The PyCon Incident, Lizard Brains, and Bad Jokes

+Peter Senna Tschudin asked (about the Pycon incident):  “What I can’t understand, and I would like help to understand, is how talking about big dongles to a friend in a conference can become a real problem to a women who is listening. Why did she felt uncomfortable about that? Did she felt threatened? How the dongle size talking could turn into something against her? Can the content of the two guys talking be considered a lack of respect? What are the limits to what can be considered offensive?”

I’m going to take you at face value, and assume you really do want to understand how making simple jokes can cause issues for women in tech.  I’m making this a post, because I think lots of my male friends are worried about cracking jokes right now.

“Did she felt threatened?”

Adria may not have felt physically threatened by the jokes, but her body was _reacting_ like she was being threatened.  If you look at her original blog post, she mentions her mind was racing, her heart was beating fast, and after she tweeted the photo, she started physically shaking.  That’s a bodily reaction to stress.  To explain why women in tech might have that response, I have to go into a lot of detail here, so bear with me.

A coworker of mine tried to explain it like this.  “Say you have a dog, and every morning you read the newspaper.  Now, randomly, before you open your newspaper, you beat the dog with it.  Not every day, just sometimes.  After a while, when anyone reaches for the paper, the dog will flee the room.”

It’s the randomness here that’s key.  The dog doesn’t know whether it’s going to be beaten or not, so it learns to fear the newspaper.  It has a psychological fear reaction to a simple object.  At that point, its lizard brain kicks into “fight or flight” mode, and it choses to flee.  Years later, even if the dog is moved into a loving home, the dog may still flee from the newspaper.  Anyone who has fostered or adopted shelter dogs has seen this.

In conversation, inappropriate jokes shared between friends sometimes start to wander into sexist, racist, ageist, etc. jokes.  We all agree that it’s ok to call someone out on those kinds of jokes.  The problem is that when women ask politely for people not to tell those kinds of jokes (or stop being sexist or stop harassing them), randomly, there are very very negative consequences for them.

*Whomp!* Here comes some baggage.

Adria got rape and death threats.  Other responses on the   tag on Twitter include:

“#IAskedPolitely and was laughed at and told there were better uses for my mouth than talking.”

“#IAskedPolitely and was told that objecting to rape jokes is feminist (he said, horrified.)”

“#IAskedPolitely to move to an empty cubicle away from a guy who leered at me every day. Instead, I got fired. I no longer ask politely.”

“#IAskedPolitely for a dude to stop touching me in the workplace, and he apologized and then continued the behavior.”

“#IAskedPolitely whether some of the interviewees were women and got yelled at in front of my entire team and called sexist.”

There is a real and serious threat in our culture for women to speak out against men, even politely.  The everyday sexism we experience constantly tells us to sit down and shut up, or there will be consequences.

Often those consequences include threats of physical harm, rape, or murder.  Adria’s not the first woman in tech that has experienced those threats, nor will she be the last.  I know lots of women in tech, and many of them have stories of speaking up that end in physical threats, getting fired, or being driven from a technical group. These stories women in tech share, the backlash we see on the internet, the dismissing tactics our co-workers use, and the personal scars we bear are all baggage that most technical women carry with them.

When technical women go to a conference, they get subtle and not-so-subtle cues that they are walking into the boys’ clubhouse.  They get asked if they’re here for the partner’s program, there’s only mens t-shirts, there’s booth babes, and they’re constantly asked, “What’s it like being a woman in tech?”

Now say that woman is standing in a circle of men (some of whom she might know, but most she won’t know), or maybe attempting to listen in a keynote, and someone cracks an inappropriate joke.  Maybe it’s the old unix joke that someone mentioned to me recently: “unzip; strip; touch; finger; mount; fsck; more; yes; unmount; sleep”.

There’s that moment where the woman in the group might consider saying something, but all that baggage kicks in, and the woman suddenly becomes hyper-aware that she’s the only woman in a group of men.  Does she say something and risk being ostracized, or just let it slide and try to “fit in” with the boys?  Will there be consequences at work if someone thinks she’s “too sensitive” and her coworkers decide to coddle her?  Will people accuse her of being a “prude”, a “bitch”, a “feminazi”, or worse?  Will someone make rape or death threats to her later?  All these thoughts zip through her head and completely immobilize her, as her brain attempts to process whether this situation is a threat.

In that moment of hesitation, of social anxiety, someone else cracks a joke that we should optimize our command lines, so we could very well do away with the “finger” and asking if the person wants “more” or waiting for them to say “yes”.  Some people chuckle uncomfortably, and the joker takes that as social approval, and starts telling border-line rape jokes.  An inappropriate joke opened the door for something more serious to occur.

At this point, the woman’s “fight or flight” instincts may start to kick in.  It’s a physical reaction to potential psychological and social trauma.  Her lizard brain completely takes over.

Say her lizard brain choses flight.  She may be physically unable to say anything, because her body is telling her to disengage.  She may simply leave the group without a word, because her body is screaming to run away.  Or she may politely laugh along with everyone else, because her body is telling her to hide social signs that she’s uncomfortable.  The point is that a psychological reaction designed to prevent trauma is preventing a constructive physical or vocal reaction from occurring.

If her lizard brain chooses “fight” the consequences are also harsh.  Maybe, like Adria, she chooses to publicly tweet what the person said.  Or snipe at the person with a blunt, “That’s not cool.”  I can’t personally say what other fight responses are, because in those situations, my lizard brain always chooses to flee.

That’s why it’s harsh to say, “You should have just spoken up and said something” or “You should have asked politely”.  By saying that, you are telling someone they need to control a part of their brain that 100,000+ years of evolution has shaped to avoid physical and psychological harm.  Women in tech face rape and death threats when they speak up about seemingly simple things, and some women will have lizard-brain reactions they cannot physically control or reason through.

Ok, how do we fix this?

Bringing this conversation full circle, and returning to the dog analogy, inappropriate jokes are the newspaper.  They are the silly, innocuous thing that is setting off some women’s psychological trauma triggers.  However, it’s really not fair to ask people not to read the newspaper, or not to tell inappropriate jokes to their friends.

Instead, we need to focus on helping women not have that fight or flight response.  That means taking out the randomness of responses to reports of sexism, and making sure women feel comfortable in the community.   Until there are 50% women in conferences, that means you probably shouldn’t crack inappropriate jokes at conferences, even if you think you are among your friends.  Yes, that may seem extreme, but until the gender balance changes and our culture changes, tech women are going to have extreme reactions to inappropriate jokes.  You just may not see them because the “flight” mode kicks in.

That also means when a woman complains that to a conference organizer that they don’t have a t-shirt in her size, or that someone asked if she was here for the partner program, or that scantily clad female dancers are not appropriate speaker dinner entertainment, the conference organizers should act on it.  Anything that makes tech conferences feel like less of a boys’ club will make it less likely for women to have that “fight or flight” response.

So, you wanna crack inappropriate jokes?  Go out to a bar and do it with your friends.  Don’t do it at a conference, or even at the conference party.  If you are making jokes outside of conferences, make it clear to people that they can call you on your jokes, and you’ll stop.  Simple.

One thought on “The PyCon Incident, Lizard Brains, and Bad Jokes

  1. Thank you very much Sarah for this long, detailed and in depth post. IMHO it is the first article I read that manages to explain to men why it is so difficult to “stand up and say no/stop” for a woman in a tech conference.

    I really have to admit that I was one of the skeptic people about “flight and not fight” women decision before your post : I totally disagree with these border line (and sometimes very more) jokes BUT I had some problem to understand why women can’t just say stop and go out to these guys. I think I had an “angelic” view of the sustain the reacting woman would receive from the public around.

    Your explanation about the randomness and the history perspective was just clever and illuminating.

    Thanks !

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