The Sexist

Make Your Dude-Dominated Subculture More Accessible to Women

Yesterday, feminist sci fi enthusiast and From Austin to A&M blogger Courtney Stoker graciously agreed to answer this blog's questions on how to reconcile her feminist ideals with her geekier subculture interests. Today, it's time for the bonus round!

A while back, I heard from Joseph Hewitt—English teacher, computer game programmer, cartoonist—on the issue of dude-dominated subcultures. (Attentive readers may remember Hewitt from his Male Studies cartoon published on this blog). Hewitt is also the creator of GearHead RPG, a sci fi role-playing game set "a century and a half after nuclear war" that has spawned an active online community. Now, Hewitt is wondering how to address the dude-centric aspects of that world:

Do you have any ideas about what I can do to make sure that women feel comfortable and welcome in the small corner of a small counterculture that I personally manage? In addition to the comic, I'm also the lead developer for an open source computer game. We have an active fan community and forum. Most of the participants are male.

I think I have most of the inclusiveness basics covered: Don't be an asshole. Call out sexist behavior when it shows up. Don't fill the game itself with fair-skinned bikini-clad vixens waiting to be rescued. As far as I know we haven't had any problems with blatant sexism in the community. However, I know enough to know that I don't know everything. I also know that the sheer number of men on the forum must make it seem like a boys-only club.

It seems like there's a participation gap between the men and women who play the game. The bug reports and feature requests that I get via email show a much smaller gender gap than the forum membership would indicate. I spoke with a fellow developer about this subject and she told me some of her internet horror stories. She said that she's always been treated with respect in our community, but we didn't reach any grand conclusions about the big picture.

What to do when the members of a community are of all genders but the voices in the community are predominantly male?

I asked Stoker, who is also a gamer, if she had any ideas on making dude-dominated countercultures more accessible to women. Here's what she had to say:

I think it's great that this guy is asking this question and seriously implementing what he calls the “basics,” which aren't practiced in most geek spaces. It's difficult to make your space more inclusive, however, because geek women aren't stupid. We know what geek spaces are like, and it's going to take a community-wide shift to get us to feel safe there. Which isn't to say not to try, but only not to get discouraged when your efforts don't seem to be creating the influx of ladies on your forum that you hoped for. That said, here are two guidelines that I think lead to lady-friendly geek spaces (these are also equally applicable in trying to include more people of color, LGBTQI individuals, and disabled folks):

1. Advertise yourself as such. When looking for online communities, I tend only to join those that are either explicitly feminist or women-friendly. Let your community know that you are trying to create a more inclusive space as a reaction against geek misogyny. Make your purpose explicit, and you'll not only scare off the men that will hinder inclusion, but attract women who are more wary of geek spaces.

2. Take women's voices seriously. Ask the female members of your community what changes you should make, and listen sincerely to their answers. Do you have a blog portion of your community? If so, make sure it's equal opportunity. Ask women to participate and take their conversations seriously. Above all, be willing to listen, even if what women have to say makes you feel uncomfortable or challenges your privilege. (Actually, especially if that happens.) The best way to make a community feel welcome is to show that you care what they think and have to say.

Photo via the Library of Congress

  • Amy

    Quote: "When looking for online communities, I tend only to join those that are either explicitly feminist or women-friendly."

    I find that very depressing. As a woman, I've never been bothered by whether a site/community is 'feminist' or not, or what proportion of it's users are male or female.

    To restrict your access to sites on these criteria seems like a recipe for letting the boys-only clubs be, and confining ourselves to a polite little enclave. Do you also suggest that women only apply to jobs in organisations that are already 'women-friendly'?

    I know the kind of reaction (BOOBIES!) women get in male-dominated areas on the internet, but hiding away in the feminist areas isn't going to change anything, it's going to make the idea of male-dominated areas seem *more* normal, as women voluntarily absent themselves.

  • groggette

    Or maybe it's a means of self preservation. I tend to restrict my friends to feminists/progressives/antiracists/etc. Why would I hang out with a bunch of *ists and make myself miserable? Hanging out on sites (or with people) that are feminist/feminist friendly doesn't mean someone dooesn't interact with the rest of the world that's predominantly NOT feminist friendly.

  • TJ

    For the longest time I considered myself pretty nerdy ( a cool kinda cute actuarial nerd, but nerd nonetheless), but after the past few blogs, I'm not so sure anymore. I'm not a D&D kinda girl... I just like math and the History Channel a whole bunch. And Rachel Maddow... she's hot because she's soooo smart...

    @groggette, I understand what you are saying in that like-minded folks should be able to exchange their thoughts and views without fear. At the same time, though, if we are looking to change the overall worldview, we can't do it by talking to other people that think like us. We must go to the "*ists," as you say, to make our views known. Sometimes you have to ruffle a few feathers to make changes.

    So @Amy, yup, I agree with you. It is a little disconcerting that she only feels safe in women-only environments. We won't progress that way.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Amy and @TJ:

    It is depressing that a conversation about how male allies can make women feel more comfortable in their dude-dominated spaces has so quickly turned into a discussion of what women are doing wrong. Instead of engaging in a rare discussion of how people who run dude-dominated subcultures---and thus have real power to change them---can make their spaces open to women, you instead focus on one woman who chooses not to spend her free time hanging out with people who hate women. It's too bad, because Stoker is offering a lot of great advice to dude-dominated subcultures. Expecting women to pull themselves up by their sexy-moon-boot-straps and hang out in subculture communities that consistently devalue them is not the only approach to this problem.

  • groggette

    Again, having one aspect of your life try to be a certain way doesn't mean you odn't interact with the rest of the world. There is not feminist utopia, and Stoker only mentions forums. People interact with other people. People they may disagree with. Feathers are ruffled, even in feminist spaces. Having a "safe space" does not mean a person doesn't interact with the rest of the world and attempt to make changes when that happens.

  • groggette

    Good point Amanda. I'm sorry for my part of the derail and won't contribute to it anymore.

    Back to the actual topic: I love both what Hewitt's already trying to do and what Stoker suggested. Great ideas!

  • PD

    I don't hang out in explicitly feminist or woman-friendly forums, but I do definitely avoid the ones where the misogyny is worst (4chan, Cracked, etc.) Some times the earth is just too salted to try and grow anything there. On forums where the environment is a little more inclusive, I use it as an opportunity to encourage equality when ignorant comments do pop up. It doesn't always work on its intended target, but at least it gets it out there.

  • kza

    I don't get it. There's more women then men out there. How does the minority win?

  • Kit-Kat

    I might add, when you receive bug reports or feature requests from women, specifically invite them to join the forum.

    Decide what limits you want on your site, and then enforce them. Have a posted policy about your lack of toleration for sexist/racist/otherwise gratuitously nasty comments/whatever you don't want on your site. Call out violators. If necessary, ban them from the site. Don't just say it's a safe space--make it one.

  • Elise

    Another way to help is to completely ban talk of politics. It can allow all sorts of people to feel comfortable on the site without any need to judge whether something is sexist/racist/whatever - if it is political, it goes, and repeat posters of violating material should, too. This makes the site a bit restricted, but generally people will find somewhere to express their views. It's a quick and dirty stopgap, though, in my opinion, and not a solution - just a way to help draw women and other minorities into a community.

  • Keith B

    I tend only to join those that are either explicitly feminist or women-friendly
    one woman who chooses not to spend her free time hanging out with people who hate women

    What a dark world you must live in, Amanda. You know, WCP doesn't have a proclamation that it is a Mexican/Chicano-friendly environment for commenters; I'm sure La Raza is very disappointed with you and your hate of less than fair skin.

    This is the sort of insight and reasonable Amandanalysis that makes me such a fan of Ms. Hess' "work". Your "back on topic, ladies" reply could have been better summed up with a nice, all-caps NO I'M RIGHT STFU.

    Expecting women to pull themselves up by their sexy-moon-boot-straps and hang out in subculture communities that consistently devalue them is not the only approach to this problem

    And as grogette, TJ and Amy's comments show, refusing to come out at all until everyone puts out banners welcoming [all?] YOUR particular memberships in marginalized groups isn't the only approach either.

    OT: #2 seems like it should be a given if you don't want your project to suck or stagnate. If you won't take input/criticism/patches from someone because of WHO they are, you are an ass and fortunately in OSS, you'll end up with a fork by more reasonable people.

    Maybe instead of interviewing female "geeks" (what the hell does that mean--I have a blog? I once subscribed to Wired before I realized it was shit?), interview a woman who's WORKING in one of these male dominated fields and ask what they think could be done differently. It was nice of you to post Chanda's comments re:academia, but really--how to get women on your forum? I don't even know why I keep thinking maybe you'll actually DO something for feminism besides make dumb Web2.0!! bloggin' erry' day posts.

  • Meg


    I don't interact with other parts of the world in the same way I wouldn't hang out with evangelical Christians as a lesbian. I have no desire to make myself a target, which just existing seems to do. As long as it is my responsibility to protect myself, which society says it is, I will protect myself the only way I've found that works: avoiding society. I'm not a Very Special Teaching Moment; I'm a woman trying to relax and enjoy myself, which I do by not dealing with spaces without strong, publicized and enforced comment policies. I have to work in society, I certainly don't want to spend my leisure time there.

    I was on one mailing list where I lurked for about a year. When I commented for the first time, it was because I had something to say and I got a lot of off-list positive reenforcement. So I posted a second time in a thread that a bunch of long-time regulars had been posting in and had a moderator give me a warning for mentioning religion when the regulars had been going back and forth on whether Catholicism or Buddhism was a better metaphor (my argument was that religion of any kind was the wrong metaphor). It was unfair and disheartening, and I quit all together and went off and joined devchix instead, where I've participated far more. There's way less ego and way more discussions that are relevant to me.

    I think one way to encourage female participation is to make it easy to hang around without participating, enforce the comment policy and then wait. You can't divorce yourself completely from the broader culture, but if women are around they might start watching, and if they step in when something relevant to their interests pops up and don't get negative reenforcement they might stick around. In my experience they are likely to still be quieter, but contributions aren't necessarily measured in quantity.

    That's the other thing; female participation may not look the same as male participation. Women are socialized in school to only speak up when they know they are right, and are less likely to have free time. So a deeply-engaged woman might not post as frequently as a deeply-engaged man. So the trick is to not have it seem like a total sausage fest, even if men are posting more. Things I've seen work: female community moderators, posts for Ada Lovelace day, announcements about female characters with personalities (game relevant!), and making a point to offer private positive feedback to good posters, especially if they post informative or interesting posts less frequently. Private is important; it shouldn't be a popularity contest (see: Slashdot), and it shouldn't be a mark of belonging or not.

  • Keith B

    Have a posted policy about your lack of toleration for sexist/racist/otherwise gratuitously nasty comments/whatever you don’t want on your site.

    Right on the money, Kit-Kat. Maybe that's what Stoker was going for with #1, but it didn't read that way to me. Interesting to note, what's WCP's policy on this? Half the comments on City Desk are racist / homophobic rants from the usual suspects.

  • groggette

    Are you responding to my second comment? I actually agree with you and I'm sorry if I didn't get that across well. With that comment I was responding to the notion from the previous 2 commentors that women who don't like to interact in non women-friendly online spaces are somehow sticking their fingers in there ears and refusing to interact with the rest of the world ever. You are completely right, we are not "Very Special Teaching Moment[s]" and shouldn't have to be unless it is our choice.

  • fsxl

    This is the most ridiculous thing I've read since an article appeared on cnn a few weeks ago about how Obama was scarring white people by using strong language. I hate to break it to the buffoon that wrote this, but most women aren't bizarre aliens that lack an ability to understand man-things unless dumbed-down to their level. Why is this stuff even being published?

  • kza

    Why IS it being published? Apparently it's not even being read!

  • Flutterby

    fsxl: try actually reading the article. It's about how to make spaces currently dominated by white cis men more welcoming to women and minorities, whom an unfortunate amount of said white cis men tend to scare off with their racist, transphobic, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. comments. There's not a single mention of dumbing anything down.

  • Keith B

    Meg, are you sure your negative experience was because of your gender (or the gender of your handle), and not just because a lot of online spaces are rather insular and cool to newcomers/lurkers? [insert "you have no frame of reference here, Donny; you're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie" scene] Not doubting that you've been hated on for being a woman, but pointing out that your experience is not terribly unusual for anyone.

    The suggestions in your last paragraph are all good, though I can't really see why positive reinforcement matters so much. You've surely seen the other extreme of being Woman-On-The-Internet (opp. "tits/gtfo"), men/boys going out of their way to be polite, supportive... and then it's unasked for white knighting (how chivalrous, to defend a lady), mod rights, becoming a token, creepy over-attention.

    I'm not saying women should need to use ambiguous/male handles; but I don't think you gain anything by insisting that the welcome mat be rolled out for you on the assumption that if it isn't, they must hate women. If you alienate so many people that you wind up making your own insular, exclusive scene you failed to achieve equality. Every dramatic change in equality has required brave people to walk into the lion's den; and we're just talking about online communication here. Not "RL" where there's real risks and dangers to your health/livelihood/etc. Insist on good, fair moderation where you want to be a part of things; the worst of the worst will leave. Expect privilege, and find everyone else leave (or you tossed out).

  • Katherine

    Keith B: Whether someone is being harassed for being a woman or just for being a newcomer, the result is a space that is less friendly to women. Noone here is expecting to only participate in spaces when they will be treated with privilege, only that we want the same respect as the rest of the community. Rather than "insisting that the welcome mat be rolled out" as you put it; I read the comment as an indication of how a lot of women act for their own protection (even if it is 'just' protection of their mental health). If we don't know that a community is friendly to women, should we jump in at our own risk? What's being advocated is a clear signal that a community is friendly to women, and obvious policies that harassment etc. will be moderated away.

    I'm not exactly one to shy away from unfriendly spaces myself, but I stopped reading my local online newspaper because despite the clear moderation policy on racism, sexism etc, it wasn't being enforced. All they were cutting out was some of the swearwords: not much point in cutting out "fuck" and "shit" if you're going to leave in "bitch", "feminazi", victim blaming and whitesplainin' etc.

  • A Nonny Moose

    TO KeithB and fsxl: what part of "Shut Up and Listen" don't you understand? To quote the article "Above all, be willing to listen, even if what women have to say makes you feel uncomfortable or challenges your privilege. (Actually, especially if that happens.)"

    You just wandered into a female safe space, and proceeded to mansplain, derail and troll. You expect women to be open to that sort of behaviour? It's exactly what we're trying to fight.

  • Keith B.

    "Make your purpose explicit, and you’ll not only scare off the men that will hinder inclusion [...]"

    Maybe calling it "rolling out the red carpet" was going a bit far, akin even to suggesting that all non-pro-feminism sites hate women, but that's what it sounds like to me. Unless your goal was to make a space that's about feminism + [some thing], I see being explicitly inclusive as being pointless. Does a site about say, foreign policy discussion, need to explcitly advertise their "women-friendliness" or risk scaring away women? How about pro-LGBT? Immigrant-inclusive? Fully open to the opinions of little people? Get real.

    Honestly, most of the time when I hear something preceded by "a women-friendly", I assume it's put there by marketing, not out of genuine concern for including women.

  • Joseph Hewitt

    Many thanks to Amanda, Courtney Stoker, and (most of) the commenters here for discussing this. You've been very helpful. I think the next step for the GearHead community will be to make an official forum policy.

    Kit Kat- [i]I might add, when you receive bug reports or feature requests from women, specifically invite them to join the forum.[/i] Good idea. I usually send a reply to thank people for reporting problems, so I could just invite them to drop by the forum at the same time.

  • Courtney S.

    @Keith B.

    "Unless your goal was to make a space that’s about feminism + [some thing], I see being explicitly inclusive as being pointless."

    That's because you don't know what it's like to be a lady in geek communities, and you are clearly refusing to listen when both I and the other commenters TELL you what it's like. Being women-friendly *in reaction* to a clear and unambiguous misogyny within a particular subculture is not the same thing as any other website advertising themselves as women-friendly for any other reason, including marketing.

  • Keith B

    Courtney, I think you're missing my point that making a community a friendlier place for EVERYONE is more effective than slapping the word "feminist" on your wikipedia page. Take the second part of Joseph's reply, only remove "women" from what he wrote--

    When ANYONE submits a patch/bugtraq/whatev, be it someone with a female name (watch for those Italian dudes named Andrea...) or with comments in broken english, thank and invite them to join the forum.

    Set, prominently display and visibly enforce policies on what sort of behavior/discussion is acceptable.

    I mean it's nice for you and all that you must scan every forum for those magic words in your solution #1 before you join, but correcting the problem of hostility against women in an online community seems better solved by correcting hostility among ALL users. Have you heard the term "greenwashing"? Is there a term "femiwashing"?

  • Matt K

    "Courtney, I think you’re missing my point that making a community a friendlier place for EVERYONE is more effective than slapping the word “feminist” on your wikipedia page."

    To me, this smacks of the old line, "I'm not a feminist, I'm a HUMANIST."

    Denying that certain groups are less able and encouraged to participate in particular spaces and instead suggesting that it's more or less the same problem for everyone ("hostility among ALL users") doesn't really help, because these very much ARE problems for specific groups and less so for others. Issues that women face in geek circles aren't just about general courtesy amongst participants (although this does play into it), they're about the sexist attitudes that fester in these spaces. Thus, if one wanted to remove barriers to women's participation in these spaces, then one should address those specific attitudes.

  • Keith B

    Denying that certain groups are less able and encouraged to participate in particular spaces

    Who said that? I pointed out that women are not THE ONLY groups. Hell, Courtney even says it in the OP. And then disregarded it in her idea #1. Hence my argument that that making your space pro-feminist, women-friendly is only useful if the only thing you want is more wimmin on your forums.

    instead suggesting that it’s more or less the same problem for everyone

    Interesting interpretation, but not what I was going for. It's more or less the same problem for more than one group. Fixing it only for women/people on WebTV/non-english speakers/disabled people (you think the blind have an easy time on the internet? Heard of ADA compliance?)/etc isn't a SOLUTION it's a PATCH.

    Summary: Read OP, THEN read my comments, Matt.

  • Matt K

    You said it yourself: "correcting the problem of hostility against women in an online community seems better solved by correcting hostility among ALL users."

    I don't believe this is true. I don't believe there is some universal means of solving all participation issues -- I think these have to be dealt with separately, even as they often intersect.

    Geek communities don't just have problems with sexism, as you've pointed out (athough I'm not sure why you believe that I think the blind have an easy time on the net): there are also issues of homophobia, racism, and ableism, to name a few. These are often exacerbated by the belief that geeks are "above" these "mainstream" issues; in other words, that we're "too smart" to be sexists/racists/etc.

    But I think we are just going to fundamentally disagree here: I feel that targeted solutions are appropriate -- you don't. This may owe in part to our differing experiences in these communities. I just can't believe that this is a "play nice and don't be mean" kind of problem. Sexism in geek communities goes deeper than that and thus requires deeper solutions, as Courtey eloquently discussed in her previous post.

  • Diane

    "Have a posted policy about your lack of toleration for sexist/racist/otherwise gratuitously nasty comments/whatever you don’t want on your site."

    Spot on. I've spent a ton of time in gaming/nerd forums and they are VERY volatile. The argument that things won't change if we insulate ourselves is ridiculous. I was harassed and beaten with sexism to the point that was either post or leave altogether. So what's it going to be? I choose friendly forums.

  • Treehouse

    Having a clearly defined set of rules, with consequences, helps me feel safer. Especially if there are rules about sexist/homophobic slurs or stalking.

    Seeing members correct other members is also helpful.

    I agree that asking your female members is good- asking the entire user base could also show you some holes. The only issue I might see is that your sample size of women might skew the results because chances are they already feel comfortable and might not see the same issues as someone who needs a bit more 'protection' to feel safe on your group.

  • Jesse Dangerously

    I was linked to this by someone trying to help me in my quest to implement responses to the exact same concerns in underground hip-hop (itself a geeky realm, as much as it may like to posture otherwise with its broadswords and charisma potions)... taking the two points that conclude the article as cardinal rules seems like an excellent starting points.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Cat

    This is a great post. I've spent a lot of time in gaming communities and there's a really nasty, pervasive insularity there which is focused around straight, white, Anglo-American male bonding. Men who would probably never harass a woman in real life feel that gaming communities are a special boys club where they get to degrade women, complain about female game characters not being hot enough and talking about raping opponents and making other players their bitches. Machismo abounds. I've left many sites not because I'm a crazy over-reacting feminist but because I have frequently had my concerns about negative attitudes dismissed.

    "Nobody here is seriously sexist, it's all in good fun."
    "Nobody really believes girls can't play computer games."
    "There's nothing wrong with female characters showing skin, you're being over-sensitive."

    Unfortunately, if I want to enjoy gaming, I am faced with the painful reality that my knowledge, abilities and character will be constantly devalued and ignored by a lot of other players. I shouldn't have to lurk behind a gender-neutral handle and watch forum members wax obnoxious about my gender. I shouldn't have to see those individuals hiding behind forum administration who protect them and refuse to moderate.

    I am currently embarking on a World of Warcraft theorycrafting project with three men who are highly aware of the importance of forming an inclusive and welcoming community for anyone and everyone who likes nerdy number-crunching. It's an exciting thing to be a part of and one of the first tasks we undertook was to write a forum charter to ensure that anyone who decides it's appropriate to harass other users is removed from the site.

  • Clarisse Thorn

    This is interesting. I used to work as a writer in the gaming field but stopped for several reasons, one of them being that I felt consistently objectified, etc. I had one experience where the biggest company I worked for asked for advice on how to make one of their games more female-friendly; I emailed a request for more specifics and never heard back, which makes me think that the question was more of a tossed-off "oh I guess we should be thinking about this" and less a sincere attempt to engage the question. So it's heartening to see real attempts to address the question.

    I would take a different angle with the "take women's voices seriously" thing, though. I wouldn't ask "what do you want us to change?" but rather "what are we doing right?" or "can you point to places that you consider more female-friendly?" or even "is it a priority for you that this space feel woman-friendly? please explain." It's easier to work from positive feedback, particularly positive examples. (Before someone leaps upon me screaming, please understand that I'm not saying negative feedback is bad. It's just hard to work from.)

    I do suspect that many of not most women who are already hanging out in gaming spaces feel that:
    1) The situation "isn't that bad", for whatever reason.
    2) They're "willing to put up with it" and "don't want to complain".

    Which makes this question hard to develop. Certainly, if you'd asked me while I was a game writer whether it bothered me that my employers were constantly hitting on me etc etc., I would very likely have been unwilling to get into it.

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  • Seph

    A lot of great ideas here. One thing that no one has mentioned that I think is very important is to make your dude subculture (or some areas of it) explicitly beginner friendly.

    Of course, there are many women who are knowledgeable and experienced in your stuff, but there are also many who aren't, yet, but are very interested.

    The average woman is less likely to have programming buddies to share coding tips with or same-level gamer friends to learn a new game with, less likely to have a parent who taught her home repair, less likely to have an uncle who showed her how to change a car's oil than her male counterpoint. Thus, she's entering your arena with fewer XP than the average dude.

    A few tutorials and a beginner-oriented support/question thread can go a long way toward welcoming any new members to your community.

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  • Athenia

    I don't mean to sound like a jerk, but are the posts on your forums interesting?

    I feel like in the past when I have visited a new community the topics aren't really interesting. It's like:

    "hey dude, look at this pic. Isn't it cool?"

    "yeah, that's cool."


    If women are playing the game, but not visiting the forums, to me, that sounds like the game is interesting, but the forums are not.

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  • Finisterre

    My contribution: the absolute KEY to this is moderation of the comments.

    I guess it's up to you how strict you want to be about this - one thing is certain, the hysteria about OMG censorship will be deafening. Many places might ban swearing or direct misogynistic abuse, but how many also crack down on rape jokes? Or just simple 'iron my shirt'-style dismissals? To me, these are exercises of direct privilege that serve to cut women down to size and remind us of our place; they contribute nothing to the discussion and often derail it, with women commenters then having to spend time explaining (and being ignored) about how damaging they are.

    You have to be explicit about what is and isn't tolerable, and enforce it openly. Otherwise, many women will simply give up, preferring to join spaces where they can just have a discussion about what they want to discuss, rather than having to go through Feminism 101 with every. single. dude.

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