Gender inclusivity at SIGCHI

Preliminary outcomes from our meeting at CSCW 2018

Oliver Haimson
Dec 18, 2018 · 5 min read

Diversity and inclusion efforts have been a part of SIGCHI conferences for many years now, but we may look back on 2018 as a tipping point. CHI 2018 earlier this year involved advances, such as an “Un-Panel” promoting intersectionality, equity, and inclusivity, and mis-steps that were duly challenged by community members, such as an offensive keynote speaker and a failed attempt at gender pronouns on name badges. In September 2018, SIGCHI’s Executive Committee listed diversity and inclusion as one of its “grand challenges.” Allison Druin, appointed as SIGCHI’s new Adjunct Chair for Inclusion, published a blog post in October describing “The Possibilities of Inclusion for SIGCHI” and is in the process of forming a committee of “Inclusion Innovators.” Conversations about inclusion and diversity, and research on these topics, are in the forefront at SIGCHI in a way they have not been in years past. Gender inclusion is one important area of focus. This blog post is a first-person account of some recent steps in making SIGCHI conferences more inclusive to transgender and non-binary people.

image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/8349362069/

This was the first year that it was surprising to me that there were not gender inclusive restrooms in the conference venue, though I have been attending SIGCHI conferences since 2014. Most conferences throughout the years have only had binary male/female restrooms, though some have provided gender inclusive restrooms. But this year, given the focus on diversity and inclusion (e.g., efforts such as the new “Recognition of Contribution to Diversity and Inclusion” awards, prayer room, childcare suite) and the increasing number of non-binary and trans conference attendees and allies, it was genuinely surprising that the conference’s physical infrastructure effectively blocked a subset of conference attendees from full participation¹. People advocated on Twitter, Slack, and behind the scenes. Temporary solutions were proposed and implemented, some discouraging and some less so, as illustrated in the following tweets.

Our steps towards gender inclusivity guidelines for SIGCHI

Of course, gender inclusivity extends much further than restrooms. But given the 2018 landscape at SIGCHI, it was especially fitting that we (myself, along with lead organizer Morgan Klaus Scheuerman, Stacy Branham, Foad Hamidi, and Katta Spiel) had already been planning to hold what we affectionately called a “Lunchshop.” Thanks to generous funding from UMSI’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, along with funding from UMBC and UC Irvine, we invited anyone interested in meeting to talk about gender inclusion to gather at the conference hotel’s restaurant during Tuesday’s lunch break. We expected about 12 people to be interested; these initial spots filled fast, and we ended up with a large table of 15 CSCW researchers invested in discussing gender inclusivity in SIGCHI. Meeting participants included PhD students, post-docs, and assistant professors from nine universities spanning three continents.

Our primary goal was to create a tangible outcome: a set of comprehensive guidelines for gender inclusivity in SIGCHI, to be distributed widely to the SIGCHI community. While we initially planned to focus on 1) gender inclusive language and 2) best practices for ethical inclusion of trans and non-binary research participants, our scope increased to include the following five sections of guidelines:

1) A Non-Exhaustive List of (Un)acceptable Gender Terminology

2) Gender Inclusivity at Professional Gatherings (e.g., Conferences)

3) Requesting and Reporting Gender of Study Participants

4) Research Methods and Study Designs

5) Guidelines for Reviewers

We broke into smaller groups of 3–5 people to discuss and brainstorm on each of these topics. We are now in the process of compiling and editing the notes from our meeting into a larger document. The next step will be to send this document out to the 15 meeting participants for feedback.

We have ambitious plans for disseminating these gender inclusion guidelines for maximum impact. When the guidelines document is finished, it will be published online and available to all SIGCHI researchers. We will distribute the guidelines to the broader SIGCHI community via social media channels, and email them directly to people in SIGCHI and ACM leadership positions. In particular, we will make sure that we email the “Gender Inclusivity at Professional Gatherings (e.g., conferences)” section of our guidelines to the general chairs, accessibility chairs, diversity and inclusion chairs, and local arrangements chairs for each of SIGCHI’s conferences in the foreseeable future. With these guidelines in the hands of conference chairs who are in positions to positively impact the conference experiences of gender minorities, SIGCHI conferences will be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

Though the gender inclusion guidelines are not finished yet, the conversations from our meeting at CSCW 2018 have had impact already. I met with Eric Gilbert, general co-chair of CSCW 2019, to discuss gender inclusion as related to physical conference spaces as he was finalizing contracts with the CSCW 2019 venue in Austin, Texas. Drawing from lessons learned and conversations at CSCW 2018, Eric and the CSCW 2019 team were able to successfully negotiate gender neutral restrooms into the contract for the CSCW 2019 conference venue. This will have substantial impact in making gender minorities in the SIGCHI community physically able to attend the conference, but more than that, to feel that they are welcome and valued members of the community. No one will show up in Austin and be surprised that there is no restroom available for some of the most marginalized members of our community.

Diversity and inclusion at SIGCHI moving forward

Moving forward, open questions remain around how those of us interested in gender inclusion at SIGCHI should organize. There is value in self-organizing to work on issues that we care about, are expert in, and that impact us personally, and then disseminating the results to the larger community, as we are currently doing. There is also value in creating a more formal group in partnership with the SIGCHI Executive Committee. The latter role may already be filled by the SIGCHI “Inclusion Innovators” group that Allison Druin is forming, since such a group should be more broad than gender, and should be formed in partnership with other groups and individuals focused on diversity, inclusion, and equity issues in SIGCHI.

I am certain the group of people invested in gender inclusion at SIGCHI, and other diversity and inclusion issues, will grow with time. I look forward to seeing the students and early-career scholars working on diversity and inclusion issues progress through their careers and become more senior SIGCHI community members, thus by proxy elevating diversity and inclusion issues in the community. At the same time, it is great to see involvement in diversity and inclusion issues from SIGCHI community members who are already senior, and already have leadership positions. While this does sometimes raise issues around power dynamics and imbalances in groups of people working on these issues, it should not always fall on the vulnerable and junior people in our community to advocate for ourselves.


¹ The SIGCHI website includes “Guidelines for all-gender bathrooms” as part of its resources for conference organizers. To be fair, these guidelines were added to the SIGCHI website in August 2018, long after the CSCW 2018 conference venue contract was negotiated. However, prior conferences, including CHI 2016 and CSCW 2017, provided gender inclusive restrooms without having a set of official guidelines.

Oliver Haimson

Written by

Social computing &HCI researcher @UMSI interested in social media, online identity, gender/trans, life transitions. PhD from @UCI_Informatics. oliverhaimson.com

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