Gender Bias: Are You Aware Of Yours?

Image - iStockphoto: XiXinXing
Image – iStockphoto: XiXinXing

Just When You Think You’re Enlightened

Now backpedaling in an almost comic retreat, officials of South By Southwest (SXSW) triggered a storm of controversy when they canceled two panels relative to online harassment such as the GamerGate community is infamous for. Amid searing criticism and cancellations by would-be SXSW-goers, SXSW Interactive chief Hugh Forrest issued an apology Friday, conceding that the conference did the wrong thing.

He is announcing a full-day “Online Harassment Summit” for the 12th of March.

In his post—headlined with no reference to the bungle that produced it—the beleaguered Forrest writes:

Earlier this week we made a mistake. By cancelling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry…It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address.

Hugh Forrest
Hugh Forrest

Of course, it was hardly so “clear” to Forrest and his team initially that the issue “requires more than two panel discussions to address.” Having been seen by many to have caved to the threats of the harassment camp, Forrest’s administration now is hard-pressed to prove its allegiance to forthright discussion, even in the face of perceived hostility. He writes:

Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying. It is a menace that has often resulted in real world violence; the spread of discrimination; increased mental health issues and self-inflicted physical harm.

In what might be seen by some as a fig leaf, Forrest resurfaces the “safety” concern that accompanied the cancellation, but he and his team now seem to have understood the profound blowback that greeted their initial reactions.

SXSW strives to bring a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016.

It’s unclear that the conference’s effort to regain its poise will be successful.

Brianna Wu
Brianna Wu

Nick Wingfield at The New York Times has quoted Giant Spacekat development lead Brianna Wu’s tweet, likely saying what many feel: “I’m not going to tell you this erases the terrible path @sxsw took getting here.”

The gaffe was seen as evidence of bad faith with many in the community that the organization serves. Such a major misstep undermines a constituency’s faith. If they could walk into this wall, why not the next one, or the next one?

Arthur Chu
Arthur Chu

And such essays as Arthur Chu’s piece at The Daily Beast, This Is Not A Game: How SXSW Turned GamerGate Abuse Into A Spectator Sport, paint a damning picture of apparent arrogance at SXSW, negligence, unresponsiveness. Forrest and his folks need to address these points, not just the question of panels and “summits.”

Of course, SXSW’s pratfall was unintentional. It’s foolhardy to jeopardize the viability of such an avidly attended annual enterprise by sauntering without more caution through such explosive themes as the online tension in the tech world around pitched battles there for gender parity. But these issues must be addressed and the climb-down that SXSW that Forrest has attempted suggests that they didn’t know what they were getting into.

And it’s often at great distances from such flash points in Austin that you see some of the most interesting ramifications.

An instance of this has played out in the last two days in a private publishing-industry list-serv, as responses to the SXSW scenario quickly evoked some difficult and wonderfully instructive exchanges among the participants.

A Question Of Complicity

The email chain I’m referring to has as a policy, and a good one, forbidding journalists to quote comments with names attached without first getting the commenters’ approval. And so where I use a name here, know that I have received permission from that person to quote them.

What developed in nearly 100 mails exchanged there this week has been a picture of how alien—or worse, non-existent— gender-bias issues can look from different perspectives, and how unconscious we all can be of our own bone-deep assumptions. They can form an unrecognized context that only darkens when examined closely.

“Rare is the man who absorbs my end of a conversation. Or who even acknowledges that there is a conversation. How can so many men not hear the sound of voices that are not their own?”
Laura Dawson

The exercise gives us all a chance here to think about complicity in two ways when it comes to sexism.

In several instances over the years, I have written about what I characterize as “the stupid oppression of women by men over millennia.” I call this oppression “stupid” carefully and seriously because I believe that it is indefensible:

  • Indefensible in terms of its damage to women,
  • Self-destructive in its damage to men and how they feel about themselves , and
  • Avoidable: we don’t have to be this way with each other.
Laura Dawson
Laura Dawson

In the course of the opening discussion of online sexist harrasment of women in online tech settings, Laura Dawson—a hugely respected metadata specialist in publishing and a good friend to many of us in the industry—took the conversation beyond the gamers and gates and walked it right into our homes and offices.

Clearly writing with heartfelt conviction—and, with her permission, I’ll quote her in full so as not to risk unintentionally coloring her comment—Dawson wrote:

As a woman, fundamentally, before I am either a technologist, consumer, or player of games …I have found such behavior everywhere. Including in my own home. For all my life. From men I have worked with, men I have side-eyed, men I have embraced, and men I have loved. From the time I could speak until this very day when I was told to pipe down. From my father, my brother, my husband, my lovers – rare is the man who absorbs my end of a conversation. Or who even acknowledges that there is a conversation. How can so many men not hear the sound of voices that are not their own?

Speech is sedition. While this thread was beginning to circulate, I was in a car listening to this:  And the author stated that girls and women are the pioneers of language – for a reason. Because certain things must be expressed, especially when that expression is frowned upon.

These are not churls. These are men. Everyday men. Everywhere men. Some of these men might be under your own roof right this minute.

Perhaps #notallmen. But the ones who don’t publicly, constantly, loudly call others out on this are complicit.

Considerable tension was present in some of the ensuing exchanges. Dawson’s call was insistent when male members of the group asked how they could be considered complicit in what is often called “everyday sexism” when they, in fact, believe themselves to be highly conscious of the equal value of women to men. Most of the guys on this list are professionals whose careers involve literature and publication in one way or another. I think it’s fare to say that most of them think of themselves as aligned with feminist principles of equal rights, pay, stance, place, and value for women and men.

Dawson’s answers were more questions, in the context of discriminatory behavior against women:

Are you speaking out? Are you doing anything about this?

This seemed to come across as a litmus test to some of the men reading Dawson’s comments, as if she had demanded, “Have you decked a misogynist today?” At one point, she clarified that she wasn’t talking about marching in the streets:

I am not suggesting that all men campaign.

I am simply saying that those who do not constantly, when confronted with an instance, slap that behavior down publicly and loudly – are part of the problem.

Another commenter later in the thread would go further and make a special request that men call out sexist assumption and behavior in all-male settings where it can be easy to let it slide, bro.

Dawson’s proposal is that if a man sees discriminatory behavior in other men and doesn’t challenge that behavior for what it is, guy to guy, then that man is partly responsible for the behavior he hasn’t questioned.

This was challenged repeatedly by at least one list member, a guy who took what appeared to be serious issue with the assumption that the failure to counter another’s sexism makes any of us as wrong as the original perpetrator.

“There is a very well established evidence base for an unconscious bias against women that all people suffer. Including women. Including women who are aware of and working on the problem of sexism. So unfortunately, it is all men, and it’s all women too, who are unconsciously biased against women.”
Suw Charman-Anderson

What wasn’t dealt  with in the list’s context is that these can be anything but comfortable concerns between men. Calling out your friends or colleagues on issues of gender bias may be the right thing to do, indeed, but many would like to come to that conclusion themselves. Having it demanded of them, along with an assumption of failure if they don’t comply, isn’t going to sit well with all people, male or female.

And building on the groundwork that Dawson faithfully, forcefully had built over many emails, the most interesting phase of the discussion came as members began to discuss how frequently we—both women and men—don’t even recognize inappropriate behavior in ourselves and others because our cultural context has made it invisible to us.

“‘Being Not Sexist’ Isn’t Quite Enough”

Suw Charman-Anderson
Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson—whose permission to quote I’ve also secured—wrote of her experience in running the Ada Lovelace Day organization, a celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I recommend you read these comments, like Dawson’s, in full:

The biggest problem that we face is that there is a very well established evidence base for an unconscious bias against women that all people suffer. Including women. Including women who are aware of and working on the problem of sexism. So unfortunately, it is all men, and it’s all women too, who are unconsciously biased against women. Even if you are consciously aware of sexism and know to your very core that you are not sexist, that you support women and do not discriminate, I’m afraid to say that your unconscious bias is letting you down.

Now, that’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the system and culture that we grow up with. It’s the fault of a culture that discriminates between boys and girls even before they are born: Parents talk differently to babies in the womb if they know that they are going to have a girl or a boy.

These are strong tides to swim against, which is why simply “being not sexist” isn’t actually quite enough. We all, men and women, have to become more aware about how we are judging women more harshly than men, be aware of how this built-in unconscious bias works, and put in place processes to counteract it. Gender discrimination is universal, no matter how much we wish it weren’t.

Inequality, Charman-Anderson said she has discovered, “is still seen as a woman’s problem, for women to solve.”

Read more

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Gender Bias: Are You Aware Of Yours?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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