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.