Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Humour, Irony, Disablism and Sexism – Haecksen T-Shirt LCA2011

I am getting a lot of flack from people because I thought a t-shirt for a linux conf miniconf was innapropriate. I said I could not support a conference that thinks sexist humour is appropriate.

The t-shirt said:

1 – A fabled creature, represented as a horse with a single spiralled horn.
2 – metaphor A person who is believed to be non-existent, and worthy of note if spotted in the wild, such as a woman working in technology.

As a result of my tweet, I’m getting some really nasty tweets and DMs. I have people telling me they are glad I’m not going to the conference. I have been called "close minded".


It was explained that the t-shirt was supposed to be ironic, not sexist. That it was designed by women, for women. That it refers to "The Unicorn Law", which basically says if you’re a woman in Open Source you’re doomed to eventually give a talk about women in Open Source. The unicorn law came to be in 2009. Created by young women involved in Open Source. Perhaps these women may not have 10, 20, 30 or more years of having to deal with gender bias through them choosing to be a woman in technology. I have seen enough sordid attacks against women in technology disguised as humour to find such jokes innapropriate.

For the record – I have nothing against black humour or irony. I’m the first one to make disability related jokes. I wear humouristic disability-related t-shirts. But it has to be in context. T-shirts don’t tell the back story. Over the past 12 months fellow LCA 2010 attendees have told me how often their haecksen t-shirt led to them having to explain about women in tech. One might argue that it’s good to open discussion. An explanation shouldn’t be necessary. Context *is* everything. How many people saw the t-shirt, thought something negative but never sought explanation, never opened dialogue?

This t-shirt says that women in technology don’t exist. It implies that women don’t have the skill, knowledge, etc to work in technology. That, to me, is a sexist message. It is entirely too easy to take this t-shirt out of context, and the satire gets lost very quickly.

Sexist humour is sexist humour, regardless of which sex is making it against the other, or even their own.

A few minutes after negative tweets about the t-shirt were made, the t-shirt was pulled off – apparently not available anymore. If the t-shirt was indeed appropriate, why was it pulled?

My tweet was not an attack against the designer, or anyone in particular. It was not an attack at all. I was stating that I could not support an organisation that appeared to support sexist humour. Just like I would not support an organisation that appears to support disability discrimination.

I take on board that the designer and committee didn’t intend to have that effect. But the t-shirt did come across poorly. I acknowledge that my tweet was strongly worded. My tweet and those of other people, including women, could have been taken as an indication that the target had been missed. Instead, people have gotten defensive and aggressive.

And that’s not going to get us *anywhere*.

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