IT blokes: would you say that lewd comment to a man? Then don't say it to a woman

How not to make a total asshole of yourself at tech shows


Opinion It’s not news that, being a male dominated industry, women face a lot of challenges working in IT. We have to overcome sexism, stereotypes and sometimes outright harassment.

I am no stranger to tech shows, particularly the mega events that draw thousands of men from all over the world, and know first-hand what it can be like to mingle in the crowd at such events, which often lead to alcohol-fuelled social activities afterwards.

For the most part attending these events has been a great experience, but sadly I've not come away completely unscathed. I’ve written in the past about some of the negative experiences at vendor booths and how I was not taken seriously - but that wasn’t the whole story.

Something I left out, that I haven't talked about, is what happens in the evening hours or during the “Hall Crawls” where booze is involved. Most people that know me, know that for years I've always taken the approach of “suck it up buttercup”, it comes with the job of working in a male-dominated industry.

People in my inner circle know that I am a social butterfly, enjoy having a good time with friends and can make crude jokes just like any other guy. I’m just like one of the guys.

Do you want to know the truth?

Well, now VMWare has rolled into San Francisco, California, and thousands will be squeezing through a maze of vendor stands on the show floor, sitting through presentations in darkened keynote halls and packed into the tiny breakout rooms of that city's bunker-like Moscone Center. There will be overspill into the hotels and bars around town, too. With that in mind, here are some of the things I had to go through attending last year’s VMworld plus, also, TechEd run by Microsoft.

I make it a habit of going to conference parties with a group of men that I trust because I don’t want to go alone to a party full of inebriated, touchy-feely male strangers.

Yes, some of them like to grope.

I’ve had strange men touch me in inappropriate places and creepily stare at me head-to-toe. Travelling with a group of guys is, for me, like a shield to keep out the creepy guys and wandering hands. Remember that saying back in school: “Keep your hands to yourself”? Well, this applies here too.

I can’t count the times when men will stop dead in a conversation I am having with them regarding some technical aspect and tell me they are getting a “hard on”. Keep in mind these are complete strangers who I have never met before telling me I am arousing them. Awkward is an understatement. Brazenly, some of them wear their company’s shirt, while behaving in a lewd manner. That's right, they're representing their company while behaving like idiots. And, trust me, when this happens, I make it a point to avoid that booth on the expo showroom.

Complete strangers (men) have asked me to make out with female co-worker/attendees in front of them thinking it will “loosen” their friends. Sorry guys, I don’t attend these events to fulfil your girl-on-girl fantasies. If you want to see that kind of action, I suggest a different type of conference.

I’ve had a man interrupt a private conversation I was having so as he could shove a photo of a penis in front of my face. That Athlete’s foot joke with the hanging penis may be funny with your close buddies, but shoving that into a woman’s face who you just met is not cool. I don’t speak for every woman, but most of us would like to be warned if something is NSFW before it’s shoved in our faces.

While working at the Micron/Proximal Data booth at VMworld last year, a drunk man laughed at the fact I was not a “booth babe” but a real systems engineer, then proceeded to invite me up to his room and party with the real booth babes to have a threesome, because that would be so awesome. Again guys, we are not here to fulfil any fantasies that you may have.

It’s never OK

Just because you follow someone on social media like Twitter, LinkedIN, and Instagram, it does not mean you know that person in the real world. It certainly does not give you the right to behave like an asshole. People have private lives that may be completely different from their social life. Pro tip: don’t ever assume that they are the same.

My silence was enabling the behavior and talking about it with other men, who supported me, gave me a sense of freedom. I never talked about how guys treated me before, because I always blamed it on just being part of IT, or, worse still, because of me and reasoned that these were the things I just had to deal with.

The truth is, I don't have to deal with it - no woman should have to put up with such behavior. It is not that hard to act like an adult with some common sense and respect, people.

Not a gender war

This isn't about gender wars: it’s not about men vs women, this is about acting like a grown up at a professional conference. There is no need to act like an ass to women or men at these shows. We are not attending a frat party, it may seem like it sometimes, but we're not. Attending a sponsored party that includes an open bar does not include a free ticket to act like a jerk.

You can still have a good time - even with alcohol involved - and not cross the line. If your behavior is questionable and could result in some sort of HR violation, stop and don’t even go there. Don’t risk losing your job, screwing up business deals and getting kicked out of the conference.

I will be honest. After those guys treated me the way they did, while proudly wearing their company shirt, I did everything I could to avoid their booth on the expo floor. Based on their behavior, I punished their company and any potential business they may have got from me, even though the company wasn't to blame.

Keeping it classy

Tech events that include social activities with alcohol can happen without someone making an ass of himself.

An example is the Tech Field Day events run by Stephen Foskett and the crew over at Gestalt IT. I had a great opportunity to attend Storage Field Day5 in April in San Jose, California. Talk about keeping it classy - this event had a great mixture of deep technical knowledge, socializing( with alcohol included) and all around good fun but nobody crossed the line.

I had some great conversations at Storage Field Day5 with people like Jason Collier, chief technology officer of Scale Computing, discussing the early days of Hotmail and running Exchange on the Scale Computing's HC3 platform, but we also joked around about his “GQ” look for the day.

With bigger conferences like VMworld and TechEd, it’s harder to enforce or tell people how to act, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t. I'm realistic, I live in the real world and there are going to be jerks out there that act like asses. You're always going to have that one guy that makes an ass of himself because he thinks it’s funny. My advice to all the potential asses out there:

1. Don’t be an ass at all, treat people with respect, women or men

2. If you are going to be an arse/ass (depending on how you like to pronounce it), do it on your own time don’t do it while representing your company. The company you work for does not deserve to be negatively affected by your stupidity.

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