Years ago, I was the fourth person hired at a start-up. I was also the first non-programmer, which meant that I was an outsider, tolerated for a few useful abilities that nobody else wanted to concern themselves about, and often condescended to in an allegedly friendly way as I struggled to increase my spotty knowledge. Perhaps that was why I was sensitive to what happened when the first women were hired.
The other employees were young men in their twenties, some single, others in permanent relationships that were up to several years old. Thrown into an empty office several floors above the parent company, the company had the atmosphere of a locker room – nothing too raunchy, you understand, just a group of young men acting the way they had been taught to act, with a lot of casual talk about women and equally casual squalor of the sort left by men who had never been responsible for picking up after themselves.
By contrast, I was older and long-married, which were other reasons why I was an outsider. As the company slowly grew, continuing all male, I had plenty of confirmations of my belief that men and women tend to civilize each other, and that one-gender groups were about as appealing as an old sock growing mildew at the bottom of the laundry basket.
Then an office manager was hired. In those days, the position was as inevitably filled by women as programming jobs were filled by men, and this new hire was no exception. The all-men’s club was about to change.
I was responsible for bring the new hire up to speed, since she would be taking over tasks that I had been doing for lack of anyone else to do them. Tentatively, before she arrived, I suggested a few changes in daily behavior, like removing the soft-core anime screen-savers, and maybe making an extra effort to make her welcome. My suggestions were mocked, although, to be fair, when the time came some of the other male employees did seem to make a bit of an effort.
The trouble was, those efforts were nowhere near enough to overcome the habits of several unsupervised months. The new office manager was barely out of college, and visibly nervous about stepping into this atmosphere. Not only did she have no experience exercising the authority she was supposed to have, but many of the other staff members talked to her breasts more often than her face. Once or twice, she almost certainly heard her body being evaluated by some of the men.
Watching this, I felt like apologizing on behalf of the company, but I was equally unsure of how to use authority. I worried, too, that bringing the topic into the open would only add to everyone’s discomfort, especially since I am a man myself.
However, I soon concluded that, as annoying as my treatment had been, it was trivial compared to the office manager’s. After all, while not a programmer, I was quickly learning enough to hold my own. I had also discovered that, short of being familiar with the technology, the next best thing was to show a willingness to learn. Over time, I was gaining limited acceptance, at least among some of the programmers.
At best, though, the office manager had only a professional interest in the technology. But even if she had been willing to learn, I realized that she would never be fully accepted, simply because she was a woman. Too many of her fellow employees were asking her out – and none of these suitors had the maturity to accept the authority of a woman they hoped to date.
The second woman had the advantage of being a bit older and a bit tougher. Also, she was a technical writer, and the male programmers were only too glad to have private conversations with her. But her situation was similar, and she was too different from the office manager for either to support the other.
Another woman, hired to help with the Japanese translation of the company’s products, was even more isolated because of her limited English. Still another, hired as a receptionist, had to endure the graphic designer moving his computer so he could sit with her. She already had a boy-friend, but had no idea to handle the situation – and neither the office manager nor I had enough support from the company founder to get the designer to change his behavior. If anything, many of the programmers applauded his chutzpah.
The only woman who held her own was the finance clerk, whose expertise nobody disputed. About sixty, she could also assume a motherly role, treating the rest of the staff as children. But if she ever helped the other women cope, I never observed it.
For myself, I never did figure out how to intervene effectively, and after ten months at the company, I realized it would eventually fail and moved on. But I wonder, sometimes, if I would ever have noticed the difficulties of the women if I hadn’t been in a position to empathize, or felt partly responsible for them. Certainly, I was the only man who ever expressed concerns, even if I were too inexperienced to do anything.
However, what bothers me most about that situation is how routine it was. Few of the programmers were ogres of sexism. They were nothing worse than young men, and, while they were conditioned the way that most young men are in our culture, most of them were too introverted and polite to be the worst representatives of that conditioning.
Nor were the female employees particularly sheltered. Yet, despite being constantly thwarted in their efforts to carry out their jobs, none complained or made any effort to improve their situation. Instead, the women simply acted as though such difficulties were nothing new – which, of course, they weren’t.
Long before this experience, I had counted myself a feminist. Yet somehow I had managed to miss how ordinary this systemic sexism actually is. But since then, this reality has been like a bad smell that, once noticed, spoils all the other smells. It is a perception that I have no way of turning off. And, ever since, I have wondered frequently at the crassness of many men and the patience of most women, and worried about how much I contribute to the problem and whether I do enough to help solve it.