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 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 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.
This workshop has been taught at the Haecksen miniconf at LCA 2011 and LCA 2012, OSBridge 2011, Linaro Connect 2012, Everyone Hacks 2013, code4lib 2014, Wiki Conference USA 2014, and LinuxCon North America 2014.
Instructions for workshop teachers
One way to run the workshop 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. (Also see: Magical Man Sparkles)
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 personal 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).
- Do not 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 homosexual 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 outgoing 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 directly based on events that have actually happened, and sometimes copied word-for-word. None are exaggerated or unusually rare events. See the Timeline of incidents for real-life examples.
The scenarios are grouped together by the kind of support technique involved: e.g., welcoming women in any situation from in-person to online, or responding to casual sexism.
Creating a friendly environment for women
An important step to countering sexism is to be welcoming - but not creepily so - to women who are attending geek events or joining geek forums. This section is about small things you can do to make women feel more comfortable.
Scenario: A woman is standing near your group at a geek event
You see a woman standing near your group at a geek event. You don't know her well, or perhaps this is the first time you've seen her. What can you do to make her feel more comfortable?
- Good responses
- Walk up to within 3-5 feet (depending on cultural norms) and say, "Hello, my name is $NAME. Would you like an introduction to these folks?"
- "How do you like $EVENT?" Assumes nothing except her presence.
- "What brings you to $EVENT?" This helps you figure out who to introduce her too, what to talk about.
- "Hi, I'm $NAME. Did you see the keynote/opening reception/last session? What did you think?"
- Bad responses
- Continue to stare or sneak looks at her nervously for several minutes. You don't have to greet every strange woman at an event, but at least don't make her uncomfortable. If you can't stop, pluck up your courage and use one of the above good responses.
- Look her up and down, dismiss her, and turn away because she can't be interesting to talk to. (This is usually done unconsciously, watch for your assumptions.)
- Ask her what it's like to be a woman in $GEEK_FIELD or why there are so few women in it. She's sick of that question and it immediately points her out as weird and separate. Go look it up on the Internet, like you would a basic programming question. (Also see: Unicorn Law)
- Get into a long two-person conversation with her, dominating her time and preventing her from meeting more people.
- "How do you like the partners' programme?/Are you here with your boyfriend?" (Assumes that she is not interested in the topic of the event.)
- Stare at her badge for a long time trying to read it. You are staring at her chest, most likely.
- Grab her badge and bend over to look at it more closely. You are invading her personal space, probably just touched her chest, preventing her from leaving, and making her feel conspicuous. This is a real jerk move.
- Touch her in any way other than a standard business greeting initiated by her (e.g., she extends her hand to shake). A common unconscious assumption is that people are allowed to touch women's bodies without their consent. That's not true. Don't ask for consent, either, let her initiate any physical touching.
- "What is your name?" This isn't hugely important, but if you can remember, just tell her your name and don't ask for hers. If she wants to tell you hers, she will. Insisting a woman tell her name to a stranger is a common manipulative technique used by predators (see Forced teaming). And many events have badges with names on them anyway.
Scenario: A woman asks for introductions
A woman asks you for introductions to people who can help or advise her on her new Ruby-based startup.
- Look around the room for people who fit the description, and introduce her to one or two.
- Ask for her email address and email her a list of influential people in the field who are willing to mentor. Ask which ones she wants to be introduced to, then send an email to both. (Ask the person you are introducing to her if it is okay to do so, too.)
- Invite her to the next gathering of people in Ruby or software startups that you know of.
- Encourage her to attend and speak at a relevant conference.
- Send her contact information to someone without her consent.
- Introduce her preferentially to women. A well-known phenomenon is that men will introduce women to other women they know in a field where women are scarce. This is because women are more strongly associated in their minds because of their gender. It is much more helpful to introduce women to men who are relevant to their goals or interests: For example, introducing a women starting a Ruby-based technology company to a male CEO of another Ruby-based startup is much more helpful than introducing her to a woman CEO of a hardware company. It is especially important to introduce women to powerful or influential men.
- Only suggest a women's group in that field. She didn't ask for a women's group, she asked for introductions to influential people. She's probably already heard of it, and if she wants suggestions for support groups, she'll ask for them. Many women don't want to be part of a women's group, and most are tired of that being the first thing people think of when they mention their interests.
Scenario: A woman without a dinner group
Everyone is going to dinner in groups in the evening of a Wikipedia conference. You see a new woman standing alone and looking lost.
- Invite her to dinner with your group.
- Ask if she would like to go to dinner with another group or person, and do the work of asking if she can go to dinner with them.
- Suggest to someone you think she'd feel comfortable with to invite her to dinner with their group.
- Invite her to dinner one-on-one. Whether or not you personally have ulterior motives, she can't tell yet whether to trust you or not (see Schrödinger's Rapist). It doesn't matter if one or both of you is married or in a monogamous relationship.
- Invite her to dinner with someone who is sexist or obnoxious or has a history of hitting on women inappropriately (you probably shouldn't go to dinner with this person either).
Scenario: Deciding where to hold an event
You are responsible for choosing the location of the monthly Linux meetup.
- Research locations that meet the general requirements for the group (enough space, food options that meet dietary requirements if there is food, accessibility needs, and other considerations) and present those privately to several women for their opinions.
- Ask women for suggestions for locations and cross-check them with each other and with the list of other requirements.
- Look at crime maps of the area (sexual harassment and attacks on women are often correlated with other crimes that are more frequently reported).
- Go to the location at the same time and day of the week as the event and walk through the approach from the public transit stop or from the parking. Pay attention to lighting, how many people are present, how many women are present, and other men's interactions with those women.
- If problems with the location become apparent after actually meeting there, start the research process over again.
- Effectively pass the responsibility of choosing a location on to women, without giving them credit for their work.
- Choose a location solely based on input from men.
- Choose a location where women are sexualized: a bar famous for attractive women servers, a strip club, or all of Las Vegas.
- Choose a location which meets specific requirements that women have mentioned to you, but which is otherwise unsuitable for the group (not enough space, inaccessible, too loud, stinks of mildew). Explain that women's safety is the priority, and refuse to change the location! That will surely make the rest of the group feel welcoming.
- Expect women who you ask for suggestions to come up with the perfect solution on short notice.
- If women complain about the location after the meetup, tell them that they missed the chance to give feedback and it is their fault for not telling you about their concern earlier.
Responding to casual sexism
Casual sexism is when people do or say sexist things when they aren't even aware that they are sexist. Here's how to respond to people who want to support women in geek culture, but don't realize they just did something harmful. Of course, someone can do something casually sexist and also not care about supporting women!
Scenario: Mailing list post uses women as example of ignorant person
On your project's mailing list, someone pushes for better documentation by saying, "Think about it this way: How would explain this to your girlfriend/grandmother/wife?"
- Reply privately if you think they want to be supportive of women but didn't realize the effect of their example, "Hey, I know you had no intention of doing this, but when you used grandmother as an example, you were reinforcing the idea that women aren't interested or welcome in this area." (Also it assumes no older people are savvy in this area either.)
- Reply with a link to the So simple, your mother could do it page and a short explanation: "Using women as standard examples of non-technical users is one of the things that makes women feel unwelcome. I don't want that."
- Reply publicly, "I know you are trying to help explain using an example, but it also sounds like you are assuming everyone on this project are straight men."
- Reply publicly, "That example doesn't resonate with me because people like Radia Perlman are mothers." (Fill in with your own favorite woman.)
- Focus on convincing the person who made the comment that they did something wrong.
- Wait for a woman to say something.
- Get involved in a long back-and-forth thread about whether or not all people have mothers (see Charles' Rules of Argument).
Someone you follow on Twitter tweets, "Ugh, that Nickelback song counts as ear rape."
- If you know them well and think they didn't realize what they did, send a private message saying, "I know you didn't mean to do this, but using the word "rape" for anything other than rape trivializes actual rape."
- Reply publicly with, "Hey, could you not use the word "rape" that way? Here's why it bugs me: http://www.marshall.edu/wpmu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/".
- If the person themselves seems unlikely to change, aim for the audience: Reply with ".@originalperson Here's why I don't use terms like 'ear-rape' http://www.marshall.edu/wpmu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/".
- Stop following that account and find someone else who tweets about similar things. We hear so much about the attention economy, why give them your eyeballs?
- Reply with, "Ha ha, Nickelback really sucks!"
- Start using that catchy new phrase you just learned.
- Go straight to publicly calling them sexist if it's not part of a pattern of sexist behavior (otherwise, go for it).
Opposing outright support of sexism
Sometimes people know they are doing something sexist. They may or may not argue that their position is not, in fact sexist for an example of literal paternalism), but they are not actually trying to support women. In this case, it's best to play to the audience.
Scenario: Blog post in support of booth babes
In your community, the CEO of a company writes a blog post explaining that he has to hire booth babes because "men like them, and I don't want to go out of business."
- Comment on the blog: "I am a man, and I find booth babes insulting and sexist. They make me less likely to buy your products."
- Write your own blog post explaining your reaction to booth babes and pledging not to buy products from companies who use them.
- Use the fact that seasoned marketing professionals are more effective at driving sales than untrained models hired for their looks in support of your comment or blog post.
- Ask the organizers of conferences in your community to not allow booth babes (for specific language, see the booth staff clause of the example anti-harassment policy).
- Create a petition to ban booth babes at conferences where this company exhibits.
- Worry that a ban on booth babes will be used against women attendees who are dressed attractively (meaning: dressed in ways heterosexual men find sexually pleasing). The problem isn't attractive women (or people) at the conference, or the way they dress, it's companies turning women into sexual objects to sell their products and assuming their customers are heterosexual men who enjoy objectifying women. See here for good wording on a booth babe ban.
- Assume all women staffing booths are there for decoration and direct questions to the men. Keep in mind that company shirts or uniforms often come in different styles for different body types, so try not to assume anything based on differences in clothing that correlate differences in gender.
- Lecture women at the conference if you think they are dressed too attractively and explain how they are hurting feminism. Again, the problem isn't that attractive people are at the conference, the problem is somebody turning women into sexual objects and using them to appeal to a straight male audience. Someone's clothing style might annoy you, but that can happen anywhere.
Scenario: Wikipedia request for deletion references a woman's appearance
The Wikipedia biography page of a woman has been nominated for deletion (RfD, or Request for Deletion). On the discussion page, a commentor says "She only has a Wikipedia page because she's hot." Several others agree.
- Comment with, "I don't see anything in WP:GNG that takes off points for being good-looking." (WP:GNG refers to Wikipedia's general notability guideline.)
- Comment with, "Let's stay on-topic. We're here to judge the quality of a Wikipedia page, not vote on someone's attractiveness."
- Write a comment summarizing the relevant aspects of the article (sources, arguments for notability, longevity, etc.). Add "A woman's physical appearance, while often a subject of discussion, is not relevant to this discussion."
- Improve the article itself by adding links to it from other Wikipedia entries,, and similar techniques. This both makes it intrinsically better and more visible to other Wikipedia editors who can contribute to the discussion in a way that doesn't violate Wikipedia's rules against "canvassing".
- Call out the sexism directly by pointing out that articles about men are seldom claimed to exist because the subject is "hot." Wikipedians hate arguments by comparison and if it's not codified in WP:"Something" it doesn't exist for purposes of discussion.
- Argue about whether or not the subject of the article is actually hot, or her hotness is part of why the article exists. For women, attractiveness is a double bind: Either she is attractive to straight men, and therefore only a sexual object, or she is unattractive to straight men, and therefore not worthy of men's interest. Talking about her degree of attractiveness at all is buying into the idea that women's appearances are more important than their deeds.
Reacting to harassment of women as a witness
A great deal of harassment of women happens in private or out of sight of potential allies. When it does happen in front of you, remember that this is a rare opportunity to intervene. If it makes you feel uncomfortable to witness the harassment, let that remind you how much worse it feels to be the victim of the harassment, and focus on helping them rather than your own feelings.
Scenario: Harassment in online group chat
On the IRC server for your project, a new user with nickname "suzy314" joins the channel. Another user, "zeroc00l," writes, "Are you really a woman? I won't believe you until you send some pics."
- Write, "We don't treat people like that here. Go harass people somewhere else." Ignore them after that (figuratively or with the /ignore command).
- Make a note of what happened, with whom, and when. Talk to the project leaders about adding a code of conduct, or changing the code of conduct to something which can be enforced. Use this incident (and any others you have observed) to support your point.
- If your project has an enforceable code of conduct, write, "You're violating the code of conduct for this project. Here is the link [link]." Report them using the instructions in the code of conduct.
- Ask the channel operator (if there is one) to kick out the user (or do it yourself if you are one).
- Save the log and report zeroc00l to the IRC server operators.
- Change the subject and private message anyone who keeps the conversation about pics alive to ask them to let it drop.
- Post the log publicly and complain about having no way to stop this kind of harassment because your project has no code of conduct (or an unenforceable one).
- Send a private message to suzy314 apologizing for zeroc00l. The user doesn't want a private apology from a bystander, they want someone to stick up for them publicly. By privately apologizing, you are implicitly asking them to give you emotional reassurance and focusing the interaction on yourself.
- Ask zeroc00l to post pics first. You can't reverse sexual harassmen by flipping the gender - society treats men and women completely differently. For example, men's appearances are less important than women's, women are more likely to be stalked or assaulted and avoid identification more than men, and very few people are likely to get non-consensual sexual gratification from zeroc00l's photos.
- Make an exception for zeroc00l's bad behavior if he is a friend or long-time contributor. It's relatively easy to kick out someone who is engaging in harassing behavior if he has few social ties to the rest of the group. It is a lot harder to ask friends to be accountable.
- Make an exception for zeroc00l's bad behavior because you know that he will react angrily if confronted about it. Someone who harasses women, and then bullies other men when called on it, is trying to get away with unacceptable behavior through intimidation.
- Join zeroc00l in asking suzy314 for pics. Going along with the status quo does nothing to improve the community.
Scenario: Nasty comment on your blog
On your blog, someone comments about a woman, "That fat ugly s--- deserves to be r-----."
- Don't publish the comment at all. (Although this hides the true extent of harassment, sometimes it is all you have time for.)
- Delete the contents of the comment and replace with "[Deleted because threats are not tolerated on this blog.]" before publishing.
- Turn off comments entirely except for when you have the time and energy to moderate them.
- Publish the comment but edit it to replace the nasty parts with descriptions: "That [[[body-shaming]] deleted] [body-shaming deleted] [[[slut-shaming]] deleted] deserves [rape threat deleted]." It makes them sound ridiculous while still raising awareness of harassment. Analyzing what is wrong with a comment can sometimes reduce its emotional effect on you, too.
- Don't publish the comment, but save them up and write a blog post about the comments (optionally with pretty graphs analyzing the comments).
- Publish the comment as-is and then reply to it. Simply reading the comment in its original form causes most of the damage (that's why the person wrote it) and will keep people from participating in your blog. That's part of why we didn't spell out all the words in this example.
- Publish the comment and point to your policy of "free speech" on your blog. You delete spam, don't you? Links to malware sites? Rickrolls? If you can make an exception for speech that annoys or harms you or your readers, "free speech" can't be an ethical argument for hosting speech that actively harms women. Every blog has multiple unwritten rules about comments (spam, off-topic, malware, actual Nazis, etc.). Claiming there are no rules when it comes to hate speech against women is disingenuous at best.
Scenario: You see someone grope a woman without her consent
You're standing at a party, and out of the corner of your eye, you see someone grab a woman's butt.
- In all cases: Take a good look at the groper: what are they wearing? What do they look like? Do they have a badge with a name on it? Does anyone recognize them? Take a picture if you can do so safely, or ask other people for pictures or identifying details.
- In all cases: Do not give a name or description of the victim without her explicit consent, as she may be retaliated against or not want to be involved for many other similar reasons.
- Report the groper to the party organizer and ask for them to be thrown out.
- Report the groper to the organizer of any other associated event or organization (a conference, the hotel, etc.) and ask for them to be thrown out.
- Offer your support to the victim in a non-creepy way: "I saw that person grope you. I will back you up if you want to complain to anyone. I can describe the person. Here is my contact information. Can I help you find a friend or security or anyone else?"
- Tell other people about the groper, in person or online. It's considered polite to tell the organizers first and give them a chance to respond, but you don't have an obligation to keep silent for fear of making them look bad.
- Punch the groper. Great, now you are the jerk, you're probably getting kicked out, and did you really want to spend the rest of the day talking to the police?
- Insist the victim report the incident to the organizers, security, or the police. Women have hundreds of very good reasons not to report assault, but here's one: it's often standard police practice to grill a woman on what she was wearing, whether she was drinking, or whether she was flirting if she reports assault - in general, to treat her like a liar and make her relive the assault. If the assault is prosecuted, the defense will usually investigate her background and find any way to present her as a lying drug-addicted slut. So respect her decision even if you can't understand it.
- Insist on escorting the victim. Let her choose who she feels safe around, and help her find those people in a way she's comfortable with. She's just been groped, she's probably not thrilled about trusting another random dude, no matter how good your intentions are.
- Identify the victim to others without her explicit consent (unless you are legally compelled to, of course). She may not want to become the public focus of the collective rage of the community (see this post for an example of what can happen). In this case, you can still report the incident without identifying the victim or requiring her cooperation, but if you can't, respect her decisions.
Scenario: Pornography in a presentation
You are attending a talk at a Ruby conference. The presenter clicks to the next slide, and you see a CouchDB talk slide with a background of a woman's body wearing nothing but a lace thong.
- Walk out of the talk.
- Stay in the talk and document the incident and any following ones using photos, notes, social media, or other tools.
- Find the nearest conference staff member and tell them what is going on. Ask for the conference director to be told immediately. Follow up at regular intervals to make sure your complaint didn't get lost.
- If the conference has an anti-harassment policy, follow the directions to report the incident.
- Blog about your experience of the incident, how it made you feel, and what you want to change.
- Add a pornographic picture of a man to your next talk. Context matters: we're talking about a mostly-male audience in a male-dominated society where women are sexual objects. Switching the gender of the person in the pornography won't have the same effect unless you can switch the gender of everything in the context (all of human society).
- Debate the finer points of exactly what degree and type of pornography the photo was. Seriously, once a discussion about pornography at conferences turned into a debate on an obscure but important loophole in Australian obscenity law.
A great deal of social change happens through many everyday people changing large organizations by sending the same message over and over again with small but important actions. Here are some examples of how to do that for women in geek culture.
Scenario: Blatantly sexualized advertising campaign
A technology company selling voice recognition software sends an email to attendees of an upcoming conference with the slogans "Oral is better" and "Play with my V-spot." In case you weren't sure what they were talking about, the graphics include an open woman's mouth and women's legs. They invite you to visit their booth at the conference.
- Complain on Twitter.
- Send email to the company saying you won't buy their products (listing any purchasing power you have) and asking for an apology.
- Send email to your company saying you strongly oppose buying any of their products.
- Send email to the conference organizers complaining, asking them to cancel the company's booth this year, and prevent them from having one next year.
- Criticize them on social networks and watch their hilarious social media robot responses.
- Make sexual jokes about the ads.
- Lecture the temporary booth staff at the conference (or anyone else who isn't in a decision-making position).
- Forward the unedited email to others. You're forwarding it because it's offensive, don't force other people to read the original. Instead put the original behind a link and include a less graphic description in words.
Scenario: Booth babes (and volunteers)
At a conference expo floor booth, women wearing nothing but body paint and underwear are posing for photos. At another booth, volunteers are showing up dressed in spandex body suits and devil's horns.
- Email the conference organizers with a link to any of the many blog posts explaining what's wrong with booth babes (here's one from the Ada Initiative).
- Ask the conference organizers to adopt an anti-harassment policy that includes a ban on sexualized booth staff, paid or volunteer.
- Blog about your experience, how it made you feel, how you feel about the organization sponsoring the booth, and what you think should change.
- Avoid the booth. Don't cooperate in taking photos with the booth staff.
- Don't buy their products.
- Joke about what people would think if it were men in body paint or spandex. This is (a) not equivalent (naked men are objects of derision, not objects for sexual use), (b) assumes your audience is not attracted to male bodies, (c) can be homophobic or transphobic.
- Lecture the women dressed in body paint or spandex. In one case, they are paid to do the job, and the person you should be talking to is the one who made the decision to advertise their company in that way. In the other case, their community's culture rewards women more for sexualizing themselves than in participating directly. It's the leaders and influencers in that culture you need to address. (Or the conference organizers, who can ban sexualized booth staff whether they are volunteer or paid.)
Scenario: Your favorite conference has 99% male speakers
You just noticed that your favorite conference has 99% male speakers, plus all the keynote speakers have been white men. The participant gender ratio isn't all that hot either.
- If you know the conference organizers personally, gently mention the gender ratio of their speakers. If you get an encouraging response, point them at the Women speakers page on improving speaker diversity.
- Comment on social media: "Disappointed to see the gender ratio at X Conf this year [link to speaker list]. Maybe they'll do better next year?"
- Look for an alternative conference with more diversity, and attend it instead.
- If the organizers make a public effort to improve gender diversity, encourage any women you know to submit a talk, and offer to review the proposal.
- If the conference doesn't have an anti-harassment policy, ask them to adopt one. It affects many women's decision to speak or attend.
- Volunteer, speak at, or keynote the conference (unless you ask for and get some of the above changes in place).
Scenario: You are invited to an all-male panel
You get an email from the organizers of a top conference in your (male-dominated) field. Hurray! They invited you to be on a panel! With four other men! On gender diversity in your field...
- Respond saying that you'd be honored, but the panel seems awfully heavy on the men, and can they find a qualified woman to join the panel? Here are some suggestions.
- Respond saying that you have taken a pledge not to participate in all-male panels from now on, but you'd be happy to join if a qualified woman is added.
- If you can't accept, suggest a qualified woman to take your place.
- Accept without making an effort to find a qualified woman for the panel.
Educating yourself and others
The fact that you are reading or hearing this sentence at all means you are already educating yourself about how to support women in geek culture. :) More ways to learn follow.
Scenario: You read an unfamiliar phrase on the Internet
You are reading a tweet from your favorite geek feminist and see the phrase "cis-sexism." Next you see the word "intersectional."
- Type "cis-sexism" and "intersectional" into Google. Add "geek feminism" if the first results don't help (this is a good technique in general).
- Do a few Google searches, get bogged down in pages full of flame wars with MRAs, then search the Geek Feminism Wiki.
- Find and read the definitions. If you have some major questions and doubts about the concepts involved, look for some first-person blog posts from people who have first-person experience with them, or have studied them. Treat it like learning anything else: do your homework and keep trying for several days or weeks.
- After you've done some research, and if you want to know more on this person's opinion, politely ask the person for their favorite resource on the topic (with no expectation of their expending the resources to educate you ‒ they're probably doing enough unpaid work without you demanding more).
- Reply asking them what cis-sexism is, in 140 characters or fewer, please.
- Read a few web pages on intersectionalism, then send them an email with your logical arguments for why it doesn't apply in this case.
- Next time you're at the same event, start a long conversation about the topic.
- Explain why using jargon is harmful to the feminist cause.
- If they decline to educate you for free, complain that you're asking for education and they're refusing to supply it to you on demand, which makes them the oppressor and you the oppressed.
Scenario: Why not just knee him in the groin?
You read a blog post about a woman being sexually harassed at a meeting, and think "Why didn't she just knee him in the groin?"
- Think, "Surely I'm not the first person to think of this. I wonder if there's a reason women don't do this already?" and search for "why not knee groin geek feminism".
- Ask yourself if you are thinking about this from a woman's perspective, or as a man who is embarrassed by the actions of other men. Is this a fantasy scenario?
- Think of similar situations that you have experienced: surprised, outnumbered, in a professional setting. What were you thinking? Were you thinking at all?
- Work through the logical consequences. What if she does knee him in the groin? Would the police get involved? Would she get kicked out of the meeting? What if she is much smaller? What if she's in a wheelchair, or uses a cane? What if she's a pacifist? Does ending harassment really require women to become martial artists?
- Write a long comment on the blog post about the proper technique for kneeing someone in the groin.
- Send a private email offering to knee him in the groin for her.
- Recommend kneeing in the groin and then oppose more practical solutions like anti-harassment policies and banning the person from returning. Because physical violence is an appealing fantasy for many, it can be used to push the responsibility for ending harassment back on to women while appearing to support women.