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.

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.


  • 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?