Ending sexism in hacker culture: A work in progress

CCC building at night by dschanoeh, on Flickr

CCC building at night by dschanoeh, on Flickr

Updated to add 2 January 2013: German translation available here courtesy @fin, @bekassine and @michaelem.]

Last week, sexism in hacker culture became a topic of worldwide dialogue again. The trigger was a series of sexist incidents at the 29th Chaos Communications Congress, held every year in Germany during the last week of the year.

The incidents started with a wall in the conference center, where a picture of a woman's nude body (link does not show image directly) was created using "Creeper Move cards," printed paper cards used to raise awareness of sexism. (They definitely raised awareness in this case.) The conference wiki was edited to create a game in which participants were rewarded for offending people by making sexist comments or unwanted sexual propositions. During the popular conference event "Hacker Jeopardy," a moderator repeatedly made sexist comments like "For reasons of gender-equality, we'll sadly have to pick a woman now," unhindered by the conference organizers present.

The reaction was swift, both at the conference and around the world. Many of the incidents were chronicled on a web site set up to document sexist incidents at CCC (in German, English here). Social media exploded with criticism of the events – e.g., "I think the conference leadership (the ccc) has failed horribly and that your team is a token and meaningless gesture." – which quickly spread to include not just people at the conference but also people around the world.

These incidents were the last straw for prominent online activist and Cryptoparty co-founder Asher Wolf, who blogged about the sexist discrimination and harassment she experiences from the hacker community. As if to prove her point, her web site was hacked and her personal details posted online shortly thereafter.

These incidents stung more than usual in part because just a few days earlier the CCC 29 publicized their official anti-harassment policy, including a special phone number and dedicated team for responding to reports. The Ada Initiative saw this as a hopeful sign for progress, since it was the third hacker conference to publicly adopt a specific, enforceable policy.

Yet criticism of the conference organizers' actual response to harassment was widespread (EN) (DE) and continues through the time of this posting. We are personally sorry and upset that so many people, of all genders, suffered harassment and then were let down by the response from the conference. Is it any wonder many people publicly despaired over whether women can ever expect to go to a hacker conference and not be treated like a piece of meat?

This is what progress looks like

We have a message of hope: This is what progress looks like. As painful as the last week has been, it is a sign that hacker culture as a whole is slowly working its way towards a future in which women are not actively discouraged from being part of the hacker community in ways men are not.

When sexism at the DEFCON hacker conference became national news last August, the community discussion centered around whether sexism existed at all, if assault and insults counted as sexism, whether women were valuable to hacker culture, and whether assault and harassment of women was an integral, essential element of hacker culture. In August 2012, zero hacker conferences had a public, specific, enforceable anti-harassment policy.

Contrast this with last week, when the discussion centered around the right way for the hacker community should respond to sexism, not whether it exists or women deserved the basic right of not being assaulted in the hacker community. Now, three hacker conferences have public, specific, enforceable (if in some cases badly enforced) anti-harassment policies. When the anti-harassment policy was poorly enforced at CCC, attendees spontaneously organized to discuss how to improve the enforcement at the next conference and assembled a list of practical, sensible improvements (EN) (DE). Sexism in hacker culture has always existed, but now more people than ever before are aware of it, are agreeing that it's wrong, and are taking steps to end it.

Fighting sexism: an on-going process

It's not all roses from here on out: Success depends on continuing to push for accountability from powerful people, whether or not is uncomfortable or unpleasant for them to address. We're here to talk about how that process works.

First, we want to share an example of how this process is moving forward in similar peer-to-peer, international, creative communities. The last two years have seen measurable progress for women in open source software, Wikipedia, and similar communities – what we call "open technology and culture" and which includes hacker and maker culture. The Ada Initiative is an active leader in this movement: working directly with conferences and corporations, bringing together women in open tech/culture at the AdaCamp conferences, and contributing to the Geek Feminism wiki, a freely available CC-BY-SA licensed knowledge base so every community and conference does not have to learn from scratch.

What we've learned is that social change is a process. One way to look at the process is as this series of steps:

  1. Raising awareness: Teaching people that the problem exists
  2. Creating solutions: Inventing practical ways to change the community
  3. Taking action: Implementing the solutions

For example, creating and handing out the "Creeper Move cards" (EN) (DE) raised awareness of the problem of sexism at conferences in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Writing and promoting conference anti-harassment policies created a solution. Conference organizers enforcing an anti-harassment policy is implementing that solution.

To make this work, we have to take these steps over and over, we have to risk making mistakes, and we have to learn how to do better next time. One example of this process working in the open source software community is the Australian/New Zealand open source conference, linux.conf.au.

Case study: An open source software conference

Linux.conf.au is the most popular open source conference in the Australia/New Zealand region, and attracts hundreds of speakers and attendees from all over the world. Today, it has strong, well-enforced anti-harassment policy, a high percentage of women speakers and attendees, and a reputation as a friendly and welcoming conference for all. But it wasn't always that way.

In previous years, linux.conf.au had incidents of non-consensual photography of women, jokes about Hans Reiser killing women attendees, and physical intimidation of women. In early 2010, for the first time the conference had a "Discrimination" policy forbidding discriminatory or harassing behavior, but was vague enough that people argued over whether, e.g., sexist jokes were "discriminatory."

In late 2010, a prominent woman in the open source community named the man who had groped her at ApacheCon and kicked off a worldwide discussion about sexual harassment and assault in the open source community. This discussion led to the creation of a specific, enforceable example anti-harassment policy (and the founding of the Ada Initiative). linux.conf.au adopted the new specific and enforceable policy for the 2011 conference.

Despite this policy, one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 conference violated the policy in several ways (including showing a variety of pornographic images). The ensuing discussion engulfed the community for months afterward and triggered more incidents of sexism on the conference related mailing lists. In the end, though, the speaker apologized, the video of the talk was edited to add a notice that it violated the conference policies and principles of the organizers, the backing organization, Linux Australia, publicly confirmed its commitment anti-harassment policy. The 2012 conference had no major reported incidents.

Individual community members continue to support sexism and do sexist things, but now they know they face sanctions, penalties, and disgust from the rest of the community. The cultural norms of this part of the open source community have visibly changed.

Overall, opposition to conference harassment has become the default in the open source community: Most major and many minor conferences have and enforce an anti-harassment policy. Going even further, the Python Software Foundation recently announced publicly that it would not sponsor any events without a policy and we are told many other sponsors have the same policy but don't advertise it. Even more encouraging, open source conferences are now paying attention to speaker line-ups, both working hard to increase diversity in speakers and calling out conferences with all-male or all-white speakers.

Stop ruining my conference!

But, people ask, can't we skip all the unpleasantness, just "be excellent to each other" and be done with it? We're all adults, right?

Social change does not happen because people ask nicely.

It happens through protests, hunger strikes, and publicity stunts. It blocks traffic on the streets of big cities. It illegally leaks classified government documents. It riots and burns down buildings and takes tear gas canisters in the face. We can count ourselves lucky that protesting sexism in hacker culture mainly results in angry words – especially when we consider that the current reality that we are protesting already includes physical sexual assault of women. If you haven't experienced assault or harassment yourself, the upsetting discussion may seem like step backward, but for those of us who have experienced assault, it's a clear improvement.

The effects of protests like this are uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous for people going about their daily lives, but that's nothing compared to what life is like for the people already oppressed. Many women already can't go to a hacker conference without having sexism pushed in their faces. If this week is the first time you've been made uncomfortable by sexism, imagine what it's like to experience sexism when you join an IRC channel, blog in public, or go to a conference. That would suck pretty bad, right? You might even stop participating in the hacker community.

The answer to "Stop ruining my conference" is not "Stop pointing out the sexism," it's "Stop being sexist." Don't blame the victim for pointing out that sexism is happening, or for doing it in a way that makes you uncomfortable – after all, sexism is already making men and women more than just uncomfortable, it's harming them and driving them out of the community. We call upon Chaos Communications Congress to stand behind their anti-harassment policy, develop a comprehensive response procedure that works, and to commit to enforcement in future years.

If people of good will continue working together, speaking up, and taking action, sexism will retreat from the hacker community as it has from so many other communities in the past. Here's what you can personally do about it:

Thank you to everyone who spoke up about sexism and harassment last week. You are what makes change possible. Please don't hesitate to contact us if we can help!

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The Ada Initiative is non-profit dedicated to increasing the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. Our work, includes this blog post, the example anti-harassment policy, and much of the associated documentation. We can only do this work because of the support and actions of the open tech/culture community as a whole. Thank you!

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16 thoughts on “Ending sexism in hacker culture: A work in progress

  1. fkm

    The incidents lists of 29C3 is somewhat very broken. The body picture with the red cards was done a woman, documented here: http://mirromaru.tumblr.com/post/39382307717/oh-teh-drama-or-why-i-stickered-a-naked-headless
    So this was not done by some sexist male hackers who wanted to harrass. Linking to an openetherpad and or wiki pages and calling it incidents is somewhat blurry: The wiki pages were deleted as soon as they were recognized. All other trouble at the event were directly or indirectly caused by the misuse of the cards by the group who brought this up (Flauscheria). They gave red cards for criticism of the cards. This was not very helpful, since people at the event didn't take it serious when even the Flauscheria used them in a completely wrong way (they gave red cards for everything, not as they are intended). It gets very unfair: we had 30% women speaking, we have a kids day, we had a harrasment policy, a special conflict team, we removed people from the venue etc., and I don't see that this event was a sexist camp. I don't want to blame any victim, but it is not a good move to mark incidents which are not related to sexual harrasment as an example how awful and sexist this event was.

    1. Valerie Aurora Post author

      I have bad news: Women can sexually harass women. The headless naked woman was sexual harassment no matter who created it or why. People of all genders were unhappy to see it.

      Taking down or deleting incidents does not erase their effects on the people who saw them. It is important to both document that they occurred, and publicize what steps the organizers took in response. If there is no penalty for violating the policy, how does it work? If there is a penalty, but no one knows it was applied, how is the policy supposed to prevent incidents in the future?

      Blaming the cards for people acting sexist doesn't make sense. If you actually believe that women are equals and deserve to be respected, a piece of cardboard is not going to cause you to suddenly start making mean sexist jokes. What if someone created a card to hand out to people with insecure browser settings? Would people who cared about security set their browsers to accept third-party cookies and blame the cards when their computers got hacked? The cards just revealed sexism that was already there in a way that you couldn't ignore.

      For conference organizers, this isn't about fairness, or whether your conference is not as bad as the worst conference, or getting credit for all the non-sexist things you did. After all, DEFCON had a kids program, at the same time that women were being asked to "show their tits" in the room next door. What it's really about both creating and publicizing a conference where women feel comfortable and welcome. The policccy workshop came up with a lot very specific suggestions we agree with. The CCC is lucky to have such articulate, well-organized, persistent supporters who deeply care about making the CCC a more welcoming place to listen. If they succeed in making the changes they want, the CCC will not be just "less sexist than DEFCON," it will be "THE conference for women in hacking" and will set the standard for all other conferences.

      P.S. Any sentence that starts "I don't want to XYZ, but " or "Not to XYZ, but " is probably going to end with you saying XYZ. I just delete any sentence I write that starts that way, personally.

      1. fkm

        English is not my mother tongue, so my language might very simple. Anyways, if people get red cards because they say they don't like the idea behind it, it is ridiculous. This card says "You should be happy you got a card an not a punch in the face". Having a critical view on these cards has nothing to do with harassment. If you define it that way, harassment can be defined as everything random. I don't see how this helps getting awareness in any way.

        1. Valerie Aurora Post author

          I'm going to assume this is a communication failure: I did not define criticism of the creeper move cards as harassment. If there is a place where it seems like I said that, please let me know and I will make it clearer.

          1. Bjoern Michaelsen

            They were (reportedly — I never saw an upclose exchange of cards) used like that. The communication failure was there when handing them out by the organizers. And actually that is a hard problem to fix: educating 6000 attendents (or whatever subset you what to give the cards to) how to properly use them when entering the conference. Maybe make the cards opt-in for everyone, but require those that want one to also attend a 10 minutes lightning talk plus Q&A on how to use them?(*)

            (*) That would also hopefully prevents the cards to be in hands of people who feel them to be the wrong approach anyway, of which no good can spawn.

          2. Valerie Aurora Post author

            Perhaps instead we could put this effort into educating conference attendees about what harassment is and how not to do it?

      2. Bjoern Michaelsen

        "I have bad news: Women can sexually harass women." True. They can also sexually harrass men. Nadia refered in the awesome "FactHacks" talk to the "private part of the private key" in a diminutive way. Given the context, I personally did not find that offending — rather entertaining. But others might think different and with an attendance of over 6000 people, its hard to know.

        "The CCC will not be just “less sexist than DEFCON,” it will be “THE conference for women in hacking”" — Thats sexist in itself. And the awareness efforts of the CCC cover far more than gender (and more specifically: women) alone. And that is a Good Thing(tm). Btw for exactly that reason (and for being not needlessly sexist), cards should have been given to all participants if at all — it doesnt hurt that men mostly dont need them. It probably also would have cushioned the couterreaction.

        The CCC awareness team (conflict helpers) were AFAIK very effective — the cards much less so (They raised visibility for the issue and might improve things on further conferences by finding something better). For most situations just calling 113 would have helped a lot more than using the cards (because it might actually educate the offender instead of creating a 1:1 confrontation that risks a quick escalation). The cards would have been useful for situations were raising awareness to the organizers wasnt possible as a last resort, but that situation essentially never occured on CCC as you had direct phone coverage everywhere. At least, the cards should have had that number printed on them.

        1. Valerie Aurora Post author

          Just to confirm, we agree that women can harass men as well. People who don't conform to the gender binary (trans, genderqueer, or otherwise) also can be perpetrators and victims of harassment (and frequently are victims). We are concerned about protecting all people from harassment regardless of gender, and the example anti-harassment policy as originally written supports that.

          Also to confirm, since it is not clear from your comment, the example anti-harassment policy also explicitly describes and forbids many forms of harassment based on things other than gender. We believe we can gain equality for women while also improving equality for people who are discriminated against for reasons other than gender (or for many reasons at once). We are proud and happy to support a wide variety of people often excluded from open technology and culture communities.

          An interesting aspect of this discussion is that some hackers are arguing for restrictions on one form of speech based on the discord it causes (protesting sexual harassment), but not another form of speech that causes more harm (actual sexual harassment).

  2. Thomas Wallutis

    According to a blog entry the woman made out of cards was made by a woman[1](in German).
    A game in which the one wins who gets the most cards? Thats something i would expect from 15 yo boys…

    *My* problem with Hacker Jeopardy was that the "jokes" were neither funny nor a good way to express his (the moderators) opinion about the cards. Even if i dont like the idea behind the cards, i never heat up the situation. And did he really said "saidly well have to pick a woman"? Im glad i turned off the streaming before that.

    At least we now discuss about these things.

    But i also dont like misuse of the cards: giving a man a card because he holds open a door for a approching woman is, in my opinion, misusing them. I was educated to be nice to all people, independent of their gender. And holding doors open is a way of being nice to people.

    [1] http://mirromaru.tumblr.com/post/39382307717/oh-teh-drama-or-why-i-stickered-a-naked-headless

    1. Valerie Aurora Post author

      The fact that the headless naked woman's body was made by a woman doesn't change its effect on the people who saw it. Women can do sexist things too, and men can be offended or harassed by them, and some people don't identify as either men or women and can very definitely be sexually harassed. We deliberately did not assume anything about the gender of unknown harassers because we are quite familiar with women being sexist.

      The rest of your comment I agree with, but, really? We're still talking about holding open doors as if it's the urgent problem in sexism? And the specific part of the problem you are worried about is men being offended when women aren't gushingly grateful for a simple act of everyday politeness? Did this even happen at CCC?

      This is a nice short article about when holding a door is more (or less) than a polite service.

      Short version: People of all genders who are physically able should hold doors for people of all genders for whom it is convenient. If you are holding a door because you are a man, and the person going through is a woman, and you are doing this because you think men have some kind of obligation to hold doors for women and women have an obligation to smile and thank men who do it, yeah, that's one part of sexism today. Because assuming that women need help because they are weaker and expecting women to be grateful and nice to you because you did the normal polite thing are both sexist. It goes beyond sexist to harassing if the man then tells the woman she should have been thankful, follows her shouting, looks down her shirt when she goes through, or shoots her a dirty look every time he sees her afterwards.

      Seriously, if all you have to worry about is whether or not you should hold the door, you're doing pretty well compared to the woman who has to worry about being shouted at, followed, or leered at every time she goes through a door held by a man. Let go of the door thing, it's just not that important.

  3. Helga

    Hi, I am one of the participants of 29C3 and took part in the workshop about the policy (discussion on Twitter under #policccy).

    Many thanks for the paragraph on “Stop ruining my conference!” It's exactly the discussion going on here.

    Nevertheless I would like to point out that I don't see the problem in enforcing the policy. There was an awareness team, they acted on incidents and even threw one person out. The problem is the policy that pretty much just reads “be nice to each other”. There is no set of examples and the consequences of harassment are not detailed. It's just “we will do something”. They basically took your policy and left only the first three sentences. Even so far as changing “We are dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable experience for everybody attending our event, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, physical appearance or disability.” to “We provide a safe and comfortable experience for everybody attending our event, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, physical appearance or disability.” on the conference flyer.

    Also: Creeper Cards were made and brought, the 29C3 team was informed but later furious about the cards because they did not work at all. The cards were not officially announced so people were confused about their intention, even mistaking them for art or satire. There was a sort-of backlash that contributed to many of the incidents. People got angry because “I never did anything sexist so why are you doing this?” And: the response to this harassment gor uncomfortably close the victim blaming – the card makers and users were blamed: “You don't bring those cards to a hacker conference because people will hack it.” Few pointed out that sexist remarks are not hacks but asshat moves. Of course, there were also good things coming out: the green creeper cards were used to make a space invader and many many people got talking.

    Still, quite a few consider the cards “burnt” and “unusable”. I don't, they need to be reworked and properly implemented. They also need to be seen in a broader context. The discourse often differentiated between “us” and “them”. Feminists were often seen as “those who come for the first time and want to destroy our fun” with little recognition of feminist hackers being a thing and actually belonging there, having been there for some time.

    So the question is: what will happen next year?

    1. Valerie Aurora Post author

      We respect your opinion on the creeper move cards and appreciate your speaking up.

      For context, the cards were only intended to make the problem visible, not become a solution. Most people agree that the solution is for the conference organizers to adopt, publicize, and enforce a specific anti-harassment policy. The cards just made it clear that sexism was happening and that the enforcement was not working.

      Our goal is to create a future in which creeper move cards are unnecessary and they end up in a dusty museum display case with the tag: "Early 3rd millenium women's rights activists used these cards to raise awareness of sexism in the primitive computing communities of their time." (I'm keeping mine, they might become collector's items!)

  4. Andreas Bogk

    [Editor's note: Normally we would not publish this comment for several reasons. However, the author of it publicly requested that it be published and is an official organizer of CCC, so we are laying aside our concerns in order to respect their request. By publishing this comment, we are not indicating agreement with it. We will not be replying to this comment. We may approve third-party replies if they add to the discussion.]

    As a long-time co-organizer of the *C3 events, part of this year's A-Team, and feminist pushing towards adoption of an anti-harassment policy at our events, I object to your insinuation that our response procedure wouldn't work or that our policy wasn't enforced. I also object to the notion that our events are a place where physical sexual assault of women is common or tolerated.

    In fact, in the last 15 years, we had two documented cases of physical assault in total (not just counting sexually motivated assault against women, but all of them). One of those two cases didn't even involve attendees, a woman walked into our venue seeking refuge from her husband who attempted to beat her, and we helped her. No older statistics are available, because before that, the con was just too small to have a dedicated security team.

    This year, we implemented the A-Team for the first time as a dedicated team to handle all complaints about sexism. This of course has a broader scope that the security team's work, because it addresses not just cases of physical violence, but also e.g. cases of sexism on stage, which are clearly out of scope of security, but within the scope of our policy.

    The A-Team handled a total of 20 indicents. Zero of them related to any form of physical violence (same number for the security team), confirming that C3 is generally a pretty safe place to begin with. One of them was a report about a person with generally creepy behaviour: talked about child porn at a BDSM workshop (first warning issued), getting uncomfortably close to women, obviously trying to steal a feel (person evicted from the conference as a repeat offender).

    Most complaints to the team actually revolved around the Hacker Jeopardy game show. I need to review the show in detail to point you at the exact offending sentences, but it seems that quite some people understood a comment the moderator made to be sexist. He was handed a "red card" from the familiar creeper card project by a person from the audience, then proceeded to mock the creeper cards, which in turn generated more people handing him cards in all colours.

    We talked to the moderators afterwards for quite a while. They were shocked to learn that their moderation has been perceived to be sexist. Obviously, the escalation happened because they were not aware that the creeper cards were meant as a serious project, they only heard about "that trading card game" and misunderstood the whole project to be a trolling performance. We explained to them that even in a game show that makes fun of all the projects on the C3, and even if they believe that the whole creeper card thing won't improve anything at all, a nod of acknowledgement to the underlying problem of latent sexism in the scene would have been well-received. I'm quite confident that they are not sexists and just didn't find the right words on stage.

    All other reported incidents were minor, but all were handled, usually by talking to the parties involved and explaining to them why a certain behaviour was considered offensive. All incidents have been documented for later review.

    Considering all that, I consider the policy enforcement process to be working and active. I'm proud that the actual number of incidents is small, and that it is much safer for a woman to attend C3 than it is to ride public transport or go to a soccer game. However, any number other than zero shows that there is room for improvement, and we are committed to keep delivering the safest possible experience to all participants, regardless of gender, genetic makeup, sexual preferences or planet of birth.

    Also, I see that a much bigger problem than physical assault is the latent sexism, as in the classic "are you here with your boyfriend" line. Fixing that isn't an issue of distributing cards or having and enforcing policies, it rather is an issue of reaching into and changing the minds of people. But we're working on that too, by making sure that capable female hackers are visible at our conference. That woman you're talking to at C3, she might break RSA keys, write programs for quantum computers, run the switches at the world's largest Internet exchange, represent your country in the SQL standards consortium, abuse linker relocation to produce turing-complete machines. And none of these examples is made up!

    tl;dr: yes, we have problems with sexism. But not in the way you think, and we're working on them.

    1. Stump Beefgnaw

      "Yes, we have problems with sexism. But not in the way you think"

      Translation: "silly wimmenz, you don't know what you're talking about."

      This comment is enough to tell me that yes, your conference has problems with sexism in EXACTLY the way we think.

  5. Thomas

    [Approved as a representative of the feedback we get, with discriminatory language redacted.]

    You're going to censor this anyway, so here are three bullet points so you can read it before clicking "delete". You may be interested in the last one, in particular.

    * I'm just sending this comment in order to add to the many people who find your complaints [ableist slur].

    * I hope that at the next C3, they will have a separate room for all the internet-feminists. This way, nobody will be bothered by your kind, and you don't have to interact with real people. You can even open the door yourself, all day long.

    * Stop ruining my congress. Just stay away. If there is a problem with sexism, it's way below the average in random public spaces, and hence by definition not a problem. Stop complaining, or make your own congress.

    * Hearsay is not an anecdote, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Come back once you have more than a troll on Twitter to prove your point. Conferences such as the C3 are not about pseudo-scientific gender studies and attention-[sex worker slur] internet-feminism.

    I would supply arguments for the above points, but you'd reject them anyway. That's also why I use direct language and skip the politeness. If you don't appreciate that, you're not made for the C3 and should… stay away, very good!

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