A Note on Sexism

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a blog titled Programmers Being Dicks. The most recent entry was a link to an apology from Robert ‘Uncle Bob’ Martin who apparently felt he had been offensive or sexist in a keynote he gave that day. Reading the apology made me sad and also kind of annoyed me: Here’s a seasoned speaker who is renowned for his funny as hell presentations and keynotes who feels like he has to apologize for his style. But let’s have a closer look at this.

Apparently, Uncle Bob had a slide that said “C was for real men” and, when a female attendant asked “What about women?”, he had answered something like “We didn’t allow women in those days”. Are those words sexist? Hell yeah. But you don’t have to have a degree in psychology to know that communication consists of a little bit more than just plain words: There’s lots of nonverbal cues going on and a whole body of research suggests that these nonverbal cues shape an act of communication way more than the verbal parts. In the aforementioned situation, I’m willing to bet that Uncle Bob was wearing his classic full-on-“I’m being sarcastic now” smile. And there sure as hell was sarcasm in his voice. Maybe there was even a hand gesture that waved it off as being sarcastic. He used words that, read by themselves, are definitely sexist – if you used them in written communication without any further comment, they could (and probably should!) be interpreted as sexism. But not in a presentation where there certainly were dozens of cues that indicated that he wasn’t serious.

Take the counter example: What if a speaker had a slide that depicts a (half-)naked woman in front of a computer and the speaker commented the slide with “As you all know, I totally respect female computer scientists”. In this case, the words by themselves indicate respect for female computer scientists – but everything else does not.

Context is key and one needs some situational awareness before shouting “You sexist!”. Inclusive language, that so many people propagate, is bogus – we need an inclusive mindset and inclusive behavior. What value is there in someone who thinks and acts like he were pro equal rights but silently envies his father’s generation because they’d managed to keep women in the kitchen? I’d say none. And neither is there value in hardcore pseudo-feminism that sees sexism lurking on every corner. If our goal is equal rights and less sexism, it makes no sense to point our fingers at everything that could remotely be seen as sexism – especially when there’s strong indication that it’s not – and focus on the real problem instead: We need to get this mindset out of or generation of men and women – no matter how old they are, where they’re from or what industry they’re working in.