liz writes stuff down

Burnout from unappreciated, unpaid diversity work

A little over a week ago, an unnecessary dick joke was sent to a mailing list I'm on. It's a mailing list related to a conference I go to, and the joke added absolutely no value to the conversation. Another young woman and I criticized this behavior, citing how it pushes women away from tech and conferences like this one. We were met with lots of men telling us that we were either being too sensitive, violating their First Amendment rights[1], or failing to note the large body of casual sexism towards men in the world. The men on this list constantly need to be reminded that women are the subject of the overwhelming majority of sexualized jokes, both within tech culture and in general. They consistently ignore how those jokes are part of the thousands of systemic paper cuts that, unsurprisingly, push women out of tech. Some men even had the gall to tell us off by saying that this wasn't the reason we don't have more women in tech because all the blame should fall on the leaky pipeline that doesn't get enough girls involved in tech, despite the fact that half the women who are already in tech leave. Somehow, words coming directly from women they know about their own experiences with tech culture can't possibly be valid.[2]

This sort of casual sexism happens a lot on this mailing list. More overt sexism happens on this list, too. Sometimes I write emails or even blog posts that directly respond to it - Dresses, "dressing up", and the software industry, Why is it easier to teach girls to code than to teach ourselves to treat women well?, and I've been programming since I was 10, but I don't feel like a "hacker" - but it always takes a lot out of me. My responses are met with hostility because I dare to question the way things are, so I find myself putting excessive care into tiptoeing around men's feelings when presenting how their actions harm the careers and safety of people like me. Sometimes, even the most measured of my responses are mocked, so I find myself too scared to reply to some of the worst affronts against women. I get people responding to me off list for more than just clarification, presumably because it's easier to tell people off in private. My "allies" generally reply quietly to just me and maybe some of the other young women, but these "allies" rarely confront the list.

I'm unhappy with being more or less solely responsible for making this space a comfortable, safe environment for me, and frankly, no amount of effort on my part will be enough without the male majority prioritizing this, too. This general unwillingness to improve the culture is the reason I am skeptical of inviting other young women I know to the conference. I just don't have the energy for unappreciated and unaided diversity efforts to ensure they will be comfortable and safe. I am not alone in this thinking: other young women on the list also feel that we're constantly going at this alone. We're tired.[3]

The last time I went to this conference was in 2014. All the attendees contribute to the programming through preparing talks ahead of time, scheduling ad hoc sessions for the evenings, and being present for less formal conversation over meals and in the hallways. The conference rents out an entire, somewhat remote resort, and the result is an immersive, intense experience. Somehow, despite being what some call "very introverted", I find the environment to primarily be giving and energizing. I have a lot of unique conversations with incredibly talented and influential individuals, many of whom I only see once a year at this event.

However, these talented individuals aren't a diverse group. At 27, I'm one of the youngest there by far. Women make up a small fraction of the attendees; young women even less so. (I can count the number of women 30ish or younger on one hand.) There aren't a lot of young men. The vast majority of attendees are white like me.

The conference provides a wide range of programming, mostly on detailed technical topics or broad, creative ideas for using tech to improve the world. Recently, there's been some efforts to improve diversity, including having a code of conduct[4] and scheduling a diversity talk in the main programming. That talk, like all talks, was to be done by attendees - women - for free.

I'm not sure how effectively the scheduled talks are usually planned at this conference; I've only been involved in a few. Somehow, I spent about two hours completely planning and getting the right people for one of the technical hours, almost entirely at my leisure before the conference, but I had to spend nearly eight hours - the entire first evening of the two and a half day conference, late into the night - working on the diversity talk despite not even being the point person for it. The talk itself went okay, though I heard secondhand that some attendees still didn't believe there even was a problem. We moderated how we gave our time to questions well. (Often this involved not giving time to questions.) I guess I was proud of the talk.

But I was also really, really, really burned out for the rest of the conference. I ran some other, more casual technical chats in the late night programming - sessions covering topics that sit at heart of the conference, the topics I and other attendees go to the event to be a part of - but it felt more difficult than the other years I've gone. I slept a lot more, as I usually do when I'm emotionally drained, and probably missed out on some of the most interesting conversations since those have historically happened for me around 2am. I felt cheated because I didn't have the privilege of spending that fifth of the conference on the events it's advertised to be about because I needed to be doing diversity 101 instead.

I didn't go last year for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it would have been a logistical nightmare, so I didn't even have to weigh the considerations above. This year, I could easily go, but these experiences sit heavily on my mind. If I choose not to go this year, this will be why.

[1] No, the first amendment does not cover speech, offensive or otherwise, on private mailing lists.
[2] This is not surprising at all. Men try to gaslight us into believing that our experiences in the industry aren't valid all the time.
[3] Women aren't the only group who are hurt on this list. There was a painful thread about disability a while back. Interestingly, a disproportionate amount of the support for the specific person affected was from women - both disproportionately to the percent of women on the list and to the overall percent of emails sent by women to the list.
[4] Though I haven't heard of this being enforced or of the women I know feeling comfortable enforcing it, so I'm skeptical. I know this conference, like so many, isn't safe - I know things have definitely happened in the years before, and my instinct is that a lack of incidents is almost certainly not why I haven't heard of the code being used since its institution.


The underappreciated men’s rights activist as a character background

As we all know, men's rights activists are grossly misunderstood. On the surface, the men's rights movement looks to be about getting equal rights with respect to things like adoptions and custody disputes[1], but actually, the movement is primarily a coordinated attack on women. After all, nothing says "we just want men to have equal opportunity" like threatening violence against women (content warning: rape, death threats).

With the men's rights movement coming into its own more and more, it's been the background motivating an increasing number of adventurers. I playtested a sun elf warlock who has my variant pact with the Patriarchy and this new men's rights activist background yesterday - it was loads of fun.

From page 125 of the Player's Handbook:

Every story has a beginning. Your character's background reveals where you came from, how you became an adventurer, and your place in the world.

Here's a new background for the increasingly popular men's rights activist:

Men's Rights Activist

You have spent your life oppressed by women. You have watched other men share this fate, and you have formed a small brethren with some of these men to serve as the sole force for progress towards true gender equality in the world.

Choose a cause to focus on. Are you going to be the one to champion the cause for male adventurers to get the same increased recognition and pay as their less talented female colleagues? Are you going to fight for magical teachers to revamp their mentoring to focus only on the underserved needs of restless male wizards-to-be? Perhaps you will be the one to combat the discrimination men face in not being allowed to unconditionally unleash their barbaric rage? Figure out how to channel your anecdotal experiences to make necessary systemic progress.

Skill Proficiencies: History, Insight
Languages: Dialects of Abyssal and Draconic in which all sentences begin "Well, actually"
Equipment: A tinderbox, a scroll of the collected offenses against men from a dying male elder from the town you grew up in, a set of fine clothes, a pouch that automatically disappears whenever anyone allied with you asks you about how much money you have, and 30 gp you have inherited

Feature: Authority on the Hierarchy of Privilege

When you meet someone, you are able to immediately determine every way in which they are better off than you. You are also able to recall knowing someone who is even more privileged than they are in the town you most recently visited.

Suggested Characteristics

Men's rights activists are shaped by their experiences with the women they have known and their imagined ideas about women they have never met. Their reflections on half thought-out what-ifs affect their mannerisms and ideals. Their flaws might be that fiction often affects their reality as much as their obviously fully unbiased observations.

d8 Personality Trait

  1. I envy a particular woman's position in life and constantly belittle the unnecessarily hard work she has had to spend her whole life to get there.
  2. I can find common slights against even the most dissimilar of men and empathize with them completely.
  3. I see the potential for discrimination against men in every event and action. Women try to ruin us, we just need to see it.
  4. Nothing can shake my paranoia.
  5. I slander women in almost every situation.
  6. I am tolerant of other people as long as they are men.
  7. I've enjoyed high status and undeserved aid from society. Easy living coddles me.
  8. I've spent so long interacting only with men that I have little practical experience relating to women.

d6 Ideal

  1. Equality. Everyone, not just men, benefits from equal opportunity. (Good)
  2. Power. I hope to one day push women to the lowest class in society. (Evil)
  3. Change. We must help bring about the changes the world needs to advance us all. (Any)
  4. Awareness. The path to power and self-improvement is through spreading knowledge. (Neutral)
  5. Responsibility. It is my duty to protect and care for the men who cannot do so themselves. (Lawful)
  6. Respect. I must prove that I can do anything I want despite the oppression of my gender. (Chaotic)

d6 Bond

  1. I would die before admitting a woman deserves her lot in life more than I do.
  2. I will someday get revenge on the woman who wronged me.
  3. I owe my life to the man who enlightened me about the oppression men face.
  4. Everything I do is for the common man - man, not person.
  5. I will do anything to protect the men I know.
  6. I seek to destroy the unfair ways society advances women.

d6 Flaw

  1. I judge women harshly, and give myself a pass on all my faults.
  2. I put too much trust in those who enlighten me about another way men are oppressed.
  3. My self-righteousness sometimes prevents me from noticing my hypocrisy.
  4. I am inflexible in my thinking.
  5. I am suspicious of strange women and expect the worst of them.
  6. Once I notice something oppressing men, I become obsessed with it to the detriment of everything else in my life.

[1] Interestingly enough, feminism champions these causes.


The Patriarchy as an otherworldly patron

As we all know, the patriarchy is just a figment of feminist imagination. My friend Geoffrey and I feel that such figments of the imagination are well suited for becoming otherworldly patrons for Dungeons & Dragons 5E warlocks, so we created a variant otherworldly patron for the Patriarchy.

From page 108 of the Player's Handbook:

The beings that serve as patrons for warlocks are mighty inhabitants of other planes of existence - not gods, but almost godlike in their power. Various patrons give their warlocks access to different powers and invocations, and expect significant favors in return.

Some patrons collect warlocks, doling out mystic knowledge relatively freely or boasting of their ability to bind mortals to their will. Other patrons bestow their power only grudgingly, and might make a pact with only one warlock. Warlocks who serve the same patron might view each other as allies, siblings, or rivals.

Here's our new option for an otherworldly patron, the Patriarchy:

The Patriarchy

You have made a pact with a system in some other plane of existence - you're not sure which one, but you're absolutely positive it's not the plane you're in.

You can only make this pact if your character is a cishet man. Since you are a cishet man, the Patriarchy will constantly work for you, no matter how often you try to deny its existence or defy its assistance.

The Patriarchy gains power by working against certain characters, and your pact gives the Patriachy the right to draw from those around you. Any female characters, wood elves, drow, half-elves, half-orcs, dragonborn, tiefling, or fey within a 10-foot radius of you - whether or not they are allied with you - must roll a d20 before attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks at the DM's discretion[1]. If they roll a 1, they roll with disadvantage. It may be beneficial to have a party that consists of none of those characters.

Expanded Spell List

The Patriarchy lets cishet men choose from an expanded list of spells when you learn a warlock spell. The following spells are added to the warlock spell list.

Patriarchy Expanded Spells

1st level: command, heroism
2nd level: calm emotions, enhance ability
3rd level: stinking cloud, water walk
4th level: compulsion, phantasmal killer
5th level: dominate person, mislead

Additionally, you know the friends cantrip and do not have to count it against the number of cantrips you can learn.

Blindness to Privilege

Starting at 1st level, every time you see a character make an attack roll, saving throw, or skill check, if your applicable modifier or skill bonus is higher than theirs, your character believes that they rolled with your bonus. If they fail, you believe it's because they are not working hard enough.

Reverse Discrimination

Starting at 6th level, whenever any female characters, wood elves, drow, half-elves, half-orcs, dragonborn, tiefling, or fey get any temporary bonus or advantage on a roll, so do you, as long as you complain loudly.

Double Standards

Starting at 10th level, when you get advantage on a roll, you get to roll with increased advantage - on every d20 roll, roll four d20 and take the maximum.

Any female characters, wood elves, drow, half-elves, half-orcs, dragonborn, tiefling, or fey within a 10-foot radius of you - whether or not they are allied with you - must roll a d20 before attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks at the DM's discretion. If they roll a 1, they now roll with increased disadvantage - roll four d20 and take the minimum.


Starting at 14th level, your party members react as if you had rolled the best possible number for every roll. For instance, if you were likely to kill an enemy by rolling a natural 20 on attack and the maximum for damage, your entire party leaves combat to celebrate, and the enemy gets a surprise round. Since the Patriarchy draws power from female characters, wood elves, drow, half-elves, half-orcs, dragonborn, tiefling, and fey, those characters do not get a surprise round.

[1] The Patriarchy isn't perfect.


Intent! It’s eldritch magic! or: house rules for warlocks who mean well

As we all know, intent is an ancient eldritch power! Dungeons & Dragons 5E warlocks enter into pacts with otherworldly patrons who grant them such ancient magics in the form of pact boons.

From page 107 of the Player's Handbook:

At 3rd level, your otherworldly patron bestows a gift upon you for your loyal service. You gain one of the following features of your choice.

Here's a new variant for the ancient eldritch power of intent:

Pact of the Intent

Whenever an action you take has what you consider to be an unintended outcome, you can roll a d20 and add it to your attack roll or subtract it from your opponent's saving throw. You can do this as many times as you like.

Additionally, if your critical fumble hits a teammate and causes them to faint, you get the XP from the monster you were targeting - it's only fair. You get this XP even if your attack would not have killed the monster.


What’s in, what’s out, how it tells your story, and failing to parallel Hamilton’s subversive structure

Content warning: rape, anti-abortion rhetoric

On June 26, I left Richard Rodgers Theatre with an embarrassingly big grin - after all, I had just experienced Hamilton. Like many others, I'd listened to the soundtrack many times before even acquiring tickets to the musical, and I'd heard praises for the costumes, the acting, the staging from my friends who had already seen it. It lived up to the hype.

That giant smile wasn't primarily about performance, but about the racial subversion that underscores the story. Lin-Manuel Miranda painstakingly researched Alexander Hamilton's life to create a transformative work (read: fanfic) that bent race to elevate those who were left out of the formation of my country despite the reality that the oppression of people of color was integral to its creation.

Of course, not everyone got that, but none missed it as poorly for me as Alex Nichols complaining that Miranda's choices "ducked the question of slavery". So when Todd VanDerWerff replied that "it's not a work that tries to excuse Alexander Hamilton’s failure[1] to do anything substantive about slavery" but a "rumination to make a better story", I smiled because someone directly responded to Nichols's criticisms with Hamilton's transformative nature.[2] VanDerWerff speaks to how Hamilton's "story about stories" presented a platform to stories too often robbed of that platform and describes how Miranda picked what to include and what to exclude didn't remove slavery from the narrative - "the story that seemed like the most important one" didn't have to be the most important one - but ultimately I think he missed the point in a way that left me feeling sour.

VanDerWerff draws parallels between the circumstances of his birth - namely his mother possibly being raped by his father and her choosing not to get an abortion - and his father's story to Miranda's approach to Hamilton, but where Miranda's choices change the common narrative of our society, VanDerWerff's continue it.

Miranda chooses not to linger on the Founding Fathers' tacit acceptance of slavery, but that decision wasn't one that meant Hamilton sanctioned slavery. Unlike with Miranda's swift exclusion of slavery, VanDerWerff lingers on never getting his father's side of the story, how he chooses to "never, ever call his father a rapist". Miranda approaches the inexcusable exclusion of people of color from having a say in the conception of the United States subversively, but VanDerWerff continues the status quo by repeating the need for the (usually male) rapist to condemn himself instead of pausing to deeply reflect on the woman victim's story. I do not begin to think it would be easy to think that someone related to you so closely could be guilty of the terrible act of rape, but he could have dropped the subject just as easily as Miranda did the details of slavery in Hamilton instead of repeatedly circling back to the night in question. VanDerWerff could have written the untold story of his father instead of continuing an often told story that damages women.

Inspired by the series of accidents surrounding Alexander Hamilton's involvement in the American Revolution, VanDerWerff discusses the happenstance of his mother's choice not to get an abortion. I agree with his insight that "We are, all of us, accidents, in a sense" like Hamilton. But Miranda's Hamilton subversively focuses on accidents surrounding an immigrant in a time where immigrants are systematically denied the respect they deserve[3], while VanDerWerff plays up the dominant narrative that not getting an abortion ushers joy into a mother's life[4] - the same narrative prioritizes the possibility of a dependent fetus becoming a child that is incorrectly used to pressure a woman out of considering the needs of her own life and body, the story used to pressure women out of getting abortions. It's the same story that incites violence against the women who exercise their right to one despite that undue pressure.

The beauty of Hamilton lies in using catchy beats and phrases to help us think critically about the world we live in, to think about how it could be better by including people of color, respecting immigrants, and praising the works of marginalized groups. Hamilton works specifically because it focuses on important things missing from the narrative we're overwhelmingly taught - instead of picking pieces from the narrative in a way that highlights already common, and damaging, beliefs like VanDerWerff's article.

[1] and the failure of the other Founding Fathers, too.
[2] I also jumped for joy because someone found beautiful, cohesive words that embody my feelings on how Eliza deserved the final number.
[3] Hamilton certainly was when John Adams called him "creole bastard" despite all the Founding Fathers being recent immigrants to America.
[4] and I don't doubt for a second that his existence in his mother's life and the world at large are treasures

Many thanks to Jacky Chang and Geoffrey Thomas for reviewing my drafts.