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Reality Asserts Itself at a Women's Tech Conference
large groups of men said they were non-binary so they could invade a women's tech conference. why were the organizers surprised when it happened?
Last month’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) — a prominent annual recruiting event targeting “women and non-binary technologists” — is under fire after attendees complained that large numbers of men showed up and dominated the job fair portion of the conference. “pov: you’re at a women in tech conference watching the men take the jobs meant for the girlies,” reads the text of a viral TikTok video showing lines of men (mainly of Indian and Chinese origin) waiting to talk to tech recruiters at the conference, where the cost of admission ranges from $650 to $1,200. One female attendee posted that “two men tried to follow her to her hotel room,” while others reported that men were “talking about how women looked in their native language[s] so that others could [not] understand.”
After the first day of the conference, which ran from September 26 to 29, a petition circulated calling on GHC to refund “all female attendees who have paid registration fees under false pretenses” and “establish clear guidelines stating that only self-identified women or non-binary individuals may participate.” “It has come to our attention that a significant number of men are participating in this event, which contradicts its purpose and undermines the opportunities it aims to provide for women,” wrote the author of the petition, which received over 2,500 signatures before it was taken down the following day.
Rumors circulated on social media that many men at the conference had chosen not to identify their gender (or had identified as “non-binary”) on their registration forms to justify their attendance. They “finesse[d] the system by choosing ‘prefer not to answer’ on their pronouns, getting scholarships to cover their costs, taking up space that could have gone to intelligent women who worked tirelessly to get this amazing opportunity,” wrote one attendee. The author of the petition proposed that GHC “implement a thorough verification process during registration to ensure compliance with the event’s intended audience,” a suggestion which triggered debate among attendees on Reddit. “do you want GHC staff to check each participants [sic] genitals or something?” wrote one user. “How TF are they gonna implement this? Penis inspection? DNA sample and checking blood for testosterone?” wrote another.
Men identifying as ‘non-binary’ at GHC in an attempt to access scholarships and job offers intended for women would hardly be the first instance of people opportunistically aligning themselves with ‘underrepresented minorities’ to secure preferential treatment. (Think, for example, of UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent claim that many asylum seekers pretend to be gay in order to “game the system” and stay in Britain.) The fluid nature of the non-binary identity, which is essentially defined by its lack of definition, makes it an especially easy target for this kind of co-opting. As online commentators were quick to point out, even a person’s chosen pronouns are no longer a surefire indicator of their gender identity. “A fair number of [non-binary people] prefer he/him pronouns,” wrote one Reddit user in response to a comment suggesting event organizers turn away attendees with “he/him lanyards” at the door. “There’s a fair chance a lot of those [alleged men] are neither cis nor men.”
In response to the deluge of criticism, Bo Young Lee, advisory president of Anita B, the group responsible for organizing GHC, posted an apology video on X. “In the past, [GHC] has always felt safe and loving and embracing,” said Lee. “This year, I must admit, [it] didn’t feel this way, and I know that many of you are feeling unsafe, physically and psychologically, and you’re feeling unheard…I can promise you that we are working on solutions.”
Who could have predicted this? That female conference organizers are now wringing their hands over the question of which types of ‘non-binary people’ and ‘male allies’ to admit underscores the fact that this crisis was entirely of their own creation. Did they expect that reality would never impose itself? That droves of culturally tone-deaf men looking to land a spot in tech — men who shamelessly commented on women’s looks and followed them back to their hotel rooms — would not take advantage of loopholes allowing them to attend a women-focused networking event? The naïvety is almost too difficult to believe, though at this point I wouldn’t put anything past them.