The high order message is that if you have not been to Grace Hopper, talked with the attendees, and experienced the event, you cannot even begin to comprehend it, so commenting on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of some of the details is risky.
This year, those not in attendance found it "offensive" that some of the swag included nail polish, a sewing kit, and a whistle. What I found interesting about these three particular selections is that those discussing them felt that they were sending a message that "you should look pretty," "sewing is for girls," and "if you don't carry a whistle, you'll be raped." I found these comments fascinating, because in at least two of the cases, my reaction was totally different. A whistle? Great -- I just had to buy half-dozen of those, because my son and I use them to referee soccer. And a sewing kit? Excellent -- I always scoop those from hotels so that I can fix a button or have a safety pin when necessary. Neither of these felt "girlie" to me -- they are items used by both genders in my household. Nail polish? Not my thing, but if it were clear, it would be way high on my list of handy things around the house.
I started thinking about some of the other swag I'd gotten at Grace Hopper in the past: I still use my NetApp manicure set (it lives in my office and I've had both men and women borrow the nail clipper), NetApp lip gloss -- a bit shiny for my taste, but still useful in dry climates. Girlie? Not really. A large nail file -- don't recall who gave those out, but it got used by everyone in our house. A collection of highlighters, tape measures, small toolkits, etc -- one from NSA, one from ACM. Love them all.
But let's imagine for a moment that I did think some of these items were targeting me as a woman, how would I feel? I thought about this long and hard and I realized that it's actually a feature not a bug. The thought process goes like this.
If you are purchasing swag for Grace Hopper, you know something about your attendees -- they are women. Why not put things in the bag that you think they might like? You needn't limit yourselves only to things that have to do with technology. After all, the most common conference giveaway is a T-shirt. Last I checked, that had nothing to do with technology, it was clothing. People asked, "What message are these companies sending?" I think the message they are sending is, "We know you are women and we're happy to put our name/logo on items that might appeal to you, because we value you."
Let's contrast that with the message sent when you give me a men's T-shirt. To me it says, "Hey -- here's a piece of clothing that isn't going to fit you well, but you are such a minority that it isn't worth my time to get a woman's shirt." Yeah, it really feels that way. When we ran Sleepycat and bought polo shirts, from day one we asked people to request a size and gendered shirt. Guess what -- not a single woman ever requested a men's shirt. Not ever. Our little company of 25 could afford both the time and cost (which was 0) of ordering both men's and women's shirts, but fortune 500 companies can't?
I still recall a conversation with a company, who I will politely not name. It went something like this:
- University relations person: Can you help us recruit women? We get so few women applying for engineering positions.
- Me: Is that a men's polo shirt you're wearing? (Said person was female and wearing a university relations polo shirt.)
- URP: Yes.
- Me: What kind of message do you think that sends? I think it says that your company has so little respect for its female employees that you make them wear men's clothing as a uniform. I think that sends a message that most women don't find attractive.
- URP: Well, there are so few of us that it would cost more to order both men's and women's shirts. [Note: I don't know about all vendors, but when I order logo wear from Land's End, they do not charge me based on the gender of the shirts, they charge me based on the total number of shirts.]
- Me: Are you really telling me that
can't afford to buy women's shirts?
- URP: Silence.
To the best of my knowledge, said company still makes its women in University Relations wear men's polo shirts.
I can hear you, "Is this really what we should be worried about? Women can and do wear men's T-shirts all the time." Yes, we do. But why? Because historically, T-shirts were men's clothing and it took decades for manufacturers to realize that your standard men's T-shirt is about as flattering to a woman as a burlap bag. Yes, I do like baggy T-shirts to sleep in and to wear to the gym, but these are probably not the most effective locations to give visibility of the T-shirt's message to the rest of the world (I work out alone in my basement 99% of the time). But if I were getting dressed to attend a function, even if it were casual, I would not wear a baggy men's T-shirt. I might, in fact, wear a women's T-shirt.
Then I got thinking more about that nail polish. OK, I don't wear nail polish (those of you who've seen my nails will immediately understand why). But wait, I am one of those women who already feels comfortable in this field. Maybe part of being a women in CS is that you don't (or can't) like nail polish or want to wear it. Maybe, the idea here is that we need to tell women that even if you do like nail polish, this field is for you. Yes! That's the part that everyone seems to miss -- outreach is designed to help those who see our field and think it isn't for them reconsider. So when companies put their names and logos on products that appeal to the women who are not present in our community, maybe, just maybe, it should be viewed as an invitation to those women. "C'mon. We're not so bad. You really can be the person you want to be and still feel comfortable in this field."
It reminds me a lot of clothing. I frequently wear dresses and skirts (yes, you may all gasp now). This is actually a conscious decision on my part. It's not that I like dresses all that much (although I've grown fond of them over time) -- it's my little message to young women out there. It's supposed to say, "Yes, you can be a girl and an engineer! You don't have to look like and dress like the guys." Now, it's certainly OK to dress casually, but that message already comes across loud and clear. The other message does not. So, that's where I come in. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I do recall a young woman telling me that a male colleague at her first job after school told her that, "She dressed too nice." (She was a tech consultant who liked to wear skirts.) If she'd never seen me wearing a dress/skirt, would she have spoken with me about it? I don't know, but I told her that as long as she was dressed professionally, her colleague was way out of line -- looking nice and/or caring about your appearance is not a crime.
So, no, I do not find it offensive that when companies put things in a bag for women at an event for women that they select items they think might appeal to some women, who we don't frequently find in our community. Nor does it offend me that one of the most popular social events at Grace Hopper is a dance party. And guess what -- a lot of people attend. Attendees describe it as one of the best parts of the conference or one of the things they most look forward to. I'm going to guess that the typical conference attendee from the conferences I attend would have a very different reaction to a dance party.
Let's try another thought experiment. What would a typical attendee at OSDI (or your favorite systems conference) think if a company handed out skirts instead of T-shirts? I'm guessing most people would think it ridiculous. And if you think it's ridiculous, but T-shirts are OK, then you're saying it's OK to give out swag specifically designed for one gender, but not OK to give out swag specifically designed for the other. And you might rationalize it and say, "Yeah, but skirts are appropriate for so few attendees ..." And then you'd be sending the message that those very attendees don't matter.