The Gender Politics of Conference T-Shirts


I spent my Saturday crewing the reception desk at the amazing UK GovCamp Unconference. Part of our task was to check people in, hand them their name badges, schwag, and offer them a free conference T-Shirt.

If you're anything like me, you've got hundreds of conference Ts stuffed in a drawer somewhere. They're all the same - a funky logo on the front, and usually a list of sponsors on the back. Not quite as glamorous as a rock-concert tour shirt but, hey, good enough from slobbing around the house.

As I was directing people to their shirts, a few of us got in to a (very good natured) discussion about the gender politics inherent in linguistic choices. For example, considering the following sentence.

On the left we have women's T-Shirts, and on the right we have men's T-Shirts.

What if a woman would rather wear a "male" shirt? Are we implicitly suggesting that such a course of action is wrong? If a trans-person wants to wear a specific shirt, are we reinforcing the notion that they are violating social norms?

It is simply a matter of politeness. I'm not necessarily talking about a Debrett's etiquette guide on whether a Marchioness outranks a Viscount - but what language is the most inclusive while retaining clarity.

A Little History

For the longest time, the British tech conferences I went to asked participants only for T-Shirt size on attendee application forms. It was gently pointed out that T-Shirts come in more than one style, and that a female medium size is equivalent to male small size. Thus, organisers started asking whether participants would prefer a male- or female-style shirt and, if so, in which size.

But, what are male and female styles? Generally speaking, they look like this:
Male Female T Shirt
The male one is basically a rectangle of cloth, the female one tapers in at the waist and has more space at the breast.

Back To Language

Here are some of the choices we talked about, and some of the decisions we came to.

  • Regular / Fitted. This implicitly says that people who want fitted are somehow irregular.
  • Fitted / Non-Fitted. Again, implicitly saying one is different from the norm.
  • Unisex / Women's. Suggests that, while women can wear either, men may not.
  • Tits / No Tits. (Suggested by a woman I hasten to add!) Not all women have breasts. Some people have breasts but choose not to emphasise them with figure hugging clothes.
  • Straight Cut / Curve Cut. The most factual description, but caused some confusion when we asked as this is not usual terminology.

In the end, we tentatively settled on "Fitted or Straight Cut" only to be hit with a problem.

Men are idiots.

The majority of men who were given the choice between "Fitted or ..." responded with either "Errr.... I'll take one that fits...?" or simply "What does fitted mean?"

Yup, guys generally have no clue that a traditional women's cut T-shirt is different from what a man usually wears. So, we had inadvertently chosen a language which was exclusionary to those who don't pay much attention to fashion.

If you have to ask what the difference between two choices is, you're marked as an outsider who lacks knowledge.

A Solution

From my many years of helping out with events, I know there are some things one just shouldn't do. Chief among these is cause guests embarrassment. Many people actively dislike being asked what size shirt they wear. They're also embarrassed if, after saying they want a Medium, they have to return it for a larger size.

What we usually do is leave the T-Shirts on a separate table, sorted by size, so that participants can pick the one which best suits them.

We abdicate responsibility, in order to provide a more pleasant experience. That, I think is what we should do in this case.

If we had one of each style and size of T-Shirt on a hanger, we could have placed them over their respective pile and simply let participants pick the size and shape they are most comfortable with.

Language choice matters. The words we choose to use have an impact. It might not be the most pressing issue in the world, but we should strive to avoid needless discomfort to those around us.

6 thoughts on “The Gender Politics of Conference T-Shirts

  1. And, when asking for t-shirt cuts/sizes in advance - perhaps provide an image of the vague shape of each shirt on offer, and if you want to be really prepared, a link to the manufacturer website showing size charts, so that those so inclined can even check their size and avoid the embarrassment of having to change. (unless they didn't follow the link, in which case - I'm sort of left thinking "Well, that's their lookout…"

  2. Perhaps an unpopular suggestion, but why not solve the problem by doing away with conference shirts altogether? Is there any evidence that they work as advertising or act as an incentive for people to attend? It just seems awfully wasteful to me - I must have acquired armfuls of them over my career and, apart from a few with particularly nice artwork, most have ended up donated to thrift shops. They always seem to be made of very thin fabric, suggesting they're sourced as cheaply as possible and making me wonder about the ethics of the labor involved in making them.

  3. "There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things."

    You replaced a naming convention that everyone knows and is experienced with, with a new, more abstract one that can only be understood by recognizing a problem exists with the conventional naming system in the first place. This article needed a visual explanation to be understood as well. Maybe that's the way, a poster with the pic above and labels.

    It's a dilemma allright. Ditching shirt sales feels like the worst solution.

  4. I was involved in a discussion of (un)conference T-shirts last week, when someone pointed out that arriving at and unconference for the first time, only to see people wearing shirts from the same event six or eight years ago, is off-putting, as they're basically a uniform that says "I am on the inside, and you are new here, so not".

  5. The UKGovCamp aluminium water bottles, on the other hand, were superb. Much better than disposable plastic, and sustainably reusable over a lifetime measured in years.

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