Breaking the Unicorn Law: Stop asking women in open tech/culture about women in open tech/culture

Have you heard of the Unicorn Law? Formulated by Emma Jane Westby, it states:

"If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source."

Tapestry of unicorn bucking in the midst of dogs and hunters

This unicorn has had enough

We recently read a post by a woman in open source software[1] that reminded us of the Unicorn Law. The author was nostalgic for the days before everyone was talking about sexism in open source, when she felt like she could fit in more easily in the open source community.

We sympathize – and so did many other folks. Over the last few years, people and organizations like Geek Feminism and the Ada Initiative have raised awareness of sexism in open technology and culture to the point that it can't be ignored. Now, women who used to be able to "fly under the radar" and concentrate on writing code or editing Wikipedia are getting pulled into the fight against sexism, whether they want to participate or not. (Of course, some women were never able to fly under the radar in the first place, especially if they were women of color, trans women, and/or women who dress in more feminine styles, to name a few.)

Medieval woodcut of a unicorn pawing at a woman's lap

Augh! I am so sick of unicorns!

Part of making open tech/culture more welcoming to women is not putting the responsibility for fighting sexism on every woman in these fields, whether or not she has the energy or interest to do so. Giving women an extra job in addition to their work in open tech/culture won't make it a better environment for them. (See the chapter on "How to Speak for All Black People" in Baratunde Thurston's "How to be Black" for a satirical take on a similar problem facing black people in the U.S.)

We think the solution to the Unicorn Law isn't asking people to stop working to end sexism in open tech/culture. Instead we should stop asking all women to be feminist activists. Here are some ways to do that.

Breaking the Unicorn Law

If you're curious about women in open tech/culture, that's great! But the time to learn about that is not when you meet a(nother) woman in open tech/culture. Don't say things to her like:

  • What is it like being a woman in $FIELD?
  • Why do you think there are so few women in $FIELD?
  • What do you think about $SEXIST_THING?
  • I know another woman in $FIELD, I will introduce you!
  • What do you think about $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD?

She'd probably rather be talking about Wikipedia or open hardware or whatever her field is. Even if her job is feminist activism, she's probably had these conversations many times before (which is one reason the Geek Feminism Wiki was started). Here's what you can do instead:

  • Search for blog posts, videos, and podcasts talking about what it's like to be a woman in $FIELD.
  • Search for "women $FIELD", "feminism $FIELD," or explore the Geek Feminism Wiki.
  • Find feminist thinkers and organizations that regularly write about $SEXIST_THINGS in your field and read what they write.
  • Introduce women in your field to people who can help their projects or careers, regardless of gender.
  • Search for "why $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD".

Of course, if she brings up the subject, go ahead and talk about it, while paying attention to her level of interest, what areas she wants to talk about, and when she's ready to change the subject.

Beyond the Unicorn Law: Slay some dragons

Woman in armor with dragon

Let's stretch this metaphor way too far!

Once you've learned more about sexism in your field, you may find yourself interested in actively working to stop sexism yourself. That is very cool! In fact, the only way we can end discrimination against women is if people of all genders voluntarily step up and take on some of the work. Here are some ideas for what to do next:

Fighting social injustice isn't easy, but we're making progress and together we can make a difference.


[1] We don't agree with all of this post!