“Ahh, don’t make that face. You’re too beautiful to not smile,” said the man intently watching me in the Autodesk gallery photobooth.
After awkwardly looking around for a (nonexistent) curtain, I retook the photo, uncomfortably smiling as a CGI dinosaur loomed over my shoulder. As the photo printed, the man peered over my shoulder and signaled his approval. “My boyfriend will like this,” I hinted, before following up with, “My bag is really heavy. I should find a seat before the talk starts.” He asked for my LinkedIn, and being that I was at a professional networking event, I hesitantly gave it to him. In total, we spoke for about five minutes. The next day, this happened.
A few months ago, I attended Tech in Motion’s Data+Design panel discussion. The topic – exploring the interplay of data and design in determining split decisions regarding UX, project management, and product delivery – is particularly relevant to my career, so I was especially excited to learn from the experiences of the panelists and mingle with relevant industry folk. Since I was alone, I wanted to maximize my time by meeting fellow design-driven business wonks and debating the merits of rapid prototyping and A/B testing (or if not that, literally anything else that related to the topic of the night).
Instead, I met several men who would verbally corner me, step far into my comfort zone, compliment my looks, ask me where I’m from*, and then tell me how beautiful they think Indian women are. I of course appreciate a well-intentioned compliment, but in these instances I can’t help but recall a famous Demetri Martin punchline: “Location, location, location.”
If you don’t already understand how this behavior is problematic, here’s a summary. The aforementioned men – and I want to emphasize that I don’t think all men are like this – probably think that they’re being friendly and forward, “networking” as the event encourages. But when the basis of their small talk is not “What’s your experience in this field?” but more “What are you doing later tonight?” it can feel predatory and disrespectful.
Think I’m being overly sensitive? Believe me, this is not an isolated event. When I handled programming and events at a coworking space, I was constantly approached by inebriated middle-aged men, leering and making suggestive comments referencing their interest in a Bollywood queen. The fact that I don’t even watch Bollywood movies wasn’t relevant to them – they would just find another track to stop me from circulating the room (in that case, doing my job).
This attitude minimizes the legitimacy of professional women at tech events. It takes away from our power as contributors to the discourse, reducing us to meaningless banter about our personal lives. It creates “an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation,” as noted in a recent TechCrunch article “Women in tech: What’s the real problem?”
It presupposes that we should be so glad to hear such comments about our appearance, instead of meeting the type of people who could actually give us a leg up in our careers. Not that it’s important, but I should note that I was wearing a wool crew neck sweater, jeans, and a scarf – hardly the magnet for horny tech bachelors (or worse, married men).
How Does This Fit Into the Overall Narrative?
Women have a hard enough time advancing in the tech world, as the Harvard Business Review illustrates. “Our research findings show that on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, fully 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs.” While the standard explanations might surface – women begin to have children and lose momentum due to maternity leave and enhanced need for work/family balance – anyone who has been following the Lean In movement knows that the challenges to advancement are far more insidious than the biological clock.
Take the example of startup incubators. Though there are plenty of women in prestigious accelerator programs – an accomplishment that Y Combinator and 500 Startups both tout – men still primarily seek kinship and support from their male counterparts. That’s not to say that they don’t treat their female batchmates with respect; in my experience, they do. But when you’re a young bachelor in a new town, which is the case for at least half of the batch, you’re not likely to hit up your new female friends to join your night of debauchery and drunken hookups.
The exclusion isn’t intentional, but it happens. Male/female relationships** are mostly limited to the office, or if not are the subject of gossip. For budding entrepreneurs, that’s drama that can derail their attention during a high-pressure period for their companies. But as anyone who has developed an insta-friendship over a bottle knows, sometimes all it takes is a memorable night to build a lifelong bond – and while women are included in some of those nights, the number of non-sexualized invites are far fewer. Plus, the discomfort (for a woman) and disappointment (for a man) of a perceived/real rejection can disintegrate what otherwise would be a healthy friendship and a source for future support, connections, and opportunities. Limited chances to build social capital can have significant ramifications, especially in the Valley where “who you know” seems to take precedence over “what you know.”
Women have a number of hurdles to overcome in getting ahead in their careers, including the attitude that they should settle for less while men consistently overstate their abilities, or the notion that they should fill in as secretaries or notetakers while men are allowed to dominate the conversation. How we dress, how we talk, and even extremely personal decisions like how long is the appropriate time to stay home after the birth of a child are up for discussion. It’s frustrating, and it’s endemic of a larger sociopolitical climate, one that both men and women might not even know they’re exacerbating.
But there is one simple thing that men can do: when you meet a woman in a professional context, please treat her like a professional, not a potential Tinder match. After all, there’s an app for that.
* (“Where are you from?” “I’m from the South Bay.” “…Where is your family from?”) is a conversation I have almost every time I meet a new person. I’m happy that culture is important, but not so happy that it seems to take precedent even in scenarios where my professional accomplishments are the only things we should be discussing.
** Speaking only about heterosexual relationships, since I am straight. Would love to hear from a lesbian about their experiences with startup accelerators though!
*** Update: Just a week after I published this post, a woman posted a similar screenshare on LinkedIn that garnered over 25,000 likes and a Huffington Post article. Those who say that women are being “overly sensitive” to point out such instances of harassment clearly don’t understand how sexism works.