Guys, you know what it means to be professional, don't you? And you know that a professional conference is not the same as a pick-up bar or a frat mixer, right? All right, then, if you tell a woman that she gave a great presentation, don't follow it up by hitting on her. That pushes professionalism right out the window. So does invading a circle of people who are networking at an event and putting your arm around the lone woman.
These are all things that have actually happened, and in every case, the women involved told me, they did nothing to encourage the harassing behavior. So what gave those guys the idea that they had license to do them? Ignorance, and the fact that many men within the tech industry are socially awkward. This is not offered as an excuse, but a lot of techies just don't know when they are making a woman uncomfortable. I'm sure that I have unintentionally offended someone at some point in my career. But techies are also very smart, and knowing that this problem exists, we are capable of changing our behaviors so that women don't keep paying the price of our social awkwardness.
That said, though, some men in the tech industry intentionally practice sexually aggressive behaviors. That is completely unacceptable, and it is why I support the Ada Initiative in its efforts to set up a code of conduct for events. (I'm not comfortable with reports that the Ada Initiative may have been involved in censorship at a B-Sides security conference, but that is another matter.) Event organizers and other men in general need to take a stance to filter out these people proactively. Likewise, the women have to speak up and let the event organizers know who the serial harassers are.
One final observation: If harassment itself isn't disturbing enough, many women blame themselves when they are its victims. They feel that they should have been strong enough to confront the harasser and tell him to stop, but failed to do so because they found themselves surrounded by strangers and caught off guard. With all of those eyes on them, they didn't want to seem like a trouble-maker. And they have seen, time and time again, women who complain about harassment being called uptight bitches who are just imagining things or making them up. So they just swallow their pride and keep quiet. But later, they blame themselves for not standing up to the perpetrator.
After talking to many women in the tech profession in recent weeks, I have learned that a lot of them have decided that networking and participating at tech events is not worth the grief that they have to put up with. Clearly, the tech profession has a problem if women feel forced to make this choice. And, guys, it would be morally reprehensible if we didn't do all we can to rectify that situation.
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