TL;DR: I was the instigator of the bingo card at 2014’s Grace Hopper conference. For more on how to not have me make a bingo card making fun of you at some point in the future, skip to the resources at the end. But for a fun story, read on…
2015’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women and Computing is coming up in a few weeks. I’ll be attending as well as speaking on Friday on security and open source software, alongside some brilliant and fabulous women.
I first attended GHC in 2011, when I drove down from Seattle to Portland to attend the Open Source Day on Saturday of the nearly week-long event. I remember my initial shock at the number of makeup mirrors and lip balms in my swag bag being replaced by joy at getting to hang out with so many amazing women.
Last year, in 2014, I participated in a panel at GHC for the first time, and it was a fantastic experience. My co-panelists were well-prepared and the discussion was great; the audience was enthusiastic and I had wonderful conversations afterwards.
My panel came at the end of a very, very long week. On Wednesday, the “Male Allies” panel was, as I suspected it would be, a disaster. Thursday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stuck his foot in his mouth fairly epically on the topic of salary negotiations. It was so bad that PC Magazine and ReadWriteWeb wrote about it, and even quoted one of my tweets:
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Prior to the 2014 event, people far more patient than me had tried to engage with the Anita Borg Institute, the $7+ million-dollar-per-year-budget non-profit that puts on the Grace Hopper conference, explaining seriously and respectfully that the Wednesday “Male Allies” plenary panel was not a good use of 8,000 women’s time. They’d even tweeted in good faith at the new (non-elephant-murdering) CEO of GoDaddy after he wrote a smarmy blog reply to a critic that was inflammatory and disrespectful.
But the show went on.
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In the Ally Skills Workshop I’ve taught many times, we caution that humour is an advanced-level ally skill and often backfires. Sometimes, though, a joke is the best way to make a point, especially when a straightforward approach isn’t working.
I’ve long found bingo cards to be a particularly hilarious form of social commentary. Bingo cards are a way to point out commonly used weak arguments by people who don’t understand a social justice cause. You put common bad arguments or key phrases in each square and mark them off you listen to people speak; if the speaker makes enough bad arguments in a row, someone will get bingo.
A week before GHC2014 I started collecting the frustrating phrases and concepts I expected to hear on the panel.
That’s right. You heard it first right here on hypatia dot ca: I was the primary voice behind the “Union of Concerned Feminists,” and instigator of last year’s bingo card shenanigans.
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The bingo card (pdf) was more than a stress-relieving in-joke – it was important enough that the New York Times mentioned it in their story about the panel a mention in the New York Times:
This year attendees also created a Bingo game involving tone-deaf things men in tech said to women, like name-dropping Ms. Sandberg, or saying, “That would never happen in my company.”
I wanted to share the story of its production for the first time, as well as some lessons learned and ways forward.
There is a particular kind of powerlessness to being in the audience at an event like this allies panel. Women who reported harassment to HR and were fired for it have to listen to well-meaning powerful people on stage tell them that HR is their friend. Women who worked twice as hard as their male peers and watched them get promoted over their heads have to hear someone tell them to “just” work harder. Each cringeworthy “Lean In”-style platitude is a reminder that the system is rigged; that those running the show either aren’t paying attention, or that they are and that they know that those platitudes keep them where they are. It’s a reminder of how much we over-value confidence in leadership, and the way that systematically pushes men up beyond their abilities, and keeps women below our full potential.
The bingo card was an attempt to flip that script (and that table). It allowed many in the audience to own the truth of their experiences while they were being denied, to reclaim their time, to clear away the nagging voice saying that they weren’t enough.
It was written in solidarity with all the women who’d heard the platitudes written in the squares on the card before, and wanted to say: “Not in this space, not to this audience. Not now.”
Thanks to the magic of Google Spreadsheets, I can see that the first thing I wrote down was “We’re all in this together” – as a potential center square (traditionally the space for the most common platitude). Over the next few days, a number of friends (who may choose to claim credit in the comments, or not, as they wish) descended upon the doc, adding funny burns and frustrating truths.
The morning before the panel, I not terribly surreptitiously went to the UPS Store right in the convention centre and printed up 500 copies of the final bingo card. As I ran into women I knew throughout the day, I told a select few the details of my plan and asked them to meet before the panel. When the time came, we divided up the bingo cards and moved quickly through the room, passing a small number down each row.
It was a big room — did I mention that this was a plenary session? — but managed to achieve pretty good coverage before a staffer noticed what was happening. We discreetly tucked away our remaining bingo cards and sat down to watch the panel. We’d given out almost all of the bingo cards — probably 450 total copies. I later learned that several women had printed out bingo cards at home and played while watching the livestream of the panel.
The centre square had eventually been replaced with ~PIPELINE~, leading to this hilarious Vine from my friend Haley:
Things were off to a trainwreck start, with Barb Gee praising the ally work of this dude as she framed the context of the panel.
As the panel went on, every few minutes a panelist would say something trite, and there would be giggles from the audience and a rustling of papers as hundreds of women circled a bingo square together. About two-thirds of the way through an excruciating hour, one brave woman near the very back of the venue yelled “bingo,” causing ripples of laughter through the audience. The panelists on the stage were a bit confused, but decided to interpret it as cheering and resumed their conversation, which you can read a transcript of here thanks to Julie Pagano’s patient work. I would later get to meet the bingo-caller, Alex, when about 14 people convened at a nearby restaurant afterwards:
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Out of the laughs and frustration, one immediate positive outcome was thanks to Alan Eustace, who arranged to have a “reverse” allies panel the following day.
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There, he and two of the other three panelists (Blake from GoDaddy and Mike Schroepfer from Facebook) listened quietly as a number of women told stories that showed just how useless the previous day’s “advice” had been. It was heart-rending to hear story after story of women’s achievements being ignored, careers stalling out, harassment reports being mishandled or leading to further retaliation — but none of it was surprising, except, it seemed, to the men at the front of the room listening.
One of the all-too-frequent complaints about efforts to encourage women in tech is the bogeyman of “affirmative action” — the idea that qualified men will be displaced by less-qualified women, despite evidence to the contrary.
For all their good intentions, the panelists were woefully underprepared for any kind of substantial discussion. Instead, their trite, predictable, and PR-approved answers served to reinforce the status quo and, in effect, justify existing systems of discrimination.
That day, I saw bingo cards which were almost full. The men who appeared on the plenary stage were not qualified to speak on this topic in front of a room full of 8,000 women, most of whom knew more on the topic than they did. The bar has been lowered — but for men.
GHC 2015 draws near. When I checked Twitter yesterday evening, I was greeted by this:
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Kelly was referring to this glowing press release. It made me worry that ABI learned very little from last year’s events — and got me to finally finish writing this post. Reading the press release, I saw that Brian Nosek’s work on Project Implicit makes him more qualified to speak on topics related to gender diversity than any of last year’s panelists, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. On the other hand, GoDaddy’s CEO is speaking again, this time as a plenary keynote about “transforming their organization.” While I’ve heard through the grapevine (sometimes known as the “creepvine”) that GoDaddy has gotten better as a workplace for women in recent years — it seems unlikely that the women in the audience will learn anything worth an entire plenary keynote. What this looks like is that ABI is playing along with GoDaddy’s long-term plan to pinkwash their organization into shape for an upcoming IPO, which is currently not possible thanks to years of sexist advertising by their founder, former CEO, board member, and largest shareholder, Bob Parsons. And I’m curious what senior IBMer Grady Booch brings to the conversation that a woman from IBM of similar seniority wouldn’t have.
Whatever the men on last year’s male allies panel may have learned about what women at GHC are eager to hear – and what we never want to hear again – it doesn’t seem to have gotten through to leadership at the Anita Borg Institute, who chooses the plenary speakers and panels. I wonder why companies continue to sponsor ABI and GHC when they continue to ignore the clearly expressed demands of the people they claim to serve – including the thousands of women who attend GHC each year.
Further reading and things you can do
For any guys reading this and feeling like bad allies or whatever, remember that it’s a process, not an identity, as @FeministGriote said. Keep learning, keep doing. You can chip away at the shitty parts of the world and make things better for the women in your life and around you. Here are some specific suggestions:
“Courage my friends, ’tis not too late to build a better world” said Tommy Douglas, who Canadians know as “that dude who made healthcare happen.” As my first bingo square said, we are all in this together — so let’s get to work.