Picture this. You’re a woman in tech. You’re speaking on a panel at a conference. You are asked the following question.
“We’ve all heard some folks in the community say that women are to blame for the gender gap. Women just don’t try as hard as men, they’re just not as into technology, or even women aren’t as capable as men. What do you have to say about that?”
This happened today to a woman I know. In a conf for a community I’m about to start working in. I’m furious and disgusted.
What would Your response be???
Version A: (the boring version)
The first thing you get taught in any media training is, “Don’t answer the question you were asked: answer the question you wish they had asked.” However that takes planning. Before you get on stage you must sit down and think to yourself, “What is my primary message? If I get a question that derails me, what theme or point will I return to?”
So, given that, I’d answer, “Thank you for the very interesting question. [repeat the main theme of my talk.]”
Version B: (the better version)
Let’s deconstruct the question;
“We’ve all heard…” This is a dirty tactic that tries to distance himself from the hate he is about to spew. Dirty.
“women are to blame” This phrase is engineered to shift blame. It is actually a brainwashing technique. If you repeat something over and over, people believe it. For example, if every time you got up on stage someone asked, “I hear you like chocolate ice cream” eventually people will start to associate you with chocolate ice cream and ask, “Gosh, what’s up with the ice cream?” whether or not you care about ice cream at all. This also works in the negative. If you say “don’t think of an elephant”, people will think about an elephant. The radical right is inserting this phrase all over the place in hopes that it sticks. Dirty.
“[anti-women hate talk promoted by the radical right]” This is just misinformation that they want to spread. It doesn’t matter if they insert it into a question or an answer, they just want to get it into the conversation. In this case, they don’t have the stage, so they insert it into the question. Dirty.
So, this person is using dirty tricks to spread a message of “blame the victim” and to make it appear that a lot of people feel this way. They are trying to co-opt your stage time to spread their message hate.
Ok, so let’s turn it around on the person.
First I’d leverage their concern-trolling by saying:
“Well, since you said ‘some people’ I assume that you don’t feel that this isn’t true about women. Right?”
At this point, you’ve got them cornered. They can answer “yes” and stick with their script of pretending to be a concerned pro-woman kind of guy or they can say “no” and look like a jerk.
If they say “yes”, I’d reply:
“Good. I also don’t agree with the premise of the question. I think it would be powerful for you to tell those people why you know that it is wrong. Why don’t you share your explanation with the crowd?”
Now pause and make them answer it. They may struggle and admit defeat. Or they’d say something creative like, “Oh, but I want to hear you say it. Umm… I’d like help with what words to use.” You can just throw it back at them:
I think it would be more powerful coming from a guy, in his own words. Since you agree that this kind of thing is untrue, I’m sure that if you speak from your heart, it will just flow.
Then I’d move to the next question.
There is a slim change that they’ll say “no”, that they do believe women are to blame. In that case, make it about them:
“Oh you do agree with that statement? Well why didn’t you say so in the first place? Why did you hide behind “some people say”?
At that point I wouldn’t let go of this point. Any point they raise after that, I’d bring it back to:
Why were you such a coward that you couldn’t admit that you feel that women are incapable of holding jobs because they don’t try as hard?
Why were you SUCH A FUCKING WIMP that you tried to hide behind weasel words like “Some people say”?
Normally I don’t use phrases like “wimp” but in this case, I believe in speaking the language of the audience. You don’t speak Italian to a French-speaking audience. You don’t use calculus metaphors to preschoolers. Use words he’d understand:
Why don’t you man up and say what you mean instead of hiding behind that kind of cowardly phrase like “some people say”? Are you such a fucking pussy that you can’t admit that you think women are incapable of working in tech?
If he doesn’t sit down at this point I’d tell him to sit down:
Look, there are other people with questions and I’d like to get to them. Come back when you learn to ask questions without being a wimp coward loser.
Yes, that’s exactly how I’d answer the question.
It is dirty to respond this way? Not at all. When someone is not acting in good faith, it is a disservice to yourself and to all D&I groups to let them roll you. Turn it around and make them be accountable for their actions.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, “but he was just asking an innocent question!” No, no he wasn’t. The radical right is training people to phrase questions this way to serve their anti-women, anti-minority, agenda. You can find these training materials online. They’re fighting dirty and letting them win that way is not honorable or good. It also isn’t necessary.