Monday, May 9, 2016

Jokes and Fun and Safety at Work

Something happened at a conference I recently attended:

Between sessions, there was a long line at the men’s room. There was little or no line at the women’s room. Behind me in line, out of my vision, I heard a man say:

“Maybe we're all starting to feel transgender right now.”

If you didn't cringe when you read that, I get it. In a way, it is a clever nod to all the happenings related to the recent North Carolina bathroom law.

But I cringed when I heard it, and I cringe each time I read it again. Unfortunately, that comment is hurtful. Would a transgender man feel welcome hearing that? I can't imagine one would.

I'm sure that the comment was not intended to be hurtful. But if a transgender man heard it, and I can't be certain that one did not, I expect it would have a hurtful impact. And if we want a better workplace and a better world, I believe we have to take responsibility for the impact of our actions, not just our intentions.

I believe everyone wants a fun work environment, and jokes can certainly be part of that. But I'm hoping that we can create cultures that push women and members of marginalized groups out of IT less. When someone is outnumbered in a setting, it can be hard to speak up about what feels OK and what doesn’t, especially if the rest of the group seems to (even if silently) condone something. I understand - rocking the boat about culture can be a risk to employment. As white, heterosexual men, we are probably not experienced with what can feel hurtful to people different from us. I try to honor and believe people’s life experiences. Even if I can’t see how something can be hurtful, I try to believe people when they say something is.

All of this means that I try to avoid humor that is sexually charged, comments on people’s bodies, or touches on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender presentation, and other characteristics of members of marginalized groups.

And if a joke like that slips out and I notice, I don't wait for someone else to point it out. I call myself out on it and acknowledge the possible impact, even though it wasn't my intention.

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