Failing at Geek Feminism

Now this post is just depressing:

I attended OSCON for the first time last year, and had some experiences that almost completely turned me off of the idea of attending this year. I was criticized to my face for wearing low necklines and skirts of a short-yet-modest length, and told that I was “sexualizing” the conference through my attire. I was lambasted for my honest answer (“I’m here with my boyfriend.”) when I was asked about my reasoning for attending, and even told that I should lie about why I was attending OSCON instead of “undermining” the feminist community. I started the conference last year with an eagerness to learn more about open source software, and I left the conference feeling unsure about whether or not I wanted to attend again in 2012.

As is this follow up:

I’d never cut it as a “geek feminist”. There are just too many rules I might want to break.

Besides, some people only consider me to be a woman “near tech” instead of a woman “in tech”. Apparently I’m a Carrie Bradshaw because I write about tech, which is probably why I’ve kept mostly silent on the topic of “geek feminism”.

The problem is that there are some really nice women and girls who are getting hurt by some members of a movement that is meant to be helpful.

Neither of these are my experiences, but I can definitely imagine this happening, and it really irritates me that it’s happening under this banner. Like anyone needs any more reasons to feel impostor syndrome.

I’ve been meaning to put together a post ways to let other people enjoy stuff that’s problematic and not being a jerky social justice warrior… but this is much worse than what I’d been seeing. Go read both posts: The Dark Side of Geek Feminism and Why I’m not a “Geek Feminist”.

If you’re doing this, cut it out.

If you see someone doing this, ask them to cut it out.

The idea with geek feminism here was to support women with geeky interests. Going out of your way to judge and bother other women doesn’t really help anyone, and certainly isn’t going to help interest anyone in further geekery. Fundamentally, you’re being as bad as the jerk who goes around declaring that some geek women aren’t geeky, and no one needs more of those dudes of any stripe. Calling people out has its place, but it’s not in the face of people who just aren’t geeky enough for thou. There’s a difference between hoping to see better representation of women at different levels of geekery on panels and in high profile spaces and just being a dick to attendees. Watch that you don’t cross that line.

Updates August 1–2: roundup of discussion [by Mary]

Note that some of these links may be triggery or upsetting, especially the Reddit threads. Additional discussion includes:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged on by .

About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at

37 thoughts on “Failing at Geek Feminism

  1. Kimberly Chapman

    I honestly don’t get why some people need to berate others even if it’s something they’re not into. I’m into lots of things that others aren’t, and I’m not into other things that lots of others are. Why should it matter either way, even if there’s a feminist issue attached? Why should my preference be allowed to dominate someone else’s? It shouldn’t!

    For instance, I don’t wear makeup and I’d be peeved at any company that required women staff to wear makeup and not male staff (or prohibited male staff while allowing female), because that’d be sexist, but that’s a completely different issue than someone just choosing to wear makeup. I would never go up to a woman wearing makeup and accuse her of anything. In fact, I’d probably fail to notice or care.

    I want what I want and like what I like and don’t require anyone else to agree with me. Shouldn’t an empowered woman be free to make her own choices like that?

  2. Tim Chevalier

    I can’t comment on Rikki Endsley’s post, but I’m wondering which “rules” she’s talking about when she says “There are just too many rules I might want to break.”

    Also, to me, saying “Let’s remember that we’re dealing with individuals, people” when she takes her interactions with individual women (and men) as representing geek feminism as a whole, hits a sour note.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard for any particular geek feminist to address accusations against un-named “geek feminists” when… well, anyone can call themself a geek feminist, and people in social justice movements disproportionately have to deal with damage control for people who aren’t actually in the movement to begin with.

      Also, there are always multiple sides of a story; I hope the people who made some of the comments being cited by Endsley and “Nice Girl” will come forward.

  3. Tal

    I think sexualized environments in geek spaces are a big problem. I don’t have a problem with individual panels or events that cater to an adult crowd, but I’ve always thought that general geek spaces should be all-ages-friendly. Things like large-scale panels, the trade halls, lobby areas, etc. should be PG-13, at most, yeah? I don’t mind panelists swearing and using double entendres, but it just seems to me like cons are the wrong space for anything overtly sexual.

    Problem is: how do we fix this? How do we deal with things like booth babes and amateur porn stars handing out business cards in the lobby? Obviously, we don’t want to get in the way of anyone doing legitimate cosplay, but I think we need to do something to turn down the adult-entertainment vibe. I have no problem with what models, strippers, etc., do for a living–heck, I watch porn myself. But could we at least have some sort of designated “adult entertainment” area so people who want to avoid that stuff can do so? I’m more or less unshockable, but even I’m increasingly uncomfortable in some con environments, and I wouldn’t even think about bringing a kid to some of them. That just doesn’t seem right to me.

    1. Terri

      Since the “Nice Girl” post specifically mentioned being told off for contributing to a sexualized environment, I will point out that OSCON has an anti-harassment policy, which may include not allowing overly sexualized behaviour.

      Since the author of the post doesn’t mention being told off due to an anti-harassment policy, I’m assuming that they weren’t at the point of violation of it (wearing a red dress shouldn’t considered to be contributing to a sexualized environment in this context), but it’s worth noting that there’s a huge gap between slut shaming and someone from the conference staff asking someone to tone it down to meet with the venue’s well-published code of conduct.

      1. A geek

        So after looking at “Nixie Pixel’s” blog and YouTube it seemsclear that she has used sexualization to sell her videos on open source to a audience that appears to be compromised of youth.

        I agree with Tal and think that if you are going to bring sexualization or carry yourself in a manner like that then you could expect responses like this from women and men.

        I don’t feel this was a feminist attack more than it was disapproval from peers.

        1. Terri

          I’m afraid since I don’t know Nixie I can’t comment there, but I can say that I have attended conferences with Rikki (the author of the second post I linked) and if she’s also getting negative vibes from those who she considers geek feminists, then there may be some folk in the community or who self-identify as part of the community who are taking it too far.

          Note also that making sexy videos about open source does not imply that Nixie’s conference behaviour was necessarily inappropriate. (And conversely, a blog post doesn’t necessarly mean it was appropriate.)

          We don’t know the whole story, but her post has resonated with so many folks (including several who I know personally and whose stories I have reasons to believe) that I think it’s safe to say that whether you believe any particular story or not, there’s something going on here that’s worth adressing regardless of whether you like Nixie herself or not.

  4. Liz

    We’re all in the double bind here whether it’s about skills, behavior, or dress. Our gender expressions or the perceptions of them get commented on no matter what — whether we code or knit, whether we flirt or smile or not, whether we wear jeans or skirts. I think of this as internalized misogyny, or life under patriarchy, as something that feminists and all women have to cope with, not as something that feminism *causes*.

    1. Selena Deckelmann

      There’s an issue similar to “the sysadmin problem” at work here too — when progress is made in the direction of less harassment, what we notice is… nothing happened. And when there is harassment, the response is a lot of attention.

      Perverse incentives.

      Agreement on thinking of this as internalized misogyny. Body shaming is horrifying. I’ve been on the receiving end of unpleasant comments about my appearance, in the guise of “compliments” (from men), and strange shaming comments about gaining or losing weight (from men and women). It all sucks, and I wish it wasn’t something that I expected and prepared myself for before going to conferences.


    2. Julia

      “Sexualizing clothing” notion itself is sexist, as it applies heavily to women and almost never to men, unless they are a sexual object to other men. It’s hard to think what clothing a men would wear to be considered sexualizing. A speedo? A T-shirt with a naked woman? I googled “sexy clothes for men” and all I got were 1. underwear 2. T-shirts saying “sex”. Then I googled “sexy clothes for women” and probably the only type of modern clothing that didn’t come up as sexy was “winter coat”.

      1. Nadine Varen

        The same can be said about prohibitions on “booth babes” and similar rules; in practice they are prohibitions on having certain kinds of -women- on your stands, I’ve never seen a company accused of employing “booth-boys”.

        I think it’s an artifact of women being sexualized generally in society, there’s no pressing need for a prohibition on booth-boys because those do not happen anyway.

  5. Jono Bacon

    Nice article. :-)

    I don’t know anyone who disagrees with the ambition and goal of us growing and maintaining diverse, welcoming communities for all, irrespective of gender, race, background (dis)ability, or other factors. If someone does disagree with these goals, well they are [Mod note: edited out slur].

    I feel the goals and work performed by Geek Feminism (and various other groups such as Ubuntu Women) is admirable and important work. It helps remind many of us of the challenges that still face our communities with bias. There is no doubt that some of us are indeed privilaged (I can’t profess to know what it feels like to suffer sexism on a regular basis), and groups like Geek Feminism and Ubuntu Women help us to not forget how others are made to feel in our communities and thus strive to prevent such incidents.

    What worries me is that some of these groups are getting a negative reputation in some parts of the community, arguably due to the whole “being a jerky social justice warrior” thing. some of these warriors give off a vibe of “if you are not a feminist, then you are part of the problem”.

    Speaking personally, I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I also don’t consider myself sexist or a misogynist either. Unfortunately when you are made to feel like a “part of the problem” in these discussions it doesn’t provide a very positive experience. I would hate to see these kinds of experiences overshadow the wonderfully important work going on here and with other similar groups.

    Just my 0.02c.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Mod note: in this comment, I’d previously asked that commenters refrain from using slurs (including ableist slurs), but then I remembered that our policy allows editing the original comment.

    2. Tim Chevalier

      Also (not speaking as a mod here):

      What worries me is that some of these groups are getting a negative reputation in some parts of the community, arguably due to the whole “being a jerky social justice warrior” thing. some of these warriors give off a vibe of “if you are not a feminist, then you are part of the problem”.

      This sounds a lot like concern trolling to me. For accountability purposes, it’s better if you name the specific groups that you are talking about. Otherwise, the people you’re accusing don’t have the ability to speak for themselves.

    3. Terri

      Sadly, aligning yourself with any label means you get stuck being associated with zealots and unsavoury folk. Geeks get associated with misogyny and violence, feminists get associated with being humourless and strident, Christians get associated with being intolerant and proselytizing, emacs users get associated with… well, you get the idea. And even if you don’t choose the label, sometimes it gets chosen for you.

      Bad stereotypes are a thing every human has to deal with, and I don’t think geek feminism is particularly more or less prone than any other group that doesn’t have any controls on membership. I wouldn’t want to be associated with every person in, for example, the Ubuntu community any more than I want to be associated with every person who claims to be a feminist, or a musician, or a star trek fan.

      I think best we can do is take notice when people in our communities are being inappropriate and make sure everyone knows what behaviour isn’t acceptable.

      1. Jono Bacon

        Great points, Terri.

        So I guess an interesting point of discussion is how we can break stereotypes for furthering the cause of a community. Of course, one approach here is not asking people to subscribe to or further stereotypes (particularly if they are doing so in a disparaging manner), but I wonder how leaders in our communities can work to break these kinds of stereotypes.

        Taking the thinking one step closer, I guess some stereotypes are wider (e.g. being a geek), and some have a smaller scope (e.g. being an Ubuntu person). I wonder what kinds of considerations would be made for these two different scopes for breaking and redefining the stereotype.

        Do you have any thoughts or experiences on this, Terri?

        1. Terri

          Combating stereotypes is a rather huge area of research, and one that’s reasonably well-studied and the subject of huge volumes of textbooks and journals. There are whole organizations devoted to combating stereotypes, and people who are much more qualified than I to talk on the subject.

          That said, there’s some really interesting stuff there that may apply to communities: for example, the problems that occur within the “model minority” stereotype, or portrayal of community members to outside of the community to break perceptions up. Let me ponder it a bit and see if I can put together some useful points after I’ve slept on it.

    4. Brenda

      Jono: i’m really saddened to hear you’re not a feminist Jono. Feminism is the notion that “women are people”.
      Your statement that’s you aren’t feminist, only makes sense to me, if you perhaps have some other definition of feminism. Is that what’s going on here?

      1. Jono Bacon

        Well, I am not sure what label my views are, but I am basically in support of equality. I believe that people irrespective of gender, race, culture, background, (dis)ability, or anything else should be treated fairly and equally. If that definition means feminism, then I am a feminist. :-)

        The reason for my slightly shaky assertion of whether I am a feminist or not is because I have been lectured in the past that my views on equality do not make me a feminist, and when I have claimed to be a feminist I have been told I am not enough of a feminist.

        As such I am going to claim ignorance; I believe in equality and other people can decide what the label is. :-)

        1. Selki

          Your views sound like feminism to me, but it’s not like there’s a universally recognized certification in feminism. :-)

  6. Calliope

    So, my company had an internal developer conference. Being the only woman on my team, and wanting to meet more technical women, I decided I would sit beside a woman at every meal. To my dismay, I didn’t meet a single female developer. I met PR people, a lawyer and technical writers who were all interested in development, but no actual programmers. I had to abandon my idea halfway through the conference, as I was there to network with developers, and this happened as soon as I started sitting at tables with only men.

    This made me angry, and while I didn’t take it out on the female attendees, it doesn’t surprise me that someone in a similar situation would misdirect her anger towards them. Likewise, I can imagine someone who’s angry about a sexualized environment, or ‘leering’ attendees taking it out on a woman who’s scantily dressed. And in a ‘minority’ situation where women have to be worried that their abilities will be judged on the basis of other women’s abilities, it’s understandable (but not acceptable) for women to be upset by women who aren’t ‘up to snuff’.

    I feel like all these behaviours are symptoms of a larger problems, related to the sexism women deal with in these environments. But they’re counter-productive. We should all strive to think about why we feel certain ways, and take it out on the right people in a way that’s productive.

  7. Blau Zahl

    Low cut necklines? Sounds like standard businesswear to me. Which if I wear I get mistaken for marketing or sales.

  8. Gunnar Tveiten

    Tricky. Creating a sexualized environment isn’t a good thing for diversity, thus it’s common, and sensible, to have conference-rules against, for example, overly skimpy clothing.

    When we endorse such rules, we do so because some people are bothered by it, because we’re the opinion that such behaviour detracts from the inclusiveness of the event, that the event would be better without it.

    This woman complains, among other things, about being critiqued for her choice of clothing which was seen as too sexually provocative by some.

    Are we saying we’re in favour of expressively *forbidding* certain behaviour, but at the same time against offering critique to those who engage in it ? I don’t think her reaction would’ve been much more positive if the critique had come from organizers instead of other random participants. (furthermore, in -other- cases of unwanted behaviour, we’re in favor of bystanders speaking up, are we not ?)

    1. Terri

      You’re implying a false dichotomy here. It’s like saying that because we like having an effective police force, we can’t also be against dangerous vigilantes. Or that because you believe it is ok to ask younger students to stay in school during regular school hours it would also be okay to lock them in irons for 5 hours a day.

      It is entirely reasonable to say “yes, there are times when one must step in” and “no, this does not seem to be one of those times.” Don’t fall into ridiculous logical fallacies that suggest that one must only believe full extremes.

      It is, of course, tricky to strike a balance on some edge cases, but I doubt it’s really that hard to differentiate between “you were making so many people uncomfortable that we had to talk to you about the rules” and “You should lie about why you’re here because it doesn’t suit our agenda for women.”

      And in this vein… I’m allowing this one post because it touches upon a very common argument and is worth a brief mention, but I will remove ridiculous “thought experiment” logical fallacies if they get in the way of real discussion, as per our comment policy.

    2. Meg

      I totally disagree with you. It was ONE PERSON who said her dress was too provocative, and she was wearing fairly normal clothing. What she’s describing (a v-neck top and a mini- (not-micro-) skirt) was basically my daily uniform in high school and college, yet nobody in my CS/Math classes, robotics club, etc., was bothered. If you think banning everyday women’s clothing from cons will somehow lead us to greater diversity and acceptance for women, I don’t know what to tell you.

      Secondly, if we do require a unanimous vote for acceptable women’s clothing (because let’s face it, men are rarely the targets of this stuff), then it only takes one prudish congoer until we’re all forced to wear jeans & baggy sweaters or full niqab. Nothing against either or people who choose to wear either, but come on, really. If normal women’s clothing is “too sexy” for some people, maybe *they* should stay home lest they accidentally step onto the street and suffer a stroke.

      1. Terri

        Meg said it well. We are not talking about something that sounds extremely provocative, but rather normal female dress that wouldn’t be out of place in an office environment and thus likely shouldn’t be out of place at OSCON.

        It is possible to formulate a case where someone showed up in something horrifically inappropriate (and this is something that fannish cons with more extreme cosplay actually do deal with, and one place where it may be appropriate to have convention staff step in), but being snide over things that wouldn’t be out of place in a high school with a dress code seems pretty anti-feminist.

      2. Tal

        Asking people to leave beach- and clubwear at the beach and club isn’t asking them to cover themselves head-to-toe.

        Also, can you not with the Islam-baiting? Thanks.

  9. jlstrecker

    Hi, everyone. There’s a wiki page called Not All Geek Women Are Feminists which touches on the idea of being “not feminist enough”. I’ve been revising this page to try to make it non-judgmental and not about rules that you have to follow to be a feminist. I made another pass today in response to this thread and the Marissa Mayer not-a-feminist thing. Some of you who commented on this thread would probably have ideas about how to improve the page. Thanks!

    [Moderator note: edited for correct wiki link & feministing link]

  10. Amanda6

    It absolutely sucks that Nice Girl and her friend experienced this variety of harassment at OSCON. I agree with others in this comment thread, though, that the harassment she experienced seems totally antithetical to what Geek Feminism is actually about, and I’m left confused as to who is out there using the banner of Geek Feminism to spout some really ignorant shit? I mean this:

    In two instances, she was completely marginalized by male members of the geek feminism community, who (essentially) said that due to her sexy and flirty persona, there was no way that she was serious about open source software.

    is a classic example of what we try to fight against (at least here on this blog, Skepchick, and any other mainstream geek feminist resource I can think of.)

  11. Mary

    (Also updated original post to link to these.)

    Note that some of these links may be triggery or upsetting, especially the Reddit threads. Additional discussion includes:

    Christie Koehler on Geek Feminism: A Response to Nice Girl’s “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism” (also on Christie’s blog)
    Jamelle Bouie: The Dark Side of Geek Feminism?
    Jan Wildeboer on Google+
    Leslie Hawthorn: My Feminism Isn’t Good Enough for You
    Nixie Pixel: Too Sexy for Linux (video)
    Various Reddit threads, including: r/opensource and Various Reddit threads, including: r/opensource and [link to hate group removed after GF blogger discussion] r/MensRights

  12. Jono Bacon

    Hi Terri,

    Unfortunately the nesting level for replies is limited so I can’t reply in-thread (re. the stereotypes topic).

    I would love to hear your thoughts when you have done some thinking. I would be interested in exploring the topic more (primarily from a community leadership perspective) as so many people and communities are dealing with often inaccurate and conflicting stereotypes. This will be a good topic for the next Community Leadership Summit.



    1. Mary

      (Sorry for meta comment.) FWIW the WordPress tradition when it comes to the nesting is to reply to the parent of the post you’re actually replying to, then they stay together visually.

  13. tekanji

    You know, I have to say that I really don’t understand why either Nice Girl or Rikki Endsley are blaming “Geek Feminism” for their harassment (I wasn’t really aware that there was a Geek Feminism movement/large organized community; I always took this blog and the wiki to be more of a “talking about and documenting stuff that intersects both geek and feminist interests” thing).

    In the Nice Girl post, she says:

    While I applaud [the geek feminist community’s] efforts for equal treatment at conventions and in their workplaces, both I and my dear friend Nixie Pixel were, unfortunately, on the receiving end of some interesting attention from the feminists (both male and female) at OSCON.

    Why does she assume all of the people who harassed her were feminists? And even if they were feminists, why would she assume they were affiliated with “Geek Feminism” (ie. this blog and the wiki)? The only evidence I can see in her post is that they used common tropes to harass her and to me it seems to point to these individuals NOT being familiar with the Geek Feminism sites. I mean, the bit about her outfit “sexualizing” the conference is an example of people appropriating anti-oppression language to be oppressive and the “here with my boyfriend” argument used against her is something that the wiki and this blog have specifically spoken out against.

    Endsley’s assumption is more understandable; in her case she states that at least one person who was inappropriate towards her was a “self-proclaimed” geek feminist. But then she says this:

    The problem with labels, like “geek feminism”, is that they come with a bunch of rules. I don’t want to follow all these rules.

    Which, I mean, if you have to follow a bunch of rules to call yourself a “geek feminist” then wouldn’t it logically follow that a person proclaiming themselves to be a “geek feminist” wouldn’t necessarily be one? I mean, either anyone can call themselves a “geek feminist” (and therefore the point about “following rules” is moot; not to mention that you’d have to acknowledge that a single person’s actions, good or bad, do not necessarily reflect the values of the greater community) or being a self-proclaimed geek feminist isn’t proper proof of one’s geek feminist-ness, and the actions of the people she mentions in her post likely invalidated their Geek Feminism Membership(TM) and so they weren’t “real” geek feminists anyway.

    I know I’m rambling, but this whole situation just massively confuses me. I thought that reading more about it would clear up the confusion, but it just leaves me more confused as to why these two women chose the tack that they did — talk about their experiences in a general way that implicitly/explicitly accuses a blog/wiki (and its contributors) of encouraging harassment, sexism, and misogyny without any apparent solid evidence that their harassers are actually in any way affiliated outside of a claim of them being “geek feminists”.

    Actually, now that I have rambled all this out, I think I understand what has really gotten under my skin about this whole thing. Both of these posts talk about harassment (which is good! er, not the harassment, but people calling it out) without naming names (which is problematic, but understandable). The implication (or, in Nice Girl’s case, the stated explanation) is because they don’t want to “name and shame” the people involved. Except, that is exactly what they did to, which implicates all the contributors regardless of whether or not they were involved in the actual harassment (not to mention that I didn’t see any indication/evidence that GF contributors were directly involved). I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to try to articulate why those two posts made me so uncomfortable… ._.

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