Web Developers Listserv + Sexism

I’ve been subscribed to the University Web Developers (UwebD) listserv for quite a while. It’s an interesting mix of design/code tips, recent data, job postings, etc. I wanted to post a brief exchange that occurred a little while ago on the list.

Chris posted this:

Hey guys,

We’re looking for a motivated web developer who loves what he does. ‘We’ being the guys at Arc90, based in NYC…

Missy responded:

I take it female web developers need not apply? Thanks for the heads up. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re not being considered due to our gender.

Ross chimed in:

From Google of “define:guy”, we find the very first definition from Princeton’s wordnet is ‘an informal term for a youth or man’. Maybe you take offense to being addressed as a “youth”?

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy, we have the very first disambiguation including both the following: ‘Informal term or address, often for a man or boy’

Last time I checked, often does not mean always.
‘the plural form “guys” is often used without regard to gender’

If you seek out and expect prejudice, repression, and lack of fairness, you will almost always find it. Jean-Luc Picard says it best in The Drumhead noting that “the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think”.

Is it possible to interpret Chris’s words as being male-centric and anti-female? Yes…but do you really believe that Chris is anti-female and would want to discourage women from applying? If not, then why does it bother you that his words can potentially be interpreted that way (especially considering it’s almost universally accepted that “guys” is gender neutral as evidenced by the definitions above)?

Those that criticize and over-analyze every word and every expression will always expose a prejudice. Pointing it out and finding it at any cost will always ensure its existence. They will be the ones that forge Harrison Bergeron’s chains.

Kevin decided that the topic was “silly.”:

I think the issue here wasn’t the word “guy”, it was that they were looking for a person that likes what “he” does.

Given that the English Language has no gender-neutral pronoun, I suppose the only way around this was to use things like “likes what (s)he does” or “likes what he/she does or “a person that enjoys work” or something.

Having said that, I agree that this is a silly discussion for the web-designers mailing list and is way off topic. The mistake was made, it was pointed out, the apology was offered. I suggest we all drop it now.

I receive UwebD posts in digest form, skim the post headlines, and then usually archive the message. I actually did not see the original email from Chris, nor did I see the message from Missy. Since I am not looking for a job I did not read the first digest collection that contained those messages. The email that peeked my curiosity was the one that contained Ross’ and Chris’ messages. (I think there was something else in the thread that I wanted to read and I ended up seeing the entire thread from Chris, Missy, Ross and Kevin.)

I sent in this response to UwebD:

I think the word “guy” is definitely gender-based. To have a couple guys say that it is not and that the topic is silly speaks volumes about the sexism in the web industry.

Why has “guys” been labeled as non-gender specific, and okay to use for all people, while “gals” has never been given the same

Kudos to Missy for pointing out a legitimate concern that should be talked about on a web developers list because our identity’s
are present as we weave the web.

After my email was sent to the listserv, Ross decided to email me:

Why don’t you be an even bigger push over? I think she would find it insulting no matter how it was put…even if you put totally generic phrases like “people” and “all persons” everywhere. Someone that wants to make a big deal out of something always will… People like you that condone or even applaud their action only make the whole situation more ridiculous.

I replied to Ross with:

I fail to see how I am being a push over. A sexist moment occurred on the listserv and now a bunch of the guys want to push it under the table. I’d say that more men should have been in support of Missy instead of accusing her of being silly and ridiculous.

It actually takes more courage and vision to stand against the all guys club.

Ross then sent me another email:

The only reason you see it as a “sexist moment” is because a woman pointed out. I’m willing to bet if nobody had ever said anything, you wouldn’t be scurrying all over the place in support of a sexism-free listserv. Now, I’m not saying that just because a prejudice isn’t noticed doesn’t mean it isn’t there…but this REALLY WASN’T a “sexist moment”. It is a part of the rules of the English language to use the masculine pronouns when gender is unclear or unspecified. It has become so commonly accepted to use a term like “guys” that it is defined as such all over the web.

I’m not saying that email in question was well-worded…I most certainly would not have worded it that way especially for public consumption. (I personally always start emails to more than one person with “All,” as the greeting regardless of audience.) But I would still argue that it was not some heinous attack on females. It was most certainly not a “sexist moment”. Maybe I am over-interpreting her response, but I have seen far too many people that always see prejudice in everything because that is what they expect and what they look for. That attitude is just as bad if not worse than the prejudice itself.

One more email from me:

I get emails from UWeb in digest form. I usually scan the subject lines and then either read the ones that I am interested in or archive the message. I actually missed the initial job announcement because I am not in need of work right now and did not see what was going on until I saw some of the messages from you and the guy who called the topic “silly.”

Also, if I had read the original announcement, I would have said something about it being sexist. I think that the “rules” of English
are meant to be fluid and not set in some sort of patriarchal stone that makes you happy and denigrates women.

“Seeing prejudice” is often hardest for those who are in dominant groups. As a white man, it took a long time for me to become
self-aware that prejudice in the form of code language was all around me.

I truly wish that other men on the listserv had stood in solidarity with Missy because it shows a lot about the makeup of the men on the list. Calling a topic silly or ridiculous is just another way that those in dominant groups, in this case men, silence voices from people from underrepresented groups.

Ross emailed me one last time and I decided to blog about what happened instead of “debating” with him:

I have two questions…

1) Do you think it really is possible to write/speak in such a way that absolutely no one is offended (and still deliver real information or a real substance with real detail)?

2) Do you think that the original poster’s in absolutely any way intended to degrade or denigrate women in any fashion? If not, does it really matter? How can (or should we) separate information from its possible interpretations?

I guess I just don’t see how anything can be totally safe when anyone and everyone is allowed to take offense to absolutely anything.

Also, I have enjoyed our debate on this topic. The company I currently work for has a great culture based around mental flexibility and vigorous debate. It is rare to find that in the real world. It can be entertaining and educational to debate these topics, especially considering that I don’t entirely agree with my own position.

In answer to question #1: Yes, I feel that it is very possible to write/speak in a way that is not offensive. Real information can be delivered with real substance in real detail without maiming someones dignity.

#2: I don’t feel that Chris intended to maim anyone’s dignity. Yes, it does matter. If you maim someone sans intent, they are still maimed. I think we need to check our own bias, privilege and awareness so that we are knowledgeable about the language that we use.

I wish I could get a guy like Ross to understand that this is not a “debate.” I hope this exchange was at least a little bit educational for him. I don’t feel that combating sexism is entertaining…

What do you think?

  • Quick note before falling asleep: I see a connection here and with the conversations about the blackface situation at OSU.

    It seems the general conception of sexism and racism is that intent is necessary, and as you so aptly point out, it’s not. I wonder how we can help others see that intent is not even a criterion for sexist or racist actions: it’s the socio-historical context and the effects of maiming others’ dignity that is at stake. Racism and sexism do not have to be intentional or malicious.

    Thanks, Stoller, for sharing this conversation.

  • Dennis

    Michael – that is an extremely good comment.

  • Privilege breeds ignorance.

  • Tanya

    Although I agree with you, you once again blew your chance of actually changing someone’s mind by (right at the end) throwing in a shitty comment:

    “I wish I could get a guy like Ross to understand that this is not a “debate.” I hope this exchange was at least a little bit educational for him. I don’t feel that combating sexism is entertaining…”

    Ross was letting you know that he was enjoying this discussion – which is a good thing! The door was open for change because he was not angry. But, your last comment belittled him and I think that likely shut the door.

  • well i think

    “Why don’t you be an even bigger push over? I think she would find it insulting no matter how it was put”

    is not exactly open for change. those are majorly negative assumptions right from the start. and while he enjoyed the debate he continues denigrating with

    “I guess I just don’t see how anything can be totally safe when anyone and everyone is allowed to take offense to absolutely anything.”

    in other words, as usual the minorities are whining! some people just like to play devils advocate for the sake of an argument although they don’t take u at all seriously. my husband is a journalist. i’ve seen that behavior at a professional level time after time and am over my naivety believing that i’ve actually changed the other person’s mind. unfortunately ross isn’t using that behavior to break a news story with some objectivity, but rather to make himself feel better.

  • Um, if you quoted his original message correctly, he also said that they’re looking for someone who loves what HE does. If the first “guys” wasn’t enough, he compounded the problem by identifying all potential candidates for employment as male. It’s not even ambiguous. It’s also really poor language – if he seriously wanted applicants who were not men, he would be more conscious of it – replace all the “guys” with “gals” and he’s with she’s, and I bet he’d be able to tell you within 2 seconds that it excludes all men.

    He should not work in public relations, that’s for sure.

  • I am always amazed when people don’t understand that the word ‘he’ does not refer to me, cannot refer to me becasue I am a ‘she’. And therefore, if you’re using ‘he’ you’re not incuding or talking about me.

    Luke’s point was an excellent one…as always just turn it around and then lets see what the response is!

  • FinanceBuzz

    Hear, hear Ross. It has been my opinion that eric sees life through a prism of discrimination and its it some of the most flabbergasting. You are exactly correct IMO – there was no sexist moment.

  • Are you kidding me? The original note asked for “he” and “guys” when it was supposedly a non-gender based search and then people dismissed Missy’s dissent by saying it was a silly topic.

    How was this not a sexist moment? How would you define it?

  • FinanceBuzz

    I would define it looking for discrimination as Ross suggested. There is no rational reason to assume sexist intent even witthout the author telling you so. I think the term overanalysis applies here.

  • Sexist intent? I don’t think people are arguing that there was/is some sort of conscious sexist intent on the part of Ross, like he’s some sort of anti-woman computer crusader or something. Similarly, I understand that while I may not have conscious sexist intent, sometimes I say or do things which connote sexism. What it sounded like Missy was trying to do was point out was that intent or not, the message was coded to exclude women – and if women (a woman) picks up on that and you don’t, there’s something to be learned by listening to their argument.

    If Ross had decided to say “oops, I’m sorry, I really wanted to say ‘hi everyone,’ and I’m sorry that I excluded an entire half of the world*,” I doubt anyone would have been angry or hurt after that. He’s compounding the problem, as many people do, by becoming defensive instead of becoming a listener, and for having some sort of mental block to apologizing. It’s a common problem.

    * or something to that effect

  • Well said, Luke.

  • FinanceBuzz

    Luke, I have no problem with apologizinng if someone’s feelings were hurt inadvertently. However, I think it is reaonsble to point out that there was no intent to offend or exclude. Just as Eric seeks to educate from his perspective, is it unreasonable that Ross might want to point out that there is not always exclusion where one think it exist.

  • I think we all acknowledge that there was no conscious intent to exclude. Is that a debate? Eric didn’t say that, I haven’t said that, and I can’t see anyone who’s jumping up and down going “oh my god! He’s a chauvinistic pig!” It’s clear from Ross’ response to Missy that he didn’t mean to exclude women from the pool.

    It is reasonable to point out that there was no malice forethought going on there – but to continue falling back on it misses the bigger part of the problem: we can cause harm without intent. It sounds like folks are trying to point out that 1) accuracy in language precludes the use of “guys” to talk to everyone given the sort of critiques brought up, and 2) there was a very serious offense taken, by multiple people, and listening to them without dismissing them is important.

    This second point is one where I see lots of people trip up on. Sometimes we don’t mean to hurt people, but we’re obligated to respond when they let us know.

  • FinanceBuzz

    It’s clear from Ross’ response to Missy that he didn’t mean to exclude women from the pool.

    Then this is all a non-issue, in my opinion. If there was no intent, then turning this into a “sexist moment” is more about overanalysis, seeing things through a prism, pursuing and agenda, etc.

    I am not discounting that someone got their feelings hurt. I said that it is fine to say “Hey, I am sorry if your feelings got hurt.” However, if people are getting their feelings hurt over what I feel is hair-trigger sensitivity, there is not much myself, Ross, most other run-of-the-mill people can do about. If someone had told an offensive joke, I can see where you might have grounds to attempt to “educate” them (though they still have a right to tell such jokes mind you), but over the comment made here? Sorry, but had I made it, I do not need education over something that all agree was not meant to offend, exclude, etc. and over which I do not think the vast majority of people would think twice about.

  • If someone had their feelings hurt, and that the root of this hurt was the poorly imprecise language, where’s the apology? Where’s the “I’m sorry I was offensive”? Not only is it not present, but then he got defensive when faced with that hurt, and tried to negate what they were feeling. How is that restorative, how is that good in any sense? Until those words appear, then what I can assume is that he heard what Missy and Eric were trying to say, doesn’t believe it (uh oh!) and tries to make it invalid. Not exactly the best tactic to build community.

    Since it’s on my mind, I feel like I should clarify the difference between “I am sorry you were offended” and “I am sorry I was offensive / I am sorry my remarks caused you pain.” The first statement continues negating experiencing by saying that there wasn’t a problem with what happened, but merely a problem with the way you perceived it. The second is an actual apology, i.e. I am sorry for the hurt I caused you, without qualification. It’s a small difference, but it’s important because it gives a level of sincerity which the first statement does not contain.

    This is like a minicosm of what’s happening with the debacle that is our student newspaper.

  • I think Luke is at this moment discussing harm and apologies, so I’ll focus instead on discussing what I see as our fundamental epistemological differences, FB.

    FB, it appears that you view citizens as privatized, autonomous beings, and our intentions matter most. This is in line with liberalism, the dominant ideology of modernism.

    What Luke, Eric, and others (myself included) are instead arguing for is an understanding of individuals are part of social structures. Our intentions are not just intentions that come out of ourselves as abstract individuals, but are instead part of historically and socially constructed ideologies. Ideologies function at a subconscious level and, when harmful, should be made visible and confronted.

    What lies behind Ross’s use of the term “guys” and “he” to mean all people is that stand-in of “men” as “human” and the invisibility of women. This is what happened, whether Ross intended it or not: women were made invisible and therefore excluded from this particular space. This was not a private event, as you seem to construe it as, but rather part of a social system of the exclusion of women throughout time from such positions.

    It could be easy to say that sexism is a thing of the past and that it’s not a problem unless it’s intentional. But, the reason it’s easy to say this is because it’s ideological; sexism works not because we intend it (though sometimes it is intentional), but because it’s part of our subconscious. It’s part of how our society is built. Ross’s message doesn’t stand alone and in isolation, but is instead part of a structure: these type of statements are made all the time, continuing to exclude women and make them invisible.

    Sorry for the academic talk, but I want to make clear the differences I see in the way we’re talking about this.

  • Dennis

    However, if people are getting their feelings hurt over what I feel is hair-trigger sensitivity, there is not much myself, Ross, most other run-of-the-mill people can do about.’

    This is very clearly not true, FB. Instead, you might have said “I will choose to do nothing about it.”

    We can’t control the intentions or actions of others, but we can determine our own.

  • Pingback: “Guys” is not gender neutral » Eric Stoller’s Blog()

  • Well said, Dennis.

    As someone who studied communication as an undergrad, I am aware that intent does little to alleviate what has already been communicated. How many times does, “I didn’t mean it that way!” actually work in real life? Understanding that Eric and others who defend Missy’s words do not view the world through a “prism” is necessary, as well. I applaud the efforts of others who actively seek to depart from “run-of-the-mill” as without critical thinking in common, day-to-day action, we stagnate as a society.

    Linguistic side note, however: “ellos” vs. “ellas” in Spanish– “ellas” being specifically to groups of females, “ellos” being interchangeable between groups of just males and groups of mixed gender/sex. How does the usage in other languages compare to “attempts” in English to find all-inclusive group words?

  • Harking back to my previous career as the discrimination/harassment officer for our university: in the end, it is the IMPACT of the behavior that matters most, not the intent. This applies both to the current law, and to common sense. Intent comes into to play when determinig the consequences for behavior that crosses the line. In this case, we are talking about a community response (not a legal or institutional response), and it seems reasonable to hold the poster accountable for his use of language, even if no exclusion of women was intended.

    I find the notion that this is about “hurt feelings” really minimizes and distorts the concerns that are shared by many people, not just Missy. We have to remember that taken in a vacuum, this amounted to a poorly worded post. But we don’t live in a vacuum…taken in context of our world today, this is a small example of the still-incidious (and less overt) nature of sexism in our culture.