In Praise of Ambiguity
When I was 21 and the fifteenth employee at a dot com startup in 1996, I thought the best way to fit in with my predominantly male coworkers was to be “one of the guys”. Because I’m a perfectionist, I strove to “out-guy” the guys by escalating their crude, offensive remarks. I thought it would earn me approval. Instead, I ended up feeling powerless when my expletive-laden, sexualized banter was met with responses that made me uncomfortable. Sometimes they were remarks that personalized the abstract acts we were joking about, sometimes they were physical advances.
When I read accounts of the PyCon debacle that claim Adria Richards has no grounds to complain about dongle jokes because she’s made similar jokes in the past, I think about my behavior in my 20s, and how maladapted it is to my career in my 30s. I think about how I believed I had to make a choice between being entirely one way (letting dick and fart jokes turn into rape and incest jokes) or entirely another (disconnected from my colleagues). Boundaries aren’t about having the door completely open or completely shut – they’re about finding a comfortable, consistent happy place where we can maintain mutually fulfilling relationships.
My challenge is to find that happy place, but I think everyone’s challenge is to accept that people are flawed, complex human beings who are going to have different boundaries than we do. Setting aside my feelings about her response, Adria is allowed to be offended by things that may seem inconsistent with her past behavior.
I’ve been reminded that as a woman working in tech, I don’t have to be a dichotomous screen onto which my colleagues project either “unassailable virgin” or “complicit whore”. I don’t have to be a caricature to be accepted. And regardless of what I’ve said or done in the past, I can call shenanigans when I need to.