Olivier Lacan

Software bricoleur, word wrangler, scientific skeptic, and logic lumberjack.

Gender Gravity

Written on August 07, 2012

Many words are hammered every day about what men and women do and should do in an environment when women are scarce and men aren’t.

I was taken aback by Liza Shulyayeva’s thoughtful blog post about coming to terms with the fact that since most people who surround her professionally are men, it’s likely that a large proportion of them harbor some sexual attraction to her.

She confesses that she didn’t come to terms with this because of any uncomfortable situation she directly had to face but simply because of someone whose opinion she values and who pointed it out.

Reading those lines is one of those moments. A moment like the one when a friend told me she had to plan her life around the absolute rule that she could never be alone walking somewhere at night.

Let that sink in for a moment. How often do you, as a man, wander about in the night from your office to a restaurant, or from a restaurant to a movie theather? How often do you think about your safety? Or the perception your loneliness projects on other people?

I’m sure you do think about your safety, you keep an eye out for your surroundings and the behavior of strangers around you, but on the whole as a man you can roam, freely. Now I invite you to consider for a moment, how you would consider a woman behaving as you do. Do you think it’s foolish? Irresponsible? Why do you? How can you possibly justify that if you value personal freedom?

Yes, reality is what it is. Men are often violent and abuse their average physical superiority over women in many ways, some discreet, others abject. But can you imagine having your life chained to that reality? Wouldn’t you revolt?

Let me come back to Liza’s premise, the emotional and physical attraction that seems impossible to avoid attracting when you are a woman in a world overwhelmingly dominated by men. While I’m certain there is a non-negligible proportion of men who simply want to enjoy the balance of power as it is, as a humanist and an optimist I like to think that people are often more vertuous than we like give them credit for. Ironically, this point of view is surely informed by a masculine bias.

My colleague Aimee Booth Simone was recently compelled to create a Meetup group called Central Florida Women in Tech and organize a Rails Bridge event dedicated to helping women learn to build web applications using Ruby on Rails. When she was in the early stages of organizing it she and I were talking about the rules of the event when it came to male students. She told me the only men allowed to participate were either teaching assistants or people accompanying women coming to the event. I found the rule interesting and asked her why she believed it had been established. Her answer boiled down to one feeling: comfort. It would be far less intimidating for women to get together in an environment where male-female interactions were essentially removed.

While this may sound drastic, I try to imagine if the situation were reversed. If a few geeky men were invited to join an large group of knowledgeable and often socially awkward women. While it’s easy to joke that men would hardly dislike the situation, in reality I doubt they would. The feeling of minority is never an easy one.

Now allow me to turn the tables on you.

Do you know why I came across Liza’s article? I was browsing Kickstarter for some of the comments left on the Try iOS campaign we recently launched. While doing so I noticed some positive comments, one of which attracted my attention more than the others.

liza’s comment

Why? Because:

  • it came from a woman who used the words “very happy to see this got funded”.
  • it didn’t contain any typos
  • the profile picture was quite attractive

So what did I do? I clicked on her name to learn more about her of course. Is that stalkerish? Maybe. I believe my curiosity isn’t unwarranted since any interest from women in technical matters is a boon to everybody. That said, I can’t deny that I wanted to learn more about her specifically, and not just “the person who was happy to see this funded”.

When I got to Liza’s profile page, here’s the order of things I noticed:

  1. She had only backed one project on Kickstarter, ours. Proud.
  2. She’s a web designer who likes JavaScript and AI. Cool.
  3. She's from Australia. Far. Awesome.
  4. “Have superpowers. Can fly”. Quirky.
  5. Her enlarged profile picture. Wow, she’s really cute.
  6. Her website. Hmm.

Feeling curious I visited her website, because I wanted to know more about her, and wondered if her website would be interesting. When I got there I saw the title of her most recent blog post (“Male-female interaction and the thing that I just realized has been nagging at me”) and it hit me.

Like many passionate people working in an industry of passionate people, I was excited about the idea of finding someone from the opposite sex who could share that passion, someone that could even challenge me in that domain. Yes, it was directed by physical attraction and common interests. But, in the end, I struggle to think of a better way to define how anybody else on this planet finds people they want to maybe, perhaps, someday, if things work out, spend their time with and love.

It know this doesn’t make it easier to live surrounded by so many people whose longing is directed at so few of you, but hopefully my point of view will provide some women out there with a less gloomy perception on all this attention.