Last night, as we took the train back from a friend’s birthday outing, a young man got on the train who instantly put me on alert. For a while, I tried to figure out what it was – his oddly clenched jaw, the sly look of his narrowed eyes (or were those just his eyes?), the constant readjusting of his over-large sweatpants, standing too close to others on a car that was only semi-crowded? I decided he was probably a pickpocket, and decided to keep my eye on him.
At one point, I lost track of him in the larger shuffle at 42nd street. I eventually saw him again, sitting across the car from me with one hand on his knee and the other on the seat near his hip, almost underneath a sleeping woman’s behind. Then I knew I was right to be on guard, but he wasn’t a pickpocket: he was a creep.
As I watched him slowly move his hand further over and her attempts to shrink away after his touch woke her, I got angrier and angrier. How come nobody else sees this? What is wrong with this guy?! I wanted so badly to say something and start a fight, and 10 years ago, I probably would have. Instead, I confirmed with my husband what was happening, and decided that it was the girl who was worth interacting with, not the guy.
She looked exhausted, like the way you might look after a 12 hour shift, and horrified. So I got up and gave her my seat, between my husband and another woman. When we got off the train a few stops later, I asked another girl on the train to take my husband’s seat. The relief in the “thank you” as we left almost made me cry.
As someone who lived in Manhattan as a kid, spent 2 months every year for 12 years after that back in Manhattan, and now lives in the NYC metro again, I have good urban instincts. They’re not all instincts though; it’s gut feelings as amplified by small things you’ve learned to notice through experiencing them over and over. When women talk about feeling “creeped out”, especially by an individual, we are frequently challenged to provide some kind of definitive proof. Even more than that one guy pissed me off, this enrages me. What is proof in these cases – waiting to take a picture of a guy after he’s managed to get his hand up somebody’s skirt instead of doing something about it before it gets to that point? What a horrific thing to believe in needing.
I had an instinct and the chance to act on it in a small and safe way when all signs pointed to it being correct, so I took it. I hope that woman made it home safely. Since creeps aren’t going away, and their behavior frequently excused (somebody nearby finally noticed and said that the guy must have been high, like that makes it okay), I also hope that we can support erring on the side of caution, especially when it costs us so little to do so. Trust instincts that come from a lifetime of experience. Please.
I’m not much of a hashtag participant or follower on Twitter. Sometimes I find myself being contrary and wanting to just outright ignore something because I think the hashtag seems kind of dumb. But over the last couple of days, the things being shared with #YesAllWomen caught my eye. I shared a couple of things myself, and then I became aware of something that felt straight up disgusting.
I feel lucky because I don’t think I’ve been harassed much.
Not only am I repulsed by this realization, but I’ve also realized I’m scared. I’m currently leading a round number release of the most popular publishing software on the internet. What’s going to happen when it comes out and somebody doesn’t like something? I’ve seen the vitriol of those who feel slighted by the software. I’ve seen the amount of abuse our forum moderators endure. I get the creepy emails personally. I’m really fucking scared of what might come my way as I become ever more visible. If it weren’t for knowing that I kick ass, having an incredible amount of support behind me from men and women alike, and generally being unwilling to yield to other people’s bullshit, I would probably have quit long ago.
I’ve already been harassed plenty. The guy who kept trying to touch my hair and give me hugs, was told “no, I don’t like people touching me without permission, unexpected contact provokes involuntary reactions”, yet felt surprised enough to call me a bitch when he grabbed me from behind and got a stiletto through his shin as I kicked back. The guy who tried to play it like he was the gentleman walking me home from a grad student event, even after I stated I was perfectly happy being alone, and shoved his way into my apartment. The emails I’ve been getting ever since my picture became a regular part of the WordPress credits screen. The catcalls that lead to me being called a “stuck up chink slut” when I don’t respond the way they want.
Despite that, I’ve heard and witnessed enough to know that what I’ve experienced as a woman and in particular as a woman working in the world of technology pales in comparison to many, many of my friends and peers. I’ve become more certain every day that I will face much worse yet. I have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that not getting harassed *too* much has become my baseline of existence. And the constant not-frightening-yet-unwelcome attention? Doesn’t even factor in anymore. This sucks. This isn’t how anybody should be treated – not me, not other women, not men, not anybody anywhere. We are not objects that exist solely for others.
I often feel conflicted when talking or thinking about what one might label as feminist issues. For many people, gender has influenced difficulties that have shaped who they are, and they often and understandably have a louder voice and a more thought-out viewpoint when it comes to issues stemming from gender. I have two specific tough things that I feel have shaped me, neither of which is being female. The primary one is growing up getting beaten by my parent on the regular. The secondary one is my race, or rather the racism associated with it. Largely fueled by the rage from the former, I got into a lot of altercations over things like being called a chink or a savage who needed to come to know the name of Jesus Christ (I’m not exaggerating: that actually happened, and hilariously on the same day my whole family got baptized in church).
As I’ve kept allowing myself brief digs into the past, I’ve realized that it’s not really that cut and dried, as nothing ever is. There is a hint of sexism mixed into the racism here and there. Moments like the customer at a Chinese restaurant who handed me a two dollar bill, saying “I bet your sweet ass ain’t never seen one of these.” The many guys (well, and girls, in the interest of being thorough) who have commented on my exotic Asian hair and asked to touch it, or worse yet, just helped themselves to a stroke or two. The innumerable comments I have gotten about how surprised they are that I’m not a submissive Asian female, which usually follows an exclamation over how good my English is.
If you’re here and thinking, “oh come on, not all men are treating you like crap” — well, no shit. But a majority of men treating me either wonderfully or not treating me like anything at all because we don’t interact doesn’t erase the fact that there will be some number of men who treat me like crap, and that small number is more than enough for me to put my safety and peace of mind first. It also doesn’t mean that all women treat me well, because “all” or “never” aren’t realistic statements. What we should be wondering is why and how so many women have had something to share, prompted by something as brief as a hashtag. Why haven’t we heard these stories before, how could it be so common, why is our first reaction to be defensive, how can we all find a way to be better? Why do we try to pretend that a small minority of harassers doesn’t actually have a disproportionately huge effect when they so clearly do?
Here’s what I’m not doing: I’m not pretending there is some magical solution, or even a known goal where we could call things “fixed”. I’m not going to make distracting hypothetical comparisons between how X group experiences constant and systematic harassment and the way Y group does or doesn’t. Believing that direct comparisons can and should be drawn between diverse groups and diverse experiences is the height of arrogance. It’s also irresponsible to make statements like “well, X wouldn’t happen if this was about Y”. We can’t know that, and again, it tends to detract from otherwise valuable discussion.
What I am going to do is keep listening to people who have things they need to share, find ways to show people they’re not alone, and continue to calmly and carefully talk through how a comment somebody might think they are lightly making about “not ALL men” is not just distracting, but actively destructive. More tellingly, though, I’m also going to keep being extra careful about how I present myself online and in person, because I still don’t feel safe.
I made a bit of a mistake today. I read the comments on a post, and not just any post – one on Valleywag. It’s not a complete mistake, though – it reminds me about some things I’ve been thinking through about maternity leave, having taken one quite recently myself.
The gist of the comment was a view I’ve heard several times: hiring pregnant women is bad for business. They are a liability and stick all the other schmucks with their entire workload while they take off and suck the company’s coffers dry. Paying somebody to go have a work-free vacation is a terrible business decision and an investment with no return. And so on, and so forth.
Maternity leave in the USA is a tough topic. I’m not going to pretend I can analyze it or know all the facts ever, or that I have any sort of polarized and/or political opinion, but here’s what I do know. We’re one of four countries on this planet who don’t have any national paid maternity leave. Federally, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of job safety to an employee at a qualified company (50+ employees, and other things) caring for a newborn (among some other situations and provisions). On a state level, there can be legislation going further than that. In New Jersey, you can file for up to 10 weeks of disability pay (4 before birth, 6 after) – however, in my understanding, you may not draw a paycheck during that time, meaning that you must pay the full premium of any employer insurance plan, as the employer cannot contribute anything toward it when you are not receiving pay.
When you hear about paid maternity leave in the US, generally the weight of it is borne by the employer (I say generally, but have to admit that I’m not versed enough to know what other situations might be). In a country where things like insurance and benefits are largely reliant on businesses and employers, it seems expected, but is also understandably difficult to implement, especially for smaller businesses where FMLA doesn’t apply to begin with. Certainly it take conscious effort on the part of the employer to provide paid leave if they so choose, and generally you find that businesses that provide it are either running at quite a large scale and/or have declared that parenting is a central part of their values.
How can it possibly be a good business decision? Well, if your evaluation methods of a good business decision rely solely on short-term raw numbers, then to you it probably won’t ever be one. But, there can be tangible benefits, both to you and to everybody, when looking at the bigger picture – a larger talent pool in being able to include those who appreciate what the company values (whether or not they personally would benefit), the ability to retain a great employee whose overall value now and into the future to the company far outweighs the raw cost of pay while on leave, general employee morale and thus productivity, and giving future generations (of employees!) more tools to having a happy, healthy life. Add to that the costs associated with on-boarding and training a completely new employee, especially at upper levels, and you will likely find that things balance out just fine, if not favorably.
If you have your workload directly and unexpectedly impacted by somebody (not just pregnant women or another parent) taking leave, your concern should be with your management, not the one taking that leave. Yes, of course any change in the workplace is going to have some effect, but most of the time, we are not on an episode of that “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” show – there is some warning and therefore time to plan and make adjustments. Good management will absorb most of the impact, make appropriate changes, and keep you informed about any direct changes. If you’re in management and unwilling to handle such impacts, then I wonder why you are at the higher levels in the first place. People leave jobs permanently, not just temporarily, for any number of reasons, so having a single point of failure is asking for future troubles anyway.
It’s also a great opportunity to step up and show that you are willing and able to take on a challenge and advance your job and your skills, whether or not that’s on a management level. It’s also a good time to evaluate what that employee who wants to take leave really wants to do. In my case, I had already been working toward creating a position as an internal employee (as opposed to being directly client-facing), so going on leave provided a natural yet clearly delineated timeline in which to introduce new faces to the clients I was working with and take the training wheels off completely at a given date.
I do think that there are steps a parent or parent-to-be can take to put themselves in a better position. Seeking employment at a company with good and clear benefits, finding a position that has some redundancy in personnel and thus flexibility, having a couple of contingency plans in the case that something doesn’t work out, etc. I do know that not every job one might want and/or is qualified for can fit into these overly generalized buckets, and there are factors in life that often limit possibilities and put your work situation out of your control. But, given that as an employee you play a part in a company’s success, it’s not unreasonable to hope that you take your own impact into consideration and play a proactive role in making leave a possibility, paid or not.
Even if you still don’t believe in the value of maternity leave yourself, you should be able to recognize that somebody gave birth to you and have a little respect for that, and not make statements about how terrible it is that it’s not lawful to discriminate against a pregnant woman and fire her, or not hire somebody at all just because she happens to be fertile (which you shouldn’t definitively know about in the first place). I believe in the value of maternity and parental leave, but Equal Employment Opportunity is law, and for good reason. When I see such disrespect, I feel sad that somebody’s life could be so devoid of positive female role models, and hope that women of all kinds (non-parents, working moms, and stay-at-home moms alike) can seek to fill that void.
As for those who like to tell pregnant women that they’re so lucky to go on a work-free vacation – well, growing a person and then pushing it out (or having it cut out, if that’s how things go) isn’t exactly my idea of a rocking good time. If you’re a nursing mom, then you get the added bonus of being on call as a 24/7 food machine, and for at least the first several weeks, we’re talking near-constant switching from side to side. Wanting to have and raise children is an interesting parallel to providing a benefit like maternity leave – maybe not super easy or intuitive when you think about the details of the process, but a no-brainer when you look at the overall outcome.
I am starting this blog post as one of those exercises in writing what you’re thinking/feeling so that it doesn’t eat you alive, and then maybe publishing the post if it doesn’t suck. So if you’re reading this, it’s because I thought it didn’t suck. Don’t attack, and don’t think that I think you should feel the same way I do. Unfortunately, since this is on the internet, people are going to be reading this who don’t know me at all. I recognize that, and so should you. You don’t have any context for what I’m about to write and I am probably not going to give you much. Such is the way.