Too often, saying “feminism” evokes the same reaction as if you’d loudly said “pap smear”: both topics promote what’s best for women, are rarely treated with anything more positive than thinly veiled tolerance, and every man in the room becomes extremely uncomfortable. While it’d be nice to close our eyes and browsers and believe we aren’t in these times anymore, it simply isn’t true; females in every facet of the interactive media industry are under attack and some in the most literal sense of the word. Is this where we sit back, pick a gender to side with and hope it all goes away? Well, that worked so well in primary school, so we’ll call that plan “B.” However, for the rest of us, every change starts with a single step, and Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie (FTI) shared some great advice to help us take the right steps.
Last week, I was invited to Kate’s talk “A Lady’s Guide To Kicking Ass,” which was organised and hosted by Microsoft, and presented for the Australian Computer Society. Of course, I eagerly accepted, hoping to understand a more insightful perspective on what has gone so wrong lately. When I wandered into the Microsoft seminar room, I noticed two things: in jeans and my trusty GC t-shirt, I was very underdressed, and two, the room was not full of women in power suits as I’d apparently been expecting. As I mentally accepted another loyalty stamp on my Frequently Wrong card, I did a rough head count of the room: there were almost equal amounts of men and women. Already, I felt something akin to pride that there were people, local, professional, industry-savvy people that agreed on the way things were was not acceptable and had actively sought a means to start making a change.
Furthermore, this rather timely event was orchestrated by Michelle Stanford from Microsoft and was Kate’s first time speaking for them. As I nestled quietly in the back row so I could observe the room, Kate made her purposes in doing the presentation very clear: it was to focus on the positive things. This doesn’t mean sticking your head in the sand, but to reexamine the industry in a way that makes it possible to improve it using the best methods. As she explained the focus I could see an encouraging Mexican wave of head bobs ripple through the packed audience- it was clear Kate wasn’t alone in seeing hope in an encompassing change, rather than a virtual falcon punch at offenders. The agreement was the most promising thing as the seminar room’s occupants came from such an assortment of associated fields, yet could see the sense in a new approach.
We are lucky in Perth to have a very inclusive scene, but we still have plenty of frustrating circumstances that require strategies to deal and overcome such instances, in order to focus on the good. It’s important here to note that before explaining these strategies, Kate said what I later found out most of us were thinking: it’s not only sexism or misogyny and its certainly not just male culprits- it’s a social issue. The first step is the most obvious one, but often the hardest to coax from people: identify and acknowledge the issue. Online anonymity makes it easier to metaphorically step forward, but is it enough? If you’ve been to tech events where the strongest female presence is from the promo women in half an outfit, don’t just let it happen, speak up and object. Very few people like confrontation and even less want to stand alone, but as Kate suggested, there are ways to say what’s necessary without creating animosity.
The best approach is never to go in with guns blazing, try assuming the best of the situation first. I was pleased to hear I’m not alone in using humour to make objections easier; the more relaxed, non-confrontational approach has yielded me more positive outcomes in almost every case. When speaking up, it does no good to think the job ends then: when cases like this are happening here and there, they can too easily go unnoticed; if they are then documented and shared, well that’s when you have allies. The inclusion of allies in no way denotes warfare but instead signifies a positive counterbalance and a normalization of expectations. While Kate would love nothing more than to see industries with more than a token female presence and an all-female tech panel, I can freely admit I still couldn’t keep up with the panel. It would go a long way to giving the next generation something better to work towards if othering or objectification vanished from the industry. For the best example of these strategies, have a look at the geek feminism wiki and help by being the change.
When Kate’s presentation wrapped up, and several hands shot into the air to ask questions, it became abundantly clear that everyone there was genuinely interested in what they could do next. I recommend reading her blog for all of the thoughtful ideas she presented, but one of the last things Kate iterated was ‘be a friend and ally and a mentor.’ I believe it really is as simple as that, and as superb as Microsoft/ACS’s dinner array was, the seminar room was full not for that, but because like-minded people know that if you want something done, you better be willing to do it yourself.