Grace Hopper and the psychological drain on the gender minority
As I flew into Houston for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the words of one of my coworkers kept pumping me up. When I had asked whether I should consider attending, he said: “Absolutely. If nothing else, it’s worth it so that you can finally experience what it’s like to be in the gender minority.” I didn’t really know what to expect from that, but while I was prepping to listen and learn as much as I could, another part of my brain was gearing up for deep introspection. I wanted to be uncomfortable.
Those weren’t the only words that rang through my head leading up to this week. My mind also kept going back to the various friends that I had told about the conference, and their responses that made me mad for reasons I didn’t understand. “So why are they sending you?” or “Is a man really best to recruit women?” or more often just a kind of skeptical chuckle. If I had to guess, there was another unspoken aspect to their skepticism: not only was I a man, but I was a gay man. So in some strange way because I wasn’t even interested in women, it was nonsensical to send me after them. But then again, no one said that bit to my face, so I can’t really know.
Determined not to have my friends’ offhand remarks have any control on me, I walked up to the convention center on the first day full of optimism. I was there, and I was ready to see what it was like to be on the other side. And that happened fast, well before I stepped foot into the convention center.
This conference is pretty large — 15,000 people this year — and the lines to get into the building were long even though I was early. Naturally, the line was mostly women — I had expected that. But of the perhaps 100 people in line that I could see, I couldn’t see another man. My normally logical brain switched off and gave way to a much more neurotic amygdala, flooding me with questions of self-doubt and a tinge of panic. Had I misjudged this conference? Maybe men weren’t actually welcome to attend? Maybe the fact that I got a ticket was a mistake, and now all the women were looking at me wondering what tricks I had pulled to get in? I glanced down at my conference badge — clearly it had my name, I was supposed to be there. Maybe I had just chosen the wrong line, some sort of privileged line for women?
While my brain was busy with its inward, frantic double-checking, I almost didn’t notice the security guard walking down the line of waiting women. “Good morning, ladies!” she trumpeted in a cheery tone. She locked eyes with me, and after what felt like quite a long hesitation added, “…and gentlemen.” She started walking over to me, and in that moment, I was absolutely sure I had been right. Men weren’t allowed at this conference, or certainly not in this line. I had screwed up already. The words she uttered to me as she got close certainly didn’t make me feel any better: “I’m sorry, but I’m going to use you as an example.”
The security guard turned back to the line as a whole. “Ladies and gentlemen, please have your bags open and ready for inspection! No snacks or drinks allowed, except for water bottles. And the bottles have to be store-bought.” She reached out and grabbed the reusable water bottle that I forgot I had been holding. “Reusable bottles must be emptied!”
As she handed my water bottle back to me, I could feel all eyes turn to me. I have no idea if that actually happened — it almost definitely didn’t — but my face was burning nonetheless. Not only was I a man, but I was a man who clearly had no respect for the rules. And that’s when the next realization hit me. My natural habitat is as far from the spotlight as I can reasonably be. Except that for the next three days, not only was I a minority, but I was a very visible minority. I stuck out. I was easily noticed, easily remembered. There was no way I could participate in one of my favorite and most comforting activities: fading well into the background.
This feeling of being all too visible stayed with me for the rest of the conference. There were times when it was more in the back of my mind, such as when I was listening to a particularly interesting technical talk that just happened to have been given by a woman. There were times when it leapt to the front, such as whenever I had to use the bathroom (though to be honest, I was grateful for the lack of long lines). And there were the times when for a moment I actually, truthfully, fully forgot I was different, only to have my delusion shattered by a friendly woman with an innocent comment: “a bit outnumbered, aren’t you?”
A feeling of distinct visibility is one thing, and it’s certainly not all bad. But I found that things inside me started to get a bit more insidious. I started feeling, and treating myself, like a second-class citizen. When there was limited time for questions after a talk, I felt like I shouldn’t ask questions since there were more than enough questions from women to fill the time — and I didn’t. When there was a long line for a particularly popular session that was certain to fill up, I wondered whether I should be taking up a spot in that session when a real participant of the conference could have it. And when I watched a woman obviously and intentionally cut in that same line, directly in front of me, I stopped myself from calling her out — partly because I felt she deserved the spot more than me, but more because of a fear that the other women around me would immediately side with her and assume I was being an aggressive, entitled man.
The self-conscious fear of stereotypes didn’t stop there. I remember multiple times throughout the conference wondering what the women thought of this strange man, and whether I was there as some sort of predator excited to be surrounded by so many potential targets. More comically, shortly after my water bottle felony, I had the horrible realization that out of all my options, I had chosen to wear a pink shirt to the first day of this event. What would the women think of that? That because I was going to a women’s conference, I had to wear a “feminine” color? Or that I wanted to show solidarity with them in a terribly misdirected way? Or that I was trying to make some sort of pretentious statement about inverting gender roles? Or maybe I was trying to make them feel safe around me, so that I could further pursue my aforementioned predatory behavior?
The irony here isn’t lost on me. At a conference devoted to the advancement of women in a male-dominated industry, where all too often women aren’t judged on their abilities but instead on their physical appearance and choice of clothing, I stood panicking about my pink shirt. In this place, where I’m supposed to learn how to be an effective ally to women feeling discriminatory pressure, I felt frozen under even the tiniest amount of such pressure.
The last night of the conference, I slipped out of the closing party early and found my way to a quiet bar where I could reflect. As the experiences of the past few days rolled around in my head, a different type of self-doubt crept up. Everything I had experienced, after all, was relatively minor — the seemingly joking or good-natured comments, the subtle reminders that I was out of place, the petty internal criticisms I had let persist in my mind. Was this really something that was worth compiling, something that was worth telling someone about?
That’s when it hit: not only is it worth talking about, but it’s exactly the point. That’s precisely what I was supposed to be learning. That in my relatively modern, relatively tolerant workplace, where there isn’t often overt sexual discrimination (with unfortunately, exceptions), this is how you can still have serious problems with gender equality. It’s the little things — the microaggressions, the reminders that you don’t fit in, the lurking feelings of self-doubt. That’s what compounds day after day, year after year, ultimately leading to an industry that women leave at a rate double that of men.
Let me be perfectly clear: I still have no idea what it feels like to be a woman in this industry. It’s very likely I never will. I felt something vaguely analogous, something on a much smaller scale and in a setting ultimately friendly to me. The internal battle I felt about whether to talk about these issues has to be negligible compared to what women who have faced this their entire career must feel. But it was just enough of a taste that something finally clicked, that the tiniest spark of understanding finally flashed in the back of my brain.
The ultimate futility of sharing this story is that if you’re a man reading this, you also can’t get that spark just by reading what I’m describing. Because I had read things like this before, and in the moment I thought I had understood it. Looking back now, I clearly didn’t. It takes actually participating in something like this, actually feeling how it starts to eat away at your self-confidence and self-worth, to begin seeing even the blurriest picture of what it must be like for those who face this challenge on such a large scale.
So if you’re like I was, considering Grace Hopper and wondering if it’s worth it, let me tell you now: Absolutely. If nothing else, it’s worth it so that you can finally experience what it’s like to be in the gender minority. It worked for me.