I spent a number of years studying critical media theory during my undergraduate years. This means I got to do my fair share of feminist readings of film. And one of the core concepts in feminist film theory is that of the male gaze.
In film theory, this applies to the hegemonic perpetuation of the male viewpoint by framing the story, the scene, and specific shots from the perspective of–and for the pleasure of–men. More than anything else, it is the taking for granted that the audience is male.
The male gaze doesn’t just apply to film, however. It applies wherever you have an audience and a text being presented to that audience.
It applies, for instance, at tech conferences.
Blow Jobs on the Beach
A little under two years ago at a conference called Flash on the Beach the organiser1 went on stage and asked members of the audience how many of them had attended the conference for all of its five years. A group of people from among the hundreds attending the session put their hands up. He then proceeded to tell them “Great! You’re all getting free blow jobs!”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the male gaze.
The “you’re all getting free blow jobs” joke (if we can call it a joke) only makes sense if you are talking to an all-male audience. A woman getting a blow job doesn’t make sense since she lacks one of the core requirements for getting a blow job: a penis2.
Can you imagine what impact such a statement could have on a young female developer who happens to be in the audience to hear it? Or how it could influence a future professional developer who is straight out of school or still in school (as some of the volunteers were)? What is the message she would get? Could she possibly leave with the impression that even if she works hard for many years and achieves a standing in the community that sees her speaking at a prestigious international conference she will never be more than a sexualised object? That all her hard work will still not save her from being at the brunt end of a sexist joke cracked by a man in a position of authority for the enjoyment of the other men in the audience?
The organiser later went on stage to apologise for his comments and he’s recently stated on Twitter that it is an incident that he regrets and was embarrassed by at the time.
Fast-forward and rewind
Fast-forward a few years from that Flash on the Beach incident (as well as many others, as experienced at other conferences) and you would think that we would have learned a few lessons. You would think that perhaps we would at least have begun to address the problem of sexism and gender inequality in our industry. And, in some ways, we have.
We are definitely talking about the issue and that’s a good start. We may have differing views about where to draw the lines and how exactly to tackle the issues but I feel that a considerable number of us are at least aware that there is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. And we are trying to find solutions.
At the end of last month, for example, DrupalCon published a draft code of conduct that led the community to debate just how restrictive or granular such a text needed to be. This ended up being a very positive process that led to the publishing of the Revised DrupalCon Code of Conduct this week which has received almost universal praise.
These are very positive developments and they deserve to be applauded and supported. However, as much as we are aware of the issues and as much as we are formulating solutions, nary a day goes by that you don’t hear of yet another conference where so-and-so said or did something sexist or misogynistic. This month left Dell red-faced after they invited a misogynist comedian who insulted the women in the audience at an event that their CEO Michael Dell spoke at (you can read more about that particular incident here). This January, the CEO of CES Gary Shapiro went on the record with the BCC about booth babes, telling them “sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work”. And again this week, Asus caused a stir by tweeting this photo along with a positive appraisal of the aesthetic qualities of the posterior of the young lady featured in the photo. If you’re interested in reading further about such incidents, you can find a timeline of incidents on the Geek Feminism Wiki. Or, if Tumblr is more your thing, there’s Programmers Being Dicks.
Needless to say, sexism and misogyny are alive and well and living in our industry.
On developers’ penises.
All this brings me to the incident that sparked this blog post.
I’m actually typing this on the plane ride back from Oslo where I gave the opening keynote for the Norwegian Developers Conference (NDC). On the whole, NDC was a lovely event and I enjoyed sharing one of my favourite songs and my passion for creating beautiful experiences for humans with a wonderful audience. However, my enjoyment of the event was tarnished by the incident at the after-party.
Microsoft Norway–one of the main sponsors–was to kick things off with a product announcement for Windows Azure. As part of this, they had written a song and the song was going to be played before the party began. And I had actually heard the song once before.
On Tuesday evening, I was at the venue, rehearsing and generally worrying about the song I was going to start my talk with the next day. At the end of my rehearsal and tech check, I stayed behind to give Kjersti (who helps run the company that organises NDC) a few pointers in presenting. Once we’d run through her opening speech, she told me that Microsoft Norway had written a song for the after-party and asked if I’d listen to it and watch the video. I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to the hotel but told her that sure, I’d watch it.
The Microsoft Norway rep, let’s call him Alex because I’m not entirely sure what his name was, played the song for us and my very first thoughts were that it could have been far worse–at least it sounded all right and the robotic voice was female (which was good, right, right?) I mean, I was judging it by Microsoft’s coolness standards here – you have to try pretty hard to beat monkeyboy Ballmer. But then I heard a line that began with ”I’m a developer” and ended with “my penis.” I remember turning to Alex and asking: “did I hear that right? Did it really just say ‘I’m a developer’ and end with ‘my penis?’ He shook his head, yes.
I inhaled… and proceeded to ask him if he realised how sexist that was. I may also have used the term “male gaze”, I don’t remember. I quite like that term. You may have noticed.
“You’re telling people that only men can be developers. Because only men have penises. You’re talking to an all-male audience. Do you see how that’s sexist?”
Alex shook his head, to signal that “yes”, he could see that now. And then told us that they just hadn’t considered it before.
And here’s the crazy thing: I believe him.
I don’t think that they intentionally set out to perpetuate the male gaze or to insult women or to discourage women from our industry. They just didn’t think about it.
You might be wondering how that’s even possible. Unfortunately, I believe that it’s more common than we might think. In fact, I feel that the unintentional perpetuation of the male gaze is one of the biggest issues we need to address if we are to achieve gender equality in our industry.
Yes, there will always be male chauvinist pigs who are perfectly aware of the fact that they are perpetuating a patriarchal system that benefits their own interests. They may even enjoy the process. Heck, maybe they even have an evil underground lair somewhere. But there are also people out there–and I would hazard to guess that they are a much larger group–who are doing it without even knowing that they are. And I say people because it’s not just men. The whole thing is hegemonic. I also firmly (naïvely?) believe that these people will at least attempt to do the right thing if properly educated on the issues and given half a chance.
And to his credit, Alex did ask me what they could do to make it better.
And that brings us to that confusing “(or vagina)” bit in the slides…
In retrospect, I wish I had asked to listen to the song again and that I’d paid full attention to what that sentence said but I was tired and wanted to go back to my hotel room to rehearse for my own talk (I ended up sleeping at around 1AM that day and was up again at 6AM to prepare for the opening.) What I didn’t realise at the time was that the full lyrics were “The words ‘micro’ and ‘soft’ don’t refer to my penis.” Instead, I heard ”I’m a software developer blah blah…”, zoned out, then “blah blah my penis”. And, in an effort to help, I told them that they could at least include “or vagina” in the slides (which were mirroring the words of the song). My thought at the time was, as David Murphy picked up on in his article on PC Magazine, to make an attempt to draw attention to the sexism of the lyrics by providing a counter-point that was inclusive (and thereby break the hegemony of the male gaze).
And for those of you who are wondering if I was actually thinking in exactly those terms at the time, yes, yes, I was. And that’s what four years of studying critical media theory does to your brain. *Sobs faintly into his hands*
The idea was that at least it would acknowledge that women are developers too. It was a band-aid for a train wreck but I thought it might at least signal that they had become aware of the issue and that they were trying to make amends. Needless to say, this whole conversation took place in a minute or so, it wasn’t hours of discussion. I was on my way out, and I wanted to get back to my room and rehearse my opening keynote. And, since I hadn’t heard the bit about ‘micro’ and ‘soft’, the end result, when they did change the slide to include “or vagina”, didn’t make much sense. As Todd Bishop remarks in his GeekWire article, it resulted in “a strange effort to be inclusive”. So now you know the story behind said strange effort. *Continues to sob faintly into his hands*
Of course, what Microsoft Norway should have done when they realised that the lyrics were sexist was to axe the opening entirely. Instead, they made the decision to go ahead with it and perform the song, complete with dancing girls dressed in tiny shorts (a fact they somehow forgot to mention to me when they played me the song after my rehearsal).
(In case you’re wondering, and for the sake of full-disclosure, my only role at the conference was that of a speaker. I was there to do the opening keynote. Staying late to give Kjersti a little impromptu speaker training or giving the Microsoft Norway folks feedback on their song was simply an effort to help.)
In any case, hoping that I’d at least helped a bit, I went back to my hotel room and promptly forgot about the whole thing as I spent the last few hours of the evening rehearsing my opening song and my talk for the following morning.
Countdown to disaster
During the first and second days of the conference, I told a number of people about the Microsoft song and how the lyrics were sexist and how they were at least trying to make some amends. Again, not knowing the full lyrics, I told people “there’s a sentence that starts with ‘I’m a developer’ and ends with ‘my penis.’”
On the night of the party, Microsoft Norway, in the words of Uncle Bob Martin, displayed just how completely they misunderstand their audience. Not only was the song presented along with dancing girls in tiny shorts (a beautiful spectacle for the enjoyment of the male gaze, whom the song was also written for) but they proceeded, after the song, to hold what seemed like a never-ending presentation on Windows Azure that succeeded in alienating some of the people that perhaps the song hadn’t managed to.
I was talking to Lea during the song and she was not happy at all with the line “Lea Verou will make your dreams come true.” She called it “cheesy” and “creepy”–a sentiment she’s since repeated in a tweet. I’d missed the innuendo when I’d first heard the song but now I can’t hear it any other way.
After links to a video of the song were posted online, the Twitternets began to chime in and, quite rightly so, they weren’t happy. Predictably, the press then caught wind of a juicy controversy and articles started popping up not just in the tech press like GeekWire, All Things D, and Wired but also in the popular press, like The Telegraph, Herald Sun, and (spit) Fox News, among others.
Local is global
You have to remember that in the age of Twitter and YouTube, nothing is a local event anymore. Every event is global, or can be global, within seconds. And the sooner people and companies understand this, the less shocked they’ll be when something that happens in Oslo comes back to bite them in Redmond.
It also means that it’s harder to pass the buck to a local subsidiary or blame “a lone idiot” for what is a failure of policy and operations.
Don’t roll heads, educate them
Scott Hanselman, whose lovely quote (“there are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die”) I use in my talks, responded immediately to the Twitter feedback. I believe Scott’s heart is in the right place and I applaud his effort to take action. And yet, I don’t believe his suggested means of dealing with the issue constitute an effective policy.
— Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) June 9, 2012
@aral this sounds like one lone idiot. We’ll find out.
— Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) June 9, 2012
@rmurphey agreed. Heads are rolling, I assure you. It wasn’t from the US, what’s organized or held by any of us, if that helps.
— Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) June 9, 2012
But I don’t want heads to roll. I want heads to be educated.
This is not the fault of “a lone idiot”. That’s scapegoating.
Apologies and actions
Microsoft needs to own up and take responsibility for this, apologise, and then take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. They’ve already checked the first two items off that list and are reportedly working on the third.
Microsoft has already issued an apology in the comments of the YouTube video, stating “This week’s Norwegian Developers Conference included a skit that involved inappropriate and offensive elements and vulgar language. We apologise to our customers and our partners and are actively looking into the matter.” Frank Shaw, lead of corporate communications at Microsoft, issued a similar apology from his Twitter account:
This routine had vulgar language, was inappropriate and was just not ok. We apologise to our customers and partners. geekwire.com/2012/raunchy-w…
— Frank X. Shaw (@fxshaw) June 9, 2012
The problem, of course, isn’t the vulgar language. In fact, there is nothing vulgar about the words “penis” or “vagina” unless you feel that there is something vulgar about our human anatomies. The problem isn’t the words that were used, it is that the content was sexist.
A formal apology that doesn’t pass the buck is a great start. Remember that you’re apologising for the failure of a policy that allowed a wholly-owned subsidiary to produce a sexist display at a developer conference under your name.
But don’t stop there.
How you can really turn this unfortunate situation around and do some good is to take action that matters: review your policies, find out where the communication failures were, fix those. And don’t fire the people responsible: instead, send them on a course to teach them feminist theory. We all make mistakes. Teach them the right way of doing things and let them make up for it with their actions in the future.
We can’t fix this problem by passing the buck. The only way to stop the perpetuation of the male gaze in our industry is through education.
Three steps to equality
I propose a simple three-step process that we can all follow to create more inclusive events in our industry:
- Draw attention to the problem. (Call out instances of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., that you see at conferences and events.)
- Formulate and implement solutions. (Adopting a code of conduct for your conference, for example, may be one solution.)
- Educate. (Train your employees in feminist theory. Formulate policies and make sure that they are communicated properly.)
Acknowledging that we have a problem is the first step. And talking about the problem is important. We’re already formulating solutions and I’m sure we will continue to do so. Most importantly, we have to keep educating people. Simply punishing people without educating them will not fix the core problem.
I’m sorry if this post has been a long and rambling read. It’s a topic that I feel strongly about. I believe in equality–regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, etc. I want to live in a world where, as a white, heterosexual male, I have no special privileges. And, I’m happy to use whatever privileges I may have today to help achieve that goal.
- I’ve removed the name of the organiser since this isn’t meant to be a witch-hunt and it was never my intention for it to be taken that way. What was said, how it was said, and in which context it was said is far more important than the who.
- Ashley and Tom Morris both pointed out on Twitter that transgender women do have penises. I’m sorry for not thinking of that and thank them both for bringing it to my attention.
- I’ve removed the female speaker’s name at her request.
- According a tweet from Paulo Moriera, the female speaker may have asked “What about me?” (since she couldn’t win a blow job) whereupon the organiser retorted with the “you are providing those, right?” line. I was several rows back in the audience and only heard what was broadcast over the sound system. Since the female speaker in question was at the front row and wasn’t using a microphone, it’s possible that those of us further back in the audience did not hear her reply.