Category Archives: Editorial

Editorials and opinion pieces

The Ada Initiative founders on funding activism for women in open source

This week, Ada Initiative founders Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora wrote about Funding Activism for Women in Open Source in the Funding issue of Model View Culture, drawing on lessons from their first years raising money for the Ada Initiative:

We founded the Ada Initiative with the principle of paying fair market wages to anyone doing work for us more than a few hours a week. In 2010, this was a moonshot. In 2014, it's increasingly how things are done. More and more diversity in technology initiatives are becoming paid activities, and a growing proportion of the technology industry recognizes this labour as something worth paying for[…]

[F]ull-time diversity activists who want to do effective, controversial, culture-changing work must often work out how to pay themselves, rather than taking existing jobs at tech companies or diversity in tech non-profits.

What follows is a survey of some of the most popular funding sources: corporate sponsorship, individual donations, and consulting and training.

Read the full article, The Ada Initiative Founders on Funding Activism for Women in Open Source, at Model View Culture to learn more about the rationale for each of these funding sources… and their pitfalls!

Dinner plans for all: How conference organizers can make newcomers feel welcome

Woman wearing a hat and glassesThis is a guest post from Becky Yoose about the Newcomer dinner at the code4lib conference, going on at the time of this posting. Becky is the Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian at Grinnell College, where she plans, implements, and maintains several critical technology initiatives at the Grinnell College Libraries. She prefers nano and vim over emac, knows enough python to be a danger to herself and others, and likes pie.

Figuring out what to do after the sessions end for the day is a challenge for most first time conference attendees, and underrepresented attendees feel an added level of stress in determining what, if any, safe and inclusive activities they can participate in during this free time. Sure, there might be brewery tours, game nights, dances, and movie screenings, but what if you’re not interested in them? What is one thing that all conference attendees, no matter who they are, have in common?

They all have to eat.

Take a small group of conference attendees (mix of new and veteran attendees), add a restaurant of their choosing, throw in some planning, and you get a conference social activity that provides a safer, informal environment that anyone can participate in. For the conference, planning these kinds of informal dinners is an opportunity for building inclusiveness in the community.

Recipe ingredients matter

Many conferences provide food at various social events, but the effect these events have on creating a more inclusive environment varies. Some conferences try to welcome first time attendees by holding a separate event, which traditionally includes some food; however, these events have their pitfalls and blind spots. You’re surrounded by fellow new attendees, but that’s about it. You’re still part of a big crowd, and if you don’t see yourself represented in said crowd that only aggravates the existing stress you’re already under. In short, the food meant to welcome first time attendees in this format itself causes anxiety due to the lack of a safer space for integration into the community.

When I attended my first code4lib conference in 2009, I managed to stumble my way through the conference, but there were many who were struggling to get a sense of the loosely-organized community. Since I’m not a drinker, my social options were limited; however, I ended up grabbing someone I didn’t know well from the conference and we went off to eat at a local foods restaurant holding a movie showing. The movie and food were both good, but the company of the attendee that went with me made the outing special. I started thinking about how to take this experience and repurpose it into something that can build community while being inclusive to everyone at the same time.

Building the recipe

I shot out the idea of an All Conference dinner, with the emphasis on getting conference veterans to mix with newcomers for the 2010 conference. Even though code4lib is a smaller conference, an all-conference dinner would still have fallen in the same pitfalls as the traditional events I described above. And then there are logistics! How do you fit 70+ people in a restaurant without paying for private room fees?

After some discussion with the code4lib community, the Newcomer Dinner was born. The base has stayed the same, but with a few tweaks each year:

  • The Social or Local Activities Committee compiles a list of restaurants around the conference hotel. Many conference goers have specific dietary needs – veg*n, kosher, allergies – so make the extra effort to seek out restaurants that can cater to specific needs, or at least note which restaurants have specific dietary offerings.
  • Schedule the dinner for the night before or the night of the first day of the conference. The connections made at this meal gives attendees a set of familiar faces in the conference crowd, making the big anonymous crowd a little less anonymous.
  • Around a month before the conference, create a place for sign-up for small dining groups, no larger than six to a group. Discussion becomes difficult when the group is larger than six, from experience.
  • Promote the dinner early and often! Encourage a mixture of new attendees and conference veterans in each group, and get the vets to lead the groups. This is where cultivating buy-in from various established community members helps! Sometimes you’ll need to persuade folks into leading groups, especially during the first couple of years of doing the dinners or if you have some shy folks in the same group.
  • In the sign-up page, give explicit instructions as to what the group leader is responsible for: reservations, leading the group to and from the restaurant, main contact for the dinner group in case people are running late, etc.

Recipe reviews

How does the Newcomer Dinner help create an inclusive community environment at a conference?

It provides the opportunity for marginalized folks to find each other and to connect – for those looking for others like themselves, the Newcomer Dinner becomes the opportunity to connect with each other in a small group environment. The dinners are planned ahead of time; people have the chance to do their research and stake out a group or restaurant. This focus on small groups and advanced planning provides a lower-pressure, informal safer space for underrepresented attendees who otherwise might not venture far from their hotel rooms outside of conference hours.

It provides the opportunity for others to listen and to learn from each other – in some groups, there are a mix of diverse people, and the conversation can and sometimes lead to an exchange of ideas and experiences by all sides. Again, conferences big and small don’t have a lot of opportunities for small group, face to face conversations outside the conference, which makes the dinner a place where people have dedicated time to share thoughts, experiences, and engage in conversations otherwise not present in the conference center hallways.

There are a few considerations for organizing a Newcomer Dinner. code4lib’s dinner is completely voluntary, which means that the people who really want to be there will be there if their schedule permits. There is also the consideration of the dinner group; not all group dynamics are ideal, but the focus on food gives some buffer for some groups that have one or two folks who like to talk. Lastly, even though the focus is on creating a welcoming environment with great food, having the Newcomer Dinner covered under the conference’s Code of Conduct helps ensure that if anything happens in the group, then there is a system in place to address any issues.

Make the recipe your own

The dinner has since become one of the rare traditions of the code4lib conference since 2010, and is one of the highlights of the conference for many people, including those newer to the community, leading to lasting friendships and professional connections alike. Past participants have even organized their own dinners in their own communities! The focus on conference veterans mixing with the newer attendees adds the dimension of networking opportunities for newcomers within the community. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for inclusive community building. Overall, the Newcomer Dinner is a good (and filling) tool to help build an inclusive environment for conferences and communities alike.

Ed. note: At AdaCamp, one of the more popular events is the Saturday night dinner in the form described in this post. AdaCamp Portland applications are now open!

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!

Guest post: Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions

This is a guest post from author Jim C. Hines that originally appeared on his blog as "Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions." It is a summary of Nicole Stark's paper surveying and analyzing fan convention anti-harassment policies, the first study of its kind that we know of.

After I posted my Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit, I learned about a study Nicole Stark had done about harassment policies at fan conventions. Stark’s article is available on Google Docs, here. I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion on harassment policies and why we do or don’t need to worry about them, but this is the first example I’ve seen of a more rigorous academic survey and discussion of harassment policies. Stark gave me permission to link to her paper, and to discuss some of the highlights.

ETA: Stark is a M.A. student studying sexual harassment. She asked me to share that her email address is NicoleStark@knights.ucf.edu, in case anyone wanted to follow up with her about her work.

From the abstract:

This study uses content analysis to evaluate a sample of 288 fan convention websites. These conventions took place within the United States from March to November 2013. The analysis was used to determine how common sexual harassment policies are and their characteristics. This study examined both frequencies and descriptions of codes of conduct, including promoted and prohibited rules, sanctions, reporting guidelines, and the existence of a sexual harassment or general harassment policy. Less than half of the sample contained any behavioral policy at all. Those behavioral policies that were present were found to be generally informal, unstructured, and devoid of a sexual harassment policy. However, many policies contained rules that could be used in the prevention of sexual harassment. These rules, when made clear and recognizable, may work as effective policy in informal spaces. (Page 2)

Stark opens by discussing an instance of sexual harassment from New York Comic Con, and goes on to note that:

A study on sexual harassment policy in manufacturing firms revealed that an available written policy resulted in a 76 percent reduction in one year’s reports (Moore and Bradley 1997).

In other words, to anyone arguing there’s no need for a sexual harassment policy, there is actual research showing that such a policy can significantly reduce sexual harassment.

I expect some people to protest that a convention isn’t the workplace, and that’s true. There are likely to be some differences in the dynamics and effects of a harassment policy in a convention space vs. a workplace. But the underlying premise and conclusion here is pretty straightforward: “We created a written policy on sexual harassment, and sexual harassment decreased significantly.”

I assume most people would like to see sexual harassment at conventions decrease significantly as well. Ergo, creating a written policy seems like a really basic and obvious first step.

Stark’s sample comes from the costume.org website’s list of upcoming conventions. The cons were all from 2013, all located in the U.S., and included media, anime, literary, gaming, comics, relaxicons, and more. So what did she find in her study?

Of the 288 convention websites, 59.38%  had no listed policy on their website in regards to behavior or code of conduct. Less than half of all websites (40.62%) had at bare minimum, a behavioral policy explaining acceptable or unacceptable actions while at the convention. These rules ranged from a basic ‘be polite’ to lengthier explanations and examples of what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Of the total sample, only 3.47% used the phrase ‘sexual harassment’. However, 13.88% used the word ‘harassment’, not detailing readily available distinctions between harassments, whether sexual, bullying, or annoying otherwise.

Fewer than half of conventions have a posted policy about acceptable behavior, let alone harassment. And the policy is only the starting point; what about instructions on reporting harassment and other unacceptable behavior?

Only 15.27% (44) of the 288 convention websites contained guidelines on reporting. Of the three conventions participating in Project: Women Back Each Other Up, only one employed the use of purple ribbons to indicate female staff members who were prepared to intervene and handle potential sexual harassment. Several policies listed that if there were emergencies, to dial 911 or building security.  This left 84.72% (244) of the convention websites devoid of response or guidance to potential victims.

Stark goes on to recommend:

…in evidence of the language and audience in these informal spaces, the following are suggestions for a comprehensive policy at fan conventions. The policies need to be recognizable and readily available (Moore & Bradley 1997), properly enforcedinclude and define sanctionstrain employees for prevention and response, (Harmus & Niblock 2000), detail complaint procedure (Fowler 1996), and define sexual harassment in terms that the audience understands. (Emphasis added)

I have very little to add beyond Yes. That.

I recommend anyone interested in the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in fandom read the full study. And my thanks to Nicole Stark for letting me link to and chat about her research here.

A smiling man in front of shelves of booksJim C. Hines is the author of the Magic ex Libris series, which has been described as a love letter to books and storytelling, and includes a magic-wielding librarian with a laser blaster. He’s also written the Princess series of fairy tale retellings and the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, along with more than 40 published short stories. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. You can find him online at http://www.jimchines.com.

Guest post: What's wrong with "meritocracy" in open source software?

The recent welcome announcement that GitHub was replacing a rug celebrating the concept of a meritocracy in open source software development has had a lot of people wondering, "What's so wrong with meritocracy?" To answer this, we are publishing an excerpt from a post by Ashe Dryden, "The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community."

Ashe Dryden is a programmer, diversity advocate, writer, and speaker. She blogs regularly at http://ashedryden.com and her work is almost 100% funded through community donations at http://gittip.com/ashedryden.

Meritocracy is the belief that those with merit float to the top – that they should be given more opportunities and be paid higher.

We prize the idea of meritocracy and weigh merit on contribution to OSS. Those who contribute the most, goes the general belief, have the most merit and are deemed the most deserving. Those who contribute less or who don't at all contribute to OSS are judged to be without merit, regardless of the fact that they have less access to opportunity, time, and money to allow them to freely contribute.

As the people who exist within this supposed meritocracy don't exist within a vacuum, we also have to realize how our actions affect others. Meritocracy creates a hierarchy amongst the people within it. Some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly. This creates an atmosphere where people who would otherwise be deemed meritorious within this system choose not to participate because of a hostile, unrewarding environment.

A lot of people hold the idea of meritocracy close. I believe they mean well, too, but they aren't necessarily seeing the whole picture. We all want a system where we feel we can be rewarded for what we contribute: that society's injustice toward certain groups of people – most specifically geeks, many of us who grew up feeling abused, persecuted, and ignored (blog post coming on this soon) – would be rendered irrelevant. In striving for that, our community has become a microcosm of society at large.

The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case. It's a romanticized ideal – a belief in which at best ignores and at worst outright dismisses the experiences of everyone outside the group with the most access to these things. A certain demographic of people have three or four steps above other people, so the playing field is not even.

Read the rest of Ashe Dryden's post

For more reading on the meritocracy in open tech/culture, see:

The Paradox of Meritocracy: Belief that a workplace is a meritocracy may increase gender bias, not lessen it

Questioning the Merits of Meritocracy: Discussion of specific open source software projects that embrace meritocracy (as of 2009)

How White Male Tech Writers Feed the Silicon Valley Myth of Meritocracy: On the intersection of race, class, tech, and blogging

GitHub donates private repositories to women learning open source software: A collaboration between GitHub and Ada Initiative to compensate for extra barriers for women learning open source software development

Guest post: Conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

This is a guest post by Andromeda Yelton about how conference codes of conduct actually improve the protection of free speech for women and other disadvantaged groups in tech, originally posted on her blog here. Andromeda Yelton is a librarian and freelance software engineer. She teaches librarians to code; speaks and writes about libraries, technology, and gender; and is on the Board of the Library & Information Technology Association.

In discussing ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct with ever-wider audiences, I get the growing feeling that we stand at different starting lines, and it affects our understandings of the words in the statement.

So if you looked at the Statement and your first reaction was “but…free speech?” or “nanny state” or “political correctness”, this is for you. Let me attempt to explain some starting points. (Trigger warning: graphic violence, rape, rampant misogyny.)

Proponents of these codes are not concerned that people might disagree with them (even disagree passionately). We aren’t concerned that people might not be nice. We aren’t wanting to run to some hammer of authority every time someone says a group we’re in might be other than pure unicorns and roses.

Here is the world I live in:

I live in a world where famed game developer and technical writer Kathy Sierra disappeared entirely from the internet for years after she received a series of death threats, including publishing of her home address, social security number, and false allegations that she had abused her children.

I live in a world where Anita Sarkeesian ran a Kickstarter to support a project on sexism in video games, and as a result someone created and distributed a video game consisting solely of clicking on her face until you had beaten it to a bloody pulp.

I live in a world where merely having a female-gendered nickname on IRC (a chat network important in the technology world) makes you 25 times more likely to receive unsolicited malicious private messages, even if you never say a word.

I live in a world where I have zero interest in going to CES because I don’t want to have to deal with the naked booth babes (and am therefore cutting myself off from the biggest trade show relevant to my interests). Where a friend of mine takes for granted there will probably be naked women on conference slides in her field. Where people complaining that a joke about being “raped by dickwolves” in a comic about gaming isn’t funny leads to its creators selling dickwolves t-shirts and large numbers of people to this day defending this as a reasonable position to hold. Where a hackathon sponsored by a major tech news web site gives time on stage to an app intended solely for sharing photos of women’s cleavage, with a nine-year-old-girl in the audience. Where a major tech news discussion site is so prone to misogyny many women never bother to spend time there, at the same time as it is suspected of repeatedly quashing discussion critical of misogyny.

I live in a world where I treat it as great and inexplicable good luck that no one has yet threatened to rape or kill me just because I blog and speak publicly about technology and sexism under an obviously female name, and I have the backup plan in my head of how to moderate comments and log IPs if it’s ever needed, and the list of which friends have my back enough that I’d ask them to wade through that kind of cesspit for me. I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was aspecific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.

Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.

In this world some people choose not to be themselves in public. They choose not to speak, or to speak only under disguises – ones they can’t wear at conferences, face-to-face.

That is my concern about free speech. That right there.

That is the aim of conference codes of conduct. To clarify the threats — not to eliminate them, because you can’t ever do that, but to state that this is a place where silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable, that if it happens to you there’s a place to go, and to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too. That you’re not in a place where a lot of people are decent but indifferent and someone somewhere might attack you and it’s all on you to cope, but you’re in a place where a lot of people are decent and affirmatively have your back.

And by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up. A world where the uncertain, the new, the outsiders have a voice too. A world where maybe the barrier for being a woman in tech — or an outsider coming in — is not the ability to say “fuck you”, but merely the interest in saying something, anything.

If you have been reading the statement of acceptable conduct from the frame of mind that you haven’t encountered problems and things seem fine and the only speech you can imagine it chilling is the edgier end of the perfectly fine, please go back and reread it from my world. It reads differently.

Looking for a good SF&F book to read? Try one from these known feminists

Science fiction magazine covers

Not new authors
CC BY-SA by Zepfanman.com

Here at the Ada Initiative, we like to relax with a good science fiction or fantasy book at the end of a long day of fighting harassment at conferences. Luckily for us, one of the benefits of keeping up with the latest news in conference anti-harassment work is that it's a good way to find new science fiction and fantasy authors to read.

Chances are, if an author takes a public stand against harassment of any kind (gender, race, sexuality, in person, online, in print, in professional associations, etc.), they probably write better books. Books that have interesting, surprising plot twists because they don't rely on lazy sexist tropes. Books that have believable, varied characters instead of paper cut-outs supporting the straight white male protagonist. Books that explore ideas and viewpoints that weren't already tapped out in Homer's time. (And better short stories and poems too.)

We thought we'd share our favorite discoveries from following and researching conference anti-harassment work in the science fiction and fantasy communities. This list is necessarily incomplete, so please leave a comment with anyone we missed who was involved in SF&F anti-harassment work of any form, along with a recommended book and a reference so we can add them to the conference anti-harassment policy history if appropriate.

And if ending conference harassment is important to you, you can help by donating now to support the Ada Initiative's work fighting conference harassment. Thank you!

Our science fiction and fantasy recommendations

Name (Twitter) Recommended work How we learned about them
Alex D MacFarlane
(@foxvertebrae)
"Found" Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Amal El-Mohtar
(@tithenai)
"Wing" Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Genevieve Valentine
(@GLValentine)
Mechanique Publicly reported harassment at Readercon
Jason Sanford
(@jasonsanford)
Never Never Stories Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Jess Haines
(@Jess_Haines)
Hunted by the Others Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Jim C. Hines
(@jimchines)
Libriomancer Created a list of sexual harassment reporting resources for SF&F
John Scalzi
(@scalzi)
Old Man's War Created pledge to only attend cons with policies, got 1000 co-signers
Josh Vogt
(@JRVogt)
"Even Song Birds Are Kept in Cages" Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Karen Healey
(@kehealey)
When We Wake Co-founder of the Con Anti-harassment Project
K. Tempest Bradford
(@tinytempest)
"Different Day" Founding blogger at Geek Feminism and The Angry Black Woman
Laura Resnick
(@LaResnick)
Polterheist Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Leonard Richardson
(@leonardr)
Constellation Games With Sumana Harihareswara, made $10K donation to Ada Initiative to support anti-harassment work, twice
Liz Henry
(@lizhenry)
Unruly Islands Edited the Carnival of Feminist SF anthology
Mary Anne Mohanraj
(@mamohanraj)
Bodies in Motion Wrote primer on race in SF&F during RaceFail
Mary Robinette Kowal
(@MaryRobinette)
Shades of Milk and Honey Named the editor in "Why am I afraid to name the editor?" post
Myke Cole
(@MykeCole)
Control Point Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
N. K. Jemisin
(@nkjemisin)
The Killing Moon Fought to expel a creep from SFWA, her Continuum GoH speech, and much more
Saladin Ahmed
(@saladinahmed)
Throne of the Crescent Moon Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Steven Gould
(@StevenGould)
Impulse Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"
Veronica Schanoes
(@schanoes)
"Burning Girls" Wrote about why people don't report harassment
William Alexander
(@williealex)
Goblin Secrets Listed as a "PC Monster of SFWA"

About the Ada Initiative

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie
(CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

As a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative cares deeply about ending harassment in geek communities. Our co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-authored the most widely used example anti-harassment policy, hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki. The Ada Initiative's first project was working as full-time advocates for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.

We are currently in the last days of our 2013 fundraising drive. Please donate now and help us continue our work for another year!

Deleting Ada Lovelace from the history of computing

This is a repost of our Ada Lovelace Day 2012 article on the attempts to delete Countess Ada Lovelace from the history of computing, with minor updates and an announcement of the first Ada Lovelace conference in October 2013.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (full name: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace) is a familiar figure in the history of computing. She is the world's first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world's first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. Her paper was presented as "notes" on a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her "notes" were longer than the original paper and were considerably more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, that Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace's letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn't write or even understand the first computer program.

A full length oil portrait of a woman in 19th c. dress

Ada Lovelace: stupid, arrogant, and insane?

Arguments against Lovelace's authorship include: Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else's work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc.

Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men's authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I've personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else's error) used as an argument against a male scientist's competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace's critics will go, Charles Babbage's biography, written long after Lovelace's death, has this statement on Lovelace's paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

People argue that "the algebraic working out" of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace's favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage's ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music – definitely not Babbage's idea, since he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum's biography of Ada Lovelace says:

The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.

On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

A woman in 18th c. French dress seated at a table with a book and holding a compass

Émilie du Châtelet

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire's primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire's name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, "Minerva dictated, and I wrote." Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Châtelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

A book cover reading "How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna Russ"How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women's writing: "She didn't write it. She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art," ad nauseum. The exact same arguments are used by people trying to dismiss Lovelace's programming, right down to "She wrote it but she isn't really a programmer, and it isn't really a program."

Lovelace's current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: "[...] She is often considered the world's first computer programmer" – unfortunately, probably the most positive statement we can reasonably expect. But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

Cover of book reading "Ada, Enchantress of Numbers; Poetical Science; Betty Alexandra Toole"The most evidence-based biography, "Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers," by Betty Alexandra Toole, quotes heavily from Lovelace's letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

We're beginning to make progress, though: the first Ada Lovelace conference is scheduled for October 18, 2013 at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Created by Dr. Robin Hammerman, this conference will celebrate "Lovelace’s many achievements as well as the impact of her life and work, which reverberated through the sciences and humanities since the late nineteenth century. This conference heralds a recent resurgence in Lovelace scholarship thanks to the growth of interdisciplinary thinking and the expanding influence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics." Ada Initiative executive director Valerie Aurora will be giving a keynote address, "Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos."

We should not be denigrating women's accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That's one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.


Help give Ada Lovelace the credit she deserves

A glass pendant with a black and white portrait of Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pendant (click for larger image)

The Ada Initiative, named after Ada Lovelace, is working hard to give women the credit they deserve in many areas: open source software, Wikipedia, open data, and others. You can be part of this fight by donating to support our work and learning more about how you can help. You can also read about our accomplishments during the last year and our plans for the future. Donate before August 31st to get the Ada Lovelace pendant.

Donate now

Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work: Three existence proofs from SF&F, atheism/skepticism, and open source

Woman in armor with dragon[Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault]

Sometimes fighting harassment and assault at conferences feels like a losing battle. For every step forward, it seems like there's another step back: A science fiction convention adopts a code of conduct, but then doesn't enforce it for a Big Name Fan. People publicly identify a serial assaulter in skepticism, but then he threatens to sue and the blog post is taken down. Is a community without sexual harassment and assault too much to ask for in 2013?

Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work – they "just" take several years of dedicated effort to succeed. In the free and open source community, it took about 3 years of concentrated work to get to the point where the vast majority of open source conferences have strong, specific, enforced anti-harassment policies. In 2013 we saw a record percentage of women attendees and speakers at one of the largest open source conferences in the world. Now open source communities are adopting codes of conduct that apply to online interaction too.

Why a history of anti-harassment campaigns?

We decided to chronicle the history of conference anti-harassment policies in three communities: science fiction and fantasy, skepticism and atheism, and free and open source software. The goal is to create a standard reference model of how conference anti-harassment campaigns usually work so that we can refer to it when the going gets tough. If you know what other communities went through – e.g., a phase of concerted online harassment of women leaders – then you are less likely to give up. We hope this history will help people working to end harassment in other geek communities: Wikipedia, computer security, anime and comics, computer gaming, and perhaps even academic philosophy.

This history only covers the high-profile, publicly-documented events of conference anti-harassment campaigns, but like any social justice movement, much of the credit should go to the many people quietly working behind the scenes to organize and implement the change. We're trying to make that work more visible, so if you were part of this fight and your part isn't mentioned in this history, or we made a mistake, please leave a comment send email to contact @ adainitiative.org and we will make the correction as soon as possible!

Thank you to everyone who actually did the work we write about here. You have changed your community for the better!

Table of contents

  1. About the authors
  2. Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns
  3. History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign
  4. History of the skepticism and atheism campaign
  5. History of the free and open source software campaign
  6. Current status of anti-harassment campaigns
  7. How you can help
  8. Sources and resources

About the authors

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie
(CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

As a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative cares deeply about ending harassment in geek communities. Our co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-authored the most widely used example anti-harassment policy, hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki. The Ada Initiative's first project was working as full-time advocates for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.

Stages of conference anti-harassment campaigns

Conference anti-harassment campaigns work, but it is hard to stay positive when you're in the middle of one. Here's the big picture of how they usually work, broken down into different stages (note that stages can overlap and have fuzzy boundaries – they are just useful reference points). See if any of this sounds familiar to you:

  • Stage 0: Harassment, assault, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are rampant at conferences, mainly targeting women. An informal network develops to warn likely victims individually about who to avoid. Victims are afraid to report non-public harassment. Many people quietly stop attending conferences, or only attend the safest ones. Some leave the community entirely.
  • Stage 1: A few very brave people say, "Hey, I was harassed at con X, and I didn't like it!" As a reward, they become the target of even more harassment, usually along the lines of "You are too fat/ugly to be harassed," "You deserve to be raped," and "If you don't like being harassed, leave." If they name their attacker, the harassment is even worse: specific rape and death threats, nasty packages sent to their house, or denial of service attacks on their web sites.
  • Stage 2: A long period of discussion about whether harassment is even a bad thing ensues. Typical arguments in favor of condoning harassment involve women's known love of compliments on their body parts from strangers, concerns about the extinction of the human species through banning "flirting," comparisons to the Taliban, "freedom of speech," and predictions that the quality of code/novels/articles/etc. will take a nose dive if harassment is banned. During this period, some people publicly announce they will stop attending conferences with the worst reputation for harassment and assault.
  • Stage 3: A few community leaders take a public stand against harassment, often prominent men who are horrified and embarrassed to discover this behavior goes on in their community. They are criticized heavily, but rarely the target of rape and death threats. Usually this has a net positive effect for the careers and reputations of the people who take a stand. Opponents of harassment are accused of "dividing the community."
  • Stage 4: Someone suggests adopting a conference anti-harassment policy, usually one already in use by another conference. The organizers of one of the most progressive conferences immediately pledge to adopt a policy, followed quickly by two or three more. Each conference either adopts an existing policy, slightly rewrites it, or develops their own from scratch. A few months pass without new conferences adopting policies.
  • Stage 5: A few high profile harassment incidents occur at conferences with policies. They are usually handled well; when they aren't they cause a huge outcry and more pressure to adopt (and enforce) policies. A dozen or so more conferences adopt policies. Victims of harassment begin to publicly name their harassers, often coordinating with other victims and influential allies.
  • Stage 6: Most conferences have anti-harassment policies, and most enforce them. Emboldened, victims talk more freely about their experiences and begin to notice patterns. At this point, even very powerful harassers begin to be publicly named. Some harassers lose their jobs, are banned from conferences, or lose their influence in the community. But harassers also fight back, with take-down notices, threats of legal action, or direct intimidation and threats.
  • Stage 7: Conferences become more awesome: more fun, more creative, and more productive. They are a safer and more welcoming space for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and many others. New people of all sorts begin joining the community. Serial harassers leave on their own or don't join in the first place. The bizarre concept of treating all humans with respect and dignity spreads to other areas in the community, such as online discussion, local meetups, and publications.

When you understand the inevitable progression that begins when people start reporting harassment and assault – and other people publicly back them up – you can see why the backlash against simply reporting harassment is so strong. If the fight against harassment at conferences is successful, some people in the community will end up exposed as abusers, driven out of the community, fired from their jobs, not invited to speak any more, or ostracized. They will also lose what they value most of all: the opportunity to harass, assault, and abuse others.

Now, don't you want to be part of making that happen?

History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign

The big picture: In 2010, Sexual harassment, stalking, and groping were common. Serial sexual harassers operated with impunity. The feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, was one of the only SF&F cons with an anti-harassment policy. Today, over 1000 people have pledged to attend only SF&F cons with anti-harassment policies, many cons have policies, and several serial harassers have been publicly identified, banned from conferences, and/or fired from their SF&F jobs. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, SF&F is somewhere around Stage 6.

Detailed timeline:

A book cover

Willis' 2006 Hugo Award-winning novella, Inside Job

August 2006: At the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention, Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis' breast on stage during the Hugo awards ceremony (both are Hugo-award winning authors), kicking off extensive online discussion about sexual harassment in the SF&F community.

April 2008: At Penguicon, a hybrid science fiction and Linux convention, attendees create The Open Source Boob Project, in which some attendees wore buttons to signal whether they are open to requests to touch them sexually. The creator later had a change of heart and publicly stated that he thought the project did more harm than good by causing women to feel unsafe.

Vito Excalibur suggests the idea that becomes the Open Source Back Each Other Up Project, focusing on anime and comic conventions. This is a pledge by individuals to intervene if they see harassment occurring.

Geek Feminism LogoMay 2008: The Geek Feminism Wiki is founded by Alex "Skud" Bayley (formerly Kirrily Robert), becoming a go-to resource for feminists in a variety of geeky areas, including science fiction, computing, fandom, anime, computer gaming, cosplay, and more. Mary Gardiner becomes a major contributor to the Geek Feminism Wiki.

July 2008: Genevieve Valentine reports on harassment of several women at ReaderCon. The offender was quickly ejected from the conference.

August 2008: Girl-Wonder.org launches the Con Anti-harassment Project, focusing on comic, anime, and fandom conventions. Girl-Wonder.org members include Karen Healey and Hannah Dame, who were listed on the press release for the CAHP launch. Several conventions adopt a policy shortly thereafter.

May 2009: WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, adopts a clear and specific anti-harassment policy after having a more generic one for many years earlier, in response to an incident of harassing photography.

The Geek Feminism Wiki page "Timeline of Incidents" is started. This page records the sexist incidents in geek communities and currently goes back as far as 1973. The Timeline of Incidents, along with the rest of the Geek Feminism Wiki, eventually become vital resources in the fight for anti-harassment policies.

A woman with raised eyebrows wearing glasses

K. Tempest Bradford
(CC BY K. Tempest Bradford)

August 2009: The Geek Feminism Blog is founded by Alex "Skud" Bayley and many others, with frequent contributions from Mary Gardiner, Liz Henry, Terri Oda, K. Tempest Bradford, and many others. With a firm moderation policy, this blog becomes a safe space to discuss geeky and/or feminist topics, including fandom, technology, and activism.

The Backup Ribbon Project is created by thatwordgrrl. The idea is to wear a ribbon indicating that you are willing to help victims of harassment, either by intervening or by assisting them after the fact.

[ENORMOUS GAP HERE PLEASE HELP US FILL IT: Email contact@adainitiative.org or leave a comment.]

A black and white photo of Jim C. Hines, smiling with his arms crossed

Jim C. Hines

November 2010: Jim C. Hines creates a set of resources for reporting sexual harassment in SF&F, updated yearly. The 2013 version is here.

July 2012: Genevieve Valentine reports harassment at ReaderCon from René Walling, a well-known fan. ReaderCon bans him from the con for 2 years, in contravention to their stated policy of a lifetime ban. Hundreds of blog posts and petitions protesting this decision followed, as well as more reports of harassment by René Walling as well as other Readercon attendees, from Kate Kligman, Veronica Schanoes, and others.

August 2012: The ReaderCon board issues an apology, bans René Walling for life, and resigns en masse. Led by Rose Fox and Crystal Huff, the Readercon convention committee commits to many improvements on its anti-harassment policy and its enforcement.

Dragon*Con bans Backup Ribbons from the Backup Ribbon Project, citing concerns that harassers might wear them.

September 2012: Scott Henry writes an article for Atlanta Magazine documenting that Dragon*Con co-founder Ed Kramer has evaded trial for child molestation for years. Kramer continues to receive part of the Dragon*Con profits each year.

November 2012: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) issue a a statement defining their sexual harassment policy and specifying that it applies to all SFWA events.

A women wearing a face shield and holding jewelry wire and tools

Elise Matthesen making jewelry, by Sarah Ahiers

July 2013: In a watershed moment, Science fiction editor James Frenkel leaves Tor shortly after being reported for sexual harassment at WisCon 2013 by Elise Matthesen. Elise announced what she had done, without naming the editor in question, in simultaneous posts on the blogs of Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, Chuck Wendig, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and Jim Hines. Shortly thereafter, Sigrid Ellis names Frenkel in a comment on John Scalzi's blog post. Mary Robinette Kowal names Frenkel and details all the reasons why someone might be afraid to name him in "Why I am I afraid to name the editor?" K. Tempest Bradford reminds everyone that "high level people at Tor have been aware of Frenkel's behavior for years." More revelations about sexual harassment in SF&F, both by Frenkel and others, follow.

Science fiction author John Scalzi pledges not to attend conferences without strong, specific anti-harassment policies and asks others to co-sign. N. K. Jemisin makes an important clarification that harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. Over 1000 people co-sign the pledge.

A green card with a picture of N. K. Jemisin looking at a small green monster, with the text "N. K. Jemisin, PC Monster, Writes amazing, critically acclaimed, award-winning fiction despite being neither white nor male!!! Uses Guest of Honor platform to brainwash audience with her radical-socialist-fascist-PC message of treating all people as human beings. +5 cloak of Not Taking Any of Your Sh*t.

PC Monster card for N. K. Jemisin

The PC Monsters of SFWA Twitter list is created, to mock members of the SFWA, described as "screeching feminists." Instead, people use it as a "Who to follow" list (DL Thurston made a copy here), and at least some members of the list suddenly gain dozens of new followers. Jim C. Hines creates collectable playing cards to commemorate the honor. The list includes Laura Resnick (@LaResnick), William Alexander (@williealex), Jess Haines (@Jess_Haines), Myke Cole (@MykeCole), Michael Swirsky (@mbswirsky), Josh Vogt (@JRVogt), Jim C. Hines (@jimchines), Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai), Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed), Sean Wallace (@oldcharliebrown), Alex D MacFarlane (@foxvertebrae), N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin), Steven Gould (@StevenGould), Jason Sanford (@jasonsanford), and John Scalzi (@scalzi).

Dragon*Con finally gets rid of child molester and cofounder Ed Kramer by buying out his share of Dragon*Con.

History of the skepticism and atheism campaign

The big picture: In 2010, few or no conferences have policies. Serial sexual assaulters and outright rapists are common enough that women speakers have an informal network to warn each other about them. Victims are too afraid to name or report their attackers. In 2013, most conventions have anti-harassment policies, many leaders vocally oppose harassment, and at least three high-profile serial harassers and assaulters have been publicly identified. However, many victims and advocates are still stalked, harassed, and threatened, and need continuing support from the community. Several accused harassers and assaulters have threatened legal action against those reporting them. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, skepticism/atheism is somewhere around Stage 6, despite the on-going efforts of abusers to hang on to their positions and privileges in the community.

Detailed timeline:

A woman red hair on a black background

Rebecca Watson

June 2011: Rebecca Watson video blogs about being sexually harassed at the World Atheist Convention and suggests: "Guys, don't do that." In response, she is viciously harassed by members of the skeptic/atheist community for at least 2 years (the harassment is still on-going as of August 2013).

A smiling woman holding a paper printed with the word atheist

Jen McCreight

May 2012: Jen McCreight says on stage at the Women in Secularism conference that women speakers share the names of speakers who are likely to harass or assault them with other women speakers. Stephanie Zvan blogs about Jen's comment and about harassment at skeptic/atheist conferences and suggests adopting anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic cons, linking to the policy on Geek Feminism Wiki as a good example.

Sarah Moglia and David Silverman commit to (and follow through on) adopting an anti-harassment policy for the Secular Students Association and AACON respectively. Many more conferences follow, led by Jen McCreight, Chris Calvey, Stephanie Zvan, and many more.

Ashley Miller publicly reports her experiences with harassment at TAM 9, countering earlier claims that no harassment was reported at TAM 9. In a positive turn of events, Elyse reports favorably on SkeptiCamp Ohio's handling of harassment complaints according to their anti-harassment policy. Sasha Pixlee of More than Men begins maintaining a list of skeptic/atheist conferences with anti-harassment policies and advocates for more policies.

June 2012: Rebecca Watson and Jen McCreight announce they will not attend TAM due to DJ Grothe's recent statements. Among many other things, DJ blamed Watson and many others for discouraging women from attending TAM by telling the truth about their experiences of harassment in the community. (Ironically, Watson raised money for travel scholarships for women to attend TAM for several years.)

A cartoon drawing of a man with glasses, beard, and two wings

PZ Myers' gravatar

PZ Myers explains why he's in favor of conference anti-harassment policies in response to a claim that they are unnecessary because hotel security exists.

WylloNyx explains why anti-harassment policies are not sex-negative and would not prevent consensual sexual activity at conferences. "A lack of statement about non-harmful sexual expression is neutral on the sex positivity scale. That harassment policies make it clear that they offer protection against non-consensual sexual expression makes the harassment policies sex positive. It means that not only the 'yay, sex is awesome' part isn't shamed but also the 'sex isn’t always awesome' aspect is addressed to the protection of attendees and speakers. To address both aspects of sex positivity clearly without shame makes sexual harassment policies sex positive."

Greta Christina points out that the OpenSF 2012 conference for people in open, polyamorous, or ethically nonmonogamous relationships has a detailed code of conduct, including things like: "We know this is California and everyone hugs, but please do that awkward 'wanna hug?' gesture before actually hugging."

Ashley Paramore reports being repeatedly groped in front of several people at TAM in 2012, without naming her attacker. The conference anti-harassment team banned the assaulter from future TAMs. Several other people back up her story. Paramore is still harassed and threatened for publicly reporting her attack.

August 2013: Ian Murphy, Dr. Karen Stollznow, Carry Poppy, PZ Myers, Jason Thibeault, and many more begin naming names of specific serial sexual assaulters and harassers in the atheist/skeptic community. Jason Thibeault creates a timeline of the sexual harassment accusations. Several of the named abusers threaten legal action, causing accusers to switch to using obvious pseudonyms instead.

An Indiegogo campaign is launched to raise a legal defense fund for one of the accused rapists. Ashley F. Miller points out that a quote from the campaign page makes it clear that the goal is to silence victims: "A show of support will send the message that we as a community will no longer tolerate illogical attacks on people who do not condone nor support sexual harassment, sexual predation, or rape any more than we support defamation of our community members from anonymous allegations."

A skeptic comedian mocks the rape allegations by claiming that it is the victims' responsibility to turn down alcoholic drinks if they don't want to get raped and comparing the reports to religious texts. Jason Thibeault provides a transcript of the video with these remarks and explains what is wrong with the idea that getting drunk should be punished with rape or comparing the reports made directly to PZ Myers and others with religious gospels.

History of the free and open source software campaign

The big picture: In 2010, groping, pornographic presentations, and sexist jokes are common at free and open source conferences. Upskirt and other non-consensual photography is a known problem. A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. In 2013, the vast majority of open source conferences have specific, strong, enforced anti-harassment policies. Some conferences even have photography policies. The focus is shifting to codes of conduct that apply to online behavior as well. In terms of stages of anti-harassment campaigns, free and open source software is somewhere around Stage 7, though with occasional relapses back as far as Stage 3.

Detailed timeline:

July 2001 – July 2009: At OSCON over several years, open source consulting company Stonehenge repeatedly throws parties featuring women providing entertainment in a sexualized manner. Complaints to OSCON management have no visible effect.

January 2007: At linux.conf.au, several people tell women attendees if they don't switch to the Reiserfs file system, Hans Reiser will continue killing women (a reference to an open source developer, Hans Reiser, who was on trial for murdering Nina Reiser). At least one person is expelled from the conference.

A fat cartoon penguin

Linux logo

July 2008: At the Linux Symposium closing session, organizers joke about providing "ambassadors" for the next conference, understood to be female sex workers by the audience.

February 2009: At the PHP UK conference, a presenter uses a pornographic application featuring a "Page 3 girl" extensively during his presentation.

April 2009: At the Golden Gate Ruby Conference, a talk entitled "CouchDB: Perform like a pr0n star" features extensive pornographic pictures and sexual innuendo. The reaction to the talk is mostly critical, with one conferenc organizer saying, "I haven't yet figured out the best way to prevent this from happening again, but I'm determined to find a way to do better next time. [...] And to be clear, I don't think Matt's talk was appropriate for a professional conference."

June 2009: Alex "Skud" Bayley creates the Porny Presentation Bingo Card. It gets a workout over the next few months. (More about bingo cards and their uses can be found here.)

Porny Presentation Bingo CardPorny Presentation Bingo Card

July 2009: Free software founder and leader Richard Stallman gives a keynote in which he calls "women who have never used EMACS" "EMACS virgins" and exorts listeners to "relieve them of their virginity." This is part of a "joke" skit about the "Church of EMACS." Stallman refused to apologize. Due to his leadership position and fame, an extensive round of discussion ensued, hitting the usual high points of "He's just like that," political correctness, "Sex is beautiful," and the rest.

A woman smiling wearing a gardening hat

Alex "Skud" Bayley, Geek Feminism founder

At OSCON, Alex "Skud" Bayley gives a keynote speech on diversity in open source. During the same conference, Stonehenge throws another party with women providing sexualized entertainment. This time, Robert Kaye blogs about the party, calling it "a sad state of affairs." A several-hundred comment-long debate follows, with the majority against Stonehenge.

November 2009: At DojoCon, a presenter begins his talk with a slide of two women wearing only t-shirts and thong underwear. When asked why he included the slide, the response filled out most of a Porny Presentation Bingo Card.

Sometime in 2009: In response to the avalanche of porny presentations in open source, Esther "Moose" Filderman informs speakers at Ohio LinuxFest, an open source conference, that no sexualized presentations will be allowed at OLF. Ohio LinuxFest subsequently adopts both a speaker policy and a general code of conduct.

January 2010: Open source software conference linux.conf.au 2010 adopts a discrimination policy that specifically bans several kinds of harassment.

June 2010: At Southeast LinuxFest, an attendee sexually harasses, assaults, and follows several women around the conference. The incidents aren't connected until the last day of the conference, when the organizers finally eject the harasser from the conference.

Smiling woman with short pink hair

Nóirín Plunkett

November 2010: Nóirín Plunkett (formerly Shirley) is groped at open source conference ApacheCon by another attendee. She names her attacker on her blog after explaining that this is far from the first time she has been assaulted at a tech conference. She is attacked online by hundreds of people with rape and death threats, victim-blaming, and sexual comments.

Valerie Aurora announces an example anti-harassment policy on the Geek Feminism blog. The policy and its supporting materials were written by Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, with assistance from Esther Filderman, Beth Lynn Eicher, Sarah Smith, Donna Benjamin, and many members of LinuxChix and Geek Feminism, and based in part on the Con Anti-Harassment Project policy.

Woman with pink hair speaking and gesturing

Valerie Aurora (CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

December 2010: Valerie Aurora publishes an article on a Linux web site about nine women's experiences being harassed at open source conferences, including her own. Comments are mostly positive. The article links to the example anti-harassment policy hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Mary Gardiner explains why "Just hit him!" is not a useful response to the problem of harassment at conferences.

OSDC becomes the first conference to use the Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy template as the basis of their policy.

January 2011: At the second open source conference using the Geek Feminism policy, a keynote speaker gives a talk filled with violent and sexual imagery and language. The conference organizers apologize to attendees immediately and the speaker apologizes via Twitter shortly thereafter. The incident provokes a long discussion on the conference mailing list including several instances of rape apology by leading community members.

Ada Initiative logoFebruary 2011: Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora publicly launch the Ada Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women in open technology and culture, after several months of behind the scenes work. The Ada Initiative's first project is promoting the adoption of conference anti-harassment policies in open technology and culture.

July 2011: Nóirín Shirley blogs about her reluctance to speak at OSCON and the related Community Leadership Summit due to being harassed at both events the previous year. Neither has an anti-harassment policy. Many other OSCON speakers pledge not to speak at OSCON if it does not adopt a policy. After working with the Ada Initiative and reading the Geek Feminism Timeline of Incidents, O'Reilly adopts a code of conduct for all their conferences.

June 2012: Michelle Smith proposes that Django community members take a pledge not to attend conferences without a code of conduct. Julia Elman and Paul Smith create the Let's Get Louder web site to collect signatures from the Django and Python community members who "pledge only to attend, speak at, assist, sponsor, or otherwise participate in conferences that publicly promote an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination code of conduct policy." As of August 2013, it has 300 signatures. Mark Lavin also assisted.

November 2012: Remy Sharp creates http://confcodeofconduct.com/, a web site collecting translations of a conference code of conduct based on the Ada Initiative template.

Python Software Foundation logoPython Software Foundation logoDecember 2012: The Python Software Foundation resolves to only fund conferences with a code of conduct in addition to requiring all PSF events to have codes of conduct. This is the first formal announcement of such a standard; many conference organizers report that sponsors have an informal requirement for a code of conduct.

January 2013: The Django Software Foundation follows suit and requires a code of conduct for DSF funded events.

March 2013: A record-setting 20% of attendees and speakers are women at PyCon 2013. While the conference responded quickly to several incidents of harassment, these stories are overwhelmed by the racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic backlash against Adria Richards after she tweets a photo of two PyCon attendees who were making sexual jokes behind her. Richards' employer fires her after their web site comes under a DDoS attack from people calling for her termination. However, one of the people she reported for harassment is also fired, with hints that this incident was not the only factor in the decision.

Woman smiling with windblown hair

Sarah Sharp

July 2013: Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp confronts verbal abuse from a powerful Linux community member. Sharp receives widespread support and several major media outlets report on the story.

Current status of anti-harassment campaigns

As you can see, the SF&F, atheist/skeptic, and free and open source software communities have made great progress in fighting sexual harassment and assault at conferences. So what's the big picture for conference anti-harassment campaigns in other communities as of August 2013?

  • Wikipedia and related projects: All Wikimedia Foundation events, including the world-wide Wikimania conference, have anti-harassment policies in place and enforced. Discussion of online behavior standards is in progress (Stage 6-7).
  • Computer security: A few conferences have anti-harassment policies. Raising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault at conferences continues (Stage 3-4).
  • Computer gaming: Some computer game conferences have anti-harassment policies, but booth babes, sexualization of women, and groping remain rampant at most (Stage 3-4).
  • Anime and comics: Some cons have anti-harassment policies, but consent for photography and sexual harassment remain problems at many of cons, especially the larger and more commercial ones (Stage 3-4)

We're not all the way there yet in any of the geek communities we've looked at, but we've come a long way from where we started. If we continue working together to change our communities to be more welcoming to women, we will eventually overcome.

How you can help

CC BY-SA Adam NovakWhether you are the leading novelist in your field, or a lurker on a mailing list, you can take action to stop conference harassment. You can use your words, your influence, your money, and your participation to change the culture in your community.

  • Only attend conferences with (enforced) anti-harassment policies
  • If a conference doesn't have a policy, ask them if they plan to have one
  • Start a pledge to not attend conferences without policies (a la John Scalzi's pledge)
  • Start new conferences if existing ones won't adopt policies
  • If you sponsor events, only sponsor events with policies
  • Publicly support victims of harassment, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Publicly support anti-harassment campaigns, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Learn more about bystander intervention
  • Buy books from the PC Monsters of Genre
  • Buy Skepchick merchandise
  • Don't buy the works of people who harass or support harassment

You can also donate to support the Ada Initiative, which has been working full-time on ending harassment in open technology and culture communities since January 2011. Our 2013 fundraising campaign ends August 31st. Learn more about our progress so far and our plans for future work in 2013 and 2014.

Donate now


Sources and resources

List of geek conferences that have adopted anti-harassment policies
Resources for reporting sexual harassment in science fiction and fantasy
The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities
Ada Initiative anti-harassment policy page

How you can help #banboothbabes at CES

This week saw the birth of the "#banboothbabes" campaign, kicked off by a news story calling for action on booth babes at CES, a large consumer electronics show (sign the petition here). The company behind CES, the Consumer Electronics Association, said they hadn't received "a single formal complaint" about booth babes, apparently discounting the blizzard of press coverage on the subject every year.

Alicia Gibb, founder of the Open Source Hardware Association, decided to call CEA and register a formal complaint. She summarizes the results this way: "They don't have a process to register formal complaints and don't know who you should talk to." (The company later set up an email address to collect complaints.)

What are booth babes and why ban them?

Ban booth babes
What exactly are "booth babes" and why would we want to ban them? In the words of the Geek Feminism wiki page on the subject, booth babes are "People, usually women, employed to staff booths at trade shows and use their sexual attractiveness to entice people to buy the products being advertised. Frequently they are dressed in demeaning outfits and pose for pictures with attendees." A more accurate phrase might be "sexualized booth staff." Booth babes are occasionally not women, but seldom in communities that already have a problem with sexism towards women.

What's wrong with this picture? When companies employ booth babes, they are usually sending several messages:

  • Women aren't customers, they are objects we use to sell to our customers
  • The only customer we care about is not only male, but also straight, sexually unfulfilled, and not very bright
  • Our customers make buying decisions based on feelings of lust, not features or price
  • Demeaning our women employees is part of doing business
  • Our marketing department and our management views our customers with contempt

Or, in a sentence: "Women are not people and men are fools." (And if you're neither male nor female, they really don't care.)

Let's be clear: the problem is not "women who are too sexy" – by which people usually mean women who look or act in a way that many straight men find strongly attractive. Some people argue that banning booth babes would require instituting a dress code for all female attendees because to them, attractive women and booth babes are impossible to distinguish.

There's nothing wrong with being a good-looking, attractively dressed, well-groomed woman at a conference. The problem starts when women are turned into sexual objects, dehumanized, and used to sell products to or attract attention from men (or rather, a certain subset of men).

The Ada Initiative's approach to ending booth babes

The Ada Initiative has opposed "booth babes" since our founding because they send a clear, obvious message that women are not welcome or valued. One of the first updates to the example conference anti-harassment policy added a clause covering sexualized booth staff:

Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.

We prefer this wording because it focuses on the real problem: turning women into objects to sell to straight men who make poor buying decisions. It's little known reality that in some open tech/culture communities, sexualized booth babes are volunteers, so it's important to include unpaid staff as well.

How you can help

For CES, you can make a difference right away:

For any event or conference, you can take any of the actions that help get an anti-harassment policy adopted (just be sure to include the booth babe clause): emailing the organizers, starting a petition, refusing to speak at conferences that allow booth babes, etc.