Heels, harassment, tech and science. Oh, my…

Posted by on Oct 25, 2013 in Uncategorized | 9 comments

female legs in high heel shoes isolated

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping your ears to the interwebz of late but there’s a helluvalot of harassment going on and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Roughly a week ago, all hell broke loose when writer Danielle Lee was called an urban whore for requesting payment when she was solicited for a guest blog post. Just prior to that, Writer Monica Byrne publicly named Scientific American Editor and Science Writers Online Conference Founder Bora Zivkovoc for sexual harassment. And this week, a woman attending a tech conference was publicly ridiculed for wearing heels, although the poster, startup entrepreneur Jorge Cortell, shielded his actions by claiming to be concerned for her foot health.

These examples are simply the tip of the iceberg. For years, I have watched as female colleagues trying to excel in the tech or science worlds come up against one barrier after another. They are ridiculed, harassed, disrespected and sometimes, downright hated by their male peers. In science conferences, women are often marginalized and excluded from speaker lists, not because they lack talent but because they are women. For example a recent Report in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology shows that only 16% of invited speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress between 2001 and 2011 were women. And we wonder why girls often choose liberal over science arts or math or tech.

When I posted the Atlantic article referenced above (heels and tech) on my Facebook page, an interesting conversation ensued;  a friend challenged me to think outside my own box and asked where my bar is, that is the bar beyond which what is acceptable becomes downright wrong. The example he used was a woman posing provocatively in a short skintight, low cut dress and heels, which he asked me to comment on. And I did so, albeit privately.

My argument to him and to you is simple:

Choice and consequence.

I believe that it’s time for the double standard that is so pervasive in tech and science and in other disciplines to disappear. I believe that as women, we have choices to make and we have to live with the consequences of those choices. Rather than asking me to define what I mean by provocative and accuse me of being judgmental, understand that as a woman, I know the choices that women make to fit in, to stand out and to achieve. Sometimes, those choices are less than palatable to some and misread by others. And then the name calling and bad behavior starts, you know, the slut shaming.

Choice and consequence. It’s pretty simple.

If a woman makes a choice to wear heels to a conference, then it stands that the consequences are hers’ and hers’ alone. Will she lose her job if her heels are deemed inappropriate? Perhaps yes and perhaps no. Personally, I love nice shoes and boots and over time, I’ve come to appreciate heels more than ever. Is it foot forward (or back) healthy? Heck no. But I make a choice that I have to live with, whether or not that choice results in blisters, sore feet or heaven’s forbid, a cat call. I know why I am making that choice and to me, the interpretation that follows lies solely in the mind and eye of the beholder.

Perhaps I am lucky. In my work, much of which is male dominated, I’ve never been called out for my choice of footwear. The men I work with are much more interested in what I am saying and contributing to the conversation. I’ve never been accused of being a whore because I requested payment for access to my skills. And the cat calls as I walk down the street? Fortunately for me, those days are mostly over because I am pretty invisible; that’s what happens when you cross the magical line of 50 years of age. However, when they did occur, more often than not I thought that the issue lay with the person doing to cat calling; not with me.

I am concerned. I fear that we live in a time when sexual harassment is akin to milquetoast; it’s so common it’s not that interesting any longer. That is, until someone speaks up. And that someone, more oft than not, is then further accused of ruining a man’s [life, marriage, career, fill in the blank]. We have grown to expect that there will be weekly reports of a teenaged girl being gang raped and bullied, where a young celebrity will be ridiculed for behaving provocatively in a culture that has come to expect that provocation while the man can dance idly by and accept the affectations, we have become mute and dumb in ways unimaginable.

I’m stumped.

Choice. And consequence. It’s in our hands and our hands alone to do right by our young girls so that they grow up in a world where achievement is not frowned upon but celebrated for the sake of achievement, where she can feel comfortable in heels because they make her feel taller or more powerful or simply, pretty, or where tech geeks or scientists don’t assume that the ‘do not enter’ sign on the club door can be inadvertently applied at will.

What do you think?




  1. 10-25-2013

    Enough is enough. Good grief, people. We live in the 21st century. Can both sexes not be treated equally yet?

    • 10-26-2013

      Evidently, not!

  2. 10-25-2013

    I’m with you – those heels were high, but so what? I saw that image of the girl in the dress on your page – apples and oranges with footwear.

    The tech/science world is obviously DECADES behind when it comes to gender equality. It’s why I’m learning to code – just to say ‘shove it.’

    • 10-26-2013

      It’s not just tech Amy. It extends to the math and sciences. I’m not sure when it became appropriate to ridicule someone simply because they are following their passion.

  3. 10-26-2013

    I was talking about this earlier today with Elissa Shevinsky, and the thing is, right now women are being held to the same standards as men AND are being judged/held to ridiculous standards as women. It’s a lose-lose. The argument he made that he would have said that about a man wearing high heels was insane.

    And you know what? Maybe she wears the heels because she’s short, and it’s easier to hold a conversation with someone if you’re eye level with them. Maybe she likes wearing heels and being taller than people. Maybe she just doesn’t give a damn what this guy thinks. Next time I see a photo of a man drinking a beer, maybe I’ll say he must be stupid because alcohol is bad for you and his drinking it is proof that he doesn’t care about his health.

    /drops mic

    • 10-26-2013

      Or maybe she was wearing hells and it’s none of his fing business why…or better yet, why does he care.

  4. 10-28-2013

    I have no doubt of such harassment. This article, like so much modern reporting, strips away the overall frame of reference for the subject matter; presumably to strengthen and narrow the argument being proffered.

    The big secret that is apparently to be avoided like the plague whenever crying foul on any count is that, big science, academia and business are largely cold and ruthless playgrounds. EVERY one gets their candy taken from them at one time or other. Everyone has had to taste the dirt after being knocked down by some bully or other. And of course, no mention whatever is ever, ever, EVER made [in such pieces] of the missteps the individuals in question are making, subsequently drawing criticism and hardship to themselves. And everyone does draw that kind of trouble to themselves at some point or other.

    I worked for many years with a medical science assembly of the leading nervous system scientists living today. There was no uneven treatment based on gender, when taken as a whole, that could be openly observed. In fact, the recipient of a lifetime achievement award was , a woman.

    In the world we live in of 15 minutes of news, 24 hours a day, it can be easy to forget how important one’s critical thinking skills really are.

    I suppose.

    • 10-28-2013

      Joe, as someone who earned a living as a journalist and reporter for many years, I can assure you that I did my homework for this piece. There will always be exceptions to every rule; that is the way that our world works. And in many circles, women are treated fairly. However, it is common knowledge, particularly among women in tech (tech, not science) that they are being struck down due to gender. And it is also common knowledge that this harassment is now being observed in the science world.

      As you point out, critical thinking skills are important and yet you, yourself, apparently refuse to look beyond the narrow lens of your own experience. I welcome comments on this blog, especially those that present alternative points of view. But the dripping sarcasm? Yeah, leave it at the door. Stones and glass houses and all.

    • 10-28-2013

      I find that people who tend to say “there was no uneven treatment based on gender” usually are men, who don’t tend to feel the uneven treatment. That does not mean there isn’t uneven treatment based on gender. In addition, one woman winning a lifetime achievement award does not discount what other women face.

      And, frankly, maybe Joe’s medical science assembly was the exception. If so, bravo. But that does not mean that sexism against women in science, tech and the like does not exist.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *