Geek Feminism Wiki

About the allies workshop

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 for people who have a lot of experience and education in supporting geek women. For example, one experienced geek feminist who "wrote the book" on how to respond to pornographic presentations was present for a pornographic presentation. Despite knowing intellectually what to do, she was too shocked to respond in any way for several hours. If a world expert in supporting geek women can't respond quickly, what hope to do the rest of us have?

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

Scope and audience

An "ally" in this context is someone who wants to help a disadvantaged group, but is not a member of that group themselves. This workshop is focused on teaching men - male allies - how to support geek women in their daily lives by taking small, simple actions.

Women often also attend the workshop, both to learn techniques and to take part in the discussion, but the scope of the workshop does not include teaching women how to respond to sexism.

Gender-related vocabulary in this workshop

Gender binary language divides people into "men" and "women" and things into "masculine" and "feminine," with no other options. Many people do not identify as either wholly "male" or wholly "female." This means, for example, that using phrases like "men and women" to mean "all adult people regardless of gender" is inaccurate and incorrect (try "people of all genders" instead).

In this workshop, our audience is limited to men - defined as people who get the societal advantages of being male - who want to learn to support women - defined as people who are treated by society as women. The scope of this workshop does not include how to support people of non-binary genders beyond simply not discriminating against them when attempting to support women (e.g., how to avoid being transphobic). In this workshop, the words "men" and "women" are defined as above, and in particular, "men" is not equivalent to "not women" or vice versa.

Finding someone to teach the workshop

The Ada Initiative will teach allies workshops at no charge (with some limitations). People with extensive experience in supporting women in geek culture can teach this workshop using this guide. The entire workshop curriculum and supporting materials are freely available under the CC-BY-SA license.

Past workshops

This workshop has been taught at the Haecksen miniconf at LCA 2011 and LCA 2012, OSBridge 2011, Linaro Connect 2012, and Everyone Hacks 2013.

Instructions for workshop teachers

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
  • Explain workshop structure
  • Review basic principles of responding to sexism
  • Talk about safe space
  • Do group giggle
  • Ask people to split up into small groups for discussion (opt-outs listen to instructor's group)
  • For each group of scenarios:
    • Instructor presents answers to first scenario with reasons why
    • Each group comes up with answers to following examples for 5 minutes
    • Instructor asks whole class for answers
    • Instructor types each answer on screen as given, not criticizing
    • Class discusses answers and why they are good or bad
    • Instructor adds any missing answers or points
  • Closing session asking for questions, feedback, what people learned

Explain the focus on male allies

The below is an example of how to explain why the workshop is focused on male allies:

Many geek cultures are majority male - for example, open source software is approximately 98% men. If we rely on women to change geek culture to be more friendly to women, we are losing the majority of people who might help. Women are also already at a disadvantage for many other reasons (the second shift, discrimination, not fitting out, lacking similar role models) and adding the burden of "advocating for women in geek culture" usually increases the chance of women dropping out.

Men have many advantages given to them by society simply for being male: men are presumed to know what they are talking about, people are more likely to listen and give credit to men, people feel more comfortable being told what to do by men. As a result, men can advocate for women in geek culture and have more effect than an equivalent woman - this is using your power for good.

People often respond much more positively to men advocating for women than women themselves. If, as a man, you are worried about being attacked for advocating for women, don't predict the response based on how you see people react to women. Men will still face criticism, but are also quite likely to be praised, thanked, and respected. Advocating for women can be a career and person advantage for men.

Describe what to expect in this workshop

Explain how the workshop will be structured and what will be expected of attendees. Describe the rules of participation, basic principles of responding to sexism in an effective way, and then split into groups to discuss example scenarios.

Emphasize 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.

Recording a workshop should be done with great caution. Recording will make people afraid to answer or discuss, and parts may be taken out of context. Some workarounds are to not record the audience, edit out the audience answers, only record the instructor and have the instructor repeat any audience input in order to anonymize it, or to allow each attendee to review and request edits of the video before releasing it.

Break the tension

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.

Review basic principles of responding to sexism

This section should be briefly explained by the presenter 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.")

Break into groups

The workshop can be run as one big group with the instructor leading the discussion, but people will participate more and learn more if they split into smaller groups for at least part of the time. Some options:

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


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!)