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A Guy Walks Into A Bra

DATE POSTED:September 2, 2021

A recent and surprisingly unpleasant professional encounter found me thinking again about an experience I had in the late 90s during my earlier career as a web developer before I went to law school. I'd gotten involved with a group that put on monthly meetings on topics of interest to the local community of Internet professionals. After the meetings a bunch of us would typically go out for dinner to chat and catch up. I did know some women from the organization, but I think most of the time the friends I went out with afterwards were men. It has never really bothered me to be in situations where I am outnumbered by men, so long as I'm treated with the respect of an equal. And I had no quarrel with my male friends on that front. But that evening drove home a reason why it was not good for women not to be better represented in technology in general.

Out at dinner we began "talking shop" almost immediately, discussing, in those early days of the Web, the importance of e-commerce to businesses and what sort of web presences companies needed to have in order to be able to profit from the Internet. We started listing stories of successes and failures, but the conversation ground to a halt once I offered my example:

"I have a bra I really like, and I'd like to buy another, but I can't seem to find a web site for the brand that would allow me to order one."

(Men, I am assuming that you will keep reading the rest of this post, so that I can make my point. But based on my friends' reaction I wouldn't be surprised if you've already slammed down the lid of your laptop, or tossed aside your phone, and run away. In which case, if that's your inclination, it's even more important that you keep reading.)

The example I raised was a perfectly reasonable one. I was sharing an example of a significant e-commerce opportunity being left untapped for no good reason. The essential facts were indisputable: many women wear bras, bras don't last forever, women would probably like to replace their worn-out bras with ones they know they like, and women will pay money to a bra manufacturer to get the bra they want. Therefore, any bra manufacturer not using the Internet to facilitate this purchase was leaving money on the table.

The same would be true for plenty of other goods as well, and I'm sure if I'd swapped the word "women" for "men" and instead listed a product specific to the latter my friends would have readily agreed that it needed to be sold online. After all, at least one of them had an MBA, and they were some of the biggest Internet commerce evangelists I knew. But that the product example was something specific to women's bodies completely shut them down. They practically squirmed out of their seats, desperate for the subject to be changed.

It was an uncomfortable moment for me, too, realizing that an ordinary reality of the female existence could be so unwelcome in a professional conversation. Was it too immodest to discuss undergarments with work colleagues? In an era when Viagra commercials were already running on broadcast television it would hardly seem so. If there was no compunction against discussing the commercialization of such intimate matters for men, why could that same clinical detachment not be afforded to similar topics important to women? After all, this wasn't second grade; no one was going to catch cooties talking about a specific form of underwear common to many women. The bottom line is that women are people and peers and professionals and deserve not to be regarded with the adolescent squeamishness that all too often keeps us apart from the world.

And as far as our discussion was concerned, the subject of selling bras online was a perfectly salient example to cite, just as any male-specific product would have been. In fact, from the larger perspective of e-commerce, it had to get raised by someone. But it seems to take someone with experience with these ideas to bring them to the fore, which means that without having women involved in the decision making they are going to be forever overlooked by the men in charge, who all too easily can regard such topics as icky and esoteric, or outright ignorable, rather than worthwhile business problems to solve.

In the twenty-odd years since that dinner bra manufacturers did eventually discover the web. Yet two decades later, we are still talking about women in technology – including the relative lack thereof. And it's an absence that hasn't stopped mattering.

I've never been one who wanted to believe it might matter. As I said earlier, I've never generally been bothered by being one of the few or only women in a situation, because I didn't think it should matter. To me, true equality means that men and women should essentially be interchangeable, with all of us passing through life based on our merit as people. And I've always worried that if we focused too much on gender issues it might overly dwell on our differences, end up being divisive, and thus keep us from ever getting there.

But the reality is that we aren't there, at least not yet. While there are lots of women in technology, albeit more in some sectors than others, we're not a point where we exist in numbers on par with our male counterparts. And as with any other demographic where inclusion doesn't come easily or equivalently, that lack of representation has consequences.

First, as the bra example illustrates, it leaves out of the technology conversation the insights and additions that women can bring. Although in every way that matters women are equal to men, the reality is that there can be some differences in our physical construction and, moreover, in our lived experiences. These differences shape our perspectives, awareness of issues others might overlook, and perhaps also our acuities. As a result, as with all people from the diverse fabric of humanity, they give us something extra to contribute that is valuable, and that should be valued.

But also, sometimes it is our absence itself that is what makes our lives different, and not in a good way. Because when women are not at the table it teaches everyone that women do not belong at the table. Which makes it really hard to then come along as a woman and try to sit at the table and be treated as the equal that we are.

About a year before the dinner described above I had a different job developing websites at a start-up. It was not a great job for a number of reasons, including that my boss didn't actually know how to make websites. So he tended to give me instructions that were, at best, infeasible. One day I explained that we couldn't do what he asked because we had to use the web-safe color palette or else the page would not render well. Back then, limitations in computer monitor technology meant that web sites were effectively limited to 216 colors in order to render predictably, and I was correct to point out the need to adhere to this common web design practice. But I was a woman dropping this knowledge on a man. He didn't believe it until he looked across at my male colleague who confirmed it.

It was such a stark wake-up call that it didn't necessarily matter how good I was at my job. For some men I would never be good enough simply because I wasn't one of them. And it is among those sorts of attitudes that I am supposed to somehow carve out my career.

On the other hand, ever watch re-runs from earlier decades? In many important ways things are significantly better for women than they used to be. Including that there are plenty of men who welcome us as full equals at the table. But that doesn't mean that things are totally fine – in fact, far from it. Many challenges remain, and one of those challenges is implicit (and sometimes explicit) sex bias, which, even if it only comes up in a minority of situations, still ends up being an issue in quite a few situations. And part of why we need to contend with it is because it can be subtle. While it should hopefully be clear to everyone by now that no one should ever have to deal with the sort of verbal and physical harassment that prompted the #metoo movement, too many men seem to think that simply not outright abusing their female colleagues somehow absolves them of being sexist. But that's hardly the benchmark.

Instead, as that recent unpleasant experience reminded me, there are other questions that need to be asked. Such as: are women as welcome to contribute to the best of our capacity as our male counterparts are? Or is our presence just merely tolerated because at this point it might have to be? When we speak, are we heard like our male colleagues are heard? Or are we tuned out like my friends did to me when I shared a perspective they didn't want to hear or, worse, like my former boss did when I tried to speak with authority and expertise?

Obviously no woman is going to be right on everything, just as no man would be. We're not even going to always agree among ourselves. But if we're not generally regarded as having equivalent ethos as an equally-positioned man, and therefore denied the opportunities to be in an equal position, then that's a problem. It's a problem for women, it's even a problem for men, and it's a problem for any industry that drives our contributions away.