Every now and then, I get the kind of questions that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. These questions are worse for women than any kind of overt sexism. Worse than saying, "girls aren't good at math". Worse than saying, "I don't care about your coding skillz, yer hot." The question is: "Aren't you afraid, as a woman, about being so open online?"
One of my favorite kickass chick songs ever was No Doubt's "I'm Just a Girl". Gwen Stefani's lyrics totally resonated with me:
Oh...I've had it up to here! The moment that I step outside So many reasons For me to run and hide I can't do the little things I hold so dear 'Cause it's all those little things That I fear
I can't remember when it was that I really noticed that, as a female, I was being sheltered and shaded for reasons I couldn't comprehend. My brother, who was smaller than me was encouraged to take risks. To climb higher. To take bus rides alone. He was brave and growing up. Even cute sometimes. Me? I was being unladylike or exposing myself to danger. I was no tomboy, far from it. There I was, in my pink, frilly party dress climbing the tree and taking candy from strangers. When I got older, being a girl meant that I was at risk of being assaulted, yet boys in my grade could stay out all night. On those delicious occasions I was able to sneak out, the ones I viewed being hurt where the guys, who, after a few too many brewskies, got in a fight or worse, got behind the wheel.
In university, there were posters for self-defense classes for women all around. There were stories of women being followed, stalked, assaulted and raped. A girl had to watch herself. "Don't walk on campus after dark without someone around." Me? I was defiant. I don't know why. I would drink down half of a pitcher of beer, then walk crookedly, happily across the dark campus, through the dark neighbourhood all the way home. I remember people freaking out at me, "Are you trying to get killed?" I don't think I was. I guess I just wanted to continue to feel invincible. I looked around me at all of the boys who acted like they were invincible and I wanted to feel the same power.
And I wasn't a stranger to being hurt. The two times I had been in a scary situation, though, were with people I knew and trusted. Somehow, I felt that being in public was making me safer. I wasn't alone. In second year Women's Studies class, I found out some statistics that backed up my suspicions. I can't find the information now (it's buried under pages and pages of FUD, unfortunately), but my professor told me that men are more likely to be assaulted in public (by a stranger) and women are more likely to be attacked in private (by someone she knows).
Fast forward to living my crazy life online. I guess I have never questioned my safety, but I get reminded of it constantly. At any given time, you can pretty much tell where I am, what I'm doing, who I'm with, what I'm feeling and where I'm going to next. People know what I'm thinking (whether they want to or not...lol). They pretty much know what I stand for. I fuck up. I celebrate. And I generally live every raw moment I feel comfortable with online...to nearly cringe-worthy levels.
And, I suppose that this makes me a really easy target for all sorts of nefarious activity, but no more than the men who work in the industry. In fact, and as many of them have reported, the guys tend to get as many, if not more death, violence and sexual mutilation threats as the women do. Robert Scoble once told me that it is pretty constant. Yet, when Kathy was threatened, it hit the national news. The reason it went that far is that every person and their dog decided to 'come to the rescue' for Kathy. Somehow she needed saving or protecting. Someone prominent even called me in the middle of this and said something to the tune of, "She is fragile and we have to protect her."
I'm certainly not saying to belittle the real fear that Kathy was feeling. She is a wonderful person and she didn't do anything to deserve anything awful that was said about her. ::Personally, I think that Kathy's initial post was a very defiant act where she said, "I'm not standing for this anymore". It is the storm that ensued after that where the fear was created.:: It was the hyperbolization of her incident was damaging to the future of women in technology. ::The CNN portrayal of Kathy as a 'cute kitten' and the lengthy camera shots that portrayed her as looking frail became lasting beacons for helplessness.:: ::Somehow, this incident has become the flagship for a culture of fear for women online.::
[::amended for clarity::]
I've received endless emails from women who mention the incident, telling me that they are 'more careful' of how much they participate in online discussions. They blog less. They make their twitter's private, their flickr photos 'friends only' and they limit their openness in the variety of social networks out there.
And then we wonder where the women are?
Man, it sounds as if they are cowering in the shadows of the most empowering medium I've ever encountered! But where do you think those "invincible young guys" get all of their attention? Cowering? Hiding? No. Blogging. Forums. Being open. Out there. In their posted work on the social networks.
I received this email from a woman trying to break into technology recently:
"How does a woman become more public personally and professionally while also protecting her privacy and safety online? ... As a web & graphic designer, it's essential that I become more visible online and in the web industry. It seems natural and easy for my male counterparts to network with each other online and I want to be part of this day-to-day community...There are risks that women are more likely to face anywhere in life. Was using your real name a conscious choice for you? How did you reach that decision? How do you feel about it now? ... "
I read this and my heart sank. She also cited Kathy's incident as an example of how she has been 'warned'.
My theory? The precise reason that people bully others is to shut them up. 9 times out of 10, they don't want to harm them physically, they want to silence them. However, this tactic doesn't seem to work too well on men. I don't know what Scoble, Pirillo and Arrington use as coping methods, but the continue to blog and live pretty open lives online. And I'm SURE it effects them. Unfortunately, we have some pretty high profile incidents where women have stopped blogging because of the same bullying. And, even worse, it resonates beyond the women who shut down. I've heard "Ever since the Kathy Sierra incident, I've [insert changed behaviour here]" too many times to feel comfortable.
Are women more at risk than men? Really? Are there statistics that show a significantly higher amount of physical harm coming to a woman who has put herself 'out there' than for a man? Or is it just empty threats? And the empty threats? Are they more frequent for women? Significantly? Really? I've heard the statistics that there are actually MORE women online. That there are actually MORE women blogging. Not significantly more. Like 52% or something. But nobody has come forward to show me where it is unsafe for a woman to expose her life to a wide audience. I've only experienced personal and professional gain, so I'm going off of experience, not heresay.
The ACTUAL danger here is not the danger, itself, but the danger of silencing the myriad of voices through the threat of danger. And you know, I'm going to be the ballsy (dangerous) broad I am and continue to challenge every single person who even hints towards the theory that women are less safe than men online. Because, truly, I would rather die for my convictions than live in fear any day.