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Allies workshop

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About the allies workshopEdit

Often, when a sexist incident happens, we are so busy being shocked and amazed that we can't react quickly. Sometimes days can go by before we figure out what to do. This is true for even for people who have a lot of experience and education in supporting geek women. For example, one experienced geek feminist who "wrote the book" on how to respond to pornographic presentations was present for a pornographic presentation. Despite knowing intellectually what to do, she was too shocked to respond in any way for several hours. If a world expert in supporting geek women can't respond quickly, what hope to do the rest of us have?

The solution is practice. By running through theoretical scenarios and coming up with answers in a friendly environment, we have a better chance at responding in the real world. It's like practicing a presentation.

Scope and audienceEdit

An "ally" in this context is someone who wants to help a disadvantaged group, but is not a member of that group themselves. This workshop is focused on teaching men - male allies - how to support geek women in their daily lives by taking small, simple actions.

Women often also attend the workshop, both to learn techniques and to take part in the discussion, but the scope of the workshop does not include teaching women how to respond to sexism.

Gender-related vocabulary in this workshopEdit

Gender binary language divides people into "men" and "women" and things into "masculine" and "feminine," with no other options. Many people do not identify as either wholly "male" or wholly "female." This means, for example, that using phrases like "men and women" to mean "all adult people regardless of gender" is inaccurate and incorrect (try "people of all genders" instead).

In this workshop, our audience is limited to men - defined as people who get the societal advantages of being male - who want to learn to support women - defined as people who are treated by society as women. The scope of this workshop does not include how to support people of non-binary genders beyond simply not discriminating against them when attempting to support women (e.g., how to avoid being transphobic). In this workshop, the words "men" and "women" are defined as above, and in particular, "men" is not equivalent to "not women" or vice versa.

Finding someone to teach the workshopEdit

The Ada Initiative will teach allies workshops at no charge (with some limitations)[1]. People with extensive experience in supporting women in geek culture can teach this workshop using this guide. The entire workshop curriculum and supporting materials are freely available under the CC-BY-SA license.

Past workshopsEdit

This workshop has been taught at the Haecksen miniconf at LCA 2011 and LCA 2012, OSBridge 2011, Linaro Connect 2012, Everyone Hacks 2013, code4lib 2014, Wiki Conference USA 2014, and LinuxCon North America 2014.

Instructions for workshop teachersEdit

One way to run the workshop is in this order, with each section explained in more detail below:

  • Introduce the basic concepts of men acting as allies and why it works
  • Explain workshop structure
  • Review basic principles of responding to sexism
  • Talk about safe space
  • Do group giggle
  • Ask people to split up into small groups for discussion (opt-outs listen to instructor's group)
  • For each group of scenarios:
  • Instructor presents answers to first scenario with reasons why
  • Each group comes up with answers to following examples for 5 minutes
  • Instructor asks whole class for answers
  • Instructor types each answer on screen as given, not criticizing
  • Class discusses answers and why they are good or bad
  • Instructor adds any missing answers or points
  • Closing session asking for questions, feedback, what people learned

Explain the focus on male alliesEdit

The below is an example of how to explain why the workshop is focused on male allies:

Many geek cultures are majority male - for example, open source software is approximately 98% men. If we rely on women to change geek culture to be more friendly to women, we are losing the majority of people who might help. Women are also already at a disadvantage for many other reasons (the second shift, discrimination, not fitting out, lacking similar role models) and adding the burden of "advocating for women in geek culture" usually increases the chance of women dropping out.

Men have many advantages given to them by society simply for being male: men are presumed to know what they are talking about, people are more likely to listen and give credit to men, people feel more comfortable being told what to do by men. As a result, men can advocate for women in geek culture and have more effect than an equivalent woman - this is using your power for good.

People often respond much more positively to men advocating for women than women themselves. If, as a man, you are worried about being attacked for advocating for women, don't predict the response based on how you see people react to women. Men will still face criticism, but are also quite likely to be praised, thanked, and respected. Advocating for women can be a career and personal advantage for men.

Describe what to expect in this workshopEdit

Explain how the workshop will be structured and what will be expected of attendees. Describe the rules of participation, basic principles of responding to sexism in an effective way, and then split into groups to discuss example scenarios.

Emphasize safe spaceEdit

Workshops should be safe spaces where we are allowed to make mistakes and possibly do or say sexist things, or ask dumb questions. The person running the workshop should tell everyone that it is a safe space, and ask people not to make fun of people's well-intentioned comments or repeat unflattering stories outside the workshop.

Recording a workshop should be done with great caution. Recording will make people afraid to answer or discuss, and parts may be taken out of context. Some workarounds are to not record the audience, edit out the audience answers, only record the instructor and have the instructor repeat any audience input in order to anonymize it, or to allow each attendee to review and request edits of the video before releasing it.

Break the tensionEdit

Often there's a certain "giggle factor" because people are nervous about talking about sex(ism). This makes it difficult to be serious about the role-playing. We suggest acknowledging the awkwardness explicitly and showing a funny slide or making a joke and giving people a chance to giggle before they start role-playing.

Review basic principles of responding to sexismEdit

This section should be briefly explained by the presenter before starting the role-playing part of the workshop.

  • Pick your battles. Chances are, you can't respond to every sexist incident you see or you'd never get anything else done. That's okay. Pick the ones that will have the most reward. Play to your audience - the person being sexist is the person least likely to change their mind (although it sometimes happens).
  • Do not battle. Don't engage in an argument on someone else's terms. State your opinion once, correct any factual errors or true misunderstandings, and then change the subject or leave the conversation. (This is also known as Charles' Rules of Argument.) The exception is when you are campaigning over the long-term for a big change - but that's outside the scope of this workshop.
  • Practice your responses. Role-playing according to the scripts below is one way to practice. Another is to read stories about previous incidents. Pick a few short responses that feel good to you and practice saying them until they come automatically. Some options:
    • "That's pretty rude."
    • "Please don't say those things around me."
    • "I'm offended by that."
    • (Your phrase here)
  • Don't fight sexism with other ism's. Don't try to fight sexism by saying something homophobic or transphobic - for example, asking how people would feel about male homosexual booth babes, or trans booth babes. It's wrong, and it's self-defeating. We're not going to win respect and equality for women by attacking homosexual and trans people. Try to avoid making fun of people who are less sexually attractive than others, too. It may feel good to make fun of someone by saying he won't get a date if he's sexist, but it will not feel good to someone listening who can't get a date through no fault of their own. See Good sexism comebacks and Bad sexism comebacks.
  • Choose the most powerful response. When do you say "I don't like that," (my personal opinion is) vs. "That's not okay" (that is morally wrong)? When you have authority or power in the situation, use "That's not okay." When all you control is yourself and your opinions, use "I don't like that."
  • Have replies ready for common arguments. One is along the lines "I know one particular woman and she said she doesn't see what's wrong with $SEXIST_THING, therefore you shouldn't mind either." Some replies are:
    • "I'm a man, and I mind $SEXIST_THING."
    • "Women are different people, just like men, and often have different opinions."
    • "One woman doesn't get to decide what's offensive."
    • "If I were her, I'd probably be too polite or worried about people liking me to say I didn't like it."
  • Use your position and influence. If you have power - such as being list moderator, project leader, conference organizer, LUG president, IRC op, or funding coordinator - don't be afraid to use it to fight sexism. Many of us are used to having little or no influence and don't immediately think of using it. If you don't have any particular power in a situation, express your opinion to someone who does. In some case, just making a public report is the best thing you can do.
  • Take advantage of your gender. Remember, you always have the power of being male when talking about sexism. This automatically makes people respect your opinion about sexism more. You may be surprised to discover how positively people respond to you when you object to sexism. They are likely to think you are brave, enlightened, principled, intelligent, etc. (See "Magical Man Sparkles.")

Break into groupsEdit

The workshop can be run as one big group with the instructor leading the discussion, but people will participate more and learn more if they split into smaller groups for at least part of the time. Some options:

  • Form groups of 4-6 people and discuss within the group.
  • Get extroverted volunteers to discuss in front of the whole audience.
  • Recommended: Allow people to do both: either form a small group or watch the volunteers discuss, as they feel comfortable.


Note: All of these scenarios are directly based on events that have actually happened, and sometimes copied word-for-word. None are exaggerated or unusually rare events. See the Timeline of incidents for real-life examples.

The scenarios are grouped together by the kind of support technique involved: e.g., welcoming women in any situation from in-person to online, or responding to casual sexism.

Creating a friendly environment for womenEdit

An important step to countering sexism is to be welcoming - but not creepily so - to women who are attending geek events or joining geek forums. This section is about small things you can do to make women feel more comfortable.

Scenario: A woman is standing near your group at a geek eventEdit

You see a woman standing near your group at a geek event. You don't know her well, or perhaps this is the first time you've seen her. What can you do to make her feel more comfortable?

Good responses
  • Walk up to within 3-5 feet (depending on cultural norms) and say, "Hello, my name is $NAME. Would you like an introduction to these folks?"
  • "How do you like $EVENT?" Assumes nothing except her presence.
  • "What brings you to $EVENT?" This helps you figure out who to introduce her too, what to talk about.
  • "Hi, I'm $NAME. Did you see the keynote/opening reception/last session? What did you think?"
Bad responses
  • Continue to stare or sneak looks at her nervously for several minutes. You don't have to greet every strange woman at an event, but at least don't make her uncomfortable. If you can't stop, pluck up your courage and use one of the above good responses.
  • Look her up and down, dismiss her, and turn away because she can't be interesting to talk to. (This is usually done unconsciously, watch for your assumptions.)
  • Ask her what it's like to be a woman in $GEEK_FIELD or why there are so few women in it. She's sick of that question and it immediately points her out as weird and separate. Go look it up on the Internet, like you would a basic programming question.
  • Get into a long two-person conversation with her, dominating her time and preventing her from meeting more people.
  • "How do you like the partners' programme?/Are you here with your boyfriend?" (Assumes that she is not interested in the topic of the event.)
  • Stare at her badge for a long time trying to read it. You are staring at her chest, most likely.
  • Grab her badge and bend over to look at it more closely. You are invading her personal space, probably just touched her chest, preventing her from leaving, and making her feel conspicuous. This is a real jerk move.
  • Touch her in any way other than a standard business greeting initiated by her (e.g., she extends her hand to shake). A common unconscious assumption is that people are allowed to touch women's bodies without their consent. That's not true. Don't ask for consent, either, let her initiate any physical touching.
  • "What is your name?" This isn't hugely important, but if you can remember, just tell her your name and don't ask for hers. If she wants to tell you hers, she will. You probably aren't aware of this, but insisting a woman tell her name to a stranger is a common manipulative technique used by predators (see Forced teaming). And many events have badges with names on them anyway.

Scenario: A woman asks for introductionsEdit

A woman asks you for introductions to people who can help or advise her on her new Ruby-based startup.

  • Look around the room for people who fit the description, and introduce her to one or two.
  • Ask for her email address and email her a list of influential people in the field who are willing to mentor. Ask which ones she wants to be introduced to, then send an email to both. (Ask the person you are introducing to her if it is okay to do so, too.)
  • Invite her to the next gathering of people in Ruby or software startups that you know of.
  • Encourage her to attend and speak at a relevant conference.
  • Send her contact information to someone without her consent.
  • Introduce her preferentially to women. A well-known phenomenon is that men will introduce women to other women they know in a field where women are scarce. This is because women are more strongly associated in their minds because of their gender. It is much more helpful to introduce women to men who are relevant to their goals or interests: For example, introducing a women starting a Ruby-based technology company to a male CEO of another Ruby-based startup is much more helpful than introducing her to a woman CEO of a hardware company. It is especially important to introduce women to powerful or influential men.
  • Only suggest a women's group in that field. She didn't ask for a women's group, she asked for introductions to influential people. She's probably already heard of it, and if she wants suggestions for support groups, she'll ask for them. Many women don't want to be part of a women's group, and most are tired of that being the first thing people think of when they mention their interests.

Scenario: A woman without a dinner groupEdit

Everyone is going to dinner in groups in the evening of a Wikipedia conference. You see a new woman standing alone and looking lost.

  • Invite her to dinner with your group.
  • Ask if she would like to go to dinner with another group or person, and do the work of asking if she can go to dinner with them.
  • Suggest to someone you think she'd feel comfortable with to invite her to dinner with their group.
  • Invite her to dinner one-on-one. Whether or not you personally have ulterior motives, she can't tell yet whether to trust you or not (see Schrödinger's Rapist. It doesn't matter if one or both of you is married or in a monogamous relationship.
  • Invite her to dinner with someone who is sexist or obnoxious or has a history of hitting on women inappropriately (you probably shouldn't go to dinner with this person either).

Scenario: Deciding where to hold an eventEdit

You are responsible for choosing the location of the monthly Linux meetup.

  • Ask women for suggestions for locations and cross-check them with each other.
  • Ask several women privately for their opinions on a location you picked.
  • Look at crime maps of the area (sexual harassment and attacks on women are often correlated with other crimes that are more frequently reported).
  • Go to the location at the time of the event and walk through the approach from the public transit stop or from the parking.

Responding to casual sexismEdit

Casual sexism is when people do or say sexist things when they aren't even aware that they are sexist. Here's how to respond to people who want to support women in geek culture, but don't realize they just did something harmful. Of course, someone can do something casually sexist and also not care about supporting women!

Scenario: Mailing list post uses women as example of ignorant personEdit

On your project's mailing list, someone pushes for better documentation by saying, "Think about it this way: How would explain this to your girlfriend/grandmother/wife?"

  • Reply privately if you think they want to be supportive of women but didn't realize the effect of their example, "Hey, I know you had no intention of doing this, but when you used grandmother as an example, you were reinforcing the idea that women aren't interested or welcome in this area." (Also it assumes no older people are savvy in this area either.)
  • Reply with a link to the So simple, your mother could do it page and a short explanation: "Using women as standard examples of non-technical users is one of the things that makes women feel unwelcome. I don't want that."
  • Reply publicly, "I know you are trying to help explain using an example, but it also sounds like you are assuming everyone on this project are straight men."
  • Reply publicly, "That example doesn't resonate with me because people like Radia Perlman are mothers." (Fill in with your own favorite woman.)
  • Focus on convincing the person who made the comment that they did something wrong.
  • Wait for a woman to say something.
  • Get involved in a long back-and-forth thread about whether or not all people have mothers (see Charles' Rules of Argument).

Scenario: Someone you follow says something casually sexist on social mediaEdit

Someone you follow on Twitter tweets, "Ugh, that Nickelback song counts as ear rape."

  • Reply with, "Ha ha, Nickelback really sucks!"
  • Start using that catchy new phrase you just learned.
  • Go straight to publicly calling them sexist if it's not part of a pattern of sexist behavior (otherwise, go for it).

Opposing outright support of sexismEdit

Sometimes people know they are doing something sexist. They may or may not argue that their position is not, in fact sexist (see this article on protecting daughters for an example of literal paternalism), but they are not actually trying to support women. In this case, it's best to play to the audience.

Scenario: Blog post in support of booth babesEdit

In your community, the CEO of a company writes a blog post explaining that he has to hire booth babes because "men like them, and I don't want to go out of business."

  • Comment on the blog: "I am a man, and I find booth babes insulting and sexist. They make me less likely to buy your products."
  • Write your own blog post explaining your reaction to booth babes and pledging not to buy products from companies who use them.
  • Ask the organizers of conferences in your community to not allow booth babes (for specific language, see the booth staff clause of the example anti-harassment policy).
  • Create a petition to ban booth babes at conferences where this company exhibits.
  • Worry that a ban on booth babes will be used against women attendees who are dressed attractively (meaning: dressed in ways heterosexual men find sexually pleasing). The problem isn't attractive women (or people) at the conference, or the way they dress, it's companies turning women into sexual objects to sell their products and assuming their customers are heterosexual men who enjoy objectifying women. See here for good wording on a booth babe ban.
  • Assume all women staffing booths are there for decoration and direct questions to the men. Keep in mind that company shirts or uniforms often come in different styles for different body types, so try not to assume anything based on differences in clothing that correlate differences in gender.
  • Lecture women at the conference if you think they are dressed too attractively and explain how they are hurting feminism. Again, the problem isn't that attractive people are at the conference, the problem is somebody turning women into sexual objects and using them to appeal to a straight male audience. Someone's clothing style might annoy you, but that can happen anywhere.

Scenario: Wikipedia request for deletion references a woman's appearanceEdit

The Wikipedia biography page of a woman has been nominated for deletion (RfD, or Request for Deletion). On the discussion page, a commentor says "She only has a Wikipedia page because she's hot." Several others agree.

  • Comment with, "I don't see anything in WP:GNG that takes off points for being good-looking." (WP:GNG refers to Wikipedia's general notability guideline[2]

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