Geekdom — a safe space for women?

This is the first of two posts about ORGcon; a second post will discuss the talks of the day itself. I need to make it explicitly clear that I am writing this post in a personal capacity and not in my rôle as a board director of the Open Rights Group. My comments here are not representative of or endorsed by ORG.

Edit 2013-06-20: ORG have today published the videos of the two keynote talks.

XKCD #385: How it Works

XKCD #385: How it Works

In the afternoon at ORGcon, the first session I went to was an excellent panel discussion between media lawyer David Allen Green, Lord Richard Allen, director of policy at Facebook, Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and comms at English PEN, and media lawyer Victoria McEvedy, chaired by Dr Alison Powell of the LSE. The title was “The right to be offensive: Free speech online in the UK” and it covered “how our laws are undermining free speech”. It was an awesome session and I recommend you look it up once ORG get the video online. One of the topics it touched upon was how hate speech directed at minority groups is an effective means of silencing those groups; David mentioned the email sent to Louise Mensch, threatening her children, for example.

I then chaired a session of rapid-fire talks, including one by my friend and fellow ORG board-member Mili Popova, titled When worlds collide, about “the grey areas, where we can see both sides of the argument” between digital rights and anti-censorship, in particular talking about online harassment and violence against women.

While the male / female ratio at ORGcon still bears much room for improvement, Jen and I had commented earlier in the day, that it was nice seeing an audience that was maybe 25% female, and including “girly girls” evidently comfortable with their femininity in a tech-heavy environment. As someone who helps organise Ada Lovelace Day, it’s good to see the increased diversity of our geek community; diversity makes us all stronger and the increased perspectives on life and society make us better at what we do.

John Perry Barlow‘s closing keynote was “fireside chat”-style. With the audience initially unwilling to engage, despite all the seats in the lecture theatre at the IET having a microphone in the armrest, it started quite rambly. After a series of questions and discussion about Prism, an audience member asked Barlow what he thought about the Assange case.

Note: The guilt or innocence of Julian Assange is irrelevant to this discussion; I am deliberately not discussing that here. I will be moderating comments, in the unlikely event that a bunch of people descend upon this piece, to ensure that neither the Assange case nor what Barlow did or did not say is not the focus of discussion. Internauts have a right of free speech, but I am not obliged to provide its venue.

Rather than doing what might have been more sensible — dodging the question — he expressed some opinions. Barlow’s opinions weren’t all terrible — he said that he advised Assange to go to Sweden to face the charges, for example — but his use of language was very troubling. Initially I thought he was just being euphemistic, in the way that people a generation older than me sometimes can be (he’s a 65-year-old ex-cattle rancher from Wyoming); this doesn’t excuse things, but it can sometimes provide context for giving someone the benefit of the doubt. But some of his other comments suggested that he wasn’t talking about “conduct unbecoming a gentleman” or “ungentlemanly conduct” as euphemisms; he seemed to be minimising the accusations of rape that are currently levied against Assange. Initially, I didn’t hear some of the more egregious comments I have been told Barlow made (for example, I was told he had described the complainants as “two angry women” — a common term used by pro-Assange commenters online — suggesting that their accusations are baseless, despite accusations of rape as a form of revenge being so rare as to be almost non-existent).

I should add at this point that subsequent conversations between Barlow and other friends of mine within ORG have made it clear this was not his intention and he was unaware of the controversy he’d ignited until he saw it unfolding on Twitter when in the pub. He explained to one of my ORG colleagues that, as the father of daughters, he has utter contempt for rape and rape culture and that he was indeed seeking to use euphemism to avoid either pre-judging the Swedish charges, evaluating the allegations or either aiding or harming Assange himself. His wording was, it would seem, intended to point to the 18th- and 19th-century British use of the phrase “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman“, codified in article 133 of the UCMJ:

Article 133. Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman
Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
10 USC §933 (effective 2008)

To be clear, ORG distanced itself from any controversy quite promptly:

But the actual Assange case is not the issue here — it’s a distraction. I don’t want to talk about that issue, mainly because it’s toxic to rational discussion.

I’m angry with myself. Despite having a microphone in my lap, it didn’t occur to me that some people were perceiving this as being like George Galloway’s bad sexual etiquette comment, as more than euphemism, as rape apologism (the trope of “it wasn’t really rape”) is a common experience for survivors of sexual assaults of all kinds and for people campaigning in this area. So I didn’t say anything.

In a lecture theatre of a couple hundred people, the only person who said anything was one woman shouting that they were rape charges before walking out. A handful of people walked out.

But I didn’t say anything. We all had microphones and only one person said anything. Even after she walked out, no-one spoke up in support of her stance.

That doesn’t mean that we were endorsing those comments, of course. But how are the women in the audience supposed to tell this apparent complicity apart from actual complicity?

“Apparent complicity” is a big problem in the realms of sexual assault and rape culture. There was a really good piece on last summer that’s essentially about how people are very good at ignoring unacceptable behaviour in friends groups — no-one wants to think that a friend is engaging in any kind of unacceptable behaviour, particularly something as unacceptable as sexual assault or rape — “he’s a nice guy, he wouldn’t do that”. As another piece, How friendship can help end rape, put it:

Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.

A lot of the problem is that many men, myself included, don’t know how to react; we don’t realise when something is a problem. Barlow’s words seemed like innocuous euphemism to me, but were strikingly insensitive or offensive to some other members of the audience.

When my wife and I discussed the issue with another friend later in the evening, outside the pub, the conversation become quite heated; he raised his voice, in frustration at the toxicity of the issue of Assange. Sure, the friend is a big guy, so can be intimidating without meaning to be, but it was an animated discussion, people often raise our voices in that context. To me, it was just a heated discussion, where Jen was holding her own; I saw no reason to intervene beyond my somewhat feeble attempts at suggesting that we should leave the issue and head home. No-one else saw any reason to either, with a handful of other friends observing the disagreement. Even when Jen directly told him that she didn’t feel safe, none of us picked up on that.

To Jen, it was exceptionally intimidating. She walked away; I left with her. We had to pause a few steps down the road, as Jen was shaking with anger and anxiety:
It’s very rare for Jen to be uncomfortable around crowds, but we walked back to Waterloo with Jen visibly traumatised and anxious. We walked to avoid the enclosed space of the Tube, with Jen nearing panic at people passing by us, men in particular.

(I sent a direct message to the guy in question as we walked back to Waterloo and he apologised promptly. He hadn’t intended to raise his voice and wasn’t aware that he’d been being intimidating.)

What disturbed me about the encounter, though, wasn’t just the extreme impact it had on Jen, but that I had done nothing. I’d not been aware that anything needed to be done. Similarly, the other handful of people had done nothing, presumably because they’d not been aware that anything needed to be done.

Faruk Ateş, the guy behind Modernizr, wrote a great piece in .net magazine: A primer on sexism in the tech industry and there are plenty of other pieces that show that our industry is not a safe, non-threatening space for women.

As a bloke, there’s always a danger of coming across as a patronising white knight when making suggestions in this area, but the very least we can do is remember to listen to women when they say there’s a problem (the same applies for members of other minority groups, of course) and try to be aware of the impact of our behaviour.

As a community, we evidently need to keep having this discussion. We need to make geekdom a safe, welcoming space for women.

Just a reminder, I do moderate comments on this blog; they largely need approval before appearing publicly. I will try to keep on top of comments as much as possible, but I do have a day job and moderating comments is not my number-one priority.

Image served directly from XKCD #385: How it Works, copyright © Randall Munroe, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

3 thoughts on “Geekdom — a safe space for women?

  1. Thanks for writing this Owen! I think there’s a lot of value in allies speaking out on these issues. For one, rightly or wrongly, sometimes allies have more credibility and clout with the people we need to convince. For another, as much as I believe in the power of the one dissenting voice, a chorus of dissenting voices is even better.

    I know there’s sometimes a fine line between being a “white knight” and being a genuine ally. For some practical suggestions on how to be the latter, see

  2. I wasn’t there myself (we left earlier). I was rather taken aback by various reports of what happened, though pleased that someone had called him out on it. My understanding of “conduct unbecoming…” is that it was frequently conduct that was not otherwise criminal. If an officer committed rape, then they would be charged with rape. Hence my surprise at his use of the term.

    What an unpleasant note on which to end an ORG con.

  3. Excellent and brave post, Owen. Thanks so much for sharing. I saw the reactions on Twitter and am glad to read a balanced viewpoint on what was said and what the reactions were.

    FWIW, the advice I give allies (whether men in a gender equality context, or straight/cis allies in LGBT context) is:
    – Remember silence can always be interpreted as agreement (and the greater the majority, the more likely it is to be)
    – People’s reactions are not just to you or the current situation; they are to the entirety of their experience to date (this is why you shouldn’t be offended someone worried about coming out to you — it’s less that they’re worried about YOU personally and more about reliving past rejections).
    – Not being a dick is not just about your own behaviour, but also about speaking out when other people are being dickish / threatening.
    – If you can only do one thing, react vociferously against people who reduce the safeness of the space. If you’re not sure people are feeling safe, ask them.


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