Calling a truce
November 8, 2013
So I got linked to this conference about addressing sexism in the tech community by Meg on twitter. I also got linked to one woman’s righteous opposition.
The questions posed to me where:
“Why it’s better to harshly criticise instead of working with the organisers to change it” source
“And how do we know that’s the correct and fair reaction?” source
The latter question was a response to my statement that the conference is too flawed to be redeemable. Here is the basic premise of the conference:
Recent events regarding unsafe environments for women (and men) in the tech industry have put us at crossroads. We find ourselves essentially at war with each other. So, we can either continue on the path of anger, blame, mistrust, and bullying from both sides, or we can work together in an open environment to solve our problems collaboratively, and transform the tech culture into a place that is safe and supportive for everyone. source
This is flawed because it outright asserts that the impacts of (alleged) bad behaviour on both sides are equal. That when men systematically, both covertly and overtly, leverage sexism and misogyny to oppress women, leading to things like donglegate, and that when a woman responds in some way, her defense is equal to the oppression. Or something.1
To highlight one basic contradiction in the statement above:
Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively to impose domination over others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power. source
Okay. So how, exactly, is it possible within tech culture for women to bully men? I’m pretty sure I see some story every other day about the gender gap in tech and how there is a serious lack of gender diversity…
But this brief definition of bullying highlights and rests on one important factor: power. It is always about power, who has it and who doesn’t. This conference is premised on the notion that (contra to all available evidence) women wield equal or even some power within the tech world. Enough for the bullying on ‘both sides’ to be of equal impact and importance.
This effort is largely pointless and doomed to fail. I’m also guessing it’ll have an easy time getting the funding it needs, because one thing the world love is this kind of conciliatory and ineffective efforts for change.
But how do we know this (and that of the angry woman) is the ‘fair and appropriate response’? Leaving aside the question of tone (which is a silencing tactic and derail), what of the notion that a ‘truce’ is not what is needed? That what is needed is the dismantling of patriarchy? Or, as I prefer to follow with hooks, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
I should mention that I’m not a reformist. I am in full agreement that the only solution is the complete and utter dismantling of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy2. I don’t think that our current system can be reformed to maximize freedom for all people because it is largely function exactly as it was intended.
Not everyone agrees with this position. Nor do they necessarily need to, to understand why the only way to respond to this conference is to not attend and vocally criticise it until it goes away.
The conference’s own information tells us why:
The sexism and misogyny problems we face are not unique to our community. They are the result of a deeply systemic societal cancer. source
This shows that the organizers do, in fact, have an understanding of what sexism is as a system of oppression. Combined with the wilful ignorance about the power relationships between the two sides “essentially at war with each other”, reveals that this conference will be unable to achieve anything useful for its stated goals.
For one, the focus is too narrow. If sexism and misogyny are institutional and systemic problems, creating solutions for one subset of that system, will not do anything to challenge or change the system itself.
This is largely where most discussions about misogyny in the tech community and/or the gender gap, fail. Because these problems are neither unique nor restricted to the tech community. It isn’t a case of a few bad apples that need to be sorted out. It is the fact that our culture and society is generally misogynist and strives in a multifaceted way to keep women oppressed. And that this is encoded into our every institution.
The language of this conference gives the appearance that it is about the bad behaviour of some individuals (with the unnecessary focus on the emotional aspects of the issue) while paying lip service to the notion of systemic oppression. It asks us to search for solutions when there is and only has been one possible solution to this problem: men must stop oppressing women.
How we get there, for sure, is open to debate. Those like me think that everything we currently know must come to an end. Some truly believe in reform and changing what we have. Whatever. But the only conference seeking to ‘end the gender war’ worth devoting time, attention, and resources to is one focused on how we can implement the solution we already have. And this is one area where the tech community does a rather great job (ie, innovating to solve a problem or implement a desired feature for a system). If anything, if there is a community that might just be creative enough to find a reformist type of solution, perhaps the tech community is it. But we’ll never get there if we pay attention to placating, hand-waving gestures like this conference.
We have a problem. We know the solution.
How do we get there?