A unicorn races around the world before the truth has got its boots on

Background: the Haecksen miniconf is a one day event at Australia’s linux.conf.au Linux conference in January highlighting women and women in Open Source tech and community. It’s been running since 2007: I was the one who founded it (under the name “LinuxChix miniconf”, it was changed by Joh Clarke for the January 2010 event).

The current logo of the miniconf is of a unicorn driving a robotic Tux penguin (the latter being the logo of Linux), you can see it at the Haecksen miniconf site. This year’s organiser Lana Brindley planned to sell t-shirts for the event, which had the text:

[yōo-nǐ-kôrn’] noun
1. A fabled creature, represented as a horse with a single spiralled horn.
2. metaphor A person who is believed to be non-existent, and worthy of note if spotted in the wild, such as a woman working with technology.

There was a small Twitter storm in which the shirt was judged sexist, here’s a short sample:

For some reference on the in-jokes the unicorn reference is to the Unicorn Law: If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.

The organisers of the Haecksen miniconf are always to date affiliated with LinuxChix and are women in tech and friends of women in tech. I guess the problem, certainly unanticipated by me without hindsight, is that there’s very little precedent for Open Source conferences to have such a woman-friendly sub-community that they’re going to be adopting the language of unicorn-ness for the purposes of mocking the straightforward sentiment and adopting it in a kind of reclamation.

What was meant: A whole conference of us! Are you going to treat us like unicorns now huh? We have horns you know…

I’m sorry that Lana faced a tweetstorm over it, it’s much too harsh for the lesson. The miniconf has been selling insider t-shirts since 2007 (the 2007 shirt was “At this year’s linux.conf.au, stand out from the crowd”, with an image of a women-figure of the toilet door type standing in a line-up with man-figure shapes, which wouldn’t necessarily be read as friendly either). This year the attention to sexism at conferences has risen enough that it came to the attention of not-insiders who nevertheless care about women-in-tech and are watching out for sexism.

I suppose this suggests for future events (women-in-tech ones generally, not Haecksen miniconfs in particular) that designs and publicity should be run by some outsiders for a “will this sound like a serious endorsement of sexist sentiments?” check. Not only because of the impression left on folks on Twitter, but the potential impact on attendees too. If this was my first linux.conf.au ever… I don’t know how I’d read that shirt.

Lana: sorry about what happened, it’s never nice to be in the eye of a Twitter storm, especially when your intent was to do good and you had consulted plenty already. If the spotlight had come on us in 2007 I bet I would have had the same problem.

On a related note, I grow increasingly tired of the 140 character limit on tweets, I think it contributes badly to situations like this. It’s hard enough for apologies/explanation to catch up with something that bugged people without having to eke them out 140 characters at a time with five replies coming in in between each tweet. But then, as everyone who has ever had anything to do with my writing will attest, 140 characters is not my genre.

11 Replies to “A unicorn races around the world before the truth has got its boots on”

  1. @Nick,

    I’m not the type of person who finds sexism discussions “hot air” or finds “sensitivity” a bad thing. So… yes? No? Something?

  2. @Mary: OK, you’re obviously someone who enjoys our increasingly ridiculous politically correct world.

    The t-shirt logo in question is neither offensive, or even mildly politically incorrect. It’s simple a very clever design with a little “in-joke” for those in the know.

    One would’ve thought that women in the tech world would have developed a thicker skin working in such a male dominated industry? Apparently not. You learn something every day.

  3. @Nick

    OK, you’re obviously someone who enjoys our increasingly ridiculous politically correct world.

    That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. You can find out plenty about what I think about this sort of issue on Geek Feminism.

    It looks to me like most people active on both sides of the discussion are broadly sympathetic to the geek feminist discussions around sexism at tech confs: the divide isn’t between the politically correct police and the free-thinking fun lovers, here.

  4. Brilliant post Mary – thank you for bringing some sanity into this. I concur that Twitter and it’s limitations contributed significantly to this storm-in-a-teacup and am really upset that Lana was hurt by it all.

    If I hadn’t been caught with a Twitter limit my tweet would have had the added words: “for those that don’t know the context”. We sometimes forget that those who follow us on Twitter don’t really know us, or the context in which we comment, and my tweet caused a reaction that was wholly unintended.

    If the t-shirt had included the words: “2. metaphor (Unicorn’s Law) A person who is believed to be non-existent, and worthy of note if spotted in the wild….”, or if the Haeksen site had provided links to Unicorn’s Law, or an explanation of the backstory, on the t-shirt page perhaps that clause may not have been taken as it was by so many people.

    That said, I don’t find the message funny. Satirical, maybe. However, without context any irony or satire is lost. The same message in a different context would be wildly inappropriate but why is it that women can say something then get offended if men say the same thing? Intent and context make all the difference.

    I’m not sure how I would feel about seeing this t-shirt if I was walking into a Linux Conf for the first time, especially if I wasn’t, “in the know”. I think we need to be careful not to create a sub-set of women in tech by dividing women into, “those in the know” and, “the others”. Inclusiveness isn’t something we should just be asking from men.

  5. @Mary, please indulge me a little anecdote.

    A few months ago it was my nephew’s birthday, and like many other kids celebrating their 10th birthday before him, he brought a cake from home to share with his classmates.
    My sister-in-law ended up having to come back to school just after class had started after a phone call from the school informed her that birthday celebrations at school were banned, and she needed to take the cake home.
    My nephew was apparently very upset about this (his was the first birthday to come under this new “rule”), and his parents wanted answers. The reason? The parents of 2 children who enrolled in prep this year were Jehovah’s Witnesses (who apparently celebrate pretty much nothing) who complained very angrily about the school not being sensitive toward their beliefs.

    In this context, the boy who’s birthday had the fun sucked out of it is the person who designed the tshirt logo, the angry JH parents are those who are getting all antsy about it, and the rest of us are just kids that want to enjoy some cake (and also a subtle geek in-joke).

    So just know @Mary, you and the rest of the PC patrol *are* those angy parents. And if you have no issue with that, this is a circular argument that isn’t worth fighting.

  6. @Nick,

    No more please, partly since I’m fairly sure this isn’t your blog, but also since you’ve partly mistaken my sympathies. @Loquacities, @stokely, @kattekrab and others associated with the event and behind or defending the shirt design are my friends and thus I’m naturally sympathetic to their position.

    This was, frankly, basically stated already in the paragraphs where I talked about my close association with the event in question (as in, I founded it), and previous shirt designs of mine which might have been read the same way.

    I am, as it happens, also concerned with understanding the shirt’s critics, and based on my understanding so far, I think they had a point and I hope my communities can take something from it. It’s a shame the timing of the discussion was poor in that the shirt happened to get a lot of publicity the day that orders were due to close.

    So I’m not quite sure exactly where I stand in the party analogy. Possibly I have an odd coloured hat? I don’t get it. (Explain in your own webspace, though, not mine.)

  7. This is the first I’ve heard of it all, and I am a little surprised at the message. Not knowing any of the background I initially understood it to mean that women in technology are so rare that should we ever encounter one, we should all stand back and point at them. Never mind who they are or what they’re doing, look, it’s a woman!

    Maybe that’s fine if you like being the centre of attention, but I can certainly understand some women not wanting to send that message out…

    Maybe having a couple of alternate shirt designs would help, one like this for those who want to stand out, and another for those who would rather be treated as an equal?

  8. @Adam: The whole point of the tshirt is to comment on the fact that that “OMG IT’S A GIRL” is a really problematic way of interacting with one’s fellow human beings in a semi-professional context like a Linux conference. I’m astonished that people are so lacking in clue to think it could have meant anything otherwise.

  9. Thanks hypatia.

    Per my comments policy, I’m closing comments now, because I am annoyed by the presence of two people (Nick and Adam) who don’t seem to have read the actual post. And my comments policy is specifically designed to allow me to close them when I’m annoyed.

    If others want to comment, use your own blogs or Twitter or similar. (Don’t use other posts of mine, I’ll delete your comment and ban you from the site.)

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