An open letter to yesterday’s Convo speaker

Dear Convo speaker,

It’s not often that Convo speakers with a CS tie visit our fair campus, so it was with great anticipation that I attended your talk yesterday.  I wasn’t sure what type of talk you would give, but was pleased by your decision to go all visionary on us.  I love visionary talks.  I enjoyed your take on what the future may hold and your insights into the state of the field today.  I appreciated that your talk was accessible and engaging, at your attempts to work humor and levity into the talk, and, according to my students, your most excellent discussion at the lunch afterwards.  Your talk has given me lots to talk about with my students in my two intro-level classes in the coming weeks, and for that I thank you.

And then, It happened.  The Gratuitous Porn Reference (GPR).

Now, as a woman in tech, I’m certainly no stranger to the occasional GPR in the keynote or seminar talk.  It happens more often than I’d care to admit, unfortunately, but more on that later.  As a feminist and a compassionate human being, I abhor porn.  I abhor its extreme objectification of women and pretty much everything about it.  When I hear a porn reference in a talk, I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, wishing a gaping hole in the earth would swallow me whole and take me away from the moment.  So you can imagine how I felt when you threw that GPR into the talk.  It distracted me from your message for most of the rest of the talk, which is unfortunate because I’m sure you said some more really insightful and interesting things.

What you did was sloppy preparation.  The GPR was completely gratuitous, and very obviously thrown in to generate laughs.  If you were hoping to use humor to illustrate your point, there were many other examples you could have used which would have fit your point much, much better.  I’m guessing you saw that you were speaking at a college campus, figured since you are big in the gaming field that your audience would be mostly male, and decided the joke would work.  But the audience was pretty mixed.  Regardless, I think it’s a bit insulting to your audience to make these assumptions about how your audience feels about such a lightning-rod topic, and such a big risk as well—the risk of alienating a good portion of your audience, not just women but men who strongly dislike porn and what it stands for as well.

And let’s talk about alienating your audience.  As I mentioned previously, this is not the first time I’ve heard a GPR in a tech talk, and as references go it was pretty tame.  But.  The world of technology already feels like a giant Boys’ Club, and those of us who don’t fit in to that Boys’ Club because of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or personality already feel plenty uncomfortable.  Trust me, as a woman in technology I’m reminded almost daily, in many tiny and mostly subtle ways, that I don’t really belong.  Throwing in a reference to something that so strongly objectifies women feeds into that Boys’ Club culture.  It tells the women in your audience that you see them first and foremost as objects of desire, not competent and welcome contributors to the field.  Even if this was not your intention, this is the message you send, particularly when you are a big name in the field.

Finally, your institution is one that is admired and lauded for Getting It when it comes to broadening and welcoming participation in tech-related fields—a real leader in this area.  When you speak, like it or not, you represent your institution as well as yourself.  And people, in the absence of other information, will assume that your views somehow represent the values and views of the school.  So you did your institution a grave disservice as well.

I hope you will keep this in mind the next time you give a talk like this.  Because as much as I’d like to say I’ll remember all of the fine points you made in your Convo talk, in reality I’ll probably just remember you as Just Another Speaker Who Doesn’t Get It.