Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 24th Jan, 2011

A thousand household uses

This afternoon, after Jon Corbet's fascinating and ever-diplomatic talk about setting up Linux Weekly News, I attended the Training Allies talk of the Haecksen Miniconf. This was an eye-opening tutorial for men about how to support women in the FOSS community. The format was that we would be given a social situation and someone would have to behave in some way that socially disadvantaged women. Then the other people in the situation would get suggestions of things to say that could help defuse or reverse that comment, and people from the audience would contribute their own thoughts about how to deal with that situation in a positive and constructive manner.

I found it extremely challenging to get up and say to a woman "are you here for the partners' programme?" even in a role-played situation. I never want to have to be in anything like that situation. If every man could feel the way that I did when they went to say that kind of comment, there would be no sexism. It's hard enough when such a comment is made accidentally, or without thinking, but when it's a deliberate, pre-planned thing it pushes really hard on all the buttons I've developed from a childhood of being bullied at school.

Other than my own physical discomfort, though, the whole thing went very well and was well received. I think Val's absolutely right when she talkes about "magical man sparkles" (don't let me analyze vampire movies right now, though) - men get instant 'blokey' credentials with other men and will heed a comment that would be ignored or criticised if made by a woman. We need to use these credentials to change the way other men act and think about women.

I had the opportunity to put some of this thinking into practice sooner than I had anticipated. Picking up dinner from an indian restaurant, I had been greeted by the woman at the counter who had taken my phone order; a man also working at the restaurant was standing at the counter. We had just started talking about my day when he said "She's very pretty, isn't she?"

I didn't even have time to consciously think abou what we'd done in the Allies session; something just stuck in my head about his choice of the word 'pretty'. I replied with "We're all pretty, aren't we?"

A grin, a laugh, and we moved on to other topics and I talked about how cool LCA was. The lady said "it sounds like it's an awesome day", and I had to agree. Maybe there was something even cleverer to say, but I'm pretty happy with having come with something that defused the situation without being negative. Picking up a take-away order isn't the time to fight the appropriateness of a comment like that, but I feel that by making light of it indirectly makes the statement "you do not have a right to single her out for comment to another person, nor make me part of whatever game you're playing". The lessons I've learnt in dealing with how to enable women in FOSS also apply equally well to everyday situations.

There is no victory for feminism, no point at which we can all shout hurray and not worry about it any more. Feminism is just another way of fighting injustice and prejudice, and that happens everywhere. We all have to think carefully about the example we set. Ultimately to me it boils down to hypocrisy - treating someone else in a way that you would not accept being treated. We will all have to continue to fight hypocrisy wherever we find it in whatever form, and with whatever energy and tools we have to hand.

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