I go to a lot of security conferences, but I never gave much thought to this curious fact: The conferences are hardly ever headlined by women. In fact, not a lot of women attend security conferences and other tech events.
I guess, if I noticed this at all, I chalked it up to the general dearth of women in the technology field. But the scarcity of women at events goes beyond that, and my eyes have only recently been opened to this fact and the reality that explains it.
My awakening began through my role as president of the Information Systems Security Association. I've been leading the creation of special interest groups (SIG) with the goal of making ISSA a more virtual organization that could bring together people with common technical interests from around the world. I was somewhat surprised that common technical interests were not driving the most energetic SIG, Women in Security.
I was curious. Why were women so interested in banding together? As I started asking questions, it began to make sense. And I found in all this a message for men.
IT guys, women are uncomfortable around us. Enough of us are acting like creeps around them that they would rather not join us in large groups. Even in a virtual setting like SIGs, they would rather get together with other women.
My questioning revealed to me that women are harassed on a regular basis at professional events. The harassment is often minor, but there have been cases of physical assault and even rape. Part of the problem is that to too many men in IT, a lot of the minor harassment incidents at tech events — men putting their arms around women's shoulders, men hitting on women, and men telling women graphic details about their sexual exploits — sound like no big deal.
Men who feel that way are not adept at empathy. They do not see that sexual overtures made to a woman are threatening in a way that sexual overtures made to a man rarely are. They do not imagine that a woman might need to maintain a personal physical space in order to feel safe. They might not even understand that hitting a woman on the buttocks is physical assault
What everyone needs to understand is that even minor harassment is a significant reason for women to avoid tech events, networking opportunities and conferences. Maybe you would be flattered to be propositioned by a woman at an event. That doesn't mean that a woman is going to feel the same way. Most women don't like it. Especially in a professional setting. And even more so when she is one of very few women in a room full of men who are leering at her as if she were a zebra walking through a pride of lions.
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