Tag Archives: sexualized presentations

Sexist or Insensitive? Either way – It’s just lazy, and it is keeping women from taking part.

This post is by a guest blogger who wishes to remain anonymous.

I recently received an invitation to attend a guest lecture in my research institute entitled: “Tits struggling to keep up (with climate change)”. Is this funny? Is it a clever pun? Is it sexist? Is it insensitive?

I have seen many cases of scientists trying to make their topics more inviting with a ‘sexy’ title to a paper or talk, and, if followed through properly, it can be a very effective way of engaging an audience who might otherwise be bored by the topic. This example, however, does not qualify in my mind as an effective tool for communication. Instead, I would say that this is exactly the kind of lazy title-tweaking that makes up some of the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the higher education research environment.

I call this lazy for two reasons: first, because it cashes in on the sexist structures which are widespread in our society, and the assumption that simply linking an idea to female sexual organs will be enough to make it interesting to the masses; second, because in order for a ‘sexy’ title to be truly effective, it needs to be placed in the context of a larger theme within the paper or talk, which will continue to highlight the ‘fun’ side of the research while presenting the relevant data. I hardly think that the presentation is peppered with pictures of the breasts of aging women instead of birds.

Recently it was mentioned to me by (male) senior members of staff that the institute is trying to encourage women to enter and remain in research. So, a female colleague and I discussed the sexist/insensitive attitude of the title and decided to comment. The institute’s response? “There is no pun.”

Now, I find this hard to believe, considering the construction of the sentence. If there were no pun, the use of parenthesis would be unnecessary. However, it is just barely possible that the scientist in question has a poor understanding of parenthetical usage. It is also possible that the title was meant as a joke, which we were meant to find mildly amusing, and enticing enough to attend the lecture.

In the end, it doesn’t matter; whether the title was meant as an ‘inoffensive’ joke, or was simply insensitive, these are the small pin-pricks that jab at female scientists on a daily basis. To be reminded that your worth as a human being, in a societal context, is still largely based on your appearance and adherence to strict sexual and social norms, despite your ground-breaking research, and to have this happen while you are at work, and to be expected to laugh at this reminder, rather than mention how unwelcome it is, is not acceptable. It is this laziness and this insensitivity that subtly reminds women of ‘their place’ in even the most prestigious labs and universities.

Because sexual assault is more common than you think

This is a guest post by Jacinta Richardson. Jacinta runs Perl Training Australia and is a strong supporter of making IT more friendly to everyone.

This is an edited version of a mailing list post.

The apology from the organisers about Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote caused much discussion on the linux.conf.au attendees’ chat list. The vast number of responders felt the right thing had been done with the apology and were happy, however there were a small number (5 or less) squeaky wheels that insisted that the talk was fine and that no apology was necessary.

This post is an edited response to my reply in a thread discussing whether the anti-harassment policy was too broadly scoped as well as possibly unnecessary.

Warning: this entry discusses sexual assault, rape and real statistics.

The anti-harassment policy that linux.conf.au adopted didn’t set an impossibly high bar for attendees or speakers, despite the complaints of a select few. As far as I know, all of the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 speakers, and all but one of the 2011 speakers managed to adhere to professional standards in their talks
and not use images that did or would have caused the ruckus Mark’s talk did. At about 90 (official) speakers per conference and maybe another 90 mini-conf speakers per conference that’s about 899 talks which all managed this feat, and quite a few of those talks were challenging, hard hitting, world shattering and all the things that Mark’s talk was too.

However Mark’s talk relentlessly employed the language and imagery of sexual assault as a metaphor for the loss of personal freedoms, and this is inappropriate. For all that Mark’s theme was timely and valuable, the talk would have been so much better had it been delivered with respect for those members of our community who have actually been assaulted.
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A vindication of the rights of linkspam (13th January, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

The Mists of Linkspam (26th November, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

From comments: I’m rubber, and you’re glue

I thought this point was worth bringing up from the comments: as we talk about tech conferences enforcing standards against use of sexualised imagery, we’re hoping to replace the “ho ho ho, we’re all het men here, what we have in common is coding and finding women attractive, don’t we all feel closer now, boys, for having shared our two great joys?” vibe.

But Melissa Gira Grant left a comment on Selena’s post reminding us that these kind of structures can be easily turned and used against women, as follows:

I think I get the thinking around these guidelines — and the totally male-dominated conference circuit that needs to hear this sort of guidance — but I just am stuck on this:

How do we keep guys (or anyone) from non-sensically using sexual or sexualized imagery and language in their presentations and preserve the right of people to use that information when it’s actually really, really what the presentation concerns?

This might be beyond the scope of these guidelines, but I am thinking back to the first BlogHer, during a “Birds of a Feather” session organized by self-identified mommybloggers, who were irritated that when they discussed the biological particulars of childbirth and childrearing, they were told they were being unprofessional, NSFW, or “overshare-y” — or, obscene.

It’s hard to address intent in this stuff. And I don’t want to sit through anymore stuffed-shirted dude “presos” on boring web marketing that just have some naked women sprinkled throughout to “sex things up” — because usually, those are the same dudes who don’t actually want to hear women talk honestly about sex, either.

In the FLOSS community, this may be a more specific concern with a history of problematic presentations, I know, and I’ve followed some of that through this blog — but tech/geek conferences can be pretty influential in establishing norms, and I’d not want to see a very flattened idea of what “safe” is promoted when those kind of norms can end up used to curtail women’s speech & expression, too.

I think one of the big problems here is that conferences will be very reluctant for various reasons to use any phrasing of guidelines that itself sounds exclusionary. It’s much easier to say “unprofessional content is banned” or “no naked pictures” than it is to try and draw a line between annoyingly exclusionary and usefully challenging or even just usefully informative, especially if that line may have anything to do with differentiating “men talking about women’s bodies” and “women talking about their own bodies.”

Why we document

A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.

My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.

We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.

Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Software—are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?—I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote linux.conf.au 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.

I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.

But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.

I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.