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That’s Offensive!

There was a very interesting email thread that went around the workplace the other week. It started with a thread about everyday sexism in the workplace.

Now, being in a male-dominated field, you’d think I’d get comments about my gender all the time. I’ve gotten them, but they’ve usually come from outside people in my field. All the ones I remember can, anyway. I’ve dismissed that as ignorance, and that’s been that. I know that there’s no truth to girls being worse at computer science than boys, or that girls who go into science just want to be guys.

It was about everyday sexism. You know, not the big things, like people explicitly saying “But girls just don’t DO computer science!” or “Why don’t you get back to the kitchen? Hurr hurr hurr…” (Like most offices I’ve been to, we have a small kitchen, sans stove or oven. It is kind of relevant…) But the little things, like “the wife test” (How would you explain this to your wife, who we assume knows nothing about computer science because she’s a woman?), or telling an audience of women that bit about how a good report is like a woman’s skirt—long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to be interesting, or the guy who apparently compared the life cycle of an order to a woman’s reproductive system, and in quite vulgar terms, again, to an audience of women.

I think we can all agree that those are, more or less, things one should not say if one wants to encourage women in the workplace. However, there was a subtle one that raised a lot of controversy. We’re talking a couple hundred fired up emails, here. (Okay, about 25% of it was me and a few others being moderate and asking why we can’t just all get along.) It was about the term “guys”.

It’s hard to say whether American culture at large is making the shift towards gender-neutral language. It certainly has its benefits. Several trans women (male-to-female, just so I’m clear) joined in and said that to use “guys” to address a group of people they are in is a complete undermining of their gender identity. Many cis-gendered women agreed. There was a lot of talk about how language has always been slanted toward the male gender, and a pretty huge debate over if and how the use of “guys” is offensive and exclusive to women.

I can see their point. However, (and I say this no matter whether the woman is cis or trans) it seemed like some of them were looking for a reason to jump down people’s throats and say “That’s offensive and you should never use that word to address anyone ever again!” A few went so far as to say that they correct their colleagues every time because that’s how you change language.

They’re not wrong; that is how you change language. But only if the speaking community wants to change it. I really don’t mind being addressed with “guys” in a group. I use “dude” with some of my closer female friends, and they do with me. These are terms we grew up hearing as more or less genderless, and so they don’t bother us. That, in and of itself, shows a shift in language.

And more than that, it really doesn’t help a cause to harshly police people who many be unaware of it. It’s one thing to have someone purposefully and maliciously ignore your wishes as to how you like to be addressed. It’s quite another when someone addresses you with a word they have been using all their life that has never been presented to them as derogatory or unfavorable. How are they supposed to know that it’s wrong if they’ve never been told that this is so? Furthermore, “wrong” is a bit subjective in this case. (Case in point: some of the trans women felt that they were speaking for all trans women, and even all women. While several cis women jumped on them for that, there was one trans woman who also indicated that she thought wiping out the use of “guys” was going a tad overboard.)

Obviously, if someone says “Hey, I don’t like it when you use that word to address/describe me. Please use _____ instead”, I’d gladly do so. If I got yelled at for using a word that I didn’t know was offensive, however, though I probably wouldn’t use it again, I’d be a lot more defensive about it. It’s a nature thing.

I treat others as I would want to be treated: with respect. However, I don’t want to live in fear of hurting someone all my life because I choose one word and not another. You can’t please everyone all the time; you just can’t. And really, the whole crux of this argument is that people need to speak in order for change to take place. So, I’ll speak. And if people don’t like the way I’m speaking, I’ll change it. Usually.

As for my experience, my team’s been amazing. It’s not that I’m one of “the guys” (although I’ll willingly admit that I am that at times and I thoroughly enjoy it); I’m one of the team. We all afford each other the same respect. Earlier today, one of my male co-workers was telling the only other woman on our team (Yeah, an eighth of our team is female… In some respects it sucks, but since we’re a fairly gender-blind team, it’s honestly hard to remember and get worked up about it.) “Well, you’re the one with the doctorate in computer science. I couldn’t do that!” He wasn’t building her up because she’s a woman; he was building her up because she’s a great developer in her own right, and that has nothing to do with gender. In another incident, a former member of our team (who wasn’t former at the time and was teaching me to take over one of his tasks) joked that three columns of data would overwhelm me. When I (jokingly as well) fired back “Oh, little white girl can’t handle it?!” He actually looked horrified and said no several times, just to make sure he got his point across. (For reference, this was three columns of data out of about 75. As a new hire, that really would have overwhelmed me.)

The company I work for also has a lot of outreach programs for women. We have our society of women engineers, and a lot of workshops dedicated to women. I’ve met a lot of guys who are passionate about having more women developers. (A rather casually dressed, middle-aged British guy who works on my floor pretty much spearheads the movement from the male side of things, and he is adamant that anything he can do, women can do.) There are places where we could use improvement. In fact, there was a lot of debate about some of the company’s core tenets and how they encourage more stereotypically male competitiveness and just going with whoever’s in charge versus how those same tenets actually also encourage collaboration and speaking up when something’s wrong. It was fascinating.

This is another one of those issues for which I don’t have the answer. I have my own answer, as I’ve explained. I’m content to go with it for now. I’m secure in my own femininity, and also in the parts of me that are more masculine. I am who I am, and calling me a dude or a lady isn’t going to change that. Telling me to get back to the kitchen won’t, either, unless you count me turning into the Hulk.

But that’s another story.

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