Ending sexism in hacker culture: A work in progress

Ending sexism in hacker culture: A work in progress

by Valerie Aurora, adainitiative.org
January 25th 2013

Updated to add 2 January 2013: German translation available here courtesy @fin, @bekassine and @michaelem.]

Last week, sexism in hacker culture became a topic of worldwide dialogue again. The trigger was a series of sexist incidents at the 29th Chaos Communications Congress, held every year in Germany during the last week of the year.

The incidents started with a wall in the conference center, where a picture of a woman’s nude body (link does not show image directly) was created using “Creeper Move cards,” printed paper cards used to raise awareness of sexism. (They definitely raised awareness in this case.) The conference wiki was edited to create a game in which participants were rewarded for offending people by making sexist comments or unwanted sexual propositions. During the popular conference event “Hacker Jeopardy,” a moderator repeatedly made sexist comments like “For reasons of gender-equality, we’ll sadly have to pick a woman now,” unhindered by the conference organizers present.

The reaction was swift, both at the conference and around the world. Many of the incidents were chronicled on a web site set up to document sexist incidents at CCC (in German, English here). Social media exploded with criticism of the events – e.g., “I think the conference leadership (the ccc) has failed horribly and that your team is a token and meaningless gesture.” – which quickly spread to include not just people at the conference but also people around the world.

These incidents were the last straw for prominent online activist and Cryptoparty co-founder Asher Wolf, who blogged about the sexist discrimination and harassment she experiences from the hacker community. As if to prove her point, her web site was hacked and her personal details posted online shortly thereafter.

These incidents stung more than usual in part because just a few days earlier the CCC 29 publicized their official anti-harassment policy, including a special phone number and dedicated team for responding to reports. The Ada Initiative saw this as a hopeful sign for progress, since it was the third hacker conference to publicly adopt a specific, enforceable policy.

Yet criticism of the conference organizers’ actual response to harassment was widespread (EN) (DE) and continues through the time of this posting. We are personally sorry and upset that so many people, of all genders, suffered harassment and then were let down by the response from the conference. Is it any wonder many people publicly despaired over whether women can ever expect to go to a hacker conference and not be treated like a piece of meat?

This is what progress looks like

We have a message of hope: This is what progress looks like. As painful as the last week has been, it is a sign that hacker culture as a whole is slowly working its way towards a future in which women are not actively discouraged from being part of the hacker community in ways men are not.

When sexism at the DEFCON hacker conference became national news last August, the community discussion centered around whether sexism existed at all, if assault and insults counted as sexism, whether women were valuable to hacker culture, and whether assault and harassment of women was an integral, essential element of hacker culture. In August 2012, zero hacker conferences had a public, specific, enforceable anti-harassment policy.

Contrast this with last week, when the discussion centered around the right way for the hacker community should respond to sexism, not whether it exists or women deserved the basic right of not being assaulted in the hacker community. Now, three hacker conferences have public, specific, enforceable (if in some cases badly enforced) anti-harassment policies. When the anti-harassment policy was poorly enforced at CCC, attendees spontaneously organized to discuss how to improve the enforcement at the next conference and assembled a list of practical, sensible improvements (EN) (DE). Sexism in hacker culture has always existed, but now more people than ever before are aware of it, are agreeing that it’s wrong, and are taking steps to end it.

Fighting sexism: an on-going process

It’s not all roses from here on out: Success depends on continuing to push for accountability from powerful people, whether or not is uncomfortable or unpleasant for them to address. We’re here to talk about how that process works.

First, we want to share an example of how this process is moving forward in similar peer-to-peer, international, creative communities. The last two years have seen measurable progress for women in open source software, Wikipedia, and similar communities – what we call “open technology and culture” and which includes hacker and maker culture. The Ada Initiative is an active leader in this movement: working directly with conferences and corporations, bringing together women in open tech/culture at the AdaCamp conferences, and contributing to the Geek Feminism wiki, a freely available CC-BY-SA licensed knowledge base so every community and conference does not have to learn from scratch.

What we’ve learned is that social change is a process. One way to look at the process is as this series of steps:

  1. Raising awareness: Teaching people that the problem exists
  2. Creating solutions: Inventing practical ways to change the community
  3. Taking action: Implementing the solutions

For example, creating and handing out the “Creeper Move cards” (EN) (DE) raised awareness of the problem of sexism at conferences in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Writing and promoting conference anti-harassment policies created a solution. Conference organizers enforcing an anti-harassment policy is implementing that solution.

To make this work, we have to take these steps over and over, we have to risk making mistakes, and we have to learn how to do better next time. One example of this process working in the open source software community is the Australian/New Zealand open source conference, linux.conf.au.

Case study: An open source software conference

Linux.conf.au is the most popular open source conference in the Australia/New Zealand region, and attracts hundreds of speakers and attendees from all over the world. Today, it has strong, well-enforced anti-harassment policy, a high percentage of women speakers and attendees, and a reputation as a friendly and welcoming conference for all. But it wasn’t always that way.

In previous years, linux.conf.au had incidents of non-consensual photography of women, jokes about Hans Reiser killing women attendees, and physical intimidation of women. In early 2010, for the first time the conference had a “Discrimination” policy forbidding discriminatory or harassing behavior, but was vague enough that people argued over whether, e.g., sexist jokes were “discriminatory.”

In late 2010, a prominent woman in the open source community named the man who had groped her at ApacheCon and kicked off a worldwide discussion about sexual harassment and assault in the open source community. This discussion led to the creation of a specific, enforceable example anti-harassment policy (and the founding of the Ada Initiative). linux.conf.au adopted the new specific and enforceable policy for the 2011 conference.

Despite this policy, one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 conference violated the policy in several ways (including showing a variety of pornographic images). The ensuing discussion engulfed the community for months afterward and triggered more incidents of sexism on the conference related mailing lists. In the end, though, the speaker apologized, the video of the talk was edited to add a notice that it violated the conference policies and principles of the organizers, the backing organization, Linux Australia, publicly confirmed its commitment anti-harassment policy. The 2012 conference had no major reported incidents.

Individual community members continue to support sexism and do sexist things, but now they know they face sanctions, penalties, and disgust from the rest of the community. The cultural norms of this part of the open source community have visibly changed.

Overall, opposition to conference harassment has become the default in the open source community: Most major and many minor conferences have and enforce an anti-harassment policy. Going even further, the Python Software Foundation recently announced publicly that it would not sponsor any events without a policy and we are told many other sponsors have the same policy but don’t advertise it. Even more encouraging, open source conferences are now paying attention to speaker line-ups, both working hard to increase diversity in speakers and calling out conferences with all-male or all-white speakers.

Stop ruining my conference!

But, people ask, can’t we skip all the unpleasantness, just “be excellent to each other” and be done with it? We’re all adults, right?

Social change does not happen because people ask nicely.

It happens through protests, hunger strikes, and publicity stunts. It blocks traffic on the streets of big cities. It illegally leaks classified government documents. It riots and burns down buildings and takes tear gas canisters in the face. We can count ourselves lucky that protesting sexism in hacker culture mainly results in angry words – especially when we consider that the current reality that we are protesting already includes physical sexual assault of women. If you haven’t experienced assault or harassment yourself, the upsetting discussion may seem like step backward, but for those of us who have experienced assault, it’s a clear improvement.

The effects of protests like this are uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous for people going about their daily lives, but that’s nothing compared to what life is like for the people already oppressed. Many women already can’t go to a hacker conference without having sexism pushed in their faces. If this week is the first time you’ve been made uncomfortable by sexism, imagine what it’s like to experience sexism when you join an IRC channel, blog in public, or go to a conference. That would suck pretty bad, right? You might even stop participating in the hacker community.

The answer to “Stop ruining my conference” is not “Stop pointing out the sexism,” it’s “Stop being sexist.” Don’t blame the victim for pointing out that sexism is happening, or for doing it in a way that makes you uncomfortable – after all, sexism is already making men and women more than just uncomfortable, it’s harming them and driving them out of the community. We call upon Chaos Communications Congress to stand behind their anti-harassment policy, develop a comprehensive response procedure that works, and to commit to enforcement in future years.

If people of good will continue working together, speaking up, and taking action, sexism will retreat from the hacker community as it has from so many other communities in the past. Here’s what you can personally do about it:

Thank you to everyone who spoke up about sexism and harassment last week. You are what makes change possible. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help!

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The Ada Initiative is non-profit dedicated to increasing the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. Our work, includes this blog post, the example anti-harassment policy, and much of the associated documentation. We can only do this work because of the support and actions of the open tech/culture community as a whole. Thank you!

This work is licensed under a .

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