Clothes and geek feminism

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I’ve been chewing over various things about clothing and geek feminism since our recent posts about clothing and grooming (Kylie’s, Terri’s first, Terri’s second). I still think I can’t address it satisfactorily, but I thought I’d lay out various angles in which we might think of clothing and grooming in geek feminism.

Notes:

  • I refer to “geek women” a lot in this essay. All of these considerations apply to other people too in varying degrees, and sometimes more acutely. But given the nature of this blog I am focussing on geek women’s interests, and pressures on them.
  • This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of factors that figure into geek women’s grooming: it’s meant to be long enough to demonstrate that a lot of us have to care about it. Undoubtedly it is a somewhat privileged list too. You are welcome to raise additions in comments.

Clothing as labour. The vast majority of the clothing the vast majority of people reading this wear is made in factories in the developing world, by people working in dangerous and exploitative positions.

Grooming as make-work. Naomi Wolf, for one, made this argument in The Beauty Myth, that consuming women with endless grooming related chores and insecurities is a method of oppression. (I am barely read in feminist or cultural theory, undoubtedly hundreds of names could be listed here as having addressed aspects of this.) laughingrat raised this in our comments.

Clothing and grooming as geek interest. Some geeks take a geek-style (intense, analytical, open-ended, consuming) interest in various aspects of clothing and grooming. As examples of how you might do this, there are a lot of knitting geeks; there are historical recreation geeks who make and wear period clothing using period technology; there are people who study the semiotics and sociology of fashion.

Clothing as geek in-group marker and grooming as rejection of the mainstream. John writes in Terri’s comments that someone well-groomed in mainstream corporate style can be assumed to [be] trying to cover for a lack of competence in technical matters ”” or really want to be a suit. You often can’t, in this framing, be a geek and a suit both. You have to choose, and advertise this with your grooming.

Within geekdom, clothing is sometimes a pretty unsubtle marker of your allegiances. What cons do you go to? What programming languages do you prefer? What comics do you read? You wear shirts that allow this to be determined on first acquaintance. (This isn’t unique to geekdom of course, see also fashion labels and band t-shirts.)

Avoiding overtly female-marked grooming. Women in male-dominated workplaces often desperately want to avoid anything that might cause them to be (even more) othered because of their gender, especially since caring about grooming is frequently trivialised.

This may need to be balanced by expectations in some groups these same women move in by choice or necessity in which interest in grooming is required.

Grooming in order to own/celebrate your gender. This is important to many trans people. Conversely to the above about avoiding overt gender marking, quite a few geek women also choose to do this in order to point out that there are women RIGHT HERE in geekdom who can bring the geek.

Grooming as a marker of striving to “fit in” generally. If you have unusual grooming, or grooming that is marked as “other” or of a lesser group, people with power over you will read this as likely to be trouble or not one of us. Conversely, dressing like those people, or like their other subordinates, signals will do what it takes to fit in, won’t make waves.

Unusual grooming as marker of power. Alternatively, if you have power over other people, you can mark this by unusual grooming, or grooming usually disdained. Ingrid Jakobsen raised this in comments.

Grooming as marker of a ‘healthy, competent’ woman. For women especially, being groomed and striving to meet beauty standards is considered an informal indicator of mental health. Being considered poorly groomed or lazy about grooming can invite assumptions about being depressed or similar. (This is especially othering of women who do have mental illnesses, who continually receive the message that they shouldn’t have them, mustn’t display them, and will be in big trouble if they do, all while they quite probably have less energy to deal with the whole mess.)

And of course, a privileged woman might get annoying concerned questions, whereas a less privileged women might find, for example, that assumptions about her mental health play into questions about her ‘fitness’ have access to society, to care for her children and so on.

Grooming for self-esteem. Partly due to internalisation of the above, many women in particular feel happier, more confident and more powerful when they’re “well groomed” by mainstream standards.

Grooming which others female bodies. See the thing about conference t-shirts. Many don’t cater for curvy bodies. If they do, they often cater only for small curvy bodies. And they almost always assume a gender binary of curvy women who want curvy shirts, and square men who want square shirts.

Sexualised grooming. Women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as to be conventionally attractive.

Overly sexual grooming. At the same time as needing to be attractive, women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as not to be “asking for it”. (There is, of course, no middle-ground, see Rape Culture 101.)

Grooming for fun. Geek women may enjoy applying shiny, bright, matching, creative or cherished clothes and decoration to their bodies.

Grooming to get things done. Geek women may need to lift things, fit clothing to a prosthetic or mobility assistance device, run, avoid having a baby pull painfully at their hair, all kinds of stuff.

There are a great many intersectional things I have not addressed here, as a white, wealthy, abled cis-woman. A very very incomplete list would be: considerations about grooming to match your gender identity, considerations about grooming to satisfy people policing your gender identity, minimising grooming in order to preserve your spoons, grooming to honour and be part of your ethnic identity, grooming to meet beauty standards designed for white bodies and white faces, trying to find cheap clothes that won’t be judged in job interviews.

This huge list is just a set of things you could possibly be trying to signal or adhere to or avoid with your grooming. Hopefully this illustrates some of the tensions for geek women: for example, they are called upon to dress in both the feminine, careful style that signals “healthy and competent” but also in the masculine-coded casual style coded as “knows what the hell she’s talking about when it comes to [say] science” and also in something that won’t get them hassled as being unattractive in the street but also not hassled as too attractive…

I hope this has helped break down grooming and clothing as a geek feminist issue, or rather, massively multidimensional tightrope, a bit more. When women, and members of other marginalised and othered groups, consider their appearance, these are the kind of factors that go into it. Of course, in order to be accepted as geeks, we’re supposed to do all that and not care about clothes, right?

“Hey Baby”: virtual violence against harassers

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Whenever I go through the linkspam, there’s often a news item that becomes a linkswarm of sorts. This time it’s the game (note: violent imagery at link, although hardly extraordinary by game standards) Hey Baby by LadyKillas.

Here’s some perspectives on the game, which has a woman protagonist able to shoot men after verbal harassment. Many players read it as more of a teaching tool or conversation starter about harassment than an entertaining game:

  • Leigh Alexander, You Look Nice, Miss: My favorite catcall in the ‘Hey Baby Game’? “Smile for me, baby.” It fills me with rage that a stranger on the street feels at liberty to demand that I smile. I smile when I feel like it, and I sure as shit don’t want to do it for you, buddy… So someone’s made a game that’s an outlet for that rage, that wants us to discuss that rage.
  • Jessica Wakeman, “Hey Baby”: Women Kill Men Who Sexually Harass Them In New Video Game: Is the idea of women shooting at sexual harassers in real life disturbing? Sure… But “Hey Baby” the game is peanuts compared to the violent, misogynistic video games that people have been playing for decades, so I’m more upset about that than this.
  • Kieron Gillen, The Proposition: So, Hey Baby Then”¦: Okay: the game isn’t about mowing down men. It’s about male privilege and what male privilege feels like.
  • Seth Schiesl, A Woman With the Firepower to Silence Those Street Wolves: Yet over several hours my initial alienation and annoyance gave way to a swelling appreciation of Hey Baby, not as a game but as a provocative, important work of interactive art as social commentary… The men cannot ever actually hurt you, but no matter what you do, they keep on coming, forever. The game never ends.
  • Sarah, Hey Baby Hey Baby Hey: … what Schiesel said resonated: would a non-interactive medium have been able to translate to men as viscerally what it’s like to feel unsafe in the streets at all times?

I have to confess, my reaction has more than a dash of “but won’t this just alienate men?”, but I’m examining that reaction with my “feminism isn’t a PR-friendly outreach movement to men” cap on as well. What do you think? (No denying or diminishing other people’s experiences of harassment please.)

Don’t mention the war

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Over at Livejournal, angelbob is gathering anecdata:

A friend recently said… that as a woman working in technology, she wouldn’t recommend that other women enter the field. She’s a system administrator… I’m not going to repeat her reasons here. Rather, I’d be very curious whether other women working in technical fields, especially system administration and/or programming, felt the same way. Anybody care to comment?

I find this is a bit of an elephant in the room in “women in technology” discussions, and so I (bravely! like John Tierney, no doubt) want to talk about it. It probably applies to “women in science” discussions and so on, I just don’t follow them as much.

There are women, quite a few in fact, in technology careers who suggest other women don’t enter them. They usually find this is a unpopular opinion in the harming the community direction. Often some of their major critics are other women, especially women who are running recruitment and outreach for the field. The argument generally goes like this: the major thing that will fix sexism in this field is more women! So if we stay silent and take the sexism bad with the geeky good for long enough, sexism will solve itself. By encouraging women to stay out, you are basically furthering sexism in this field. QED.

Let’s pick this apart. First, purely as a practical matter, even in the forthcoming geek feminist utopia, some women will be talented programmers or engineers or mathematicians but will choose to spend most or all of their life in a different field. The human endeavour is not a zero sum game, we have not “lost” someone when she becomes a nurse or a musician.

Second, we don’t want to be denying women’s experiences. If a geek career was hard, unpleasant and not ultimately worth it for her, she should say this, and if it was related to her being a woman, it makes sense to recommend against it for other women. It’s hard to hear this if you are among the women who passionately love their geek work and want to share the good news, but those of us who are more in the advocate line surely do not want to spread the message that if women so much as hear negative experiences about geekdom they’ll all flee. If women’s interest in geekdom comes at the expense of lying to them and denying other women’s negative experiences, then the cause of women in geek careers isn’t worth it. Women can listen to passionate detractors, passionate advocates and people somewhere in between, consider their own experiences, and make up their own minds.

And lastly, women do not in fact bear the responsibility of ending geekdom’s sexism, and even if we did, we couldn’t. It is, in fact, ultimately down to the most powerful people to bear the bulk of the burden for changing the social environment. Having a field become 50 or 75% women has some effect on the stereotype effect, but it is not a magic de-sexist-itising measure.

How about you? If you left a geekdom or a geek career, or are a passionate critic of it (and aren’t we all, since pretty much any criticism is subject to the tone argument) have you been told not to discourage women, or that you are undermining the work of advocate women?

Tinkering

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Mark Pilgrim’s post Tinkerer’s Sunset laments the increasing tendency of Apple devices to be locked for development unless you have a Mac, XCode, an iPhone simulator, and $99 for an auto-expiring developer certificate. He goes on to write about his introduction to programming as a child:

But you don’t become a hacker by programming; you become a hacker by tinkering. It’s the tinkering that provides that sense of wonder. You have to jump out of the system, tear down the safety gates, peel away the layers of abstraction that the computer provides for the vast majority of people who don’t want to know how it all works. It’s about using the Copy ][+ sector editor to learn how the disk operating system boots, then modifying it so the computer makes a sound every time it reads a sector from the disk. Or displaying a graphical splash screen on startup before it lists the disk catalog and takes you to that BASIC prompt. Or copying a myriad of wondrous commands from the Beagle Bros. Peeks & Pokes Chart and trying to figure out what the fuck I had just done. Just for the hell of it. Because it was fun. Because it scared my parents. Because I absolutely had to know how it all worked.

I was something of a tinkerer as a tween and teen too, although at a more superficial level. I liked to change the colours of the desktop, I set up a different boot sequence because our 486 didn’t have the memory to run both Windows 3.1 and Doom II, and so on. But Pilgrim’s throwaway line about “scared my parents” struck me, because this did scare my parents.

My parents weren’t scared of a loss of control over me in the way that, I think, Pilgrim is implying. They were specifically scared: scared I’d make our family’s shared computer, which they’d barely been able to afford, unusable for everyone (and I did on a few occasions). And they certainly didn’t know, and neither did I, that tinkering with it was any kind of investment in getting jobs in the future. That’s what university is for, and the computer was an investment in me having the computer literacy I’d need to pass university. (The web was in the public eye by then, this was the 1990s, but at the time “computer literacy” meant word processing skills.)

That kind of tinkering isn’t accessible unless you can do it to a device you own, whether because it has no other user, you don’t especially care about those other users, or because you’ve been specifically told that you’re more important than those other users. I didn’t have any gadgets that met those criteria. It requires money, leisure time, and people who recognise the value of you having such a relationship with your toys. I don’t have brothers, so I can’t say whether or not a brother would have been implicitly granted the ability to break our shared gadgets for his own education in the way I wasn’t: some women do report this.

One of the early things I did when I started earning money above my basic living needs (in 2000 some university students could get computing jobs that met this criteria) was buy my very own computer, and it was worth it many times over for all the Linux installs, Windows installs, SMTP config and similar I did to it.

What about you? Did you have a tinkerable toy (in the broad sense of ‘toy’) as a child that you were granted licence to tinker with? How about as an adult? How about now? Or alternatively, have you been put in second place while your useful tool was given to someone else to take apart and put together at their own leisure? And how has this influenced your geek journey?

Update: If you want to discuss the general issue that Pilgrim raised in a way that isn’t either (a) your personal tinkering experiences or (b) a feminist discussion of tinkering, can you put it on your own blogs or in Pilgrim’s comments please? It will derail this thread otherwise.

From comments: the revolution will not be tweeted?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

jon asked in comments:

I wonder, what would a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like?

(We might have readers unfamiliar with the term “womanist”, if so, see Renee Martin’s I’m not a feminist (and there is no but) and Ope Bukola’s meta-discussion following from that.)

I find this question a lot easier to answer in the negative (“what wouldn’t a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like?”), and my answers would include things like:

  • packaging women users as a demographic product for sale to advertisers
  • packaging women users as a demographic product for sale to people seeking relationships with women
  • packaging women’s lives and identities as a product for the entertainment of other users

Ditto for replacing women with other marginalised or oppressed users. But I find it harder to answer it in the positive. What do you think?

Quick hit: “Mary Sue” policing

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Another one bubbling up from our linkspamming hive mind: criticism of “Mary Sue” policing.

Mary Sue is a fandom term for a character who is judged to be authorial self-insert and wish fulfilment, prototypically a prominent original character in fan fiction but sometimes identified in non-fanfic. She is often derided as close to guaranteed to detract from a work. It’s a well-known enough term to be on Wikipedia as well as on TVTropes. Mary Sue policing is very old and can be very knee-jerk: you appear to have an original female character with some desirable traits! Mary Sue! Next fic please! There are snark communities dedicated to seeking out fanfic with Mary Sues and checking off their alleged Mary-Sue-ish traits.

Criticism of it is also widespread, as being essentially a tendency to mock women for having wishes to fulfil, or thinking that their own stories are worth telling.

Here’s a couple of recent critiques, first from boosette:

PPC [Protectors of the Plot Continuum] goes around bullying tweens, teens, young women and yes: older women, too — for daring to write fanfiction not up to their (dubious) standards. For writing original female characters, minor canon characters and major canon characters in a manner that is empowering to them.

For writing Tenth Walkers, for writing fourth members of the Harry Potter trio, for making Christine Chapel an Olympic-level figure skater before she entered nursing. For empowering themselves through their writing.

From niqaeli:

I actually flat-out cannot identify with plain people who have led simple lives and done nothing extraordinary. It’s not that I want to experience an exciting life through my fiction — though, yes, I do — but that my own life has not been plain or simple. If I were to write an autobiography, I’d be accused of being a Mary Sue, which what the hell. I am an actual person. Most of the people I know have led strange and interesting lives.

But even with that: so what? What the hell harm does it do for someone to write their ridiculous self-avatar? What good does policing fantasies — and particularly, these fantasies — do? All it does is create shame over the desire to, what, to be special? To be considered truly remarkable, to be loved?

What do you think? Is there an equivalent in your geekdom, where the stories of women are either marginalised or determined to be objectively poorer quality? Is it possible to avoid this sort of creep, where a term of critique becomes a way to reflexively dismiss the work of people just starting out, or not obeying the rules?

Women and geek prestige

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. I have some comments on this one at the bottom, but not a real answer.

I’ve seen various mention of trying to increase the respect given for non-coding activities, such as documentation and testing, which seem have a better gender ratio than coding, as a way of increasing acknowledged female involvement in FLOSS. But, while we definitely should give more recognition to non-coding involvement, it seems to me that allocation of respect / recognition simply does naturally concentrate on that which has the longest and steepest learning curves (just as I guess that in running there’s a hierarchy of jogger – runner – marathon runner – hypermarathon runner), and that this route will risk perpetuating a division into “womens’ work” and “men’s work”, with the traditional difference in public valuation. Is this a risk? Is it happening? And if so, what can we do about it?

And likewise, I get a similar impression about scripting vs compiled languages — that, statistically, women (more so than men) tend to prefer languages like python, rather than the languages that they’re implemented in (typically C). Is this a real divide? And does it have risks of getting more female involvement in FLOSS but in a way that some [male geeks] will dismiss as “not the real thing”?

Something I think is worth considering about this question is whether or not the hierarchy the questioner gives is objective. I’d argue that it largely isn’t. The learning curve for coding can be long and steep, yes. But consider documentation, for example. Writing well is a really difficult skill. It’s sometimes not as obvious that you’re acquiring it, precisely because it’s such a very long process and it involves doing a lot of reading and practising other forms of communication as well. A baseline level of skill in writing is also more common than a baseline level of skill in coding, but a high level of skill is no easier”Š”””ŠI’d actually guess much harder at the very extremes”Š”””Što achieve.So we need to be very wary of accepting this hierarchy at face value, both because it buys into the existing undervaluation of certain skills and because it risks continuing a nasty pattern: “if women can do it, it must be easier than we thought, let’s look for something currently mostly done by men and value that instead.”

That said, coding is fun and useful. (Well, for me. But that’s enough!) So is nuclear physics, pure mathematics, electrical engineering, hard SF and many other “male” halves of the gender binary fractal. So we don’t want to cede those to men.

For more of my own thoughts on this, see “Girl stuff” in Free Software, a post from last year from the point-of-view of deciding what to work on as a woman. What do you think? Where’s the balance between creating and properly valuing roles more suited for women’s existing socialisation and more women entering male-dominated and currently highly valued roles?

But women are an advanced social skill…

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This post is following on from Melissa’s post, and particularly inspired by a comment in moderation, which I am not sure whether she will approve or not, which defends “hardcore geeks” (presumed to never be women themselves, I gather) behaviour towards women on the basis of “INCREDIBLY limited socialization”.

This is all quite genuinely mystifying to me. Admittedly I’m relying on extensive anecdata rather than surveys, but self-identified geeks mostly go through a stage as teenagers and sometimes beyond, and often quite a hurtful stage, of at best social difficulties and at worst cruel bullying and social isolation. Many only find their people at university or cons or other places with a high geek density.

But this doesn’t translate to a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women that we are required to assume that all geek men are at least eighteen years behind their chronological age in exposure to women. It’s true that groups of women and mixed-gender groups have their own social norms. In fact women geeks can find these difficult to navigate too and some prefer for a while, or always, the social norms of male geek groups to those of women non-geeks (at the same time often encountering problems being a woman in said group as well). Admittedly my sample is biased because by definition I’m not friends with any geek who doesn’t have women friends, but after high school geeks seem to me to have roughly the same social success that others have, where “social success” is approximated by “has a social circle of the desired number of people, who you enjoy spending time with”. Possibly with different types of people, but similar numbers of them.

(Speaking of social success, a geeky tangent: Scott L. Feld’s Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do, see Satoshi Kanazawa’s write-up in Psychology Today if you don’t have access, although beware the horrible subtitle.)

But even though I see lots of men geeks who are enough of a social success to make them happy, I find this notion of interacting with women being a graduate-level social skill to be quite seriously brought up by some of these same geeks. Even middle-aged men geeks who are in long-term heterosexual relationships or who have long-time women colleagues and collaborators. They maintain that the entry-level of dealing with women in general should not be close to their own skills, but a very very low bar in which outright sexual harassment ought to be treated as a forgivable faux pas and an opportunity for a gentle teaching moment, rather than a very justified cause of anger.

There are several related things going on. One is that geek culture is not as uninfluenced by other cultures as some geeks would like to argue. Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation. The second is that, as a consequence of many geekdoms being male dominated, they attract men who prefer not to interact with women, or at least not to interact with us in their leisure time. (To be clear here: I am not saying that all men geeks in a male dominated geekdom are there to get away from women. I’m saying that a subset of them are, and that they have a reason to push against including women.) I also notice an unfortunate tendency to believe that men are solely socialised by women: if a man, through no fault of his own, has ended up in a men-only social pocket, then it’s basically Lord of the Flies until a kind woman makes up for the failings of women past and helps him out.

There do seem to be a number of men who genuinely and sincerely believe that the single most acceptable way to interact with any woman is to be sure to inform her that they approve of her appearance, or, less often, her general civilising influence, and who get a horrible shock when someone is angry with them for it. But much of the rest of the “don’t expect too much of geeks when it comes to social decencies!” rhetoric seems self-serving and disingenuous.

Note: discussions of geeks and social skills can attract blanket statements about the skills of geeks with autism spectrum disorders. I haven’t addressed that in this post because I am neurotypical and have no especial expertise about autism spectrum disorders. I welcome informed comment on it here, but uninformed blanket statements won’t be approved; if you don’t know anything much about ASDs don’t make it up.

How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I’ve seen a couple of ways of observing Ada Lovelace Day that seem to be missing the point a little. Here’s what it would be great if Ada Lovelace Day ended with: the end of invisibility of women in science and technology. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of us. And yet, when people are asked to name prominent scientists and technologists, many are capable of coming up with a list entirely of men’s names, and even when asked especially for women’s names some people draw a blank. A blank. From hundreds of thousands of possibilities.

There are a few examples of posts that don’t help with this, and which in fact contribute to the invisibility of women by suggesting that the author couldn’t think of even one specific woman and the work that she does:

  • a general non-specific celebration of women: “I want to salute all women in science and technology! Yeah!”;
  • doing no more than naming a woman and highlighting her as a woman you’ve heard of in science or technology; no hint of what she does or why you admire or remember her in particular; or
  • highlighting a woman or several women for facilitating your own work in tech with their non-technical activities. The most obvious example is “thanks to my significant other, for allowing me to spend time on technical hobbies.” It’s absolutely good to acknowledge the shoulders your own work stands on, but it doesn’t advance the goal of ending the invisibility problem if you choose to use Ada Lovelace Day to do it.

Ada Lovelace Day is about women’s own work in science and technology. Contribute to women’s visibility with specific names and with examples of work you admire deeply or use every day or can’t imagine how to do in such an elegant way as she did.

Let’s spin this around! Commenters, which woman in science or technology is more visible to you today as a result of someone else’s Ada Lovelace Day entry? Did you discover a new heroine? Or find that someone’s achievements were twice as big as you’d ever heard? Link us up!

Addressing tokenism

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This question came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions.

How do you determine if a person has been invited to participate (conference speaker, lead a workshop, blog, etc.) as a token of diversity rather than on their merits?

And, if it is tokenism, what would you do?

I’m going to talk about being a token woman in this post, because that’s what I feel familiar with, hopefully commenters can share their thoughts on being a token representative of other (or multiple) groups.

First, a wee bit of 101. The response to this kind of discussion is sometimes: “Wait, you want more women. But we shouldn’t be selecting women just because they’re women. Feminism is hard, eleventy one 1!11!!1 I quit!”

Yeah, feminism is hard. That’s why we’re still here and frankly expect to be for a long time. Yes, we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation. And this may be a hard thing to do: much harder than having a criteria for a single event that says “at least three women speakers, please, this year for sure.” Likewise for diversity in general. You do this the hard way: organically. You should be striving for diversity everywhere, not just in venues where people are likely to notice and criticise your lack of diversity. You shouldn’t be having to select a woman speaker just because she’s a woman: if there are women in your geekdom at all, there should be women in your candidate pool and then you select some of them as part of your usual process.

Of course, that means keeping in mind that it’s harder to select women even when you have access to women candidates, because essentially everyone (so, me, you) has a set of biases about women that influence how we see individual women. Try and consciously correct for these biases. As an example: she seems inexperienced as an speaker. But on the other hand, we regularly select men on no more evidence than the fact that they asked, don’t we? Are we applying the same standards to women?

As regards bias, once you have your selection pool, at the time of selection, there are various approaches. Blinding the selection process is very effective: if you can hide names, appearances, and everything else that you can aside from the person’s proposal or skill, this is something of the gold standard approach. This is famously true for orchestral auditions. Otherwise, all you can do is try and be very conscious about your choices and remember that you have inherited biases towards privileged groups, and towards people like yourself, from your surroundings.

On to the question itself: someone appears to be a token women. What to do about it?

This is complicated precisely because tokenism isn’t a binary thing, token or not-a-token. When in a sufficient numerical minority particularly, as women are in a lot of geekdoms, I think it’s unlikely that no attention at all was paid to a woman’s gender and its effect on gender balance and diversity when she was selected for a role. It might have come up explicitly in the selection, it might have occurred to individuals privately, it might have influenced them subconsciously, but to some extent she was likely chosen as partly “the person who can best do this task” and partly as “a woman”.

I think there are some indicative but not definitive signs of problematic tokenisation. They include:

  • being the only woman selected among many men;
  • being part of a repeating pattern in which a single woman or the same number of women are selected time after time (eg, a few too many tech conferences currently seem to have a pattern of having exactly one woman selected to give one of the keynotes year after year); and
  • being selected to represent the female side of however the local gender binary fractal divides the space, especially where this is a repeated pattern.

The question doesn’t specify about what to do if you think you yourself are a token, or if you think someone else is. I’ll answer the easier part first: if you think someone else is.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to point this out with respect to an individual woman. Tokenism is a double-bind: tokenism should be challenged, but ‘token’ is a very damaging and hurtful label to apply to someone and this is regularly used as a weapon against women. Calling someone a token woman is a good way of dismissing her and giving other people ammunition to dismiss both her and other women who are in a numerical minority. (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

It’s pretty rare for a woman to be explicitly identified as a token by the people who selected her as one, in these situations where diversity is being genuinely sought. (In the case where people feel diversity is being forced upon them, they often take it out on the tokenised person.) Generally they realise that “we selected Mary to be our woman speaker this year, that’s an infinite improvement on last year” is an admission that their approach to diversity is fairly shallow.

So you don’t often know for sure, and speculating on an individual woman’s selection as a token is a problem in and of itself. Instead, the system needs to be redesigned at a lower level. This is very much a place in which allies in positions of power need to do work. Work hard on having access to diversity through your networks. The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process. Claire Light wrote about doing this as a fulltime job in Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!. Allowing for the number of hours you have available, this is how you should be approaching your geek network when you have power over other people’s prominence. You should be seeking to tunnel for hidden gold all the time, not just keeping to the same old (male, etc) names. It shouldn’t just be your events that are diverse, it should be your personal network. Also have a look at Skud’s ten tips for getting more women speakers and think about analogies in all situations where you are choosing to make someone prominent.

If you do the above, you won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to make sure you have one single woman to desperately avoid looking undiverse.

What if you think you yourself are a token? I don’t think that you have an obligation to challenge what’s going on: requiring that women who’ve been put in a difficult spot do all the work of changing assumptions and practices is a bad approach. We all should, and the more powerful should be addressing their own privileges in proportion to their power. You might decide that the best thing to do is keep your head down this time.

But let’s say that in this instance, you want to challenge the tokenism of your selection. There are a bunch of options:

  • refuse with a reason. Say that you believe you’re only being included in order to have a woman speaker or prize recipient or whatever. Probably this is only going to happen when you have been somehow informed that you’ve been selected explicitly and only as a token, not in the far more common case where you aren’t sure or you’re partly a token.
  • if you’re been included in a way that is below your capabilities: you could either point this out and refuse, or demand a role commensurate with your status and abilities. For example, if you believe your expertise and speaking skills merit keynote slots, ask for them when being offered normal speaking slots.
  • if you feel your offer has been too feminised, ask to change it. For example: “I haven’t done game artwork for the last few years, I’m much more familiar with game design state-of-the-art. I would rather run a workshop on that and I notice that there isn’t one in the program.”
  • use your prominence to promote other women, or other people who you believe aren’t getting enough exposure. Invite them to your workshop, suggest them as alternative speakers, suggest that a journalist speak to them instead, and so on.
  • try and leverage your token slot into a role with power. Ask to be on the organising or selection committee next year. Then you can try and make a more organic approach to diversity right from the start.

If you’re worried you’re a token, it’s also worth keeping in mind that women are trained to underestimate their own worth and significance. Don’t neglect to consider the possibility that your work is just as good as or quite likely better than the required level for the role you’ve been offered. You also do not need to be The Universe’s Single Leading Expert on anything in order to publicly opine, teach or lead it. The fact that you can think of someone who would be better does not mean that you are not suitable. Tokenism exists, but it does not mean that everything you are offered is unearned or depriving someone more worthy.

For commenters: have you been tokenised? Were you able to tell for sure? Did you decide to do anything about it, and if so, what? Have you any experience of the explicit and deliberate tokenisation of someone else?

And again, this post focused on women being tokenised, but have you been included as a token member of another group, or at the intersection of more than one? Do you have any thoughts specific to that?