Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

They’re trying hard, or they’re angry: talking about feminism, outreach and gender equality

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions for our readers.

They’re not the same question, but I put them together because they’re related. If you want to distinguish them in comments, call them Q1 and Q2.

Q1 is a question about what to do when an individual or group is trying hard to be gender-inclusive, you want to make some smaller suggestions but don’t want them to respond with “well, that was all a waste of time then, we may as well not bother if we try and then get criticised!”

Around me, i see a number of people concerned about including more women in their geeky meetings, or in the geek crowd at large. Each time i see an effort in that sense, and maybe because i have been reading this blog for so long, i notice little things that make me say “it would have been good, only if…”

One example is my hackerspace. In the attempt of organizing a more women-friendly event, someone posted a link to a blog post. In the blog post, i found sensible things, as well as links to yours and linux’s wikis on how to make your geek event more women friendly. Among the recommendations, i found the idea to “Emphasise non-coding” because “It is more likely that women have studied or have experience in design or other non-coding skill sets.” And i felt that something was wrong with that. Is it just me being picky? Should i say something to the group about that (along the lines of “the post is great but… the bit about women not coding doesn’t seem to make sense to me”) or should i just let it go, because i’m obviously not an expert, and it will probably work and attract more women to follow those guidelines. And i’m just being picky and negative when thinking those negative details.

Another example. I have a friend who is always saying that there should be more women in computers/hacking communities. He is a very interesting guy, and we share common interests, but i can’t help to feel like an “exception” as a female geek when talking to him. He is the kind to always do the reverse of points 3.9, 3.13, 3.14 in Don’t complain about the lack of women in computing. And i don’t know how to explain well that to him, since all conversations about “theories” end up in him saying “i’m too tired to think that much” (or something along those lines)… So how important is it that i try to express myself on such details? Is it worth it? Should i just spare my time and try to act more (code/hack…)? Those are not “acts against women” per se, no sexist jokes, no aggression… and I’m not sure what would benefit more in the end…

Q2 is trying to have discussions with a more actively hostile party, someone who doesn’t want to discuss feminism within its own framework at all:

A good friend of mine (white male) is usually a very good, attentive discussion partner. But he has a tendency to shut down completely on a conversation when I start using what he terms “victim’s rhetoric”. As far as I understand his term, he means that minorities (LGBT people, feminists) are prone to ‘complaining’ without offering constructive suggestions for change. I try to explain that I’m not complaining when I’m trying to throw light on the ways in which kyriarchy affects mine and other women’s lives, for example in the pervasive media stereotypes. I feel like he derails the conversation by asking me to present him with ‘solutions’ rather than ‘complaints’. Are my feelings unjustified? How do I come back once he’s played the “rhetoric” card?

20 thoughts on “They’re trying hard, or they’re angry: talking about feminism, outreach and gender equality

  1. Katherine

    Regarding Q1, I would try to pick the right time and place to bring up small improvements. Try to cast them in a positive light perhaps, e.g. “It’s great that you’re doing X to help bring more women in! You know what would bring even more women in? If you did Y as well!” (ugh too many exclamation marks – hopefully you can sound less patronising than I feel typing it.) Or sandwiching the criticism between praise, or making a joke about it. Sometimes though you will probably have to let it go if you want to avoid people accusing you of never letting them win.

    Regarding Q2: if you’re complaining about specific actions that can be pinned to people, the only solution you need to offer this guy is to tell him that those people need to stop doing those actions. He may then complain that that’s unreasonable, that you have to offer alternative actions as well. Tell him you’ve offered the solution, and that it’s up to the people to come up with a better way to achieve the results they’re after without harming others, if they want those results so bad. I hope you have better luck than I usually do when attempting to argue with people who are unwilling to empathise a little.

  2. sheenyglass

    How do I come back once he’s played the “rhetoric” card?

    If Questioner 2 is feeling combative, they could tell him to stop whining about how he isn’t being given solutions on a silver platter. As an adult, if he thinks the injustice is real, he should start thinking up some of his own solutions. If you told him he was standing on your foot, he wouldn’t demand you suggest he get off of it. If he doesn’t think the injustice is real he should have the intestinal fortitude to say so.

    I think complaining gets a bad rap. Complaining about injustice is how injustice is identified and fixed. As a pretty literal example, in a lawsuit the plaintiff (legalese for complainer) begins the lawsuit with a formal “Complaint” which lists the allegations of unjustified harm. The purpose of the trial is to determine if the complaints are valid. If the complaint is valid, the onus is on the defendant to make things right.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      The standing-on-my-foot analogy is a powerful one that I’ve heard employed to good effect. It usually goes something like this: “If I’m standing on your foot, and you cry, ‘Get off my foot!’, I’m not going to respond with ‘Why are you complaining instead of offering a solution?’ I’m going to get off your foot, first, and then later perhaps we can talk about how I ended up standing on your foot and what we can both do to avoid that situation in the future.”

  3. imayer

    (and re: Katharine)
    I disagree about the ‘sandwiching’ method of suggestions (it usually sounds disingenuous, at least to me). But +1 to the ‘you know what would get even more women?!’ phrasing. I think people get defensive when they are putting in an effort to talk about gender and the (perceived) reaction is ‘bad! bad sexist! bad!’.
    Try approaching it as an expert in the field to a newbie. Point out things they don’t know in a way that makes it clear you don’t think they’re dumb for not knowing it.
    e.g. ‘Actually, I don’t think we need to avoid talking about code to get women to join. A lot of times women who do know how to code just don’t feel like they can come to meetings unless they’re total experts. (Which I know because I’ve been doing research on the subject). How about instead we include something in our advertisements to make it clear that people who aren’t Richard Stallman are also invited?’

  4. Matari

    Re Q2: you could bring it down to the personal, and say something like ‘I know you don’t like this kind of comment, but it means a lot to me, your friend, that you take my comment seriously and attempt to engage with me. When you don’t, I feel that you do not value me as an intelligent person, let alone as a friend’. In my experience, men tend to shut down conversations because they think you are criticising them by association, and if you bring it back to ‘hey this is something i am really interested in, what do you think’, they tend to respond in that vein.

    1. Tiferet

      I’m curious; do you find that you generally get good results with this tactic, or am I just really contrary? I’ve been on the other side of it, and it led to a lot of resentment.

      I experienced it as a Catch-22. Either I kept arguing with the other person about something I knew we were never going to agree on, or I didn’t respect them (never mind that I did respect and like them and that’s why I wanted to not keep having the same fight all the time). Then eventually the neverending argument would reach a point where someone had to win, and if neither of us was convinced, would that mean that she would think I thought her stupid or that she would think I was being thoughtless and dismissive?

      Once an argument has stopped being about an issue and has been reframed as being about what Person A really thinks about Person B’s intelligence/empathy/character/general worth, I think it’s likelier to get ugly. I had to tell one friend who really likes this tactic that even though we’re both feminists and agree that certain issues are of vital importance, we still sometimes need to agree to disagree about specific situations and events, and that I also really need that not to be turned into a referendum on whether or not I respect her intelligence or education. If I’m having an argument with someone about whether a film endorses misogyny or critically depicts it in all its awful unabated horror and ugliness, I don’t want to suddenly find that we’re now arguing about whether she’s stupid or I’m uncaring or the relative worth of our respective political and academic educations.

      This line of argument also seems likely to give a Privilege Denying Dude who is really determined to derail you the opportunity to change the subject to all the different things they do that prove that they really really do totally respect your intelligence and they just don’t think these kinds of arguments are WORTHY of it or whatever.

  5. zellieh

    Re: Q2. You’ve probably tried these, but just in case…

    I think as a first step, you might want to have a good long think about what you want from him.

    If you want sympathy and empathy and friendly support, so you know he cares about this issue and your friendship? If that’s the case, try explaining that that’s what you want: “I don’t want to talk abut a solution. I want to talk about the issue as a way to vent my anger and frustration, and then I want you to agree with me about how terrible the issue is, and offer me friendly support and comfort. Think of it as a bonding and trust-building exercise.”

    Some people are uncomfortable with freeform emotional conversations, and having clear instructions and a framework can help in those cases.

    If you think he’s not a completely lost cause, just very practically-minded, you could try turning it around on him: “alright, let’s spend ten minutes laying out the problem, and then spend ten minutes brainstorming for solutions, then think about who we’d need to contact to help promote or support the solutions we come up with.” A lot of guys are flattered to be asked for their opinion, and that can be a useful way to sort of lead men into these issues gradually.

    If you think he’s just being defensive because he feels threatened, it might be worth starting each and every conversation with an explicit get-out-of-jail-free card for him: “I know you’re a white man, but I don’t blame you personally for any of these issues. You’re just as much of a victim of the system as anyone else. When I’m angry at the system, even when I’m angry about sexism or racism, I’m angry at the system, not at you personally,” etc. Be prepared to repeat this a lot.

    If you want him to acknowledge his own issues, and he doesn’t want to, you should acknowledge that to yourself at least. It’s up to you if you want to keep trying to turn him around, but if you’re angry at him, he can probably tell, and then he could get even more defensive and avoidant. If he doesn’t want to acknowledge or work on his own issues, you can’t make him. You can only control your own actions and reactions. It might be less stressful to you to limit the time and energy you spend on him.

    This may sound insulting, but consistent positive re-inforcement works well on humans. Actually trying to clicker train him would be insulting, but reward him with a smile, a touch, more eye-contact, a happier voice, and friendlier body language whenever he says something productive or stays in the conversation. I know it sounds shallow, but if he always ends up feeling bad during these conversations, you (and the rest of society) might be inadvertently training him to avoid these topics. He’s far more likely to persevere if he feels happy and/or he’s getting some sort of reward.

    1. Katherine

      “I don’t want to talk abut a solution. I want to talk about the issue as a way to vent my anger and frustration, and then I want you to agree with me about how terrible the issue is, and offer me friendly support and comfort.”

      Oh my gosh yes. I’ve used this before in a few situations, and sometimes needed to be told this myself.

      1. 2ndnin

        For a group of people if you want empathy and sympathy you will need to ask for it or let it be known that that is what you want because that group of people will provide solutions or prompt you for them instead.

        A question though in response becomes what purpose does simply complaining about something do? If you can’t provide a solution or solutions that can be tested to improve the situation then you aren’t really adding anything to the situation. If you recognise a problem then you are ideally placed to start finding a solution, a lot like privilege discussions the minority group that finds the issue is the ideal place to start solving the issue or discussing solutions because the other group can’t see it or its effects.

  6. Catherine

    On Q1.: In the first scenario, it sounds like you are talking about responding a blog post written by a group that you are not directly part of, and that you are not so much in disagreement with the basic goals that are being outlined, but with the way in which they are stated. I agree with your criticism, but in this case, I’d let it pass. Not only could you easily use up all your energy on little points like this one, but you probably will come off sounding nitpicky and as a result make the writers of the post feel defensive and bring down their energy for the project. Better to praise the improvements that have been made and just file away what you think are better alternatives for your own efforts or for situations where you have already established some influence.

    The situation with your friend is different because if he is truly your friend, you should have some influence there. (If he’s totally unwilling to listen, maybe he’s not really your friend?) It sounds like mostly you want him to listen to and acknowledge your feelings. Maybe try trotting out a few “I-statements” when talking with him and see how he responds?

    On Q2.: If your current approach isn’t working, there’s no reason to stick with it. I’m curious about what your friend thinks the solutions to some of the problems you’re talking about are–or what he sees the problems are. Exploring that might give you some insight into just how far out of alignment his views and yours are.

    You might also try bringing up some actions that you’ve been interested in learning about or that you want to get involved in and asking him what he thinks about them. Then you can talk about the problem within the framework of an at least attempted solution, which might help diffuse the idea that you are just complaining. By the way, I have a friend who frequently asks a wonderful question, “What is the next step?,” which works really well in moving from discussions of problems to manageable action. I bring it up because it sounds like your friend might have a wee tendency to wallow in complaining about complaining and there’s nothing like friends to challenge each other.

  7. Alan

    Q2: If this wasn’t a good friend, I’d recommend calling him out on being a jackass. Demanding solutions

  8. Foz Meadows

    In response to Q2:

    This is something I’ve found many geeks to be quite illogical about. There’s a certain kind of mindframe – and without wanting to overgeneralise, I think it tends to crop up most often in personalities and professions which are highly focused on problem-solving – which looks at life from a simplistic troubleshooting angle. For this reason, complaints (or more accurately, negative observations without attendant solutions) are seen to be indicative of failure on behalf of the speaker – that is to say, if they knew how to deal with the problem properly, they wouldn’t have to complain about it not being remedied; ergo, telling someone else about their problems is simultaneously an acknowledgement of their inadequacy and a tacit request for the listener to step in and fix things for them.

    In my experience, trying to explain the illogic of this perspective by stressing details of the case in question only makes it worse; your efforts will be viewed as defensiveness and, in the worst scenario, irrationality, particularly if – as in this instance – the problem is not one that your interlocutor has experienced for himself. A better tactic is to switch to a discussion of rationality. Start by asking the other person if he believes that all real-world problems have easy, logical solutions. If he says yes, that’s straight away an indication of deeper issues. As a suggestion of how to proceed from there, ask him why problems still exist – the answer will almost invariably be the fallibility or idiocy of other people – and then resume your argument by saying, ‘well, there are ways this could be fixed, but people are the problem; therefore, discussing how best to change their minds is the only way forwards.’ If he says no, point out that it’s unreasonable of him to expect you to have an easy answer; and, again, that discussion of the issues – as in the scientific arena – is the only way a solution might be found.

    Bottom line: not every problem has an obvious, easy solution; troubleshooting in the real world is not analogous to debugging code. If an easy answer existed, you wouldn’t need to complain, because people would just do it; but if you don’t complain – or, rather, if you don’t talk about the problem – it can’t get fixed.

    1. 2ndnin

      In what way is this approach illogical?

      From their perspective if they cannot solve a problem they open it up to others to see if a solution can be found, and if none can then they either keep working on it or accept that they cannot change it and ignore it. If someone comes to you with a problem and no solution, and doesn’t want to try and work on a solution then they are wasting your and their time. It is hardly illogical, not very empathetic but hardly illogical.

      Discussing rationality, why can’t there be a simple solution to these issues? Lets take a big one in feminism – representation of women in field x – an easy solution to this is to implement quotas that allow a rebalancing of the field (active positive discrimination), another would be to increase support for women in field x and allow them to migrate if they wish, or simply to provide moral support for women in field x and allow them to migrate if they wish. Three relatively simple solutions to the problem 2 of which are in use and are effective at their stated purpose. Similar solutions can be found to most interpersonal problems if you actually look for them, they might not be pleasing solutions that are natural but there are solutions if you look for them.

      The ‘well people are idiots so x exists’ is a bad line to go down, we know problems exist but a lot of them exist because there is no incentive to solve them. World hunger could be solved, there are roughly 2x the number of calories available daily worldwide that the world needs to survive, however there is little incentive to do so. In fact solving world hunger may be detrimental because it results in a flow of food from abundant countries (America etc) to poorer nations destroying their ability to generate food locally in a competitive manner. A lot of the banking crisis similarly could have been solved in advance but there was no incentive to do so because those in charge benefit no matter what… so idiots and fools abound but nothing changes.

      We could change this however if we (the people) decided to take action and demand it of our political leaders, to elect and manage laws and structures to do what we want them to… but instead we elect people who care about themselves. Power rises to the top as they say.

      Bottom line: solving real world problems is like debugging code, but each line you change costs 1 trillion dollars and someone has to approve that change… talking about it for the sake of talking about it is pointless from this view because there is no movement towards that solution of changing the line of code.

    2. Beth

      It can also sometimes help to point out that if they believe they are rational they are being irrational: there’s a huge body of evidence demonstrating that the human brain is inherently irrational. I sometimes have gotten such people to take the Implicit Association Test or similar (http://implicit.harvard.edu/), because some portion of people who pride themselves on rationality can be convinced by data of their own irrational biases.

      Occasionally this breaks their world view, leaving some messy follow-up. But I’ve always found it worth it in the long run.

      1. 2ndnin

        Those tests don’t really prove anything. Having gone through a fair number of them it comes down to (at least for me) words / images that are easier to decipher going into the right bins and more complex ones being pushed into the right category some of the time. Most of the time I come up pretty neutral in these tests but that’s anecdotal.

        Of course we an draw irrational conclusions but surely the purpose of science / scientific thought it to try and put a lens of rationality onto it. Our innate bias might be to put good / our sexual orientation together and bad / other orientations however we aren’t normally trying to make decisions on the spur of the moment. Stop, think, process, resolve. I can’t see how you broke people’s world views with those tests, can you explain further please?

        1. PsychLobster

          “however we aren’t normally trying to make decisions on the spur of the moment”

          Where did you get THAT from? Have you ever looked at ANY person’s behaviour? (alternatively: “looked” instead of “any” in caps, because that sounds an awful lot like an irrational assumption about human behaviour. Maybe throw in some avarice about one’s own perceived rational behaviour, for good measure, coupled with confirmation bias and other stuff.)

          Oh my.

  9. Tiferet

    Q1a: I’d say something along the lines of “I’m not sure how I feel about this suggestion about de-emphasising coding. First of all, it’s not always going to be appropriate for every event or project, and second of all, while there are a lot of people who are new to tech who lack coding experience, it’s not necessarily true that more of them are going to be female or that lack of coding experience will mean that people don’t want to code–particularly in a supportive group.”

    Q1b: I’d wait till he says or does something that makes me feel like an exception and then I’d address that. For instance, “I’m really uncomfortable when you bring that up. I know you may think it’s unusual for a woman to be interested in foo and not to be interested in bar, but in fact, I’m far from unique in that respect, and the important thing is that we share this common interest in foo, which is unrelated to interest or lack of interest in bar. Sarah likes foo just as much as I do, and she also likes bar, and if you’re not interested in bar, you can talk about foo with her just like I do.” idk.

    Q2: A lot depends on the relationship I have with the person. If we’re really close and I want to stay close to them I might try some of the tactics Zellieh suggested–assuming I hadn’t already. If we have to work together then I might try keeping those discussions limited to when they’re necessary to address with respect to what we’re doing. One thing I think I would definitely do is turn it back on him and ask him what he means by some of those stock phrases he’s throwing around–like ‘victim rhetoric’. What does that even mean? Why does he think that’s appropriate to say? I used to think a lot like that–I was an awful little Libertarian as a teen and tween–and I repeated a lot of things I had heard other people say that “made sense to me” but which I had really never thought about–they just touched a chord in me, because I liked to think of myself as an elite sort of person and was wilfully blind to even admitting the ways discrimination and oppression had hurt me personally–to do so, would mean admitting that I had been powerless too, and that was both really difficult and really painful.

  10. Lindsey Kuper

    Regarding Q1, you can suggest “don’t assume a particular skill set” as more inclusive language than “emphasize non-coding”, since the latter makes women who code feel like they are invisible or that they don’t belong.

  11. manuela

    I think the most important thing is to recognize that your feelings are *always* justified, even if in the moment it’s just something in the pit of your stomach that you can’t articulate.

    Unfortunately, derailing tactics are many and employed to great effect:
    This website was instrumental for me to stop blaming or questioning myself, and to acknowledge that when I feel anger or that dread in my stomach, there must be a reason for it even if I can’t articulate it in the moment.

    You do not need to decide whether you are justified (you always are!), but whether this is a battle worth spending your energy on, or whether you would feel worse if you did not bring it up than if you did and nothing changed.

  12. Meg

    My response to people demanding “solutions” instead of complaints is always to present solutions; none practical, all far more angrily presented than if they’d just listened to my deconstruction in the first place. For example:
    We can solve homophobia, sexism and harassment by having everyone stop considering the other gender an alien species who’s primary purpose is heterosexual sexual interactions. When men stop wanting more women at nerd events so they’ll have a chance to meet girls and start wanting more women at nerd events so they’ll be able to hear about all the neat nerdy ideas those women have, we’ll start to make progress. Until then all I can do is point out that men who aren’t listening to the neat ideas that nerdy women have are assholes, which helps because it brings the day when they are humiliated into Not Being Assholes one step closer.
    Or: solution? Okay, we could stop 98% of rapes today if men stopped raping people. Just don’t commit acts of sexual violence!
    Or: sure, progressive taxation combined with guaranteed income. Divorce school funding from property taxes.

    It’s not that we don’t know the solutions: it’s that people don’t believe they are necessary. So I have to complain, loudly, repeatedly, annoyingly, aggressively, until other people accept that there is a problem to solve.

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