I just read Matt Amionetti’s thoughtfully worded response to the reaction he’s got from his presentation, “CouchDB: Perform like a Pr0n star”.
Indeed, reading the response, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone could possibly be offended by his presentation. Matt warned people beforehand that there would be potentially offensive images, I believe in his stated intentions, and I heed his call that we should be contributing something useful to the discussion.
So, I’d like to give you, the reader, a little bit of insight into the human brain, how it makes connections and comparisons, and help you to understand your power over other people and their perceptions.
I’d like to start by telling you another story.
The Tale of the T-Shirt
On one dress-down Friday, a colleague came in wearing a beach T-shirt, featuring a topless woman coming out of the surf. It was just a black and white image, and the focus was on the scene as a whole, but nonetheless some of us felt that it was inappropriate. So I asked him not to wear it again.
“Why?” our colleague said. “I didn’t think it would offend anyone.”
“It’s not really that it’s offensive,” I said, “but think about this. I’m pair-programming with you, sitting next to you at a table. Someone else comes along to talk to both of us. They see your T-shirt, with that image, and then they scan across from that image to me. Can you see the comparison they’re making in their mind? Even subconsciously? That’s why I would prefer you not to wear that T-shirt – so that people don’t think about topless women while they’re talking to me, and while I’m trying to work. At worst, the comparison is offensive. At best, the t-shirt is distracting.”
Our colleague took the feedback very well, and agreed not to wear the t-shirt again.
How the brain makes associations
The human brain consists of a bunch of neurons, between which connections and pathways are built. Those pathways form associations. There are associations of which we’re conscious, associations of which we’re not conscious, and a blurred space in between.
Here’s a conscious association. If I want to remind myself to pick up my dry-cleaning after work, I can hide my handbag. Sound strange? Well, as soon as I go to pick up my handbag, and it’s not where I left it, I’ll remember why I hid it. I’ve built myself a conscious association between the absence of the handbag, and the task I had to remember.
For a subconscious association, watch yourself thinking of all the things you remember about Germany, when I say the word “Germany”, or “Elephant”. The vast majority of our associations are not in, and often not available to, our conscious mind. They add to our personality, drive the learning we get from our experiences, and there are simply too many of them for us to be aware of them all.
For an example of the blurred space between, I offer my fiancé’s habit of driving directly home from the station, even though we agreed we’d stop at the Chinese takeaway on the way home. He associates the act of driving down a particular road with a particular route, and consciously manipulates the car to follow his subconscious association.
So what does this have to do with pr0n stars?
Human beings learn associations by – amongst other things – proximity; either in time, or in place. That is; they will build associations more easily if two or more things are experienced close together.
If you’ve watched Matt’s slideshow, and you find yourself using CouchDB on a project in the future, will you be thinking of his slideshow? It was very memorable. I think I will find it hard in the future to disassociate that slideshow from the featured product. That’s a conscious association I’ve built. I’m aware of it.
There’s a subconscious association going on in that show, too; another proximity which is harder to spot. We’ve just experienced words of technology – key phrases like scalability, REST, public interfaces – with images of women whom we’re told are available for visual sexual gratification. There are a few men in some of the images; they appear to me to be in positions of power and influence. The images of women, on the other hand, tend to be submissive. So we’re learning, subconsciously, that women associated with technology are also associated with sexual gratification and submissiveness. (The only strong women in the slideshow are associated with conflict, which we try to avoid.)
If you doubt this is true, look through the presentation (and bear in mind that it might be considered Not Safe For Work). At some point, Matt introduces a picture of a typical development team. To which team member are your eyes drawn, and why?
At the very least, we start making comparisons. No wonder she doesn’t look happy.
The power of people with influence
Earlier this year, I finished reading Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”. It’s a very readable, memorable book. It explains some of the ways in which associations are made. In particular, he describes these mechanisms for influencing other people (his titles, my poor definitions):
- Social proof – if other people do it, we should do it too
- Authority – if someone in a leadership position tells us to do it, we should do it
So, if a community is building associations, or you’re recognised as or portraying yourself as an authority telling people to build associations, those associations will be stronger than normal. People will be more likely to act on those associations. In the same way that my fiancé takes the turning for home, “routes” will be set which the brain naturally follows, and acts upon. And it will seem perfectly reasonable, or justifiable, to do so – at the time.
So what can you do now?
If you were sitting in Matt’s presentation, or have experienced similar presentations or associations in the past:
- you might consciously choose to wear a topless women on your t-shirt, because your brain subconsciously confirms that it’s acceptable.
- You might expect women to be more submissive; to accept delegated tasks more easily, or question process less, or accept lower pay.
- You might find it uncomfortable to have a female manager or team lead.
- You might cause the women around you start dressing in less feminine ways, to distance themselves from any association.
- You might erroneously think you have a chance of scoring with your female colleague (notwithstanding cases of genuine mutual attraction).
- You might not expect the woman on your team to be able to teach you anything new.
And, if you’re Matt, or one of the many commenters whose opinions I’ve read, you might not completely understand the backlash. Hopefully this post helps.
If you’re not suffering these or similar biases, trust my experience that others are, or have done, and start thinking about how you might have been influenced. The associations aren’t helpful for me, and I doubt they’re helpful for the people who have them. Recognising the influence of others will help you to consciously choose different paths.
Hopefully if you’ve found the presentation through this blog, you’ve now read through this post and are now better guarded against these associations. (That’s why I didn’t put the link at the top).
You can also strengthen more useful associations. Go find the women in your team and talk to them about their technical abilities; the things that brought them to IT; times when they’ve felt empowered and assertive. Find strong female role-models – I recommend Esther Derby, Desi McAdam, Sarah Taraporewalla, Johanna Rothman, Cyndi Mitchell, Rachel Davies, Angela Martin, and many others too numerous to list here. If you’re looking for something more entertaining to get into your subconscious, try Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers, Alan Moore’s “Promethea” or Manda Scott’s “Boudica” series.
And, if you’re thinking of presenting something similar in the future, be aware of the power that you have.
On engendering subconscious reactions
Matt entitled his response, “On Engendering Strong Reactions“. I’m worried about the subconscious reactions; about the effect that it has on the people who see that presentation and the way in which they react to me, and to my other female colleagues, afterwards. Matt said, “I would have hoped that people who were likely to be offended would have simply chosen not to attend my talk or read my slides on the internet”. That doesn’t stop the associations being built, and I can’t necessarily avoid working with people who have built those associations.
So I’m not offended by the presentation – I can understand why some women might be – but I am concerned by it. Hopefully this provides some positive insight into why. Matt – I hope you find it useful and enlightening; please let me know.