Tag Archives: conferences

When sex and porn are on-topic at conferences: Keeping it women-friendly

This is a cross-post from the Ada Initiative blog. Discussion is extremely welcome!

We’d like to start a discussion: How can the Ada Initiative extend the example anti-harassment conference policy to explicitly allow respectful, woman-positive discussion of topics like sex and pornography when it is on-topic, without creating loopholes for sexist and exclusionary behavior to creep back in?

First, let’s be clear: harassment and unwelcoming behavior at open tech/culture conferences are far from over. For example, one recent conference tried to “break the ice” using slides with sexual messages and/or animals mating and ended up getting racism and prison rape jokes (unsurprisingly – see this list of higher risk activities for conferences to avoid). That’s why the Ada Initiative’s advice on including pornography or sexual discussion at technology conferences is “don’t.”

A brief explanation of why pornography and sex are off-putting to women and LGBTQ people of any gender: Most pornography shown in this situation assumes that the audience is male and heterosexual, and sends the message that everyone who is not a heterosexual man is not the intended audience. Also, shifting people’s minds towards sex often triggers people to view women as sexual objects, in a context in which women want to be treated as humans with a shared interest.

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop speaking

But showing pornography and talking about sex in public are not necessarily a “women not wanted” sign. Women are using open tech/culture to create erotica by and for women, and to have open discussions about sexuality in general.

For example, Archive of Our Own is a “fan-created, fan-run, non-profit, non-commercial archive for transformative fanworks,” designed and created by a majority women community, and hosts erotic fan fiction written by women among many other fan works. At the Open Video conference, Cindy Gallop talked about ways to change pornography to be more women-friendly, as well as more “open source” (and launched a startup actually doing it). for women in open tech/culture also need to speak about what keeps women out of their communities, which requires talking about pornography and sex.

Valerie Aurora speaking at AdaCamp DC

Valerie Aurora speaking at AdaCamp

What we want to do is support conferences that have organizers, speakers, and attendees who are sufficiently aware of sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of harassment in order to distinguish between, e.g., trying to “spice up” a presentation with a little off-topic pornography, and a discussion of ways to change pornography to be more women-positive. Our own AdaCamp is an example of a conference in which sex and pornography are on-topic.

The Ada Initiative’s current anti-harassment policy includes the following paragraph:

Exception: Discussion or images related to sex, pornography, discriminatory language, or similar is welcome if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing, (b) it is necessary to the topic of discussion and no alternative exists, (c) it is presented in a respectful manner, especially towards women and LGBTQ people, (d) attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand. This exception specifically does not allow use of gratuitous sexual images as attention-getting devices or unnecessary examples.

We then add a blanket provision approving discussion about topics that are appropriate for the specific conference.

What do you think? Comments are open (but heavily moderated).

Food for discussion: A few examples of anti-harassment policies from conferences where sex and pornography are on-topic: BiCon, Open SF, and Open Video Conference.

If you like our work and want to support our work making conferences more women-friendly, please donate now.

Donate now

By your powers combined, I am Captain Linkspam! (21 September, 2012)

  • Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing: “To test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications, the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name. Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.”
  • Beating the Odds – How We got 25% Women Speakers for JSConf EU 2012: “We received 234 total talk submissions by 180 unique submitters. 162 (90%) men, 18 (10%) women. We invited 35 women to submit to the CFP, of these 13 ended up submitting one or more proposals, 5 women submitted on their own. The 40 speakers we selected for the weekend are the top 40 anonymously ranked of all proposals.The final tally:
    • 40 speaking slots (100%)
    • 30 men speaking (75%)
    • 10 women speaking (25%)”
  • World Con and accessibility (or lack thereof) | sasha_feather: “Karen Moore recently went to WorldCon and was struck by the difference in the lack of accessibility there vs. at WisCon. She wrote us a letter to say so, and gave me permission to quote her letter in my blog. Excerpts from her letter follow”
  • Things To Do When The Internet Makes You Enraged | Skepchick: “I’ve been struggling recently, trying to find the best way to handle the ongoing barrage of anger and hate that has been directed at various people in the [feminist/atheist/skeptic] community….So I thought I’d put together some things that you and others can do to make a difference in this community to build it up and strengthen the foundations”
  • Wikimania 2012: Opening Plenary with subtitles | Amara: Mary Gardiner’s “Fostering diversity” Wikimania keynote, begins at 11:44
  • WitsOn, an online mentorship event/program, has been getting some attention with their recent press release and a New York Times article . College students can sign up to participate at https://piazza.com/witson.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
Continue reading

Red/Yellow cards

The gamification of feminism?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers from Annalee Newitz. Paraphrased:

Do you have examples of or ideas for the “gamification of feminism” – ways that people have turned advocating feminism into a game or fun activity?

Red/Yellow cardsExample: KC Crowell printed and distributed sports-style “red cards” and “yellow cards” to give to people being sexist at DEFCON 20 a few weeks ago.

What are your examples, ideas, and thoughts?

The word LINKS spelt out in clips (safety pins)

All you need is linkspam (7th August, 2012)

  • What the Backup Ribbon Project is all about | Backup Ribbon Project: “Stories have come back to us about “Backup” people helping to break up fights, escorting women to their hotels, distracting That Person from obnoxiously hitting on other fans. And each and every one makes us proud to be a fan.”
  • ‘Fake Geek Girls': How Geek Gatekeeping Is Bad For Business – Forbes: “In the face of this insecurity, “fake geek girls” are the equivalent of Communist sleeper agents in the uncertain 50s – the number of women who have no interest in geek culture but want geek attention at a personal level is vanishingly small, but their phantom is used to justify prejudice more generally, with the aim of keeping an unknown quantity out of the clubhouse.”
  • NYT: In Silicon Valley, Showing Off: “And while some women here still worry that they will not be considered serious technologists if they care about clothes, as Katrina Garnett was in 1998, when she wore a slinky black Hervé Léger bandage dress in ads for her business software company, many are confident enough to dress the way they want to.”
  • Notes From an Ayewards World – An Old-School She-Geek: “If it’s OK for women to be anything they want, then they can want to be decorative and well dressed and impeccably made up. Of course they can!
    But are they going to judge me unworthy because I am not, and don’t want to try to be?”
  • Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault Feminist Romance | Finding Gaia: “I don’t read a lot of romance because too often I end up finding parts that conflict with my values as an educated, independent-minded, political woman.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Chainmail (European 4 in 1 pattern)

The Linkspam Mystique (15th June, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

AdaCamp Melbourne group photo

AdaCamp: Organizing a productive conference for women in open tech/culture

Valerie Aurora is co-founder of the Ada Initiative, an non-profit to increase the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. In this guest post she is writing as the Executive Director of the Ada Initiative.

About AdaCamp

AdaCamp is an unconference organized by the Ada Initiative that brings together people to come up with ways to encourage, recruit, and retain women in open source software, Wikipedia and related projects, and other areas of open technology and culture like fan/remix culture, open government, and open data. The next AdaCamp is AdaCamp DC, held on July 10 – 11, 2012, in Washington DC, co-located with Wikimania 2012, the international conference for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. Applications are still open and we encourage you to apply, as well as invite others and spread the word!

Keeping the conversation productive

The great thing about an unconference like AdaCamp is that the attendees choose the topics of the sessions and participate in the discussion as equals, which usually means that almost everyone is engaged and interested all day long. At the same time, this makes getting the right attendees even more crucial to making an unconference a success.

Some of the problems we’ve observed in the past in open attendance meetings about women in open tech/culture (e.g., a women in open source software Birds of a Feather meeting) include:

  • Lack of basic knowledge of barriers facing women
  • Denial of women’s experiences
  • People who should come incorrectly assume they shouldn’t
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” to the point of blocking discussion
  • Constant derailing of the conversation
  • Individuals unknowingly dominating the conversation
  • Demands that the purpose of the meeting be changed to educating a single person
  • Disagreements fundamental enough to block to discussion
  • Hostile environment that prevents honest discussion

Disagreement and discussion are good – in the right amount and in the right venue. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time and money to hold a conference in which we spend the majority of the time, e.g., debating whether a lack of women really is a problem in open tech/culture. We can’t in conscience ask people to travel thousands of miles, spend hundreds of dollars, and sponsor us if the sessions aren’t productive.

Our current solution: Invitation-only with open applications

A common model for meetings like this is to make it invitation-only but with an open applications process. Everyone can apply to attend and the call for applications is widely distributed, then the program committee reviews the applications and decide which ones meet the published criteria. We used this process for AdaCamp Melbourne and found that it had both pros and cons.


  • No one had to be educated on “Feminism 101″ topics
  • Discussion was far more advanced than usual
  • Sessions produced results during the conference
  • Attendees felt energized rather than burned-out
  • Discussion was more open and adventurous
  • Attendees just plain liked it and told us so!


  • Rejected applications generate ill-will towards the organizers
  • Some people didn’t apply because they didn’t think they were qualified
  • The reviewers could be biased or wrong
  • Some people were put off by perceived elitism
  • Reviewing applications was time-consuming and stressful

We especially worry about people not applying because they don’t think they are qualified, since women are often socialized to underrate their expertise.

Overall, we are confident that the current open application and invitation process produces a better conference than an open attendance process, but we hope that we can either improve the existing process or find a better process.

Geek Feminism readers: What’s your experience with organizing a productive meeting focusing on advocacy for geek women? Do you have advice for overcoming the faults of the open application/invitation process? Have you tried something else entirely?

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Life, the Universe and Linkspam (29th May, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.


How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

Guest blogger Courtney Stanton explains how she organized a game developer conference with 50% women speakers. Stanton is a project manager for a video game company in Boston, and long-time feminist scourge of the computer game industry. Her work has been featured on GF several times. Follow her on Twitter at @q0rt.

Hi! In case we’ve never met, the elevator pitch for me goes something like: interactive media/videogames/project management/social justice/interior design/travel/semi-hatred of conferences. Like, *for real* I am not an enjoyer of conference content most of the time, despite going to several of them every year. I always end up sitting in a room listening to the same four straight white men agree with each other on some panel, and then I wander over to the expo floor where a person who doesn’t know anything about the product hands me a flyer and a pen Oh and if I’m *really* lucky, I’ll have paid over a thousand dollars in travel expenses and registration fees.

And so I put on my Ambition hat and decided that rather than complain on Twitter endlessly (well…in addition to, I guess), I should put together a conference for game developers, just to see if it was possible to make one that I would actually attend with enthusiasm. I ended up calling it No Show Conference, because it’s not about pageantry, glitz, or any of the “slick” stuff I see at a lot of conferences. Here, have a link: noshowconf.com

My Criteria:
– Not a bajillion dollars to register
– Don’t make attendees use vacation time just to show up
– Different entry fee/access level for hobbyists/newbies/students/broke friends
– Nothing included should be a waste of time, including the traditional expo hall
– Have an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it
– No panels

And then, because I am sneaky, I also had a secret agenda.

Unstated Criteria:
– Try to get as many women on stage as I possibly could

Since I was the one who made the conference up, I’ve got total control over setting price, etc, so all of my stated criteria have been very easy to enact so far. But getting women in the lineup at game conferences is seemingly difficult, given that so few events even have women speaking at all. I run a monthly networking group in Boston for women in the game industry and their allies, so I know the issue (at least locally) isn’t that there aren’t enough women with innovative, interesting things to say. What gives?

The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible. Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway. It’s a come-one-come-all event for game industry professionals, so more than anything I wanted a really strong set of talks, even if that meant I ended up with, sigh, yet another roster of all dudes.

So! Getting women to submit content: easy? Um. When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

I promised mentoring, I promised practice sessions, I promised one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have spent hundreds of hours speaking at conferences. I emailed my Women in Games Boston group, I attended events and encouraged groups of women in person, I sought women out online, I met with women over coffee. I encouraged/begged them to consider translating the hours and hours I’d spent with them in the past talking about their careers, their specialties, their ideas, into a 45-minute presentation. I told them how much I respected their reputations and their ideas and that I’d be thrilled if they had the time or interest in submitting a talk.

Did every woman respond like that? No. But it was very much the minority situation, me promoting the conference and having a woman say, “oh, okay, does [concept] sound like a good fit?” and then them actually turning around and submitting a proposal. One or two women versus every single man who submitted content. (Also, while I have spoken either in person or online with every woman who submitted, several of the proposals submitted by men were guys I’d never met.)

We ended up getting 18 submissions (8 women, 10 men) for 10 planned slots. In between launching the conference and selecting talks, the keynote speaker I had lined up fell off the face of the planet, but super-conveniently for me, one of the submitted talks was a scorchingly good topic for a keynote, so kaboom, problem solved. Then, I couldn’t get the final selection list down to 10. I had 11 and they were all great, covering things I hadn’t seen presented elsewhere. So I reworked the conference schedule, made room for the extra presentation, and called it a win. What we’ve ended up with is a speaker lineup of 6 men and 6 women and *I swear that was not planned* but hey, it’s convenient for my thesis that you can put together a games conference for the industry at large and still get more than one token woman in your lineup.

Having a non-trivial number of women submitting presentations seems to have made it so that a non-trivial number of women are speaking at No Show Conference. Imagine that.

Huge giant HOWEVER: I came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, “there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.” Like oh em gee y’all. I am hoping that this year’s conference is successful enough that I can make it an annual event, and that these months of cheerleading will have planted some idea seeds that I reap when it comes time to wave the pom poms and encourage speaker submissions next year. I’m hoping that the women speaking this year will in turn encourage other women to apply.

I’m hoping I run into fewer women who self-reject their ideas before I even get a chance to read them.

So hey, I was hoping to get some women on stage and it looks like that was achieved! Hooray! …Hooray? Wellll…while I am really, really pleased with our speaker lineup and our session content, I realize that this is not Nature’s Perfect Conference (yet). But I figured the only way to find new problems was to get some of these recurring, obvious ones out of the way. (And I didn’t even set out to tackle *all* of the obvious diversity problems, just the one I felt I’d be most likely to succeed at this time around.) It’ll be really cool when I, as a white person, figure out how to promote speaker submissions more/more effectively to people of color in my industry. Likewise with QUILTBAG game developers and thinker-types. I think I lucked out somewhat in our venue this year from an accessibility standpoint (ramps, elevators, handicap stalls in all the bathrooms), but I definitely wouldn’t claim that I’ve covered all the bases of accessibility for potential attendees (yet) Short version: I’m not perfect, neither is this event, but I am looking for ways to make it better and more open to all people working in games, both this year and in future years. And in the meantime, at least I’m putting on a conference where a version of myself from another dimension wouldn’t sit in the audience tweeting, “oh hey, a panel with a bunch of dudes on it, how novel.”

Quick Hit: a GF approach to events

I help plan technical events at the Wikimedia Foundation. I think we’ve improved in making them more welcoming and inclusive over the course of my time there. We just recently filled to capacity on registration for an upcoming event, and I thought I’d share a few things we’ve done:

  • A friendly space policy
  • Event info page shows photos of people of different genders, allows people to opt in to sharing their names/attendance
  • Registration form doesn’t ask for sex or gender; instead, it asks what kind of t-shirt we should provide (including a “None, thank you” option) and “If you need accommodation: would you prefer to share a room with a woman or with a man?” (options: “women’s rooms”, “men’s rooms”, “either will be fine”)
  • We’ll aim to document as much of the event as possible in realtime text
  • We’re ensuring that at least one of the social events is not booze-oriented
  • I’m working to ensure people can put whatever names they prefer on their badges, including handles/nicks for those who don’t want to share their wallet names
  • Free to attend, and we provide travel sponsorships to encourage participants from far away
  • Hostel very near the venue

I failed at:

  • childcare – just didn’t put in the time to ensure we could provide this
  • ensuring our venue is accessible to those with disabilities (I’m not sure, and didn’t emphasize this as a key criterion when my contact in Berlin was scouting venues)
  • clarifying many of the points above to prospective attendees
  • and probably more

What have you done to make your geek events more welcoming?