How Privilege Manifests in Well-Intentioned Men
We wouldn’t normally bother with this, but accusations of misrepresentation are something we take rather seriously.
At the bottom of that second post, we linked to this tweet by UX designer Ian Fenn, and remarked that “some male members of the web development community have responded less than sympathetically”:
Fenn has since accused us of taking him out of context. First there was this:
In situations where Twitter fails to provide sufficient context and nuance, a blog post can be a great way of making your argument clear. And that’s exactly what this one does—it demonstrates unambiguously that Fenn, whether intentionally or not, is working to mansplain, silence and derail discussion of the issues faced by women in tech. It’s a textbook manifestation of male privilege.
Men Get Harassed Too
Fenn is specifically critical of the “Speaking Up” posts’ focus on harassment received by women:
Whitney opened her blog post with the following:
“Two days ago, a prominent designer named Sarah Parmenter published a post titled Speaking Up, in which she revealed the horrific harassment she has endured as a public woman in technology.”
Receipt of harrassment is not a matter for female speakers alone. Male speakers receive it too, although the nature of harrassment differs based on gender.
When women speak up about sexism, it’s such a well-demonstrated inevitability that a man will proclaim that bad things happen to men too that it’s become a comedically misspelled ironic meme-phrase. To which the exasperated response of the people having the original discussion is usually: So what? We’re not talking about men. We’re talking about women, and the specific terrible things they have to deal with as a result of being women. Is it really so unbearable for any group other than men to be the focus of attention for a few blog posts?
(If you still need convincing on this, Feminism 101’s got you covered.)
What if Women Get Scared Away?
Here’s where Fenn—after reassuring us that, yeah, he thinks harassment is bad—gets to the meat of his argument:
Contrary to suggestions, I was appalled when I read Sarah Parmenter’s original blog post - the harrassment that she, Relly, Leslie or Whitney have described is unacceptable.
Then I started to see the negative effect that the posts - which were being retweeted over and over by members of the UX community - seemed to be having on women around me. Several friends indicated that the posts confirmed that public speaking was simply not worth the time, effort or anguish. In other words, the posts were being counter-productive, working against their ultimate assumed goal - to get more women to speak at conferences. This saddened me greatly.
Some people have suggested that I want Sarah, Relly, Leslie, Whitney and any other speakers (female or male) to stay silent about this stuff. I don’t. I do believe, however, that there are better ways and places to talk about it - places where the content is less likely to be perceived incorrectly by the very people we are trying to encourage to speak.
He also outlines a list of things he thinks should be done about sexist behaviour at conferences. Amazingly, his and our own opinions on the subject are almost in sync, except for the bit where he thinks it’s better for harassed conference speakers not to talk about their harassment in public, instead discussing it “among themselves”.
Never mind that the tech industry has been keeping incidences of aggression under wraps for decades, enabling the perpetrators to continue unpunished.
Never mind that shining a light on bad behaviour is a catalyst for positive change, even if it discourages some people along the way.
Never mind that a woman who chooses not to speak at a conference—on the basis of information Fenn would rather were restricted—might be making the right choice, given what she’s sparing herself.
He is genuinely arguing that word should not get out of the awful shit that publicly visible women have to endure. That we would be collectively better off if they kept that talk to the back room.
Taken as a whole, the naivety and arrogance on display here—that someone with an awareness of the problem could believe that they know better than the victims of misogynistic treatment what should be done about it, and effectively tell them don’t shut up, but actually, do shut up—is almost unfathomable. Such is privilege: it makes people do and say utterly ridiculous, destructive things, and blinds them to the consequences of their actions.
The good news, however, is that it’s never too late for anyone: one of the truly positive things about tech is that we are quick to forgive when people apologise. All it takes to become aware of privilege is a willingness to improve, to own up to mistakes and to listen.