Documenting and challenging community misogyny

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 19, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

So far, the main result of the OpenRespect project has been that Jono Bacon has handicapped himself in responding to detractors -- so much so that he has apologized at length about his own minor lapses of civility while others have launched ad hominem attacks on him without backing down in the slightest. But the culture of denial and blame-the-messenger that operates whenever the lack of civility is examined seems almost insignificant when you compare it to the reactions to reports of misogyny in the community.

That, too, is a matter of disrespect, although the word seems an inadequate understatement. But the reactions are far, far nastier than those to OpenRespect, and go mostly unreported besides. Equally ignored are the efforts to do something about the situation, although the continuation of incidents shows that the situation is not going away or improving.

Documenting, from the earliest to the latest

Not much has changed since I first reported on sexism in free software over a year ago. Probably the biggest change is that small groups of people are now talking about the situation, and trying to document it and find solutions -- an effort not made any easier by the fact that many people would prefer to pretend that the problems don't exist, or can be explained away by irrelevant comparisons and asides.

One of the most thorough efforts to document the problem is Valerie Aurora's "Timeline of Incidents" on the Geek Feminism Wikis. The page summarizes examples of sexism and harassment in not only free software, but also the larger tech-industry and related sub-cultures such as gaming and comic and science fiction fandom. The timeline summarizes events, and links to pages giving more details.

I might question the inclusion of some items, such as Slashdot's "OMG Ponies" April Fool's joke in 2006, ( However, I suppose that the point is not so much whether every item is there as an example of the problem so much as the fact that each provoked considerable discussion.

The majority of items undoubtedly belong there, and they make for appalling reading. More importantly, if you are willing to consider the evidence, the timeline will leave you in no doubt that the situation is every bit as bad as people claim. It can also leave you angry, confused, and wanting to do something.

One of the most uncomfortable items in the timelines is the most recent. Summarized simply as "Sexual assault at ApacheCon," it refers to what allegedly happened to Noirin Shirley, an Apache board member, a couple of weeks ago.

What is unusual about the incident is not -- unfortunately -- that it simply happened. Shirley undoubtedly speaks for many women when she writes, "It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me, at all. It’s not the first time it’s happened to me at a tech conference."

However, what is unusual is that this time Shirley not only reported the incident to the police, but also blogged about it and named names. "I’m tired of the sense that some idiot can ruin my day and never have to answer for it. I’m tired of the fear. I’m tired of people who think I should wear something different. I’m tired of people who think I should avoid having a beer in case my vigilance lapses for a moment. I’m tired of people who say that guys can’t read me right and I have to read them, and avoid giving the wrong impression."

Shirley showed exemplary courage in her actions, and many people said as much. Yet an alarming number of people attacked her instead, suggesting that the assault was her fault, because of how she dressed or acted.

Even worse, with few exceptions, this story has been carried by blogs and Twitter, but ignored by free software news sites.

As someone who tries to write responsibly and not just as a paid hack, I find this fact almost as disturbing as the incident itself. In the short term, blogs and tweets can do a good job of reporting, but both can be ephemeral. When news site fail to carry a story, it can be as though the story never happened. The sheer number of blogs or tweets can bury the story for many, and, should entries disappear, in a year or two, the stories on professional sites might be the only confirmation that the event occurred.

Under these circumstances, mentioning the story becomes an obligation. By contrast ,the decision to bury it becomes a form of denial.

Not, of course, that reporting such incidences is easy or straightforward. For instance, I can understand the reluctance to mention names (you'll notice that I don't myself). Nobody wants to be sued, and, since the case was reported to the police, exactly what happened has not been legally established.

Still, it is possible to mention that allegations have been made, and that people are talking about it. Such facts are unexceptional, and easy to confirm. And you can use words like "alleged" and "claimed" to make clear that you are only reporting what is said.

Ignoring the story altogether, however, sends all the wrong signals. It encourages the misogynists and assaulters to continue their behavior, and invalidates the experiences of those they assail. It also -- not incidentally -- creates the impression that the community is a place where such events are condoned.

Instead of helping to solve the problem by calling attention to it, when we ignore such a story, journalists become part of the problem. Never mind that we would never act that way or condone such actions in our personal lives.

That is why I decided to write about what happened, even though my words are somewhat after the fact. Although I don't look forward to the personal attacks that are sure to follow, I think it important to mention, that such things are apparently still going on, and that the community not only needs to admit the situation, but to change it.

Starting to address the problem.

Fortunately, others are moving beyond publicizing the problem and are starting to address it. For example, the Con Anti-Harassment Project gives advice about how to encourage conventions and conferences to announce policies on these issues, as well as listing the existing policies in a database, and providing basic information about the subject.

Then, to help conference organizers produce a policy, Valerie Aurora has created sample policy templates that can be quickly customized. The templates include short, medium, and long versions for use in different contexts.

These efforts will not, in themselves, change the attitudes that need changing. But when so many people are pretending that no problem exists, such efforts are at least trying to educate and to help those who are concerned to act responsibly. In the middle of such widespread denial, that is considerably better than nothing.


  • Many thanks for covering this topic

    Many thanks for covering such a fundamental and distressing aspect of life that has such a detrimental impact on so many people. Whether it is the relatively "innocent" (but omnipresent) stereotyping of girls and boys, or the equally pervasive woman-as-entertainment, or the gross acts of physical assault, the topic is as absent in media coverage as it is present in women's lives.

    Society seems also to be blithely ignorant of how people who complain (and victims) are subsequently ridiculed, marginalised and vilified. Identifying the issue (i.e. what is misogyny, or sexual harassment) is one step along the road. Learning how to complain effectively and how to respond to complaints (as the alleged offender, as an authority figure and as a bystander) are important.

    There are a couple of excellent responses, such as the apology from Thomas Barregren of NodeOne for the representation of woman-as-commodity: “Ignorance of how an action could be interpreted doesn’t make the action itself harmless. I cannot agree more, and that is the reason for the apology. This incident shows with painful clarity the need to bring this issue into light." ( )
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