Sexism on the web and in hacker spaces

This summer so far, there was a whole lotta fuzz about sexism on the web and in hacker spaces. And that is a good thing, because still too many people believe this is just a minor issue and that we just shouldn’t be so sensitive about that. Well, actually, that is exactly the kind of structural sexism that allows for all those sexist creeps to go around and harass as they like – and this is not only on the web. The same thing can be said of our very own face-to-face relations. If you are in computer science and want to talk about sexism, then you usually get weird looks. Only if you are in the lucky situation to find some critical minds with whom you might converse about such topics you will have at least the chance to feel not at all alone on these grounds. Well, but why talking about sexism? We are anyways against it, aren’t we? This is the common assumption (not only in computer science contexts) which is the basis for an atmosphere that breeds sexist trolls In fact we could much better call many online contexts (sexist) trollospheres, because sad as is it, it seems rather normal that (sexist) trolls thrive away in many communicative online spaces without much consequence. This doesn’t mean that being ignorant about sexism directly produces sexist trolls and behavior. But it produces a (discursive) culture in which it is just ok to throw around some sexist jokes and the like. It is deemed “normal” then, and only if somebody really exaggerates (as if single sexist jokes would not be enough to insult people and drive them away), then some critical comments follow even by those otherwise ignorant of most sexism. It is also rather common then for these commentators to assume that this is only some kind of weird individual case. But well, let me tell you what happened so far.

Recently there was a lot of widely distributed talk about sexism on the web. Partly this was due to the great achievements of Anita Sarkeesian, who facilitates the wonderful feminist pop culture media critique blog at feministfrequencies.com. Last year, on this platform, she provided her widely received series of short videos under the title Tropes vs. Women, a series that “explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV”. This year she planned on doing another series to “explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games”. For that she started a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter under the title Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, to get a little funding for it. Although the initial goal was just 6.000 US-$, in the end a fascinating 158.922 US-$ were pledged. Well, so far so good. At the same time a load of harassment and online-mobbing against Sarkeesian started. The great thing she then did do was to document this publicly right from the start. This way a whole lot of media coverage set in and sexism on the web suddenly was a serious topic – for it has been so often neglected by online communities as individual problems that are not worthy public debate. Those who bring up critiques on sexist behaviour are usually silenced or discounted as oversensitive political agitators. Sarkeesian fortunately was experienced enough to put up with that, so instead of being silenced she made all the harassment public:

“Here is a very small sample of the harassment I deal with for daring to criticize sexism in video games. Keep in mind that all this is in response to my Kickstarter project for a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (which I have not even made yet). These are the types of silencing tactics often used against women on the internet who dare to speak up. But don’t worry it won’t stop me!”

This of course led to more harassment. But it also probably led to more backers for her project, which is a great side effect. To make money of all those sexist trolls, if you cannot get rid of them is after all not such a bad strategy, as the platform hatr.org already showed for critical german speaking online contexts. Well, now, I will not post all the articles Anita Sarkeesian put out on this issue, because it might be hard to go through all those violent examples, which she made transparent on her blog. If you are interested go to her website and just scroll down (she also put some trigger warnings there, where it starts to get awful, in case you are unsure if you want to take that in). To get some overview of the media coverage look at Sarkeesian’s media round up for the Kickstarter project.

Another recent description of sexism and outright sexual harassment in ICT-related communities then was described by Valerie Aurora, from the Ada Initiative. She worked by the way also on the HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux guide, on which we reported in a recent blog post on the notion of post-gender. But what she recently reported on was the outrageous examples of sexual harassment at the DEFCON conferences, the largest and most famous hacker conference worldwide. In her post at the blog of the Ada Initiativ on DEFCON: Why conference harassment matters, she presents her very interesting insights into the development of the DEFCON conferences and the problems with stereotypical male spaces, sexism and sexual harassment at such places. Just a few days ago then Bruce Schneier, well-known security guru, wrote a short blog entry on this issue to highlight this as a problem that should not be done away with easily. So, hopefully more people, especially males start to feel responsible too and this will lead to further debates and critical action to fight sexism and sexual harassment everywhere, but also especially in our technophile male-dominated domains around computer science and ICT.

If you still don’t think this is such a big issue, take a look at the timeline of incidents, “a timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities” at the Geek Feminism Wiki. It is shocking how common sexism is. At least now it is increasingly documented and taken up for debate. If you also want to debate on this, write us an e-mail (bagru at diebin dot at), or if you are in Vienna, just come by at one of our events.

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One comment on “Sexism on the web and in hacker spaces
  1. maymay says:

    This is a great roundup. Thank you for these links! Another conference that I am told has been working to address sexism is HOPE 9 in New York City. I actually cancelled my presentation there partly because I had witnessed some sexist behavior in hackerspaces, so I wrote an open letter to the HOPE 9 speaker committee about the issue.

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