How to talk about gender at events

how_to_talk_about_gender_louise_downe

I love what I do, and I love talking about it.

I’m lucky enough to be able to speak about it publically on a reasonably regular basis, but there’s one thing that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable at conferences – and that’s how they talk about gender.

Most studies of tech conferences seem to estimate the average rate of women speaking at tech conferences is around 25%. That’s pretty terrible, however, no one has ever bothered (as far as I can tell) to do a similar study into the numbers of trans and nonbinary people either attending or speaking at conferences.

You might think that’s because there are less of us, but let’s be clear – with around 12% of the US population under 35 defining themselves as trans or nonbinary – this is widespread, institutional ignorance we’re dealing with.

Unfortunately, for all their ‘best efforts’ many event organisers actively encourage cis-gender diversity in a way that excludes trans and non binary speakers and attendees.

This is mostly due to ignorance rather than malice, but almost always has to do with the language that is used to talk about gender diversity.

So, in the absence of anything I can point organisers to on the internet, here are 5 principles to make sure you’re including gender diversity in the thing you’re organising, whatever it might be.

Here are five things to think about

  1. Sex and gender are different, don’t confuse the two
  2. A person’s biological sex (what chromosomes and genitals they’re born with) and their gender (the way they feel) are not the same for a lot of people. These people may be born ‘female’ but identify as a man or vice versa.

    Biological sex is indicated by the words ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘intersex’, whereas gender is indicated by the words ‘man’ or ‘woman’

    Using words that refer to someone’s sex like ‘female’ as synonyms for words that refer to someone’s gender like ‘woman’ makes the presumption that the two are the same, and that in order to be considered a woman you must be biologically female. This excludes transgendered people (people whose gender and sex are different)

    Don’t say
    This event is to celebrate the female pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and men, and other genders).

    Do say
    This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).

  3. There are more than two genders
  4. The genders of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ exist on a spectrum.

    Some cis-gendered people (people who are born female and feel like women) feel completely like a man or a woman in a very binary way, and so do some trans people.

    But, there are a lot of people whose gender fits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. These people are genderqueer or nonbinary and can sometimes refer to themselves as trans-masculine or trans-feminine.

    There are also a lot of people whose gender changes depending on how they feel that day, week or month. These people are genderfluid.

    Accommodating these people means not using binary definitions ‘men’ and ‘women’ but talking about all (read plural) genders.

    It’s important that everything at your conference reinforces this openness, so think about changing the bathroom signage of your venue for the event to create gender neutral bathrooms. Avoiding the use of honorifics (eg. Mr, Mrs, Ms) on badges, and making sure all of your assistants, sound engineers and comperes are respectful of your speaker and attendees genders and use of pronouns will help hugely too.

    Don’t say
    Welcome ladies and gentlemen!
    We want representation from both genders!
    We need a 50/50 split of men and women at this event!
    We should have at least one woman on the panel!

    Do say
    Welcome everyone!
    We need fair representation from all genders at this awesome event!

  5. Do not assume people’s gender
  6. How someone expresses their gender can often look different to their actual gender (or sex).

    For example, someone can look traditionally ‘feminine’ but define themselves as genderfluid or non binary.

    Gender roles (eg. women wearing skirts and men wearing ties) are a social construct, and some people who are trans or non binary deliberately don’t conform to what is traditionally defined for their gender.

    Others might try to assume a traditional gender role but look biologically more masculine or feminine than they feel.

    Rather than assume someone’s gender, it’s always best to ask what pronouns someone would prefer to use. This is likely to be she/her/hers, he/him/his or they/them/theirs but the person you’re talking to might have something else they’d prefer to use.

    Some less confident trans or nonbinary people might be reluctant to do this publicly for fear of being stigmatised so make sure you do this in a way that they feel safe to answer honestly – don’t ask people to pick up a pronoun badge at registration for example.

    Likewise for those who are genderfluid, this might change closer to your event so if you’re unsure, the best thing to do is to be as gender neutral as possible.

    Don’t say
    Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have another woman at this event!

    Do say
    Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have you at this event! By the way – how would you like to be referred to at the event? she/he/they or something else? You can let us know nearer the time if you like

  7. If you’re running a ‘women’s’ event, think long and hard about why you’re excluding other underrepresented genders
  8. Trans and nonbinary genders are often far more underrepresented than cis-women in pretty much any industry you care to think of.

    Partly that’s because there are less of us (but not by that much, as I said earlier).

    But a lot of this has to do with a significant lack of education or transphobia, sadly. Where a lot of cisgendered men are now more aware of their gender privilege, many cisgendered women aren’t, meaning that events organised by cisgendered women targeted at ‘women’ (often only cisgendered women at that!) exclude trans men and nonbinary people.

    Issues to do with equal pay, representation, systematic prejudice and cis-male normative culture apply equally to the trans and nonbinary community as they do to cis-women, so if the reason you’re running your women focussed event is to address these sorts of issues (and not just to celebrate the awesome ladyness of ladies) think seriously about opening your event to celebrate all underrepresented genders.

    Don’t let your lack of privilege make you ignore someone else’s further lack of privilege.

    Don’t say
    This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).

    Do say
    This event is to celebrate the gender diversity of technology pioneers and to chart how they have acted as role models for everyone.

  9. Do not ask people who are trans or nonbinary to educate you on how you should deal with gender.
  10. This is a tough one. I feel strongly that I need to help people understand some of the issues that trans and nonbinary people face, but it’s personally exhausting and requires confidence, time and ultimately privilege to do so.

    Almost every trans or nonbinary person will be glad you asked how they like to be treated, but although they might be comfortable enacting their own gender, it’s another thing entirely to have the confidence to teach people how to behave towards others.

    Your education is your own responsibility, so please respect your present and future trans and nonbinary peers by educating yourself on the issues they might face.

    If you got to the bottom of this post, well done, that’s a start.