It Seems My Silence Was Heard

The other day, I left a comment on HN about a submission from a French site. You don't need to know any French to be interested in the imaged content, but you may not realize you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

So, someone thanked me for posting that info, but misgendered me in the reply. I did not reply to that at all.

My lack of reply to that comment was very intentional. It is an overwhelmingly male forum and I post as openly female. I've been there nearly a decade and I've thought about this a great deal. More on that later as I'm trying to capture the timeline.

Sometime after that reply to me was posted, I edited my comment and annotated where the edit begins. I addressed something else from a different comment entirely. I still said nothing about the reply that thanked me and misgendered me.

Again, this was not an oversight. It was completely intentional to continue to say nothing about that comment.

(The comment that inspired my edit is here, but it was itself edited and made a lot longer after I responded to it via editing my own comment. The edits in that comment are not annotated. Suffice it to say, we posted about the same time with seemingly conflicting info, but it really wasn't. So I expanded on how the info was different but related.)

At some point, someone eventually replied to the comment that had misgendered me to advise them I'm a woman. I really wrestled with how to feel about that and whether or not to say anything.

On the one hand, cool! People recognize me and are looking out for me. That's generally a positive thing and it's taken years of hard work to get here.

On the other hand, I had very intentionally chosen to not say anything about being misgendered and here was someone commenting in a way I don't think is really a good thing and will not do myself.

I ultimately chose to also ignore this comment as well, but it took me some time to get there. Let's back up and talk about my decision to just entirely ignore the first comment, the one that both thanked me and misgendered me.

For starters, it's a nice but low value comment. Letting me know my information had been helpful was a social nicety that makes me feel better, but adds little of value to the conversation overall.

Hacker News actively discourages low value comments because they harm the signal to noise ratio. So it's generally safe to ignore such comments.

It's in line with forum guidelines and culture to not add to the noise with low value chit chat. Ignoring such comments on HN will not make most people feel you are being rude or giving them the cold shoulder.

As a woman posting there, I have found it is generally best to ignore such comments. It often goes weird places when I reply to such things with similarly polite small talk.

When I do so, it frequently results in men replying to other comments of mine and behaving as if my polite chit chat is basically flirting or an invitation to pursue me romantically. It's really hard to put a stop to such nonsense. It's best to just not let it get started to begin with, if at all possible.

So I try to err on the side of being very serious and not overly friendly. It's actually unnatural for me and I have to resist the inclination to leave some small polite reply, like "No problem."

But years of posting on HN tells me that little replies like that are generally a bad idea for me, even if they appear to work fine for the guys. Too many men react like "Oh my God! A woman was nice to me! Maybe I'll get a date!"

It's a pernicious problem because their desire to follow me around and keep talking to me isn't harassment per se, but I've been there long enough that I know that no good ever comes of this.

They are not networking. They aren't interested in my ideas or knowledge or skills. Etc.

They are talking to me specifically because I was nice to them and I'm a woman. They want more of that niceness and I'm quite clear there is a subtext of expecting a woman to meet their emotional/sexual needs, even if the prospect of meeting in person and pursuing a relationship in earnest seems very slim.

In fact, they typically feel entitled to more positive feel-good attention from me, so it will likely turn mildly ugly if I start ignoring them after they start doing that. They will feel rejected and get mad. After that, any comments aimed at me will consistently be criticisms.

To the casual observer, the criticisms will seem perfectly reasonable. In most cases, it will not be obvious that the subtext is really "Bitch! How dare you reject me!" No allies will come forward to downvote it to oblivion or flag it to death.

There is no good way to handle it when a man gets it in his head that I'm obligated to keep talking to him and buttering him up and making him feel good. Saying "Hey, dude, I'm not here to pick up men." or otherwise trying to tell him to stop it would both embarrass and anger him, plus he would deny that he is romantically interested.

At that early stage of interest, it's impossible to prove that this is actually their motive for engaging me, never mind how obvious it may seem to me. It would make me look like a paranoid man-hating bitch to state that this is my view of the behavior, even though that view is informed by long experience.

So it's extremely problematic for me to be my usual polite chatty self and very freely and frequently say things like "Thanks" or "No problem" as a stand alone comment that is not part of a meatier reply. Over the years, I've gotten much choosier with such comments.

If I really feel some need to give some small positive acknowledgement of a reply to me, I'll upvote it. In this case, I didn't even do that, in part because I was misgendered.

So let's talk about that part of it: Why didn't I reply to advise them I'm a woman? Why ignore that detail?

It perhaps seems like a harmless, small thing to let them know I'm a woman, not a man. The crowd on HN is pretty pedantic. Correcting small factual errors happens regularly on the site. It's easy to assume this is no different from any other small pedantic correction.

Plus, not correcting it potentially implies I'm male. So it's easy to feel like "Let's nip this misunderstanding in the bud and let people know I happen to be female. No big. Just an FYI."

But, that's absolutely the wrong way to view this. For starters, if that's all I have to say and nothing else, it will be read as me making a big deal out of my gender.

I honestly don't want to do that. In fact, I want to do the opposite of that: I want to treat my gender as a detail, not a big deal.

I want to be perceived as a regular member of the community who has interests in common with the general membership and just happens to be female. I do not want to be perceived as either the token female or some strident feminazi bulling my way into a predominantly male space for the sake of making a point.

I post regularly, so there are lots of opportunities for people to see my gender mentioned in the course of conversation. I guess if I didn't post as often, I might want to think about somehow making my gender clear via the content of my profile and I might have developed different policies than what I'm describing here.

But I do participate regularly, so there is plenty of opportunity for people to see my gender mentioned organically in the course of making conversation. And, as much as possible, I try to mention my gender only when it is actually pertinent to the discussion.

My gender is not pertinent to my ability to translate small snippets of French as a service to the community in an English-speaking space. It has zero bearing on whether or not my translation is accurate.

While I try to not harp pointlessly on the fact that I happen to be female, I also refuse to hide or actively downplay my gender. I refuse to whitewash my comments with ungendered terminology that obfuscates my gender. I routinely describe myself with gendered terms, like mom or former military wife.

But I want to normalize the idea that I just happen to be a woman speaking. I don't actually want to actively draw attention to my gender for it's own sake.

So, with all of that in mind, I decided a long time ago that if someone is engaging me in a pro social fashion, such as thanking me, and they happen to misgender me, I'm not going to correct them if I have nothing else to say in response. I think correcting them puts the focus on my gender in a pointless and negative manner.

I also think it puts out the fire with gasoline.

You may think such corrections help normalize the idea that there are women here, but I really don't. I think it just adds fuel to the gender war conflagration.

I want men to be willing to talk to me as normally as possible. Since it is an overwhelmingly male forum, if someone assumes I'm male, they are implicitly saying I fit in there. 

I want to agree with the implicit message that I fit in. I want to agree with the assumption that I belong.

Pointing out my gender if I have nothing else to add actually suggests that assumption is wrong. It puts the focus on how I'm different and makes me stand out, and not in a good way.

Plus, if they are saying thank you and my only response to that is "You misgendered me," that's going to feel pretty negative to them. They will feel publicly embarrassed and picked on as their "reward" for kindly thanking me, something they did not have to do.

And they aren't the only one who will get the ugly message. It will also tell other members "God, don't talk to this bitch. She has no manners and will publicly embarrass you over minor details no matter how nice you are being to her. Who the hell needs this drama?! Yeesh!"

Such behavior puts a chill in the air and makes men afraid to talk to me lest I bite their head off for no real reason. It causes people to walk on eggshells, which de facto helps to Other me.

There are better ways for people to learn that I'm a woman than nitpicking nice comments whose only flaw is they assumed I was one of the guys on an overwhelmingly male forum because I fit in so well. That's about the worst possible way to educate people about that detail.

So, if I have no other point to make, I don't correct people who misgender me. However, if I do have some other point to make, I will probably mention it in a low key fashion.

Otherwise, I want people to realize I'm female organically in the course of tripping across comments where it happens to get mentioned. I mostly don't want to point it out in a manner that makes people feel picked on, singled out, gratuitously embarrassed or similar.

The other reason I don't want to make stand-alone assertions concerning my gender is because I feel it actively encourages men to treat me like a sex object. It emphasizes information about me in a way that I feel makes it hard for them to not think of me that way.

I don't want them thinking of me that way. I want them thinking of me as someone interested in X or knowledgeable about Y or someone who makes interesting comments.

It's fine if they know I'm a woman, but it shouldn't be uppermost in their mind. To some degree, it's on me to make sure I position myself that way.

If you want to be treated like a professional, and not a sex object, then dress accordingly. Similarly, if I don't want men on HN treating me like a sex object, then what is the point in saying "Actually, I'm a woman!" in a comment with zero other content?

Doing so strikes me as calling attention to my gender in a manner that actively encourages men to view me through that lens of "The only reason to talk with her is her gender. I.E. I should put on my man on the prowl goggles."

No good is going to come of that. To my mind, it's a little like flashing someone, then trying to insist they treat you professionally afterwards.

Hello! That doesn't work.

So I don't want to leave remarks where the only content is "Look! I'm a woman! I thought it was really important for you to know that for some reason!" My feeling is that can only be interpreted in one of two ways, neither of which does any good.

1. I want to be treated "like a woman." In other words, men interpret it as flirting or signaling sexual interest in them.

2. I'm some man-hating feminazi bitch actively looking for every possible excuse to piss and moan about sexism. Obviously I joined this overwhelmingly male forum not to talk with people about mutual interests, but to make a stink and be generally unpleasant because I have delusions that this kind of SJW crap somehow makes the world a better place.

I'm not interested in signaling either of those things. So it has been my policy for some years to not nitpick comments that misgender me if there is nothing else to say.

But the follow-up remark where someone else stated "Doreen is a woman" is sort of new territory. It has probably happened before, but it hasn't happened often.

So I had no policy specific to that scenario. I wasn't sure what to do.

I started several draft replies, but never posted any of them. Ultimately, I decided this fell under the same policy as the comment that thanked me but misgendered me:

I should not publicly embarrass them and I should not add more noise to the discussion concerning the irrelevant detail of my gender. So silence is golden.

Like with the other comment, I completely ignored it. I didn't so much as upvote or downvote it.

Eventually, the mods deprecated the two comments. After that happened, other replies to me were about the actual content of my comment or translating the French details for the English-speaking audience.

I think I did the right thing because that's exactly the kind of engagement I want on HN.




This was originally posted on 06/07/2019 to a personal blog that is no longer online.