Three things to “think through” when you submit an abstract or prepare a talk for a conference.

In the last one week, I have been talking to various individuals and communities about gender sensitization and awareness about sexism and sexist attitudes. The core challenge, or rather the deadend, is at the question of intent: did the person really mean to be sexist or is it the social and cultural conditioning that shaped their worldviews which invariably led them to write/say something derogatory?

The challenge with pointing out that something about an abstract or a talk is sexist is that it causes hurt and leads to the person — who is being charged — to become defensive. Because many societies, across the world, don’t like confronting hurt and pain, we ease the hurt/pain by not talking about sexism or hush-hushing it.

Hence, instead of going through the route of ‘educating’ potential speakers on sexism, we have decided to suggest three things that each one of us has to “think through” when writing (and submitting) their conference abstracts and talks. We believe that these suggestions are preventive in nature, and will help us think through the underlying problems, rather than the after-effects of (hurtful and stereotypical) written and spoken words.

  1. Use the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ when writing your abstracts and making your talks. 
    One of the biggest challenges for our society today is that we cannot stop referring to a person in authority as “he” or “him” even though the person in authority could be a woman or a person of non-binary gender. Just this afternoon, I snapped at a customer support representative for calling me “Sir” simply because the representative presumed I was a man (on the other end of the email) making my demand in an authoritative manner. 
    This problem is further compounded in the world of technology and engineering because: 
    a. An engineer/technologist is presumed to be a person of great knowledge and therefore authority. 
    b. By virtue of this knowledge (that has now become embedded in the person’s professional identity and gender), the engineer/technologist as an authority figure is always presumed to be a man. 
    We rarely hear of anyone speaking or writing of technologists as women, unless it is a narrative focussed on women in tech. 
    By consciously choosing the pronouns “she” and “her”, we have a chance to re-wire our brains (which are configured heavily by language) and therefore our mindsets towards to recognizing that a good number of engineers/technologists can be (and indeed are) women (and those individuals who identify themselves as women, despite their biological makeup).
  2. Do not refer to your mothers and your wives to explain the ease of using software/OS/programming languages/libraries/frameworks. 
    So what is incorrect (and insulting) when referring to your beloved mother (who could be a woman) or your wife (who could be a woman) in explaining how much you love a piece of technology? 
    The answer: you project them as being dumb; that this technology you are referring to is dumbed down to the mother’s or the wife’s level of (low) comprehension and ability to understand and use. This in turn perpetuates popular stereotypes such as “women are not good at math” or that “women are just plain dumb when it comes to science and technology.” 
    Don’t do this. You do disservice to many women who are trying to rise in the ranks of authority and job positions in engineering and technology.
  3. Genders are socio-cultural constructs that have now become roles we simply cannot decouple. Use “gender neutral terms” in your abstracts and talks: such as parent (instead of mother or father) and spouse/partner (instead of husband or wife). 
    My five-year old daughter, in her moments of excitement, refers to her dad as “mamma” and to me as “papa”. We don’t discourage this. We believe that “mamma” and “papa” are societal constructs which are being challenged today as there are role reversals in parenting. 
    We often talk to our daughter about how boy-girl relationships are not the only “norm” and “normal” in today’s world, and that there can be multiple combinations of gendered and biological relationships. 
    The reason I share this is because in our social conditioning patterns, it becomes hard to decouple biology from gender (where even this decoupling is becoming complicated these days when different bodies inhabit/produce different genders). 
    When we can’t decouple, we don’t realize that referring to gendered roles in our abstracts and talks reinforces stereotypes, when in fact a wife can be a man; a mother can be a man; spouses can be same-sex individuals; and parents can be same-sex individuals.

To close this piece of writing, if you ever cared to dig deep into the history of technology, you’ll know that women operated as computers in the earliest era: woman = computer. 
Women did the complex logical reasoning (and the associated grunt work) that machines do today. But eventually, women were erased from the history of computing and programming for various reasons, including demeaning attitudes and the lure of more respected professions such as law.

Check Mar Hicks’s work and follow her on Twitter to know more about this history of technology and what Hicks calls “programmed inequality”.

More recently, I came across this article in The Wired which talks about the history of ‘objectifying’ women in the process of creating the technologies that we use today, one of them being JPEGs.

If you find reading and awareness (on the history of society and technology) a challenge given the last minute rush in submitting abstracts and preparing for talks, sit back and read your abstract at least three times to check for the following:

  1. If you referred to gender(s), did you use gender neutral term(s)?
  2. If you referred to an engineer or were using pronouns in your narrative, did you consciously say “she” instead of “he”?

Some day, if all abstracts and talks fulfill this checklist, we’ll have created somewhat more inclusive conferences (because after gender, we still have to cross class, race and other divides and stereotypes).