Molly White
Software engineer, editor and arbitrator on Wikipedia, feminist, Twitter bot commander, unabashed cat lady.

Compliments: When they’re appreciated, and when to keep them to yourself

The other day, I received an email, sent through one of the Wikimedia wikis. I suppose this helps explain why it opened “Hey Gloria”—my username on Wikipedia is “GorillaWarfare”, which apparently(?) can be confusing. The sender wanted to tell me about a project he was creating that was somewhat similar to one of mine. This was all well and good—I love hearing about similar projects and opportunities for collaboration, and it was nice of him to personally send me an email, name confusion notwithstanding. What I didn’t like was the last line of the email: “You look very beautiful, hope you a not angry that I tell you.”

I wasn’t really sure how to feel about this. My first reaction was to feel a little flattered. My second reaction was “Hm, now how do I reply to this email? This is really awkward.” I contemplated not replying. I contemplated replying with my thoughts about the code, but ignoring the remark about my appearance. I finally settled on replying to the code and to the comment on my looks. It ended up taking me a day and a half to reply to the email, which is about as good a measure of my discomfort with the situation as any.

Excluding my discussion of his code, I settled on:

Regarding your last comment, I might suggest checking out the Wikimedia Foundation’s friendly space policy — it’s written specifically for conferences, but the ideas behind it apply across the projects. Although I’m sure you meant it well, that kind of remark can be a bit distancing, particularly for our female contributors, who would generally rather be recognized for their contributions to the project and not for their appearance. Mentioning that you “hope I’m not angry” about the comment suggests that you probably know the comment could be unwelcome—in the future you might want to go with your instinct.

Stepping away from this particular incident, the whole situation made me a little sad. I’m typically not the first person you see talking about the gender gap, the role of women in tech, or even feminism in general (though that’s not to say I don’t hold strong opinions on the matter). I’ve been lucky to go to a school where being a woman in computer science is not A Huge Deal, and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve felt welcomed in both the tech community and the Wikimedia communities, despite their bad raps regarding acceptance of women. That said, once in a while an incident like this comes along and reminds me that some people really just don’t understand, say, when it’s appropriate to compliment a woman on her appearance. This particular man is not the only guilty party; for example, the generally considerate Barack Obama recently received flak1 for a very similar thing when he remarked, “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country!” when describing California Attorney General Kamala Harris. I am hopeful that as more people speak out about the impropriety of these types of comments, people will begin to be more sensitive about this, and perhaps realize that these compliments are better suited for dinner dates and social settings.

Notes

1. "Why Obama’s ‘Best-Looking Attorney General’ Comment Was a Gaffe" was a particularly good piece on the topic.

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