The Only Woman at the Table

April 21, 2014

My mother, husband and I were sitting in the dining room while she was telling us about her trip to Chicago. Apparently she had eaten dinner with some unsavory characters while attending a tech conference, including:

The really loud guy: This was a man who talked a lot, loudly, and didn't listen to anything you said in return. If he was quiet long enough for you to get a word in edgewise, his eyes would gloss over until he could pick up where he'd left off before you'd interrupted him.

The flirtatious guy: A middle-aged man who shamelessly flirted with the waitress probably 20 years his junior. Incorrectly assumes the polite, I-work-for-tips-for-a-living responses from the waitress as flirting back and ruthlessly badgers her for a photo before leaving the restaurant.

There had been a few other people at the dinner who weren't bad, of course. One was a man who was well-mannered. One was another woman who was quiet for most of the evening, who my mother really felt for. She was a clerk at a table full of lawyers, some of whom were being loud and inappropriate. She probably didn't feel like an equal, and with the boisterous, misogynous company I probably would have stayed quiet too.

My mother said that thinking about the dinner (and the predatory flirting that came her way) kept her up all night. She said that it invoked all of these memories from before she opened her own firm, back to when she attended a ton of dinners like that one: dinners where the men would get drunk and hit on the waitresses while she'd think about how it'd be nice to be home. It left her rallied up, thinking of all the things she should have said while disparaging whether or not anyone would have even listened despite her having the perfectly phrased quip. I know just what she was talking about: it was a reminder that of the 20 men in the room, you're the only lady, and you're either one of the 'bros' or you're a bitch.

It's a simple truth perpetrated by men and women like: powerful women are bitches while powerful men are powerful men. My mother is an intelligent, powerful, confident lawyer who is damn good at what she does. Because she stood up for herself that night, she came away the bitch and ended up feeling awful all night.

Her telling me this made me so sad for a number of reasons. First of all my mother is a lawyer, not a developer, designer, venture capitalist, or the normal crowd one sees at tech conferences. It made me sad that the community I consider my people let my mom down. But it also made me sad because this story isn't just about my mom, it's about me, and if you're a woman, it's a story about you.

If you've ever had an experience like this one, I hope you'll empathize with the desire to not go to events as often. Getting yourself out of the house to socialize with a bunch of strangers can be hard for many people without the additional fear of the men in the room excluding you or treating you inappropriately. On more than one occasion I've stayed home or gone out with friends instead of putting myself in awkward situations. And it's not right: I get robbed of a community, and the community gets robbed of me. I'm a woman, but I'm also a designer, front-end developer, and I'm incredibly passionate about what I do. Of those, I consider my sex to be the least important when it comes to getting the job done.

My mother says that if her law partner had been at the table that night too, she thinks that the evening would have been a lot different. I think she's probably right. Being the only outspoken woman at the table that night meant that she had to really fight for herself. But two strong, outspoken women? Together, they could have made sure that inappropriate situations didn't arise in the first place.

The reason this story is about you too is that we as women need to leave our houses, go to conferences, be part of the community even when it's uncomfortable because we might be that second woman at the table that shifts the dynamic. I've felt uncomfortable before, and I'm sure you have too. As women we need to question the number of men in the room and encourage each other to be active even when we'd rather not put up with it.

It's not easy, but if we both agree to show up, we can change dynamics together.