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Revision as of 04:23, 13 May 2012

Why a workshop for male allies?

Often, when a sexist incident happens, we are so busy being shocked and amazed that we can't react quickly. Sometimes days can go by before we figure out what to do. This is true for even the most experienced and educated men and women - for example, one experienced geek feminist watched a pornographic presentation and was too shocked to respond in any way for several hours.

The solution is practice. By running through theoretical scenarios in a friendly environment, we have a better chance at responding in the real world. It's like practicing a presentation.

Scope and audience

This workshop is designed for men who want to help stop sexism - male allies - and who want specific suggestions on how to respond when they encounter a sexist incident. We leave the topic of how women can respond to sexist incidents for another time.

Workshop structure

One way to run the work shop is in this order, with each section explained in more detail below:

  • Introduce the basic concepts of men acting as allies and why it works
  • Review basic principles of responding to sexism
  • Talk about safe space
  • Do group giggle
  • Hand out printouts of the Basic Principles and Scenarios sections of this wiki
  • Ask people to split up/volunteer for role-playing as necessary
  • Role-play scenarios
  • Wrap up with a discussion of what people learned

Print out this page starting from the heading "Start printing here" and hand them out to participants.

Role-playing format

The heart of this workshop is role-playing through the examples below and discussing the different responses. There are several options:

  • Form groups of 4-6 people and role-play within the group.
  • Get extroverted volunteers to role-play in front of the whole audience.
  • Allow people to do both: either form a small group or watch the volunteers role-play, as they feel comfortable (recommended).

Each scenario includes the roles to be played and the set-up script. Some example responses are listed afterwards. Replay the scenario a few times with different responses. (Responses marked "Funny/don't use" are included for comic relief and not recommended as actual real-world responses.)

Safe space

Workshops should be safe spaces where we are allowed to make mistakes and possibly do or say sexist things, or ask dumb questions. The person running the workshop should tell everyone that it is a safe space, and ask people not to make fun of people's well-intentioned comments or repeat unflattering stories outside the workshop.

Group giggle

Often there's a certain "giggle factor" because people are nervous about talking about sex(ism). This makes it difficult to be serious about the role-playing. We suggest acknowledging the awkwardness explicitly and showing a funny slide or making a joke and giving people a chance to giggle before they start role-playing.

Video of first run of workshop

This is an unedited live video of the first presentation of this workshop, warts and all. Please use the wiki as the authoritative version and excuse the mistakes and errors in the video.

Start printing here

Allies workshop

You can find a complete up-to-date copy of this document at:

Basic principles of responding to sexism - for men

This section should be reviewed by the presenter briefly before starting the role-playing part of the workshop.

  • Pick your battles. Chances are, you can't respond to every sexist incident you see or you'd never get anything else done. That's okay. Pick the ones that will have the most reward. Play to your audience - the person being sexist is the person least likely to change their mind (although it sometimes happens).
  • Don't battle. Don't engage in an argument on someone else's terms. State your opinion once, correct any factual errors or true misunderstandings, and then change the subject or leave the conversation. (This is also known as Charles' Rules of Argument.) The exception is when you are campaigning over the long-term for a big change - but that's outside the scope of this workshop.
  • Practice your responses. Role-playing according to the scripts below is one way to practice. Another is to read stories about previous incidents. Pick a few short responses that feel good to you and practice saying them until they come automatically. Some options:
    • "That's pretty rude."
    • "Please don't say those things around me."
    • "I'm offended by that."
    • (Your phrase here)
  • Don't fight sexism with other ism's. Don't try to fight sexism by saying something homophobic or transphobic - for example, asking how people would feel about male homesexual booth babes, or trans booth babes. It's wrong, and it's self-defeating. We're not going to win respect and equality for women by attacking homosexual and trans people. Try to avoid making fun of people who are less sexually attractive than others, too. It may feel good to make fun of someone by saying he won't get a date if he's sexist, but it will not feel good to someone listening who can't get a date through no fault of their own. See Good sexism comebacks and Bad sexism comebacks.
  • Choose the most powerful response. When do you say "I don't like that," (my personal opinion is) vs. "That's not okay" (that is morally wrong)? When you have authority or power in the situation, use "That's not okay." When all you control is yourself and your opinions, use "I don't like that."
  • Have replies ready for common arguments. One is along the lines "I know one particular woman and she said she doesn't see what's wrong with $SEXIST_THING, therefore you shouldn't mind either." Some replies are:
    • "I'm a man, and I mind $SEXIST_THING."
    • "Women are different people, just like men, and often have different opinions."
    • "One woman doesn't get to decide what's offensive."
    • "If I were her, I'd probably be too polite or worried about people liking me to say I didn't like it."
  • Use your position and influence. If you have power - such as being list moderator, project leader, conference organizer, LUG president, IRC op, or funding coordinator - don't be afraid to use it to fight sexism. Many of us are used to having little or no influence and don't immediately think of using it. If you don't have any particular power in a situation, express your opinion to someone who does. In some case, just making a public report is the best thing you can do.
  • Take advantage of your gender. Remember, you always have the power of being male when talking about sexism. This automatically makes people respect your opinion about sexism more. You may be surprised to discover how positively people respond to you when you object to sexism. They are likely to think you are brave, enlightened, principled, intelligent, etc. (See "Magical Man Sparkles.")


Note: All of these scenarios are taken directly from real-world examples, frequently word-for-word. Only the funny examples may be made up.

Scenario: A woman walks up to your group at a geek event

An important step to countering sexism is to be welcoming - but not creepily so - to women who are attending geek events. Often people are too nervous to speak to women as easily as men, so it's important to practice just welcoming women in a natural manner.

Roles: 3+ men in chatting together, one woman standing to the side

Set-up: The woman walks up to the group of men and waits, smiling.


  • Bad: "How do you like the partners' programme?" (Assumes that because she's female, she's only here because she's someone's partner.)
  • Bad: Uncomfortable silence. (Implies she's not welcome.)
  • Bad: Sneer, look down your nose, and turn away because she can't be anyone important.
  • Bad: Grab her badge and bend over to look at it. (If you can't read her badge, ask her what her name is.)
  • Really bad: Touch her in some way other than a handshake. (A common misconception is that it is okay to touch women's bodies without their consent. It's not. Don't ask for consent, either, you just met her.)
  • Good: Smile and say, "Hello, my name is $NAME." (You don't even have to ask her name, she'll probably say it.)
  • Good: "How are you enjoying $EVENT?" (Assumes nothing except her presence.)
  • Good: "Hi, how did you like the keynote?"

Scenario: Booth babes are necessary to business

"Booth babes" - people who work at conference booths and are hired primarily to draw people in with their sexual attractiveness - are nearly always female and intended to attract heterosexual men. Booth babes at a conference have several unwelcome effects: They send the message that heterosexual men are the norm, and they cause people to assume that any woman present is a booth babe and can be treated with disrespect. It is important to speak up when people defend the practice of hiring booth babes, especially since you are their presumed audience.

Roles: 1 booth babe proponent, 1 or more male allies

Set-up: Booth babe proponent says, "I have to hire booth babes. Men like it and I'll go out of business if I don't."


  • Bad: Silence. (Someone just said you liked booth babes. Silence is agreement.)
  • Bad: "I don't mind booth babes but other people might." (Way to waffle!)
  • Good: "Hiring booth babes makes me LESS likely to give you my business." (This may be the majority opinion now among geek men, but no one will believe it unless you say so.)
  • Funny/good: "You are all the booth babe I need!" (Turning the tables on the person doing the hiring and making them experience sexual objectification without putting a homophobic or transphobic spin on it.)
  • Bad: Make a joke at the expense of homosexual or transgender people. You can't fight sexism with homophobia or transphobia!

Scenario: Pornographic presentation

Pornography in presentations is unfortunately common at conferences. Like booth babes, pornography usually depicts women as sexual objects, and is aimed at heterosexual men. It again causes women to feel unwelcome, and to encourage the viewer to treat women at the event as objects, not fellow geeks. (See "Porny presentation" for more detail.)

Roles: 3 or more audience, 1 presenter

Set-up: A presenter asks for a show of hands of people who will be offended if they show a pornographic slide.


  • Bad: Do nothing. (This implies approval.)
  • Good: Raise your hand.
  • Good: Say "If you have to ask, you shouldn't do it."
  • Good: Walk out. (This is often difficult to do, especially if you are disabled or in a large room. But if you can, do it.)
  • Good: Find an organizer and tell them about it immediately.
  • Good: If you have a policy prohibiting porn in slides: "That contravenes the conference policy - so no."
  • Best: Stop the presentation (if you are the most senior organizer present). (If you are having trouble with the projector, putting a piece of paper in front of it works too.)
  • Funny/don't use: Run up on stage and knee the presenter in the groin. (Violence isn't a viable response to sexism in general - see the Geek Feminism blog post "Why don't you just hit him?" for more detail.)
  • Bad: Showing pictures of naked men, or proposing sexual harassment of men. It's neither equivalent nor just.

Scenario: Comments about a woman's appearance

Talking about a woman's appearance, whether approvingly or disapprovingly, turns women into objects whose worth is determined by their physical appearance and encourages people to think of them as less than human. It's a common way to tear down or attack women, whether it's through admiring her sexual attractiveness or through denigrating it. Would you want someone to judge you on your appearance, especially if you were unlucky enough to be unattractive in a way you couldn't control?

Roles: One commenter, one ally

Set-up: One man says, "She sure is ugly/pretty" (take your pick, both are objectification of women).


  • Bad: "Yeah, and $WOMAN sure is hot!" (Joining in the objectification.)
  • Bad: "But she just needs to lose a few pounds." (Implicitly accepting the objectification.)
  • Good: "If we're going to discuss the sexiness of open source people, I'm going to leave now." (But - you cede your influence on the following conversation.)
  • Good: "I don't think that's very polite. How would you like it if someone was talking about the way you look?" (Turning objectification back on the speaker.)
  • Good: "I don't think that's really relevant. What is she working on?" (Be ready for more insults about her, though.)
  • Good: Change the subject to something else, don't participate.
  • Funny: "This is a beauty pageant? I thought we were at a Linux conference."
  • Good: "Yeah - that's $NAME, she's a friend of mine and I don't think she'd appreciate being objectified like that." (Turns her into a person again.)

Scenario: Sexual advances/comments on a public IRC channel

A recent study found that IRC users with feminine nicknames get 25 times the malicious private messages as users with masculine nicknames - for a total of 100 malicious private messages a day on some networks! Sexism on IRC is often private, but when it happens in public, you can do something about it. Remember, sexist jokes, rape jokes, blonde jokes, or similar things are also sexist and drive women away.

Roles: One harasser, one ally, one woman

Set-up: Person with feminine-sounding nick joins an IRC channel. Another user says, "Are you hot? Send us pics!"


  • Bad: "And make sure it's a good photo!"
  • Bad: "Send your photo first." (Men are much less likely to be objectified. Plus it will probably be obscene.)
  • Good: "This isn't a place to pick up women, it's for working on $PROJECT."
  • Good: Report the log to server ops. (But don't expect anything unless it's a corporate IRC server or you somehow found the IRC server where sexism is banned.)
  • Good: You are the server op! Ban/kick the person immediately.
  • Good: Start a discussion about adopting higher standards of behavior on IRC.

Scenario: Someone belittles a woman's technical ability

A common way to attack women in a male-dominated field is to claim they didn't do the work credited to them. (See "How to Suppres Women's Writing" for a full list of ways to do this.) Oddly enough, much research shows that women are likely to get less credit than they deserve for their work across a variety of fields, but that doesn't seem to have any effect on this kind of attack.

Roles: One harasser, one ally

Set-up: A woman's work comes up on an IRC channel. Someone says, "Did her boyfriend write that?"

  • Bad: "Like she would have a boyfriend!" (Making the conversation about her sexual attractiveness.)
  • Bad: "Yes, she did! Let me waste the next 5 minutes finding you links to her patches which you will then ignore." (Engaging with the person in a way that won't change their mind.)
  • Good: "It's offensive to even suggest that. Go away."
  • Good: "What's wrong with you? Are you that insecure?"
  • Funny: "Actually, she was doing her boyfriend's homework for him."

Scenario: Challenging a woman's technical ability

Sometimes when a woman claims technical competence in an area, she is asked to prove her competence on the spot, rather than being assumed to be truthful as a man would be. This is insulting and discouraging. We don't have very many good responses for this situation, suggestions welcome.

Roles: One harasser, one woman, one ally

Set-up: Man asks, "What do you do?" Woman says, "Oh, I'm a Linux developer." Man gets skeptical look, "Oh? Well, what did you write, exactly?" (Note: this is different from "What are you working on?" which assumes you are what you say, rather than asking you to prove your claim through example.)

  • Bad: Expectant silence.
  • Good: "That's funny, you don't normally ask that question. Why are you asking her?"
  • Funny: "Sorry, I didn't bring my resume either, are you going to ask for mine next?"
  • (Your suggestion here!)