Matt Gemmell

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A collection of personal essays, with exclusive content and author's notes.

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Misogyny

Women, Morality & Tech 13 min read

I’ve previously written at some length about the evils of religion, but they pale against a far greater, more pernicious, more widespread blight on society. Religion itself, as always, continues to support and propagate this greater cruelty. And unlike religion, sadly, it’s not being rapidly abandoned by the more civilised countries and enlightened people.

Do you know the word “misandry”? You probably don’t, or you didn’t until you just looked it up. It’s a relatively modern word; about 70 years old. It means a hatred of men.

You do, however, almost certainly know the word misogyny. It’s an older word; something of the order of a few centuries. The hatred of women. The modern ‘misandry’ is modelled on the pattern of the older ‘misogyny’. The etymology is both factually true and deeply symbolic.

Confidence

All of our societies are rife with sexism, which is founded on misogyny. It’s the great, omnipresent crime of the ages, and its victims are fully half of the population. The shame we ought to feel should be absolute.

Men can be blind to many facets of sexism. I’ve been blind in some ways myself. We’re quick to classify positive attributes as inherently male, but when challenged about gender disparity and inequality, we reverse the process, claiming that individual women simply lack drive, negotiating skills, or confidence.

Confidence is environmental. It’s easy to be confident when you’re called “Sir” from adolescence, when you hear about the best man for the job, and when summoning courage or stoicism is to “man up”. How cartoonish when considered from a distance, but how compelling to young (male) ears. The greatest hero (never heroine) of the moment is literally “The Man”.

Confidence is a little trickier to muster when you’re pre-judged due to the incidental fact of being female, or when your viewpoint can be dismissed as down to uncontrolled emotion, or timidity, or hormones. When perceptions of your physical power become an albatross around your neck, and when the default compliment is not about your abilities, but rather your appearance.

Confidence is bred from privilege and security, two things which women lack - in both cases, sadly, due to men. It’s difficult for men to understand a woman’s perspective on threatening language or behaviour, on lewd remarks, or even on the prospect of walking home alone, along a dark street. The world is actually two radically different places, yet we see only one.

Our selective generalisation is something that often strikes me. A positive or praiseworthy act by one man is implicitly claimed by all; it’s the essence of our socially-conditioned entitlement. Yet the acts most quickly stereotyped for women are those that are foolish, or poorly considered, or accidentally amusing.

Women are very aware of it. Their implicit ambassadorship is the bane of every woman who stalls a car, feeling the real or imagined weight of male derision turning towards her. The assumption (very often, sadly correct) that any error will be generalised across one’s entire gender, and will only serve to confirm and reinforce preexisting biases. A pressure that men rarely face.

Social conditioning

Sexism and misogyny have always been with us. We have always sought to control women, to limit their liberties, and even in more enlightened societies to reinforce certain double-standards in terms of how we expect women to behave.

We’ve made some progress in the last couple of generations, such that we now feel not only nostalgia but disbelief when seeing the blatant sexism of Mad Men’s world, or the portrayal of women in vintage ads. We’ve attempted to enshrine equality in law, if not always in practice. We’ve begun to address the overt, but not so much the covert.

Our society still inflicts a thousand paper-cuts on a woman’s confidence. Unnecessarily gender-specific, gender-illuminating or gender-characterising remarks. Social assumptions about who is paying the bill, or who is to be spoken to as an authority figure, or (more subtly) whose ego is to be primarily accommodated during an interaction.

Saddest of all, we see the horror of social conditioning on women themselves; female misogyny.

  • For goodness’ sake, woman!
  • Stupid woman.
  • Ugh. I hate offices full of women.
  • I bet the driver is a woman.
  • Women need to learn some responsibility.

Whilst these phrases have been spoken countless hundreds of thousands, or millions, of times by men, I’ve heard all of them in person spoken by women. The last one is particularly troubling, since the context was of course that of reproduction, abortion and so forth; an area in which women’s liberties are being more openly assailed than ever, even in the developed world.

It’s impossible not to feel a deep guilt and dread when seeing an anti-female stance espoused by a woman. It’s the same as when a homosexual person feels guilty about their natural state due to religion’s febrile influence - a shocking psychological assault that has no place in civilised society.

Whilst we must account for teenage foolishness and deliberate controversy-stirring, it’s difficult not to feel horrified, for example, at unsettling remarks from young women, saying they’d allow Chris Brown to beat them.

Caution: the links in the next paragraph are not safe for work (NSFW), or indeed for decent, reasonable people in any circumstance.

Taken to its disgusting extreme, we can even find enclaves of people who are ‘enthusiasts’ of not only (NSFW) misogyny itself, but even (NSFW) beating women and (NSFW) raping women.

There are few words that can address the existence of such ‘communities’, or a society which can tolerate them in any form, regardless of law.

Reproductive rights

We’ve been making a concerted effort to control women’s bodies since time immemorial. Whilst we’re now at a point where you’d expect us to have moved beyond these primitive, fear-based motivations, there actually seems to be a resurgence of this unique brand of injustice. The US Republican party is waging an all-out war against women, with reproductive rights at its centre.

My own wife utterly dreads the possibility of being called to travel on business to the USA, in the current climate. From TSA fondling, to legal powers of unjustified strip-search, faux-terror laws permitting criminal periods of detainment, to the horrendous and knuckle-dragging limitations that some States would place on her fellow women, she would almost rather visit a country governed by Sharia law.

And who can forget the grotesque Rush Limbaugh’s well-publicised remarks that if student Sandra Fluke wanted free contraception, she should publish videos of herself having sex? There is a cancer there, and it’s not limited to America.

It seems trivially true to me that:

  • My rights as a person end where yours begin.
  • Your rights always include the domain of your own body.
  • A current person takes precedence over a future or otherwise hypothetical person, with the boundary moderated solely by the best available science of the time (and never, ever by religious or other pseudomoral ‘frameworks’).

So many self-identified Christians (particularly, but by no means limited to, Catholics), Muslims and others impose brutal restrictions on women’s behaviour, rights and roles, much of it seemingly founded on a bizarre and outdated belief that a woman’s ability to bear young corresponds to a responsibility.

Let me make this perfectly clear: a woman has no duty of reproduction. Not personally, and not socially. She has a right (in sound mind) to determine the outcome of a pregnancy, and a wish to not carry to term does not - and cannot - constitute a failure in judgement, or a lack of ‘womanhood’. The very association is contemptible, reducing women to little more than offspring-producing automatons.

There’s no population shortage here (quite the contrary, in fact), which is just about the only scenario where I could conceive of legal meddling in a woman’s dominion over her body and its functions. Yet we continue to meddle with the very thing that we have least authority and connection with, as witnessed by the shameful ludicrousness of an Israeli gynaecological conference with no women speakers (women are, however, “allowed in the audience, in a section separate from men” - how terribly progressive and tolerant).

Women in technology

My own industry (more or less) is that of technology. I’m at least partly a software developer, and I’m involved in the technology sector and its various offshoots. Our industry has a poor reputation for gender equality, and the treatment of women - and it’s probably deserved.

We’re insular, and we have a skewed view of women which is self-perpetuating. Ours is the industry where the comments on a technical interview focus more on the female interviewer than the content, where female drinks-serving staff at programming events are characterised as “perks”, and where event organisers fail to address the negative impact of having “booth babes”. We’re also closely related to (and have a continuous intake of new talent from) the vast pool of young, male video-game players who treat women appallingly when playing online.

Yes, you can point to yourself and say that you’re not like that. You can talk about the social issues. You can say that your own personal experience has been different, and that some of your best friends and colleagues and mentors are female. I can do that too. That’s fine. That’s not the point. It’s not like that generally, or enough.

It’s at this point that the “women don’t choose to go into technology or programming” argument is usually trotted out, as if that’s somehow an independent and self-justified phenomenon, rather than a symptom of the problem. There’s no inherent unsuitability, nor any lack of interest. Social context gives rise to damaging expectations and gender roles, which quickly leads to peer pressure being a factor in the gender imbalance amongst developers.

Men don’t have to validate their presence, interest or (to the same degree, at least) aptitude in this industry. We are expected to be “more technical”. People even wheel out ridiculously irrelevant studies about brain activity to provide some kind of faux-biological context - as if software engineering was some genius-level discipline requiring every ounce of a notional neurological advantage. What drivel. The gender imbalance is a social and societal phenomenon.

The proof is all around, even without resorting to common sense. There are any number of positive female role models, both past and present. They’re successful because of who they are, and the work they put in - and neither because of nor despite the incidental fact of their gender. Indeed, being treated as a student, rather than a ‘girl’, is very important in building confidence, as any reasonable person would immediately intuit.

We still have a lot of work to do. I attend technical conferences periodically, and the gender imbalance is a travesty. Not just “unequal”, or “not ideal” - it’s shocking. Further, there are assumptions made about women who are present at conferences. They must be someone’s girlfriend, or in some ancillary or “soft” discipline vaguely related to software development, like the visual arts. That’s a prejudiced assumption.

My wife sometimes attends conferences with me. Every time, with the best of intentions, someone will strike up a conversation with her, and offer some variant of the following:

  • This must be really boring for you!
  • What’s it like to be around all these geeks?
  • So what is it you do for a living?
  • Don’t worry, not all the talks are going to be that technical!

I tend to stay quiet, and I confess to enjoying hearing her very graciously tell the person that, actually, she holds an Honours degree in Computing Science, and is a software engineer for Amazon. She manages a team of engineers, and has direct expertise in the sorts of very serious and grown-up things you’d expect an Amazon software engineer to have. She has experience in more technologies than I do. She’s been responsible for more revenue than I ever have, or almost certainly ever will. And she’s a girl! Some people have the good grace to blush.

It’s not the questions or remarks that are the actual problem (as I said, they’re universally meant considerately and generously, and we’re both very grateful for the effort people make), but rather the automatic assumption. A juxtaposition of gradual enlightenment and entrenched attitudes.

We watched the original Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?” the other night, and it was the perfect combination of socially-sexist and progressive attitudes. In the episode, Kirk wryly laments that he’ll no doubt lose a very promising female Lieutenant when she inevitably decides to leave Starfleet to have a family - this is treated as an automatic, unquestionable course of events. Coupled with the short skirts and soft-focus close-up shots, the bridge of the Enterprise is at that moment very clearly a television sound-stage in the 1960s; not the future, but a past we can only half-imagine.

Later in the same episode, however, with Kirk trapped on the planet, Uhura is wiring up and soldering a communications circuit, and when she tells Mr. Spock that it’ll take some time since she hasn’t performed the task in several years, he expresses his complete confidence that there’s no better person on board for the extremely technical and critically important task. Uhura is validated and encouraged, and no doubt every woman watching the show (particularly African-American women, I should imagine) feels a completely natural jolt of pride and potential. Uhura is valued for her skills, and absolutely trusted to exercise them - and even her moment of self-doubt is both expressed and handled without regard to her gender. It’s a lovely moment, and it edifies us all.

Moments like these aren’t strange to watch, neither on television nor in real life. They’re not jarring, because they’re the most natural thing in the world; they’re how men are already treated. We all have a responsibility to make gender less of an issue, even if we must begin by making it more of one.

I don’t just attend technical events; I speak at them fairly often too. If you’re thinking about inviting me to speak, have you considered instead looking outside the usual suspects and actively seeking inspirational female speakers? I made a list of some women you’d want to speak at your event. I’m no better than them. Ask one of them instead of me. I’m not “giving up my space”; I’m asking you to make an affirmative choice now so that in future we can rightly consign this imbalance to history.

Moving forward

I mentioned feminism recently on Twitter. The first two responses (which were from men, who comprise the vast, vast majority of those who read my tweets), were intriguing. Firstly, from a seemingly younger man, judging from his profile picture:

Feminist? Seriously? Why should women recieve (sic) more rights then men or transgendered people? Equal rights.

And then from someone perhaps around my age:

Is there a word for a masculine version of a feminist? Someone who stands up for men's rights. Don’t think so. Should there be?

What fear we feel, and how readily we couch it in a greater reasonableness.

I understand fear as a motivator; as an animal, I’m hard-wired to. Unfortunately, fear is the ultimate egocentric view-limiter. We forget that our concerns must be weighed not in isolation, but relative to others.

In fact, the definition of feminism (at least, the one I subscribe to - and the dictionary seems to agree) is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of equality. It is not, for example, “female supremacy”, or matriarchy or whatever else these men may be inwardly afraid of. We must change that attitude first; rights aren’t an either-or situation. Some issues are hard, but it’s those we must tackle most directly.

Misogyny is an anachronism, and is cancerous not just to society, to the workplace, to the economy and the large constructs of humanity, but to the individual people that many of us care most about. It’s not an abstract thing to only be debated; it’s a real, actual injustice, inconceivably prevalent even in our ostensibly most advanced nations.

Feminism was a distant and academic concept for me as a younger man, but as I’ve become an adult (a process that by no means ends - or has even significantly begun - when we reach adulthood), I’ve found it increasingly difficult to see feminism and misogyny as somehow separate from the actual women in my life. Because, of course, there’s no separation at all. This is an immediate and appallingly widespread issue for them, and it’s my issue too. Our wives, our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our friends and our colleagues. Even strangers on the street.

Every other prejudice or type of discrimination pales in comparison to this one. Religious persecution. Racism. Homophobia. All hideous, and all shameful. If you’re a woman, you can be subject to these things in addition to the curse of our attitudes towards your gender. More than half of our species. A crime whose victims you see every time you glance out of any window in the world.

None of us are entirely blameless. I’ve made sexist remarks. I’ve jumped to sexist conclusions, or made sexist generalisations, secure in the various axes of my male, white, heterosexual privilege. I’m by no means free of blame, nor of guilt. But I’m not suggesting we spend all our time castigating ourselves; that’s not what’s required.

Our society has engineered itself to perpetuate certain attitudes, because those attitudes reflect not only male fears but also our self-interest in maintaining the upper hand. That’s outdated, self-limiting and unnecessary. It can also be changed just as easily, by accretion and by action.

It’s shameful that anti-women attitudes are enshrined in law, both current and proposed, across much of the world. It’s an appalling condemnation of our society that we allow it to continue. It’s an ignored and accepted bigotry, with an unprecedented number of victims. It must be fought.

Drawing conclusions along gender lines is at best unproductive and at worst irrational. Even if you can (currently) argue correlation, that’s a far cry from proving causation. Even then, it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you believe that a gender-correlated difference exists; the point is that nothing is universally true, and that people must not be discriminated against or even discouraged. It’s the function of an evolved society to root our discriminations regardless of basis. By that process, we usually discover that they were baseless instead.

Ultimately, it comes down to each of us opening our eyes and becoming aware of the sea of subtly sexist constructs and attitudes in which we exist, and of our own contributions to that negative state of affairs. We must rein in any casual sexism we might be guilty of, and we must do whatever we can to repair the damage by ensuring that women are enfranchised, included, and at liberty to determine their own roles.

A key goal must be to help make sure that women have positive role models, and that those people are celebrated on merit rather than either because of or despite their gender; the same situation men enjoy in every walk of life. Nothing combats discrimination as effectively as an environment in which it seems ludicrously out of touch with reality.

That’s the world I’d like to live in - for myself, and for the important people in my personal and professional life who happen to be women.

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