CHI Needs to Be More Gender Inclusive
Especially of Non-Binary Gender Identities
I spend a lot of time thinking about gender inclusivity. This year, I’m at CHI 2018 in Montreal presenting my work on gender bias in web interfaces (in the Gender session on Tuesday at 4pm! Come see my talk!).
So when I signed up to register for this year’s conference, I noticed that organizers this year were paying a bit more attention to gender diversity—especially non-binary gender identity—than in past years. This seems good, right?
So, why do I think CHI needs to do better?
This year, we were asked to provide our pronouns when registering, and you may have noticed that these pronouns are listed on the upper-right corners of our badges. The CHI 2018 chairs even mentioned these pronouns in their introduction! So what’s the issue?
Despite our best intentions, CHI is engaging with gender diversity on a superficial level — one that lets cisgender community members pat themselves on the back while putting trans community members in a tight spot.
Our community, while open-minded (at least in my experience), is not entirely (or even in majority) inclusive of non-cis identities yet. I’d even venture a guess that many people attending (and reading this) don’t know what cisgender means. (Not to worry if that’s you; here are resources!)
In my own experience, I’ve seen many in our community constantly make assumptions about others’ pronouns, repeatedly use the wrong pronouns for trans colleagues, neglect to correct others who are doing so, make mistakes trying to use gender-neutral pronouns (i.e. “they’s interests are in VR” — *their)… The list goes on. (If you don’t know how to use they/them pronouns: more resources!)
Optimistically, I think the vast majority of these cases has been due to inexperience and not malice. But to be sure, in the CHI community and more widely in Computer Science and other related fields, being a trans person is not always a comfortable, easy position to be in.
So what does this have to do with pronouns on name cards?
In a community that is not yet entirely respectful to its trans members, asking for pronouns and displaying them on cards is performative allyship. It’s an action that makes us feel good, and makes us (especially those of us whose pronouns are easily guessed and align with our biological gender) think we’re doing the “good,” “progressive” thing.
But in doing so, we’re asking our trans members to out themselves to a community that may not yet be accepting, or else deliberately choose the wrong pronouns. Well, you might be thinking, anyone in that position could just opt out. Not so. Due to the concerns I’ve outlined, I didn’t choose pronouns on the form — and on the name tag I just picked up, the upper corner of my badge reads: “other”. Nice.
How could CHI be doing better?
For starters, let people opt out. Not everyone wants to display their pronouns to the over 3,000 strangers at this conference, and we should support those people too. Ideally anyone opting out wouldn’t have “other” emblazoned on their name tag.
And more substantively, in the spirit of CHI 2018, really engage with gender diversity. It’s not enough to superficially ask everyone for pronouns and then mention it briefly in a single sentence during the conference intro. Use the massive platform of CHI’s audience to educate: give an overview of gender diversity; explain what pronouns are; demonstrate how pronouns (including they/them pronouns) are used in context; give suggestions on how to ask someone for their pronouns respectfully (hint: ideally don’t only ask people who present in a gender-nonconforming way); and provide resources for learning more about these topics.
NB: This was written in a very short amount of time — if something isn’t clear please let me know and I’ll be happy to clarify :) You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NB2: I’m listening to the keynote right now; another thing CHI could do is make sure speakers—including our keynote speaker—are educated on these issues. “Men are men, and women are women” is not the most gender-inclusive way to make your point, Christian Rudder.