices, we (men) are dicks to each other. So, you’re left with a dynamic where men are taught toÂ “treat women the same way you’d treat men”Â but also taught toÂ “make the environment more woman-friendly.”Â Basically, “gender-based differences don’t exist…but please make sure to remember that you can’t act the way you’d normally would with each other.”
There’s a scene in Django Unchained of all places that provides an example of how confusing this type ofÂ ambiguityÂ with expected behavior can be. “Django” (Jamie Foxx) and “Schultz” (Christoph Waltz) are visiting “Big Daddy’s” (Don Johnson) plantation. When Schulz and Big Daddy plan to ahead into the house to discuss business, Big Daddy (I hate typing this so many times) instructs one of the slaves (“Betina”, played by Miriam Glover) to give Django a tour.
Big Daddy:Â Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. You can’t treat him like you would a slave, because he’s a free man. He’s not like that. Do you understand?
Betina:Â So I should treat him like a White man?
Big Daddy: Heavens no. That’s not what I said.
Betina: Well, I don’t know what you want.
Big Daddy: Yea, I can see how that would be confusing.
Interestingly enough, while the concept of treating women the same as you treat men is considered progressive, if taken literally, it provides some men a justification for misogyny and even violence.
“I mean, if a man who was smaller and weaker than me insulted me like that, I’d punch him in the face. So, since women aren’t any different than men, why can’t I punch her?”
Obviously, this is a dangerous form of semantics-based cherry-picking—basically using a loophole to act out some sort of fantasy—but taking things to its most literal meaning does have a way of exposing a few cracks in a premise’s foundation.
Fortunately, most reasonable men and women seem to have figured out how to deal with these seemingly contradictory gender-based rules. Perhaps it’s because these reasonable people possess a nuanced and multi-faceted understanding of this dynamic, and this understanding allows us to treat each other with fairness. This is also known asÂ being a f*cking professional.
Still, teaching people that we should completely overlook and ignore gender-based differences seems intentionally dishonest, and, if “being a f*cking professional” means that you need to considerÂ “think of and treat her the exact same way you’d think of and treat a man”Â to be bullshit, then so be it.
Â¹I can’t neglect to mention that a conversation I had last week with a friend forced me to consider the wrongness of the initial joke in a different way. I thought taking offense to that “harmless” joke was just an example of someone being uber-sensitive. My friend disagreed:
“Of course you’d feel that way, because you’re a man. But…I don’t know, what if you were in her shoes—at a conference surrounded by Whites—and the men behind you were making stupid racial jokes instead of sexual jokes? Would you shrug it off as easily as you said she should have?”
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)