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March 2013

Thinking About Adria Richards and Other Black Women In STEM Fields

Just last week I wrote about my youngest sister enduring street harassment and microaggressions as an Electrical Engineering student. She’s not even in her career yet to be fired from a job for reporting misogyny in the work environment in the way that Adria Richards was, and yet she is already dealing with the hostility that Black women/women of colour face…well anywhere…including the career fields where Whiteness and maleness are especially over-valued and dominant in terms of sheer numbers. These fields tend to be the ones especially drunk on the myth of meritocracy.

I am very upset to hear about what Adria Richards is facing, from being fired from her job for reporting men engaging in misogynist conversation to being faced with rape threats, death threats and DDoS attacks on her website (the latter being a specific favorite of White men who want to silence someone online).

One thing that I don’t understand about this case is that many have stated since the men did not look her in the eye and say the disgusting comments to her face, it doesn’t count. These people obviously do not understand the history of racism and sexism in the workplace. Microaggressions, overt racism/sexism and institutionalized racism/sexism don’t need eye contact to in fact be these things.

I have seen some ignorant tweets/posts from White feminists claiming “support” for Adria, yet distancing themselves from her, portraying her as an “unlikeable” person who approached the situation in a poor way, but still somewhat worthy of being supported. It’s like they’re using this situation to remind everyone that “real” victims of sexism in the workplace are White women, who should always be valued above all, since they’re inherently more “likeable.” Funny how the more we want feminism to be intersectional, the more it becomes White supremacist.

One White feminist (@Shakestweetz) did not take this approach and from reading her writing and talking with her on Twitter from time to time, she seems to be one of the handful of White feminists who understands intersectionality. In her essay Adria Richards Does Belong At Tech Conferences (which has links to clue you in to the story if you are unfamiliar) she writes:

I unilaterally support Adria Richards. The men who were making sexual jokes and creating an unsafe space at a professional conference in specific violation of the code of conduct were wrong. I do not support them. The people who responded to Adria’s public report of harassers by criticizing her method of action were wrong. I do not support them. The people who are bullying, harassing, and making violent threats against Adria are wrong. I do not support them. Her employer, SendGrid, who fired her for becoming the center of a shitstorm caused by harassing fuckwads, are wrong. I do not support them. Conversations, and the people who have them, that center picking apart the quick decisions that any woman makes in a moment of experienced sexual harassment, centering concern for harassers, are wrong. I do not support them. I support hollerin’ the fuck back. And I do not support the idea that only likable women are allowed to draw firm boundaries. Especially when I know as well as any woman and better than most that nothing makes a woman more “unlikable” than drawing firm boundaries. I am on to your Can’t-Win game, apologists. And I will not play.

(For Harriet has a good article on this story as well. Of course people filled the comment section on a Black woman’s blog with utter nonsense.)

Watching this unfold just reminds me of every single corporate job (tech work in healthcare/legal industries) that I’ve ever had. I basically quit almost all of them because of harassment. They purposely made the work environment unbearable, but unlike her case, they did not fire me so that they would not have to pay unemployment benefits. (Plus, these jobs were prior to the age of Twitter’s popularity now, prior to companies firing you through tweets. And of course in addition to the harassment on these jobs, I could always count on being paid about half of what White men earned for the same work).

As I tweeted yesterday

But nah, let’s continue the path of Gender socialization Sexism  Misogyny  Stereotype threat Confirmation bias in terms of rationalizing why women do not pursue tech fields  (Business, NOT the stigmatized Social Sciences or worshiped STEM fields is the most commonly pursued degree area).

It’s not a coincidence that care work is devalued via social stigma and salary because women are in those fields. It’s not a coincidence that fields that men, especially White men, numerically dominate are higher paid with rampant harassment, misogyny and discouragement for women to enter those fields. Even from childhood, girls are systematically discouraged despite there being no real biological differences in mathematical ability, for example. This is the reinforcement of patriarchy in a kyriarchal society. It also has racial implications for Black women/women of colour, who are paid LESS than White women and are even more underrepresented, as despite it being hated, affirmative action has primarily helped White women, much more than it has Black men and Black women.

The bravery needed to even bother with STEM fields is not always a bravery associated with the difficulty of the materials studied. I know Black women who BREEZED through STEM courses yet still ended up choosing a different field of study in college. They were not up to the sociopolitical fight in those particular fields. I don’t judge them. Neither was I. I am tired enough because to be a Black woman in America is to fight everyday. All my life I’ve had to fight.

It’s ironic that I focused my undergraduate and graduate studies on psychology and criminal justice and yet ended up in the IT departments (or doing IT work, yet in a department with a less prestigious label so that they could justify paying me less) of the companies that I worked for. (I also got interested in photography, which is as technical as it is creative.) I was still assumed to be not as smart despite doing twice the work for half the pay of White men. I still faced harassment anyway. Ultimately, I didn’t truly “escape” anything by not taking the STEM route in college.

Even so, there is a message communicated to people who are not White and/or male (with the exception of Asians who have to deal with the “model minority” stigma here) that these fields are “especially” not for them. This message has to change. What really has to change is the larger message here—the one that is a tangent of rape culture.The one that inherently places victim blaming as the center of absolutely any conversation, ideology…whatever. The one that states that there will NEVER be a circumstance where a Black woman is believed, supported, trusted, or even deemed worthy enough to fight for.

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    For me, a non-techy considering entering this world coming from a corporate/political background, this blog post here??...
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