The Great Geek Sexism Debate

Over the past few months, three of the most influential conventions in geekdom — Readercon (for science fiction writers), The Amazing Meeting (for skeptics), and DefCon (for hackers) — have been at the center of very public discussions about sexism and sexual harassment in their communities. After all three conventions in 2012, women spoke out publicly about episodes of sexual harassment and humiliation they experienced at the cons. The fallout was ugly — but also awesome. Here's what happened, and what's still happening, as formerly male-dominated geek spaces make way for women.

Here I've brought together the stories of these three cons, and the incidents of sexism or sexual harassment that affected them this year. I've talked to key players in these events to find out what they believe to be true, and I've done some analysis. This article is an effort to summarize a few concrete examples of sexism in the geek community — as well as ways people are trying to deal with it.

Readercon — Harassment and Resignation

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

The incident:

Longtime con volunteer Rene Walling followed author Genevieve Valentine around at Readercon 2012 and made sexual comments. Initially, she simply walked away from him. Later, during the evening parties, Walling hugged her from behind and pressed against her in view of dozens of people. She loudly demanded that he stop touching her and following her, but he continued to follow her on subsequent days. Valentine filed a complaint with the con board, which has a "no tolerance" sexual harassment policy, meaning violators are permanently banned from the con. You can read her version of events in her LiveJournal here.

Photo by Adam Mills.

Official Response:

Though Walling did not dispute the harassment charges, the con board refused to ban him permanently from the con because he told them he was "sincerely regretful." Previously, the board had enforced its zero tolerance policy with another person, less popular than Walling, who was accused of harassment. After a couple of weeks of protest from the community, the entire Readercon board resigned, apologized, and Walling was banned permanently from Readercon.

Analysis:

To put this incident in context, there has been a longstanding problem in the science fiction community with female representation at conferences. This is partly a result of a traditional belief among publishers and readers that women cannot write about science and space. Few women are published in the science fiction genre — and when they are, it is often as fantasy authors. Partly as a result of this imbalance, many science fiction cons feature all-male rosters of speakers. Over the past few years, authors have been taking a stand against this, and Paul Cornell is one of many popular authors who has warned that he will never speak on a panel that doesn't include women.

So, things are changing. Both women and men are unhappy with the current state of affairs. Women are coming to SF cons in much greater numbers, and they don't want to run a gauntlet to be accepted into what was once a men's club.

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

Photo via Ultraphyte

At Readercon, a sexual harassment policy existed and the board refused to adhere to its rules. Walling is a longtime member of the community who helped organize many cons, and it was understandably hard for members of the board to accept that their friend could behave so objectionably. But he had. In the wake of the board's initial decision, another woman stepped forward to say Walling had harassed her too. Many people who had witnessed his behavior chimed in, and questioned why the board chose to enforce its policy in a way that smacked of favoritism. Members of the Readercon committee resigned to protest the board's behavior.

As a result of the online outcry, the Readercon board was forced to acknowledge that Walling had violated the con's sexual harassment policy. Again, Walling did not dispute Valentine's version of events. He simply felt that he shouldn't be banned because he was sorry. Most people in the community did not agree, though some people did point out that this conflict revealed the problems with zero tolerance policies.

The Result:

Readercon 2013 will be helmed by a new board. Zero tolerance for sexual harassment remains the official policy as of this writing, but may be revised.

** Caveat: Though I have never attended Readercon, many of the organizers and attendees are my friends, including Genevieve Valentine, the woman who was harassed.

The Amazing Meeting: Trolls and Role Models

The incident:

Several people (online and off) bullied and insulted a feminist skeptics group called the Skepchicks in the year before the con and during the con. At the Amazing Meeting (TAM), Skepchick Amy Roth reported that people harassed her for her feminist stance (not sexually harassed, just plain harassed). Roth makes very recognizable "Surly Amy" jewelry, and one group created knockoff Surly Amy necklaces featuring slogans making fun of things Roth had said on Twitter. I spoke to her by phone about what happened, and she described feeling humiliated and shamed for speaking out about feminism in the atheist community. When she returned home, her online harassment continued, and some of the bullies posted her address online.

This incident has historical context (a detailed summary is here, on SUIRAUQA's blog). It started when prominent Skepchick Rebecca Watson, a friend of Roth's, posted a video where she mentioned in passing an incident at an atheist conference in Dublin, Ireland. She described how a conference attendee got into an elevator with her alone at 4 AM, and rather heavy-handedly asked her to come back to his room with him. In this video, Watson tells the story (without naming names) in a lighthearted way, and ends by saying "Guys don't do that — it makes me uncomfortable." She attributed this discomfort to "being sexualized," as well as feeling vulnerable because she was alone in an elevator at 4 AM with a strange man who was hitting on her. She did not at any point call this man's behavior "sexual harassment."

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

Later, prominent atheist and pop science author Richard Dawkins wrote a comment in response to Watson's video on evolutionary biologist PZ Myers' blog. Dawkins decided to satirize Watson's stance by pretending he was Watson writing a letter to abused women in the Middle East and Africa:

Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and...yawn...don't tell me again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

The message was clear: Dawkins believed Watson's concerns were stupid. With such a prominent skeptic denigrating Watson's point of view, it's not surprising that many in the atheist community took up (virtual) arms against her and the other Skepchicks. It was as if they had received a blessing from the Atheist-in-Chief. And so the online trolling about "elevatorgate" blew up bigger than ever.

Watson spoke up publicly in her own defense, remarking in USA Today that she no longer felt safe in the atheist community. That's when TAM organizer D.J. Grothe noticed that the number of women signing up to come to TAM had dropped from its previous high of 40% in 2011 to 18% for 2012 (when I spoke to Grothe, he noted that the 2012 con wound up being about 31% female in the end). On Facebook, he speculated the drop in female attendance "may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed." He added:

I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women - who otherwise wouldn't - end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

Shortly thereafter, Watson announced she wouldn't be attending TAM because of this "blame the victim" rhetoric. Other Skepchicks followed suit.

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

Amy Roth was one of the only people from the Skepchick group at TAM this year.

Official response:

Though TAM had a sexual harassment policy in 2011, in 2012 it did not and Grothe does not think it will in the future. To deal with harassment at the 2012 con, the TAM organizers hired a professional consultant who deals with what Grothe characterized as "boundary issues" and "security concerns" in corporations. Nobody at the con was notified that this consultant was available, though his presence was alluded to on the TAM site FAQ like so:

How does JREF handle safety concerns?

The Amazing Meeting, while a private event, is held at the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa, which is open to the public. The safety of our attendees and speakers is a priority. If an attendee encounters a problem within the conference area, they should report the situation to TAM staff or hotel security. JREF has also engaged an independent consultant on these issues, with decades of experience handling security, boundary and safety concerns, to assist us in dealing with any matters should they arise at the event.

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

Analysis:

In the past, Grothe has worked closely with feminists to make TAM welcoming to women, and Watson has spoken at the con, but in 2012 the con became yet another melee in the war between the skeptics. Though some would cast this as a war between sexism and feminism, it isn't that simple. There are women and feminists on both sides of the debate. The divide is between people who believe feminism is integral to skepticism (Watson) and those who think it's irrelevant (Dawkins).

As for Grothe, he sees the issue as a matter of priorities. He believes the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), the nonprofit that runs TAM, should focus exclusively on its mission, which is debunking pseudoscience and promoting skeptical responses to the paranormal. Both Grothe and JREF's founder James Randi are gay, and Grothe talked about how it wouldn't be appropriate to lobby for gay rights when he's speaking as a JREF representative. Feminism, like gay rights, is simply not part of JREF's mission — at least, for Grothe and many Dawkins-style skeptics.

One of the main differences between the Readercon and TAM communities is the public positions their most famous members have taken. In the science fiction community, prominent authors have spoken out against sexism and harassment. In the atheism community, prominent thinkers like Dawkins have effectively spoken out in favor of belittling people who believe there is sexism among skeptics. Certainly there are counter-examples. Some in the TAM community, like PZ Myers, have become outspoken Watson supporters. But when the world's most famous atheist takes a position against something, it inevitably influences how the community responds. If Dawkins had never taken a public stance against Watson, it's likely that "elevatorgate" would have unfolded a lot differently. The skeptics community would still be full of fierce debates over feminism — but perhaps neither side would feel shamed, silenced, or bullied.

The Result:

Many atheist meetings (though not TAM) have created anti-harassment policies. TAM 2013 will continue to retain its outside consultant to deal with boundary issues, and Grothe promises that if any harassment (sexual or otherwise) occurs it can be reported to him or the consultant. They will investigate and, if necessary, ban harassers from TAM or take other action. The Skepchicks, including Amy Roth, as of this writing have no plans to attend TAM again.

DefCon: Sexist and Anti-Sexist Pranks

The Incident:

In 2011, security staff at DefCon designed a humorous "scorecard" game that required conference-goers to, among other things, get women to "show their tits" to staff in order to win. One woman attendee, KC, characterized it like this:

[A man] tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff (I do not have words for how slimy it is that the official security staff were in charge of what was essentially a competition to get women to show their boobs).

KC vowed to change things this year, so she invented her own humorous game, based on rugby penalty cards.

She called them "consent cards," to emphasize that they were about flagging non-consensual behavior. Red cards were for a "creeper move" that was harassing or "wildly inappropriate;" yellow were for a "creeper move" that was "mildly inappropriate." Green cards, which KC didn't think were entirely necessary, were a "thank you" for not being creepy. (When I asked why they weren't necessary, she shrugged: "Not being an asshole should be its own reward.")

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

The idea, KC explained to me over tea at a San Francisco cafe, was that people could hand the cards out in any situation they felt was appropriate. Basically, it would be an easy way to tell somebody — in public, with lots of people watching — that their behavior was crossing the line. "The strength of the cards is that they're not very confrontational," she said. "You can end the conversation by handing the card out and calmly walking away." She made thousands of the cards, and she and her friends gave them away to anyone who wanted to use them. For the most part, she said, the experiment worked. A lot of women thanked her, but a lot of men did too. The worst complaints she got, she said, were from the security staff. Some of them proudly displayed the cards they'd been given on their name tags. "That's fine — let them make themselves visible," KC said. "That way we know who to avoid."

One DefCon attendee, Schuyler Erle, said on Twitter that using the cards got him punched:

That was the only violence reported. KC said most people were thrilled to have the cards. The most common negative response she got was, "If you don't like DefCon, why don't you just stop coming?"

Official response:

When DefCon organizer Jeff Moss heard that KC was planning to make the consent cards, he offered to pay for them. But the money wasn't needed. KC had raised so much money through crowdfunding for the cards online that she was able to make many thousands more of the cards than she'd been planning to make.

Analysis:

As the Ada Initiative's Valerie Aurora noted in an eloquent post on the topic, DefCon is a place where people go to network for jobs. Telling a woman not to come is like telling her to miss out on job opportunities. It was precisely for this reason that KC wanted to make the consent cards in the first place. She wanted to network without being asked to show her tits.

The Great Geek Sexism Debate

In this way, Defcon resembles Readercon more than it resembles TAM. Both Defcon and Readercon are explicitly about networking and making business connections, while also having fun. TAM is about socializing with a community, but it isn't a community that is based around an industry like computer security or publishing. For women who want to work in computer security, not going to Defcon isn't really an option. It's one of the best places for hackers to meet potential employers, from Twitter to the NSA (yes, both were recruiting at DefCon in 2012).

Photo by vissago

KC's way of coping with sexism at DefCon worked for a couple of reasons. One, she knew the community well and realized that turning anti-sexism into a game would be an effective way to communicate. And two, the cards translated well into media stories about sexism at DefCon, which also helped raise people's awareness about the issue. Because she used these aggressive, satirical cards, KC did not come across as a victim. She came across as smart and funny, willing to respond to the security staff's 2011 game with a game of her own. It was a good example of a social hack — something that hackers could appreciate and maybe even learn from.

The Result:

KC isn't sure whether she'll do the cards next year or not, but she said she has hundreds of them left and will definitely use them for something. My hope is that she can get them integrated into the famously awesome DefCon convention badges somehow. The Ada Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to furthering the participation of women in computing, is trying to work with conventions like DefCon to implement sexual harassment policies.

With conferences like these, every year offers a chance to reinvent community. Events that fail one year can lead to great successes in the next — and vice versa. What ultimately unites the geek communities of Readercon, TAM, and Defcon is that they aren't changing purely because women are attending them in record numbers. They are also changing because the men attending them have different priorities and values than they did even a few years ago. Women and men are changing these geek spaces together. No gender is doing it alone.