Geek feminism, like geekdom and most other discussions, has a long experience of unhelpful people and has a list of things that signal that someone is about to be unhelpful. In geekdom in general for example, it's generally frowned upon to post to a mailing list or forum threatening to leave unless a condition is fulfilled. (Especially if that condition is "unless people reply and say that they want me to stay".) But as in geekdom in general, people do sometimes do these things without realising that they have a long history of coming from unhelpful people and are thus highly marked. This page is designed to be a guide to not giving off unintentional signals that you're anti-feminist.
But it was a joke... really!
An important thing to note is that a lot of anti-women statements are tiresome to geek women even as an insider joke. Some people genuinely say and mean "you must have your period, you're acting crazy". Others say "you must have your period, you're acting crazy... haha you must get that a lot, what with the sexism in geekdom huh, don't worry, I'm an ally! Just proving I get it!" The latter may work among friends who know each other. Among strangers or near strangers it's grating and assumes a false intimacy. You can't tell if a stranger is in the mood to laugh and you can't expect a stranger to be able to tell that you're joking, as opposed to joking-only-serious or entirely serious.
What to do, and not to do
- Respect safe space.
- The purpose of feminism is not to make more women accessible to you, either as potential friends or as potential lovers. It's to make the world more accessible to women, because the world is a fun place to be. Don't add a rider to your statements of support for women in geekdom about how much you're looking forward to the hot/smart babes headed your way. Even if you are.
- Women's anger is often minimised by being treated as either amusing or as destabilising and weird. Don't be weird about it. You don't have to engage with an angry person (although it can be educational), but angry women haven't suddenly negated all their own points by the fact of showing emotion. Anger happens when people care.
- Don't deny women's experiences or feelings. If she states that something happened, or she felt such, then treat it as a fact in the discussion.
- Don't use the reported experiences or feelings of women to attempt to trump other women talking about theirs ("but my friend thinks..." "but my wife says..." "but another blogger wrote..."). Women have different experiences from each other. You can discuss them as an alternative view, but two women with different perceptions does not make the one who supports your argument right.
- If you are inclined to come up with an explanation of why a particular incident wasn't sexist, or to prove that some particular phenomenon being presented as misogynistic is completely unrelated to misogyny, then that is a good sign that you should stop, check your privilege, and listen. Consider the possibility that there is information relevant to the matter at hand that you might not have access to, and that the only way you can learn that information is by listening to women. You can't listen and judge at the same time.
- For example, if "Alice" points out that version control systems that make it difficult for a committer to change their name have a disparate impact on people in marginalized groups, and you feel an urge to point out that really, the systems are designed this way because the engineers who designed them are just lazy, you should take this as a sign that you do not know everything about the situation and should keep listening to what Alice is saying. Furthermore, you should ask yourself whether Alice has also considered the possibility that engineers might be lazy, and whether it is really necessary for you to assume that she hasn't.
- Be clear about whether you are presenting a statement as fact or opinion. Be aware that if you have white privilege, cis privilege, and male privilege, your statements may be perceived as authoritative and objective even if you intend them as expressions of your opinion. Take special care to make it explicit when you are speaking from lived experience and when you are speaking based on secondary or tertiary sources. Admit uncertainty and repeatedly make it clear in your speech that you are aware that it is possible for you to be wrong.
- For example, compare "Harassment just isn't a problem at software conferences" with "I haven't personally seen anyone being harassed at a conference, but I know that there may have been incidents I wasn't present for and admit the possibility that harassers often refrain from harassing women when other men are present." The second statement makes it clear how the speaker knows what he is saying and leaves room for doubt, whereas the first one claims authority without making it obvious where that authority comes from (meaning that, if a man is speaking, it appeals to the authority conferred on him by patriarchy) and shuts down the discussion.
- Women will talk about personal things in feminist Safe spaces, such as relationships, bodies and emotions. Unlike in general spaces, men shouldn't reciprocate in kind even if they want to, unless it's explicitly stated that men's stories are wanted. This exclusion is necessary for Safe space work, since men already have their male privilege to be listened to and respected in the world in general.
- When anyone has been a victim of harassment, don't ask about whether she or he reported it and why (not), whether she or he said something and why (not), whether she fought and why (not), whether she or he is going back to that forum or location and why (not). Especially don't phrase this as "you should have..." It is not the job of people who have been harassed or abused to educate the perpetrator or to try and keep the world safe from that perpetrator: the survivor should have the choice that the perpetrator denied them. The most you can do is say something like "if you decide to take any action and need any help or support, I can help."
- Women are less likely than you to be able to assume a calm, disinterested and analytical tone when discussing feminist issues. Do not assume that this makes you more rational or more able to see things clearly than them. It makes you privileged, which will tend to make you less well-informed, because you've never had to be.
- Don't preemptively defuse anger in feminist discussions by saying things like "I know I'm gunna get killed for this..." or similar.
- In a feminist conversation, listening rather than speaking is always a good option, especially if you see someone else making the points you would have made.
- At least online, or in large groups of people, not every topic requires your personal spin on it, unless you are being specifically addressed or talked about. If you're uncomfortable, or uninformed, or out of energy, you can remain silent and listen and learn, or move on.
- Do not request that women regularly make statements of general approval towards men or specific approval of you in particular, especially not in feminist discussions. (See Feminist cookie).
- It is sometimes relevant and sometimes crucial to also discuss other diversity activism in feminist discussions. But refusing to take a feminist discussion seriously unless it somehow proves it is going to solve all the world's problems in one go is the definition of derailing. If you are genuinely interested in and involved in diversity activism, discuss it: set up a new thread, discussion, panel, etc, so as not to pull an existing discussion off course. But if you aren't, don't fling "yeah, well, what about [this other terrible inequality]?" out there for the sake of it. Just because someone is talking about geek feminism doesn't mean that she doesn't know or care about other diversity problems. A possible litmus test for derailing as opposed to a genuine intersectionality discussion is "am I moving this discussion in a direction which makes me more comfortable?"