The Overpowering Power of Men at Conventions

In 2010, I started attending science fiction conventions regularly. I’d attended a few conventions here and there before then, but never with any regularity. This was when I really began embracing fandom. I was still a little shy and I was new. I didn’t really understand the fan culture yet regarding how women were often viewed in fandom by other fans.

I really adore Jack McDevitt and his Alex Benedict series. So, when I saw that he was visiting Readercon in 2010, I decided that was going to go because I had a first edition of  The Devil’s Eye and wanted to get it signed. I had waited in line to chat with Jack and to get his signature. I was excited since his signature was one of the first signatures that I had ever collected. I got to the front of the line and Jack greeted me warmly. I told him how much I enjoyed the novel and his series, and he smiled happily and asked if I would like him to sign my book. Of course, I gave him an enthusiastic “Yes!”

While I was pulling out my book and flipping to the title page, the man standing behind me (his name was Sean) stepped forward and began chatting with Jack. I opened my book and smiled politely at Sean wondering why he was cutting in on my moment, and I handed my book to Jack. Sean kept talking and it took a moment for me to cut into the conversation to thank Jack for signing my book. I thought this was a subtle but polite cue for Sean to back off.

Jack responded again that he was happy to sign. Sean began talking again about how much he enjoyed Jack’s work and how he’d been looking forward to meeting Jack. When Jack finished with the signature, he handed me the book. I don’t think it’s polite to read signatures in the moment, especially when there is an inscription. Plus, there was a line and clearly Sean wanted his time (as well as mine!) so I closed my book, thanked Jack for his time, and I left so that others could have their turn.

When I turned away, leaving Sean there with Jack, I remember seeing an odd look cross Jack’s face…maybe surprise?…but then Sean grabbed his attention and I was off to the hallway to read my inscription. Once I was outside of the doors in the madness of people milling around between events, I opened my book and read Jack’s inscription:

Hi Erin,
It’s a pleasure to meet you + Sean.
Best always,
Jack McDevitt

Sean? I read it again. I realized that because Sean pushed forward into my space while I was with Jack McDevitt and because I was new and too polite to ask him to wait his turn, it gave Jack the impression that we were together. I had been waiting to talk with Jack, and I had come to the event to primarily to see him. In that moment, I was equal parts angry and embarrassed and deeply frustrated that this man Sean! had forced his way into an inscription on a first edition book that I had been saving to get signed.

It’s now 10+ years later. I have since gotten to know Jack as a person and have reviewed several of his books. I never told him about this moment because I didn’t want to upset or embarrass him for not realizing that Sean wasn’t with me. Nowadays, I’d easily be able to tell Sean to step back, but I can’t help being sad about the fact that a man, a fellow fan, thought so little of me that he didn’t respect the precious 2 minutes that it took for Jack to sign my book.

I was invisible. I was an obstacle that he pushed aside in order to have his more important conversation with Jack. I think about this now and I know that I am not the only person who has had something like this happen at a convention. Yes, it’s a small thing, but it is an example of how women have been treated in society for far too long, including convention society. The fact that it has taken me 10 years to publicly post about this also speaks to social issues of embarrassment and fear of condemnation by some members of our society.

I know that men are much more aware of women in science fiction now and that there is much more respect paid to women at conventions. These are good things, but we’re still working on making things better for marginalized people in our community and at our events. I hope that Sean, wherever he may be, has found some respect for other fans in science fiction over the last 10+ years. I hope that other people will read this post and think about that fact that when they are excited about something it is really, really easy to disrespect another person, pushing them aside without even a thought, especially if the person they pushed aside is polite and kind about it. In such situations, please remember that marginalized people include women as well as people of color, people with access issues, shy people, children, etc.

As we return to in person events, I encourage event organizers, event speakers, and event attendees to pay a little extra attention to how people are interacting with one another to ensure that those of us who are marginalized in a moment like this don’t get pushed aside by others who are much bolder, who have bigger egos, and who have forgotten how to take turns during the isolation that the pandemic caused.

Every year, when I clean out old books in order to make room for new books, I come across The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt and I think of Sean and all of the other women and marginalized people who might have been pushed aside by him or people like him. I don’t think I will ever get rid of this book because it is a reminder to me of what it is like to be new to fandom and how easy it is to ruin convention experiences for others. This book, Jack McDevitt, Sean, and my response to the situation are why I now work so hard to make sure that people have good experiences at conventions, especially the new people, the shy people, the people with access needs, the people of color, and the women. We are one community and we all deserve respect.


P.S. The Devil’s Eye is a great book, and I highly recommend it. Who doesn’t love a good ol’ antiquarian slueth set in the far-far future?


About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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18 Responses to The Overpowering Power of Men at Conventions

  1. Paul B says:

    It’s *not* “a small thing.” Your time was encroached upon by a rude stranger. And to (mis)quote a line from Pippin, he should have his genitalia separated from the rest of his person.

  2. Steve Kelner says:

    This was a insulting thing to do at the very least; you are right to be angry, and completely entitled to call Sean out on it. SF has often been a home to people of, shall we say, less than ideal social skills, but “waiting your turn” is kindergarten-level. I’m sorry you felt you needed to wait this long.

    • Thanks. 🙂 The ironic thing is that Sean probably has no idea what he did, what he caused, or how it made me feel. I should have said something back then so that he knew.

  3. Laurie Mann says:

    I’m sorry you had that experience. Not the best introduction to fandom.

  4. Megan Sullivan says:

    So glad you wrote this. All too familiar to women everywhere.

  5. Own it, my dear. Let go of all those bad feelings about it, and make it better. Honestly, when I first started reading your post, I thought the inscription was Jack’s comical way of making a connection with you over Sean The Interrupter. I don’t know if Jack’s look of confusion was your mindset or his actual intent. Honestly, you might not either! Choose the funnier, better intent, tell him, and it’ll become the intent, no matter how it was originally given.
    It’s been a marginalizing story long enough. You’ve processed, learned what you needed to from it, and taken steps to change things. Consider reclaiming it, love. I bet you and Jack would get a chuckle out of it.

  6. Clea Simon says:

    This is not a small thing and I’m so glad you wrote this. Another friend and I were recently discussing how since we’ve reached a certain ripeness of age we are increasingly having our comments and concerns dismissed – and we are both white cis women, so we know that so many of our sisters and colleagues have it worse. I’m sorry this happened to you, but by sharing it you’ve given a voice to so many of us. Thank you.

  7. Chris M. Barkley says:


    I have seen this sort of behavior at conventions, too. It is disgusting and denigrating.
    The next time I see it, I intend to speak up. LOUDLY!

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  9. Happy says:

    Way to go, Erin!! It doesn’t matter how long it took to say this publicly; this time was right for you, and this kind of disrespect deserves to be called out every day. And should be by each and every one of us.

    • Thanks, Happy! You know, one of my biggest fears after this happened was that Tom would somehow open the book and read the inscription and say “Who’s this guy?”

      Tom and I had a good laugh about that the other day. 🙂 He said I should have included that part in my blog post. He’s probably right!

  10. Erin,
    I knew when I first met you (and hopefully extended you the respect you deserve) that you were a special person. Reading your post, I find nothing to disabuse me of that initial assessment!

    • Thanks, Steve. Right back at you. You are also a kind and wonderful person. I hope you are doing well. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to get together at Boskone this year!

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