The Importance of Allies

Deb Nicholson is a geeky gal who is motivated by the intersection of technology and social justice. She spends her time working freelance with the Caucus to Increase Women’s Participation in Free Software and pursuing a CS degree in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This has been cross-posted from her blog.

Ever since I started working towards the goal of increasing the number of women participating in the free software community, I’ve had men say some variation of the following to me, “I didn’t know it was this bad. Is there anything I can do?” The answer is yes!

There is a great potential for change. I think the gropers and insulters are the exception and not the rule. Unless 30 obnoxious men are changing their appearance and flying all over the globe to be “that guy” at dozens of linuxfests and free software gatherings every year, their numbers are still significant. If you believe my conspiracy scenario, then you may as well go all the way and imagine them to be trained and funded by Microsoft on a secret island in the remote Pacific. (Also, I have a work-at-home situation that starts with you mailing me a large check that I’d love to discuss with you.) But seriously, the dearth of opposing voices is what allows this small group to disproportionately set the tone at free software events. The bad actors are not the majority. Silence on this issue serves the status quo.

When thinking about change, I’ve always found Ursula LeGuin’s story, “The Ones who Walked Away from Omelas” inspiring. This example is from fiction and so naturally the choice to pipe down or walk away from a society that oppresses even one of its members is drawn in very broad strokes. LeGuin has essentially written a parable. If you as a conference goer find out that an event’s success rests upon the tears and ostracization of a small number of people, then walk away. Don’t attend that event again. Let me be a little more explicit. Say the keynote speaker is disrespectful to women and sets an inappropriate sexual tone for the conference. The conference organizers don’t feel that they can tell someone famous and important to either stay professional and respect all attendees or stop speaking without damaging the status of their event. The women at this conference no longer feel welcome. If you think those are the wrong priorities then you have two options, speak up or walk away.

Find yourself another event or project that values the inclusion of all its members over the egos of a few bad actors. Get involved where they’re doing it right! Or say something when your “mostly OK” community missteps. A simple, “Hey, that’s out of line” or “We really don’t need to use that kind of example” can go a long way. Sometimes you may find yourself in a smaller group and a quick, “That was really inappropriate” may be in order. What if you aren’t quick in the moment? After someone’s been offensive you might say to the offended party, “I’m sorry that guy was a jerk to you. If you want to report him, I’m happy to go with you to find a staff person.” Of course, this last example is going to be the most effective at an event that already has an anti-harassment policy in place.

Allies are extremely important. There aren’t that many women here yet. So, in order to be successful at changing the tone in the free software community, we need your help. The thing you can do today is to write to a conference you’re thinking about attending in the next year and politely ask if they would adopt an anti-harassment policy like this one. A policy may seem like a small step, but its adoption empowers the organizers to stop offensive behavior and to kick out repeat offenders. It also goes a long way towards broadcasting to potential attendees what sort of treatment they can expect and what won’t be tolerated. I hope that you’ll choose to speak up when you feel you can affect behavior and walk away when you feel the situation is irredeemable. Thanks to all of you who already do!

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Allies

  1. duckgirlie

    I don’t attend conferences, but I spent most of university attending various debating tournaments, and UK/Irish (and parts of European) debating culture is full of various hipster *isms. (and a certain amount of just plain *isms). Even though the big tournaments (European and World championships) have strong equity policies, and partially-anonymous structures for reporting violations of the policies, there’s still a lot of implicit pressure not to complain because it’ll ‘ruin things’, so it’s really only the very serious violations that get reported. But seeing as every tournament is run by different people, it can be hard to know how seriously they’ll treat complaints until it’s started, and by then you’ve already paid the money and committed to attend. (And for many people, the option of waiting a year and going to a different World Championship isn’t an option)

    I’ve been forwarding a lot of these blog posts of some people I know who are involved in tournament hosting, and I hope it’ll make them think a little bit about preempting possible problems instead of just reacting to them.

  2. Satchel

    This is right in line with the current thinking about how to deter bullying in schools.

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