At a dinner some weeks back, I was having a conversation with some male engineer friends of mine from a bunch of companies in the London area. The challenge of finding engineers who are women came up. It’s a topic that comes up a lot when I’m at the table because I think it’s really important for male engineers to understand the experience women have as the gender minority in technical roles. Usually I find these conversations enlightening. Especially if there’s a female engineer at the table, I often find bugs in my perspective as a guy. I’m far from bias-free as a man in tech (though I could probably just delete the “in tech” part).
At this particular dinner, I found the opposite to be true. As we talked through the factors that make hiring women in technical roles difficult, we started thinking through the characteristics women we work with have in common. There do seem to be some common things. Really strong technical skills was (and usually is) at the top of the list. We also talked about women who code not being afraid to be the only girl in the room a lot of the time. This is where something unexpected popped out of the conversation. It took me a while to grok why I was so bothered by it, but I think I understand it now. The flow of the conversation went something like this:
* Started with a trailing conversation about women in tech who are awesome, focusing on particular women we know. *
Male engineer #1 –
Yes, _redacted_ is really good. She just has a sassy personality that prevents her from getting pushed around by men.
Male engineer #2 –
I think a lot of women who do well in tech are sassy that way.
*semi-automatic facepalm, vague confusion*
So, by sassy — you mean, like, assertive and female?
Male engineers #1 and #2 –
You know those aren’t synonymous — right?
Male engineers #1 and #2 –
*Lots of counter arguments*
All of us –
*Lots of terrible validation of gender stereotypes, completeley assinine judgments, and typically male presumed-top-of-the food-chain awfulness.*
It’s not all the time that I’m aware of subtly sexist things I do or say. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I’m pretty sexist in a bunch of ways that fall out in a lot of places. It’s embarassing to admit. It’s more embarassing to try to hide it. My goal here is not to flame some people for saying a sexist thing. I’m completely guilty of the occasional TWSS joke and definitely guilty of letting my biased thoughts roll out unfiltered into conversations with peers and coworkers irresponsibly. I have absolutely been that guy who has to stop laughing when a woman walks in the room because I’m too embarassed to try to answer her if she asks what’s funny. Knowing this about myself, a goal here is to point out a class of sexism that happens all over the place and to flesh out the underlying perspective that enables it. Also, to hopefully own my role in it in a way that will help me change.
Back to dinner. In the immediate conversation that followed, I called the guys out about it as much as I could then. I argued that sassy is not gender neutral and that it carries a bunch of bad connotations. Surprisingly, I got skepticism and push back. I don’t know why I’m suprised really. Smart engineers don’t fix problems that don’t exist. They want proof and want to do their own thinking about the proof they’re given. Why wouldn’t they push back against an accusation that, if valid, would require them to rethink a lot of how they think and behave? Why wouldn’t they push back against someone telling them that they need to be more self-critical about everything they say about women? Fair arguments. My response is: because it really, really matters.
Now let’s dig in to the tricky stuff. What’s actually the problem with sassy? Let’s start with why this is a bad way to describe someone, starting from least offensive to most.
For starters, let’s be clear about the meaning. Sassy means self-assured and bold. Good things. It also means impudent, saucy, cheeky, conceited, and pretentious (all from the OED, btw). Very bad things. Someone who is sassy has an agenda other than what is important in the moment. They might react overly strongly to something in a way that doesn’t fit the situation and probably draws attention to them.
I can see why that would be annoying if you’re trying to get work done. I can also see two massive reasons why being annoying is good and being labeled ‘sassy’ sucks in this context. Imagine the gentle discrimination felt by someone on the receiving end — someone assertive enough to address it — by people who don’t notice what they’re doing. That feeling of “wow, this sucks” can easily lead to a kind of “impertinence.” She’s pushing back on the loaded situation she’s in. Meanwhile, the guys are ignoring it because “hey, it’s not a problem I feel any evidence of.” In this situation she’s behaving reasonably, I think. I have done the same when someone is being dismissive. Labeling this as “sass” is sort of accurate (by definition) and also completely terrible in basically every way. It means short changing the person in the moment, frustrating her resolve to fix things, and simultaneously maintaining the hegemony. Triple facepalm.
Okay, so, that’s obviously really bad, but it’s not the worst of it.
Worse than that, sassy is a gender identifying term in this context. In my adult life, I have never heard a guy called sassy. To fully own my assertion here I will add that all of us at the dinner party actually discussed this very point in the same conversation. We agreed, because we’re terrible people, that sassy is a term only fit to describe women and gay men. My internal “I’m telling everyone what a massive asshole I am” alarm is going off like crazy as I write that, but I’m committed to being honest here so I’m ignoring that alarm. I’ll indict myself fully in the next paragraphs.
Most tragically, sassy is really, really belittling. After giving a lot of thought, I pretty sure it’s only appropriate to refer to children as sassy. Why? Because my right to label someone “sassy” implies that I know what’s appropriate in a given context and they don’t. It implies that I’m qualified to judge them. That they’re somehow under me in a way that makes it okay for me to assess and label their assertiveness one way or another. To put this more painfully, it shows that we men felt entitled to judge her and all women (and apparently even gay men, to my surprise) on their ability to participate at “our level” in things. That’s phenomenally bad.
The sum of all of this is pretty obvious but I’m going to spell it out anyway. We, men, these men, myself included, are still a bunch of male-supremacist assholes. When another man asserts himself or has a generally boisterous personality we probably call him things like boisterous or assertive. Maybe in the extreme case, aggressive or domineering, or an asshole. We probably also compliment him for it because he’s an engine — a steamroller. What’s interesting is that we describe him relative to how he makes us feel for the most part. With this woman, we described her in a way that reiterates her status relative to us. We put her beneath our implicit superiority — because she was trying to reach across and behave as a peer. We don’t give her the option of being able to make us feel any particular way other than sassed by an inferior.
For the haters:
‘Dude, you’re reading a lot into this one conversation?’
Yes. Yes, I am.
‘Man, is the problem really *this* bad? Aren’t you just making it worse drawing so much attention to it?’
Depends on how much you care about giving everyone who would love to be in technical roles the ability to be in them without having to look up a steep hill of tiny bias-pebbles every single day. I would say that’s pretty important.
‘Doesn’t it seem hopeless making this much noise when there are countless similar events happening in others contexts without anyone batting an eyelash?’
Not on your life. You have to start somewhere. This is my first attempt at changing things by being willing to be the guy who owns what we as guys think and to hold us accountable for it.
‘Oh, this again.’
Haters gonna hate.
Main point, again:
My goal in writing this isn’t to flame a handful of dudes about an offhand comment made at a dinner. It’s to point out, own, and debug a perspective problem that manifests in offhnad comments at dinners everywhere all the time. I want to be a guy that women want to work with. Someone a woman will trust to give her credit where it’s due — to take her just as seriously as anyone else with the same abilities and different anatomy.
Aside from the fact that it’s just extremely obviously wrong to feel any differently, I feel this way because my experiences working on teams with both women and men is that women make kick ass engineers and kick ass teammates. If you disagree fundamentally, you should be very skeptical of your perspective. You might be suffering from the same subtle biases I’m trying to get past.