What we can take away from a viral speech by a freshman member of Congress and why simply tuning out abusive language aimed at women won't work anymore.
Early in my tech reporting career, I broke a story about a specific networking vendor whose product failed in the middle of a high-stakes event.
A day or so later, I received an email from a man – along with several more emails in the days that followed -- attacking my story, as well as me, personally. The criticisms included my age, my appearance, and the writer’s perception of my life and personality.
It probably goes without saying, but the emails contained vulgar and very misogynistic language. Instead of my very first thought being; "Whoa! This person shouldn't be talking to me this way. This is offensive!" I remember thinking; "Was there something wrong with my story?"
Maybe it's just the reporter in me. We always want to make sure everything’s accurate and our sources are well-vetted, especially when we're publishing a scoop. Spoiler alert: my story was completely accurate, and many other reporters soon published the same story as it was news about a very well-known vendor. But issues like these speak to a larger problem: The normalization of abusive language and sexism toward women.
That's why it moved me when U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) stood up on the House floor and addressed the issue of a fellow male Congressman cursing at her in an outburst that was overhead by reporters outside the Capitol. Her statement: “You can … project an image to the world of being a family man and accost women without remorse and with a sense of impunity. It happens every day in this country,” rang so frustratingly true. It seems like every woman I have spoken to since has their own, disappointing story.
I did respond to the man that emailed me. Looking back, I was far too kind. I wanted him to drop his vitriol and give me useful feedback, if he had any. I wanted him to realize that I wasn't a "dumb little girl," (yes, he actually said that) but a reporter doing my job. Instead, this only made his follow-up emails more hateful and inappropriate. When this man was called out by my supervisor at the time -- a male -- he tried to list various women in his life. I guess he saw it as evidence that because he is associated with women on some level, he must inherently have respect for them.
No industry is immune to situations like these, regardless of whether it's politics, IT, or any other vertical in between. Many women have almost learned how to tune it out, but that doesn’t mean ignoring it and moving on is the best solution anymore.
While only a freshman member of Congress, AOC’s speech demonstrated that this dynamic must change from the top. It might take several hard conversations with perhaps reluctant audiences to achieve meaningful change. More women in visible, leadership positions across all industries -- especially the male-dominated tech industry -- is the only way to end this dynamic for good. That, and calling out bad behavior.
Maybe we also need to be reminded that you're not being "disruptive" or "difficult" for standing up for yourself and for other women.