“Lean In” in the Time of GamerGate

I made a connection just recently. I joined the dots between some different, apparently unrelated things that I’d read, and had an “Aha!” moment. And I need to get it down in a blog post because it’s bugging me.

Here’s your starter question: what’s the connection between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin, and Sheryl Sandberg? (Answer at the end).

A while ago, at the suggestion of a colleague at work, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. It’s an okay book, a bit meh. It has a few good pieces of advice, and it’s obviously well-meaning. If you haven’t read it, the gist is this: women sabotage their own careers by not being assertive enough. They “lean back”, when they should “lean in”. Try harder, girls!

The trouble is that just didn’t ring true for me. It’s not that I don’t agree that you need to be assertive to succeed in business, nor do I think that women should be allowed to succeed more easily than men – so Sandberg’s advice seemed reasonable. I couldn’t even disagree that I had stopped “leaning in”. But at the times in my career when I had been trying hard, leaning in, being assertive – it hadn’t helped. I’d had more problems, not fewer, and some of my worst career problems came about when I was being assertive.

Still, maybe I was being too assertive. Maybe I was too aggressive, too angry, too scary, not a team player. It’s possible, certainly. I’d come to that conclusion in the past, and read anger management books, and self esteem books, and tried to fix my problems. I’d learned how to give coaching and feedback, and how to grow people. It definitely made me a better manager, and better at relating to people.

It made my career worse. I tried not being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive in a less confrontational way, and … well, you get the idea. That was when I stopped “leaning in”. That was when I gave up. So I guess that the reason I’m not succeeding is that it’s my fault. I gave up, when I should have “leaned in”. Thanks, Sheryl. At least now I know.

And then, just recently, I put two and two together. I woke up in the middle of the night, and thought: yes, but what about GamerGate?

GamerGate, in case you haven’t been following it, is many things. But mainly, it’s a particularly nasty group of mostly-male trolls attacking women who dare to have opinions, especially feminist opinions, online. This is not “attacking” in the sense of disagreeing with them. Yes, it’s absolutely fine to disagree with a woman online. This is not even just “attacking” in the sense of posting nasty, repulsive messages to them online – although I think that being told multiple times per day that you should be raped or killed is beyond what anyone could deal with. But GamerGate is posting women’s home addresses online, lurking outside their offices, phoning in bomb threats to the police if they try to give a talk. You can read a summary here or here or here.

Then there’s this article on Paul Elam, founder of a men’s rights movement. Or you could look what Richard Herring tackles every year on International Women’s Day. Now, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I’m starting to understand why women are reluctant to be assertive and push their opinions.

Of course, this could just be a few people. It could be just in the US, for instance. In the UK, we’re far more modern. Oh, except that UKIP have some fairly worrying ideas about a woman’s place – “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” almost.But the really bad stuff wouldn’t happen in the UK, would it? It’s not like you could get in trouble for something as simple as asking for a woman’s picture to be on at least one banknote. Or that an MP could receive rape and death threats just for agreeing with her? Goodness me, the way we women complain, you’d think you could get threats just for being the subject of a joke by someone else about hosting a TV programme, even after you’ve firmly denied that you would ever do that job. No, I’m sure than Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Sue Perkins were just making a fuss. It’s perfectly safe to offer an opinion if you’re a woman. Be assertive. Lean in.

Besides, it’s not like online abuse translates into real abuse. No correlation – oh wait. Yes there is. It’s still relatively early days for Twitter in terms of academic studies, but there is plenty of evidence that verbal abuse in relationships is an early warning sign for physical abuse.

Still, these are all rare cases. It’s not like there’s sexism everywhere, every day.

Never mind, women, just lean in. Push your case. Offer up your opinions. Fight your corner. You’ll most likely live through it. Most women don’t get killed by someone they annoyed. (Just a few. A small number. Tiny. Only two women per week are killed in domestic violence). Most women might encounter anger at worst.

At this point, if you’re still reading this, you probably fall into one of three camps. Camp #1 are furious that I am still trying to argue for women’s equality, because that stuff is bullshit. If this is you, you may leave now. This blog post isn’t addressed to you, and I’m aware that you disagree with me. No point hanging around. Bye now.

Or you may be in camp #2. You may be convinced that there is a real problem, and that we should tackle it. (Yes, I’m aware – and grateful – that many men are in this camp too. Richard Herring and Graham Linehan are two of the more public men doing sterling work calling out this sort of shit on Twitter).

Or, you may be in camp #3. You agree that there is sexism, but you still think a lot of women sabotage themselves. After all, you’ve encountered difficult people in your career, many times, it’s not only women who face these problems. It’s not personal.

That’s a fair point. Lets address it. Let’s try a quick thought experiment.

Think of someone difficult that you’ve encountered at work, and dealt with. Someone confrontational, irrational and argumentative.

Remember how you dealt with them. Maybe sidestepped them? Maybe minimized contact with them? Maybe got them distracted with another issue? Maybe got to know them and formed a rapport so that the encounters became more productive? 

Now imagine this. Suppose that their behaviour towards you WAS personal. Suppose that you argued with them one time, and that they won’t go away. They’re not just irrational in general, but they’re specifically determined to win arguments against you, because they don’t think you are entitled to disagree with them.

They go out of their way to start arguments with you whenever you talk to them. They won’t admit they’ve lost even if the evidence is clearly against them. They’re fixated on specifically destroying you, as often and as many times as possible.

Your job gets untenable. You’re trying to deal with this, but it’s a drain on your time. You have trouble juggling the other stuff you’re trying to get done. Let’s assume that it doesn’t affect your mood (although, let’s be honest, it probably would) – you are still losing valuable time out of your day. So you bring this up with other people for advice.

No-one else, it turns out, has the same sort of problem. They all agree that this person is difficult, but everyone else manages to deal with it. Maybe you’re just handling it wrong? Be less aggressive. Be less confrontational. Be less shrill.

You don’t just get this advice informally. It’s on your performance review, too. This is your problem. Someone else has taken personal offence to you arguing with them once, is seeking you out in order to obstruct you, but it’s your fault. You did something wrong. You’re not doing your job properly. You are to blame.

That won’t stop you offering your opinions in future, right? Next time you’re about to argue with someone, you won’t subconsciously remember this and keep quiet, will you? Not the first time. Not the second. How many times would you need that to happen before you just started shutting up and keeping your head down? How many times do you have to be personally targeted for expressing an opinion before you stop?

Never mind, don’t answer. You get the point. Let’s wrap this up.

At the beginning, I asked what the connection was between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin and Sheryl Sandberg. And the answer is NOT that they all hate women, because Sheryl Sandberg is a feminist, and she’s trying to help. The answer is that they all think that the problem is caused by women, and that it will be fixed if women change. Elam and Baldwin want women to shut the fuck up and do as they’re told. Sandberg admits that there is sexism, but she thinks that we can overcome it if women just try harder.

I used to believe that.

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