What I’ve learned from Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day – and why I’m calling it off

The real mission has to be making everyone feel welcome, period.

"Objectify A Man in Tech Day" has become much bigger than I expected since I first wrote about it. At first I was excited, but now I see the scale of the discussion and coverage is creating a number of valid risks - and as a result, I'd like to call off the event.

The widely-covered event started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing - and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech - fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.

I hoped the result of what we began calling "#Objectify day" would catalyse discussions about the way we use language and how seemingly-innocuous "compliments" are belittling and distracting. A lot of people liked this idea, understood the intention and found it fun.

My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work! But there were also a lot of problems with my approach that came to light thanks to the feedback of some trusted friends and colleagues, and I take their concerns extremely seriously.

The dialogue's been great, but the end result - a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter - runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I'm increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done.

My friends and I have done our best to put clear information about our goals out there, but the sad fact is we can't expect everyone to read up or treat one another with respect. And there are some problematic risks even assuming everyone does "get it": We liked people comparing #Objectify to the Hawkeye Initiative but that also means we must consider similar criticisms, and the very real risk that our event would solicit homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices.

Though we wanted to call out gendered language, focusing on men in this way makes some dangerous assumptions about gender norms and sexuality:

For one thing, the event as it stands currently ignores the fact that gay men, trans men, men of color and any other man outside the "straight white guy privilege" zone are already victims of objectification. "Objectify a man" risks using harmful language toward people who may be vulnerable.

For another, some people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women's sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won't actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it's worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively -- is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone?

We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn't matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.

I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.

"Starting dialogue" this way isn't worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.

There are a few good things, here: it's been an incredible learning experience, and I am still proud of the respectful attention my colleagues, friends and readership have given to issues of objectification and of making women feel welcome in tech. I've had positive conversations that would have been impossible even a year ago. That it took off in a larger way than I ever could have expected shows on some level that people care about change, and that makes me glad.

But the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate - now I've been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I'm modeling those same qualities myself.

When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don't get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen That's what this has always been about.

If you've been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech -- or anywhere.

If you understood and appreciated our intention we thank you for your support, but we ask that if you've written about Objectify to please remove your post, or at least modify it to reflect our reasons for reconsidering this event.

Thanks for your compassion.

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. This post first appeared at her blog, Sexy Videogameland.

There'll be no more objectification. Look at this lovely picture of a baby giraffe instead. Photograph: Getty Images
Hamzah al Zobi
Show Hide image

Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".