Roll Up For The First Annual Objectify A Man in Tech Day

What if men writing tech journalism had to field compliments about their looks or sexual attractiveness any time they wanted to talk about issues of concern to their space? I’d love to find out.

UPDATE 28 January: Objectify A Man in Tech Day has now been called off - you can read Leigh's post about why she's cancelling it here

From booth babes to harassment, snide comments to double standards, women have often had a hard time feeling comfortable around the tech industry. 

But the fightback has begun: here at the New Statesman, Alex Hern covered the #1ReasonWhy campaign which allowed Twitter users to share the experiences they believe are putting off women from working in games. Prolific coverage of #1ReasonWhy resulted in stressful - but crucial - further conversations, in forums and comment sections, of the sort you might expect when a historically cloistered and self-protective group is prompted to consider opening up its insular club to the real adult world.

Emily Gera made an interactive text piece titled CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE NOW A KOTAKU COMMENTER to satirise the misguided, wildly terrified and thoughtlessly hostile responses to #1ReasonWhy that emerged in the popular gaming blog’s comments sections. It's full of lines such as "Often you think to yourself, 'what ever happened to all the men?' Once prized for everything from inventing snooker to the Yorkie bar, the population of men on the Internet is now under attack by the pastel-draped world of women whose shirts don’t even have 50 percent opacity." It’s barely satire, sadly.

In this crucible of negativity and conflict, the kind of harmless compliments that female tech journalists routinely get about their appearance when writing or speaking in public hardly seem worth getting heated up about. Yet sometimes it’s the more insidious elements of sexism that deserve the closest analysis, conversation and discussion. Everyone knows that discrimination is wrong. It’s just that sometimes people need a little help to recognise when discrimination is happening.

I speak in public often, but I’m loath to share and promote any video of my appearances – in part due to normal self-consciousness, and in part due to an aversion to response. A woman who shows her face in a male-dominated space generally can’t win. If her audience does not find her attractive, she will have to hear a lot of specific criticisms of her features (searching for me on Google Images yields a picture of my face alongside Jay Leno’s, a referendum on my chin).

It’s worse on her if her audience does like her looks: In that case they’ll say she obviously used her beauty to boost her career and is seeking attention and praise for displaying even a biographical headshot. Or she’ll be the recipient of vulgar comments and image manipulations.

Difficult stuff, yes – but also problematic, and much more widespread, is an insidious breed of sycophantism. This makes it more likely for a woman in geek culture to have to hear about how gorgeous and radiant she is whenever she wants to join important discussions, make statements on issues or use her expertise.

I use Twitter as a primary avenue to promote my work, and it’s common to see readers and self-described “fans” share links to my articles accompanied by superficial compliments that, while polite, have little to do with my writing, which generally focuses on game design analysis, social commentary and entertainment culture.  In an article compiling opinions from industry voices on the current game violence dialogue, it was pointed out to me that I am prettier than my male colleagues. In a video of a panel I recently participated in to give advice to game developers as a member of the press, I heard a lot about how great my hair is.

Now wait a minute, you might say – what’s so awful about a well-intentioned compliment? Isn’t it better than a vulgar one? People love compliments! (And the ‘winking’ emoticon. Always that damn smarmy winking emoticon!!)

Here’s the thing. Yes, the intention is usually harmless, even well-meaning. But superficial compliments have nothing to do with my writing, and coming from strangers, sometimes heaps of them at once, the net effect is creepy. This is the reality that many, even most women working and writing and speaking in tech fields face on a regular basis, and the reaction when we protest – please let’s focus on my work, not my face/body/hair – is telling.

People get angry. Rejecting physical compliments is considered snobby, unkind, uptight. You don’t like when men are abusive to you but you don’t like when they’re nice to you, either? Commenters sneer.  I’d love to have people complimenting me and coming on to me, shrug men. I call my friends “hot” all the time, protest people with whom you are not friends. Can’t you take a compliment is a sort of menacing thing to say, like attention from men is something we’re socially obligated to receive even in our workplace, which for writers is “the internet”.  

Still, we know we have to pick our battles in this landscape. So over the years, through a litany of being told I’m lovely – or the diminutive “adorable” – by people who are ultimately just trying to support and share my work, I’ve smiled tautly or ignored them.

Doing that, though, is as complicated a proposition as dealing with catcalls late at night. Shouting back is risky, potentially angering dangerous people or inviting accusations of being overly defensive toward people who were “just trying to be nice” by whistling to you from an alleyway as if you were a lost dog. But go too long ignoring it with a gritted smile and you start to break inside. Person after person is reducing you to an object, and you are tacitly accepting it.

So I got an idea, after seeing someone call me “lovely” for posting a design-oriented article on violence in games. Even though I know nobody intended anything other than respect for me, I had to act.

So I proposed the first annual “Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day”. On February 1, whenever you tweet an article, quote, comment or video from a man, add a comment about their appearance or attractiveness – “Great article on Final Fantasy XII-2 from the always-gorgeous Kirk Hamilton,” for example.

The purpose of the exercise isn’t to “get revenge” or to make anyone uncomfortable: simply to help highlight by example what a gendered compliment looks like, and to get people talking in a funny and lighthearted way about how these kinds of comments distract from meaningful dialogues and make writers online feel like their point of view is only as relevant as how attractive they are.

My friend Ben Abraham, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney and a longtime blogger on games, helped me launch a formal campaign on Facebook. Left to my own, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I might have done nothing – the whole “pick your battles” thing has trained me to fear and avoid starting certain conversations online, and I’m afraid of backlash: You’re overreacting. You’re impossible to please. You probably don’t get that many compliments, you’re not that hot.

But Ben’s event page attracted retweets, comments both funny and serious, and over 100 attendees in its first hour. It wasn’t long before “men’s rights activists” arrived, offended at the “misandry” they saw in the act of asking people to try a playful shift in perspective or to have a conversation. The comments discussion is already fascinating, and Ben’s enlisted feminist student moderators to help engage and educate the curious. Interestingly, all the social media around the event so far has praised only Ben for his idea, even though we’re both co-hosts on the event.

We hope to see the idea shared broadly and the discussion continue on Facebook and through other social media outlets. If we all share the goal of making tech and gaming spaces for fair dialogue and respectful treatment of everyone, we should examine the way we talk to and treat one another – even when we’re “just trying to be nice.”


Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. She blogs intermittently at Sexy Videogameland

Gawker's Adrian Chen in a tutu, with "shoe on the head", here represents adorable male tech writers. Photo: Gawker
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.