I go to a lot of security conferences, but I never gave much thought to this curious fact: The conferences are hardly ever headlined by women. In fact, not a lot of women attend security conferences and other tech events.
I guess, if I noticed this at all, I chalked it up to the general dearth of women in the technology field. But the scarcity of women at events goes beyond that, and my eyes have only recently been opened to this fact and the reality that explains it.
My awakening began through my role as president of the Information Systems Security Association. I've been leading the creation of special interest groups (SIG) with the goal of making ISSA a more virtual organization that could bring together people with common technical interests from around the world. I was somewhat surprised that common technical interests were not driving the most energetic SIG, Women in Security.
I was curious. Why were women so interested in banding together? As I started asking questions, it began to make sense. And I found in all this a message for men.
IT guys, women are uncomfortable around us. Enough of us are acting like creeps around them that they would rather not join us in large groups. Even in a virtual setting like SIGs, they would rather get together with other women.
My questioning revealed to me that women are harassed on a regular basis at professional events. The harassment is often minor, but there have been cases of physical assault and even rape. Part of the problem is that to too many men in IT, a lot of the minor harassment incidents at tech events -- men putting their arms around women's shoulders, men hitting on women, men telling women graphic details about their sexual exploits -- sound like no big deal.
Men who feel that way are not adept at empathy. They do not see that sexual overtures made to a woman are threatening in a way that sexual overtures made to a man rarely are. They do not imagine that a woman might need to maintain a personal physical space in order to feel safe. They might not even understand that hitting a woman on the buttocks is physical assault.
What everyone needs to understand is that even minor harassment is a significant reason for women to avoid tech events, networking opportunities and conferences. Maybe you would be flattered to be propositioned by a woman at an event. That doesn't mean that a woman is going to feel the same way. Most women don't like it. Especially in a professional setting. And even more so when she is one of very few women in a room full of men who are leering at her as if she were a zebra walking through a pride of lions.
Guys, you know what it means to be professional, don't you? And you know that a professional conference is not the same as a pickup bar or a frat mixer, right? All right, then, if you tell a woman that she gave a great presentation, don't follow it up by hitting on her. That pushes professionalism right out the window. So does invading a circle of people who are networking at an event and putting your arm around the lone woman.
These are all things that have actually happened, and in every case, the women involved told me, they did nothing to encourage the harassing behavior. So what gave those guys the idea that they had license to do these things? Ignorance, and the fact that many men within the tech industry are socially awkward. This is not offered as an excuse, but a lot of techies just don't know when they are making a woman uncomfortable. I'm sure that I have unintentionally offended someone at some point in my career. But techies are also very smart, and knowing that this problem exists, we are capable of changing our behaviors so that women don't keep paying the price of our social awkwardness.
That said, though, some men in the tech industry intentionally practice sexually aggressive behaviors. That is completely unacceptable, and it is why I support the Ada Initiative in its efforts to set up a code of conduct for events. (I'm not comfortable with reports that the Ada Initiative may have been involved in censorship at a B-Sides security conference, but that is another matter.) Event organizers and other men in general need to take a stance to filter out these people proactively. Likewise, the women have to speak up and let the event organizers know who the serial harassers are.
One final observation: If harassment itself isn't disturbing enough, many women blame themselves when they are its victims. They feel that they should have been strong enough to confront the harasser and tell him to stop, but failed to do so because they found themselves surrounded by strangers and caught off guard. With all of those eyes on them, they didn't want to seem like troublemakers. And they have seen, time and time again, women who complain about harassment being called uptight bitches who are just imagining things or making them up. So they just swallow their pride and keep quiet. But later, they blame themselves for not standing up to the perpetrator.
After talking to many women in the tech profession in recent weeks, I have learned that a lot of them have decided that networking and participating at tech events is not worth the grief that they have to put up with. Clearly, the tech profession has a problem if women feel forced to make this choice. And, guys, it would be morally reprehensible if we didn't do all we can to rectify that situation.
Ira Winkler is president of Internet Security Advisors Group and author of the book Spies Among Us. He can be contacted through his website, irawinkler.com.