Monday, October 25, 2010

If you make a jest that you have to follow with "just kidding," you probably shouldn't make it

A couple of weeks ago I attended WCRE at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. It was a great location for a conference. There was a hotel adjacent to the meeting rooms, which was connected to the dining hall. There was a beach a short walk behind the dining hall.

Although women were still a minority of attendees, they had a strong showing. The first six presenters at the conference were women. The first man to present was a keynote speaker. Then, he was followed by another woman speaker. The best paper award was presented to a woman first author. The award for most influential paper from ten years ago also went to a woman first author.

Consequently, the issue of gender came up more often than usual in social conversations. One male colleague thought there were an equal number of women and men in the field. (A simple count of the people in the room proved this to be false.) Another joked that we should change the "W" in WCRE to Women. (I'd love to, but if we did, would men still submit papers?)

I have great affection for my male colleagues. They are great researchers and they have never made me feel incompetent or question my ability to participate in the community. But sometimes they have the social sensitivity of a coconut. More than once, one of them would say something in jest, that they knew to be "politically incorrect." I could tell that they knew this because the comment was stage whispered, or they said "just kidding" or equivalent, or put on a mock innocent expression on their face, or some combination of these three.

Here are three examples of conversations that I had.

1. I was in a conversation with two other women and a man. We were comparing the organizational skills of male and female students. In my experience, women students were more organized than men. One of the other women mentioned that her supervisor was impressed because she knew when were all the conference deadlines. I said that the only students who have shown up to a weekly meeting with me without a pen or paper to take notes were men. Our male colleague tried to joke that this was because men have better memories, and put on a mock innocent face. None of the women in the conversation found this funny.

2. At dinner one night, I used a purse hanger to keep my handbag out of the way and off the floor. The women in the group got into a conversation about the purse hanger and handbags. One woman said that she never got in the habit of carrying a handbag because it felt awkward. One of the men in our group asked, what kind of woman doesn't carry a purse? I told him that I didn't think this was an appropriate comment, to make generalizations about real women carrying purses. He responded strongly with a typical computer science reaction. He accused me of making a generalization when one didn't exist. He re-stated the question: what kind of woman doesn't carry a purse? a woman who doesn't carry a purse. Although logically correct, this way of speaking violates many social norms. It is much like a child saying outrageous, like asking for candy for dinner, and then saying that he is kidding when he gets in trouble.

3. I have a number of dietary restrictions- no gluten, dairy, caffeine. I also try to stay away from beef and I have not had alcohol in years. This topic always comes up at meal times with acquaintances, which happens frequently at conferences. I got into a conversation with a male colleague, who was a real food connoisseur and he was flabbergasted by the list. He lived for food and couldn't imagine living without cheese or wine. He asked if these sensitivities were psychosomatic. Despite my irritation at the suggestion that my problems were in my head, I assured him that they were not. He then leaned in and whispered, if still enjoyed sex. I answered that I didn't and the conversation ended.

Guys, if you have to tell me that a joke is funny, then it isn't. In general, don't tell these jokes. These actions are condescending and manipulative. You're saying something that is on the edge of acceptable and then telling me that I shouldn't be offended. I can either go along with it being funny (when it's not) or I can have a confrontation with you. If I choose the latter, I isolate myself socially and I develop a reputation for being too sensitive, a bitch, or -heavens for fend- a feminist.

Don't make jokes of this kind, it's not good for you. I have been part of the program comprehension community for over ten years. Like all women in a male-majority field, I have a thick skin. When I tell you that you have stepped over a line, I don't do it because I am mad at you or my feelings are hurt. I do it for the women who follow me in the field. If I didn't care about you and the field of research, I wouldn't bother telling you and let you continue to look like an idiot and drive away women.

Finally, here is an example of a story that was on the edge of good taste and mentioned sex, but I did find it funny. I include this to illustrate my complaint is not so much about the topic of a jest, but rather at whom the jest is directed and how.

A male colleague was talking about getting on in years and the aches and pains in his body. He was reluctant to bring up this story at first, so he warned that it was politically incorrect-- he liked to go skeet shooting. On one occasion an older man joined him for a few rounds. Afterward, they were having refreshments. The older man asked my colleague to guess how old he was. My colleague guessed 70-something. The man was actually over 90 and astonishingly well preserved. The man had two complaints about old age. One, he needed to take more breaks between rounds of skeet shooting, and two, he was less interested in women than he used to be. (My colleague apologized again for the political incorrectness of the story.) My colleague said that if that was all he had to complain about at 90, he would take it.

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