Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Links to Lisa Grossman’s Of Geeks and Girls have been turning up everywhere. She’s recounting work by Sapna Cheryan asking women about their interest in computing, in their case rooms that are decorated such that “Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table” and showing that they are much less likely to agree that they have any interest in computer science. (Grossman does not report how men responded: surely Cheryan’s work used male subjects as well?)

The article goes on to caution though that while geek culture stereotypes seem to alienate women to some degree, dismantling the whole culture is not the solution:

But what about the women who do think like computer scientists? What of the girl geeks?

Cheryan has given talks where the audience doubted the existence of girl geeks. She’s also given talks to girl geeks. There, she has received responses such as, “I’m a female engineer, and I like Star Trek! What are you trying to say?” She explains that her studies aren’t supposed to give a picture of what computer scientists are actually like. The geek room is a caricature. “We couldn’t have found a room in the CS building that really looked like that,” she says. But the perception it captures is real.

It’s a fairly frequent response to geek feminism to argue that it’s an attempt to destroy geek culture, or at best that it’s a zero sum game: the number of women who would join a more feminist geek culture would be equalled by the number of men who would leave; occasionally this argument essentially boils down to “I’m here to get the hell away from women” but more commonly it’s along the lines of “I’m here to get the hell away from mainstream social norms, I like the social norms in geekdom, you’re trying to turn them into mainstream social norms, ew.” This reminds me of that response, but from women. We’re here for the geekdom. We talk about what we want to change; we should also talk about what we want to keep.

You’re welcome to discuss Cheryan’s work and Grossman’s take on it in general in comments here (worth remembering though that we generally don’t have perfect insight into our prejudices, so you may or may not be more turned off by discarded computer parts than you think), but I specifically wanted to ask women who see themselves as part of geek culture, or a geek culture, what are the parts of it that you enjoy and that you’re hoping to open up to more women?

Conference recordings and harassment

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

The problem

At technical and other geek conferences and events it’s becoming increasingly common to either video talks by default, or in some cases to refuse to allow any speaker to opt out of being recorded while still being allowed to give their talk. I have been told a couple of stories of harassment related to conference videos, as follows (all individuals are women, some have been anonymised, none are me):

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

Geekfeminism contributors also shared stories:

  • Leigh, in reply to S’s story:

    I got one of those on Facebook a few weeks back, from someone I know in the local Linux community, saying I was “so hot” and asking if I was giving any more talks this summer. This is someone I know only professionally, and not even well at that.

    I replied with a link to Juliet’s ‘and she’s cute too!’ blog post…

  • Skud has received several messages with offensive commentary on her appearance based on videos and photographs of her talks. A couple of events have recorded her without first obtaining her consent; in one case, she spoke to the photographer afterwards and asked for the video not to be published.

See also the Wiscon troll incident.

What to do about it

Based on these stories, there are several concerns about recording conference talks that conference organisers should be thinking about when planning to record talks:

  1. Consent to recordings must be obtained from all speakers, in advance.
  2. Have an optional, opt-in, recording scheme for talks. As these stories demonstrate, people have had harassment experiences, some very creepy and cruel, related to being recorded, or have reason to fear them. People may well decide that they’d prefer not to be recorded for this, or other, reasons. If your conference has a “if you don’t want to be recorded, withdraw your talk” policy, you will exclude those people from speaking.
  3. It’s not feasible to get attendee consent, but in your conference handouts, warn attendees that their questions and possibly other conversation may be recorded during talks.

Possible alternatives to making recordings of speakers include publishing slides only, or making a slidecast of their slides and the audio of the talk. (Note that the latter can also be considerably more useful than visuals of the speaker.)

Separately, some women (in particular) intensely dislike the paparazzi atmosphere that some geek events have, in which everyone can be photographed at any time. In your event’s code of conduct, consider addressing the question of whether photographers should seek consent from individual subjects to either photography or to publication of photographs.

What’s your experience with event recording, especially video and photography? Can you think of any other ways in which recording is problematic, or other guidelines for event organisers to help with these problems?

Note to commenters: the “you should be flattered” discussion will not take place in this post. Thank you.

Identifying as a geek

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I mentioned in my introduction post that I haven’t had to struggle internally to identify as a feminist. But the title of this site leads to another question: is it as easy for me to identify as a geek?

And the answer is no. A lot of this is pretty trivially heretical stuff. I mildly tend to being a morning person; left to my own devices, I do not tend to observe a 28 hour day, it’s sometimes as short as 23.5 hours. I am quite staggeringly indifferent to cats. I loathe being bathed in fluorescent light all day and jokes about the alien environment of the big blue room puzzle me. The thought of a world where human communication is as simple as TCP/IP’s SYN and ACK packets makes my skin crawl (I’m a computational linguistics student specialising in lexical semantics, mustn’t wish myself out of a job). I don’t eschew caffeine, but have never been tempted to consume it more than once a week or so. Given these examples and others, there are a lot of (computer) geek insider-status affirmation jokes and rituals that are as foreign to me as mating rituals at nightclubs are.

Some of this is me, and some of it is culture, and some of it is gender I think. I’ve never felt like I had to pass a test to count as a woman, or as a feminist. I feel like I trip over geekdom all the time. I don’t have pithy anecdotes of key experiences, but I strongly identified with Dorothea Salo’s discussion of “honorary guys” in Sexism and group formation:

A woman can be an honorary guy, sure, with all the perquisites and privileges pertaining to that status””as long as she never lets anything disturb the guy façade.

That is, I feel like I’m admitted to geekdom under sufferance, and womanhood and feminism don’t feel like that. But I know this experience is not universal, for many women reading geekdom is your skin and female gender like a coat that doesn’t fit all the time, and for others neither is problematic or they both are. How did you come to feminism, and geekdom, and womanhood (if you’re a woman)? Does one of them fit better than the others at the moment, and does that feed into your questioning anything?

Why we document

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.

My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.

We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.

Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Software””are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?””I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.

I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.

But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.

I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.

Girly geekdom for girls… only?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Several of the front page posters here are participating in discussions on the Python diversity email list, a list created by Python community member Aahz to discuss diversity problems in the Python programming language community. The initial aim of the list is creating a diversity statement like that of the Dreamwidth community.

Some of the more problematic discussions on the list come down to “this stuff is hard, and hard to talk about, and people get angry and defensive when things are hard.” I don’t want to discuss the tenor or direction of the discussions there in general in this post though, I want to talk about a specific incident. A poster to the list made reference to being “beaten up by a girl” (in a metaphorical sense, what had actually happened was off-list criticism from a woman, not physical violence). A 101 discussion followed, and while it was pretty clear to most people posting that the framing played right into the idea that being beaten by women, physically or in argument, is emasculating, it took a surprisingly long time until it was pointed out, originally by me, eventually also by Aahz in a separate thread, that “girls” is a problematic term. It seems this was a new idea even to some of the more pro-feminist posters.

Now despite the Python diversity list’s innocence, calling women “girls” even in conversations where men are just “men” is not a new problem. As I pointed out to someone on, Wikipedia has a prominently placed discussion of how there are few neutral terms for women, especially more informal ones. And the geek feminism groups have run into it ourselves. We have LinuxChix and Girl Geek Dinners. One syllable terms make for snappy names and the “girl geek” alliteration has zing. Reclaiming problematic terminology has a long history, but one of the appeals is that it’s just plain fun, and it’s happened to some extent with the term “geek” as well.

But how much are we playing into the idea that geek feminism is for young women, that once first year CS is gender balanced we’re done here? I’ve seen concerning things. LinuxChix’s name has on occasion drawn young women who explicitly say they only want to interact with other young women. LinuxChix and Girl Geek meetups are often just as inconveniently timed and placed for primary carers as LUGs and gaming groups. When Julie Gibson interviewed me for Ada Lovelace day, she talked about how LinuxChix turned out not to be for her, she’s too far removed in time from having enough geek hours in her life to learn Linux. An older woman””in her late forties, perhaps, well outside the Australian LinuxChix demographic””at our LinuxChix miniconf in 2008 said that she’s careful to avoid becoming a “face” for women in IT: she thinks no teenage girl wants to grow up to be her. It reminded me of Lauredhel’s post at Hoyden About Town, Monica Dux thinks I’m bad for feminism’s image, about the trend to say it’s great to be a proud feminist, as long as you aren’t a marketing problem for the feminism brand. Is it only great to be a woman geek if you’re exactly what the guys on Slashdot are asking for, 18 and single and heterosexual and able to fix your own computers, thus making time for everyone’s two favourite leisure activities, gaming and sex? Of course not. But I’m worried that we’re talking about ourselves as though it is.

This is hard for me. I’m in my twenties. It’s a lot easier for me to think about what my fifteen year old girl geek self would have wanted from geek feminism than what the sixty year old woman I hope to be will want. But we should. What does geek feminism look like, for women who aren’t girls any more and don’t want to be?

The art of the blow-off

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

The primary rule is to consider how much your absence will inconvenience your friend, and how much damage it might do to the relationship. The more of these factors that hold, the firmer you should see the commitment as being:

  1. you have blown off this friend for any reason in the recent past
  2. he has not blown you off for any reason in the recent past
  3. he has invested emotional energy in you in the recent past (eg letting you talk about a breakup or work woes)
  4. the plans involve a small number of people, possibly just the two of you
  5. the plans involve him going out of his way, eg travelling a long distance, making a lot of phone calls, reminding you of the event fifteen times
  6. the plans involve the organiser paying for things, especially in advance (consider this carefully… he may regard telling you that he paid a deposit, or that the tickets aren’t refundable, as crass, so use some common sense)
  7. a number of other people have blown off this event already
  8. it’s close to the event, such that the organiser is likely to have chosen to say no to other things that might have been fun and/or profitable because he had committed to his plans with you
  9. you have expressed extreme enthusiasm about the plans (even if you actually express extreme enthusiasm about everything)

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

  1. make every effort to cancel as early as possible
  2. apologise sincerely and be accepting of and don’t call the organiser on any irritation that creeps into her voice
  3. if money was spent, make several firm offers to repay the organiser for the money she spent on you (about three firm offers is the right number). If you can possibly afford to, don’t ask her to buy back your ticket from you if there was one: give it to her for someone else’s use.
  4. when apologising, don’t explain the excuse in great detail. You probably should mention the general idea (“this big project has sprung a leak”, “John is in town”), but don’t lean on it, even if it’s really important to you, and especially if your motives are money (eg overtime rates).

The only time that you should dwell on your excuse is when your excuse is traditional: that is, you were sick or another friend or family member died or was sick and needed you. Attempts to downplay that come across really strangely (eg “I had this seizure type thingie, oh well, I’m so so so sorry, I’m such a bad person”). Your friend will want to help or sympathise, most likely.

Otherwise, the problem with explaining your excuse in great detail is that it comes across as tantamount to explaining to the nearest cent exactly what the relationship is worth to you (“ok, so I’m less important than the boyfriend’s last minute availability”, “ok, so overtime rates trump my friendship”). More details actually make this impression worse, not better, because they show just how cold-bloodedly you calculate the worth of your friends. This may seem like nonsense—we’re all upfront hyper-rational geeks here who should be happy to have our friendship valued at market rates—but remember, it’s best for her when you over-commit to a friendship. So showing signs that you’re only rationally committed is hurtful, and not only at the conscious level either.

In some cases, eg hard to get tickets or the like, it can be nice to make gentle offers of a replacement for yourself. “Please go ahead and find someone else to take with my ticket. If you don’t find anyone, I know my friend Karen would be happy to go with you, and you’d love her, so give me a call.”

The best way to make amends is to firstly be careful to honour social engagements with this person very highly the next couple of times and depending on the level of trouble you put them to, try and assume the organiser role next time. Take the trouble on yourself, and furthermore organise to do something that your friend likes, at a time and location especially convenient for her, rather than yourself.

Oh, and if the reason you are blowing your friend off is because you suspect that he or she is romantically and/or sexually interested in you, and you are trying to gently signal your own lack of interest, this is a bad way to do it. The good way to do it is to bite the bullet and deliver that awkward “um, so, I’m not sure if I’m right, but just in case… I, um, I’m not interested in dating/shagging you” line and then give him or her a week or two without unnecessary contact so that he or she (a) believes you and (b) can choose to put on a social mask and pretend that this interlude never happened.

On the other hand, if you are blowing off a friend BUT you are romantically or sexually interested in him or her, just your luck, they probably will read blowing them off as a irrevocable sign of your lack of interest. If for some reason the time is not ripe to make a completely unambiguous move, you need to really work hard and express your regret at missing this thing, and furthermore, organise a replacement event almost immediately, ideally one that’s slightly more intimate and slightly harder to organise than the one they organised for you.

How to accept an invitation

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

Traditional etiquette is pretty spot-on about accepting social engagements in the first place. A quick rundown for those who aren’t familiar:

You get an invitation. For geeks, it probably comes in email, unless everyone has moved to Google Calendar without me looking. For big ticket events like weddings, you might still get a written invite. You reply by the same method you received the invite, unless another method is specified in the invitation itself.

You should reply to all personal invitations that come from people you know, either accepting or declining. A personal invitation is one-to-one (or one-to-a-few, in the case where households or partners are invited together). For public events like LUG meetings, you typically don’t reply unless there’s specific instructions to, and usually those will ask for acceptances only. For those, general invitations are issued to the public, rather than specific invites to individuals. In case of doubt though, it doesn’t hurt to reply.

Responses should be timely and brief. Let’s look at those.

If the invitation has an RSVP date, this is the drop-dead date for responding. The date is typically influenced by things like the date on which your friend must tell their caterers the final numbers, or on which she wants to do that giant shopping run to buy all the pizza ingredients. Replying before the RSVP date is the best thing to do and you should aim to do this almost all of the time. If you can accept or decline right away, do that, so you don’t forget.

If you’ve missed the RSVP date by a few days you should typically send profuse apologies and, if you want to accept, non-pushy inquiries about whether a late acceptance is all right. If you’ve missed it by much more, you need to decline the invitation with profuse apologies for being so late. Accepting is no longer in the question, unless your friend tells you that you can do so. Don’t ask; if this offer is going to be made, they will make it.

If the invitation has no RSVP date, you reply as soon as you can make a decision. You can work out a rough drop-dead date, usually: when do they need to start spending money? For an average sized informal party, it’s probably a couple of days before. For a trip overseas, it’s probably several months before. You need to reply before you think they started spending money on guests.

Now, to your brief replies. If you’re accepting an invitation, you say something like “I’ll be there, and I’m really looking forward to it.” There’s special wording for replying to formal invites, basically mirroring the invitation back at them. (If they said “Ms Nerd requests the pleasure of Mr Geek’s company on the 9th June”, Mr Geek replies “Mr Geek accepts with pleasure Ms Nerd’s invitation for the 9th June”.) You likely only need this for weddings and there are lots of websites with full examples of how to word replies to formal invites. Otherwise, all you need to do is accept and express that you’re looking forward to it. Don’t go into any and all sacrifices you’re making to come. (“It’s really a pain to get flights that weekend, and my usual travel agent is
away, and I’m going to miss my new puppy, but I’m coming because I just love you that much.”)

Once you’ve accepted the invitation, you regard this as a fixed engagement and you must either turn up as you said you would, or break your word, a subject we’re going into soon. You never just fail to show up and don’t either warn them beforehand or apologise afterwards.

If you’re declining, the excuse you use in all circumstances is either “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement, I would have loved to be there” or “I’m so sorry, I won’t be in town, I would have loved to be there”. Not being in town gets its own excuse because ‘prior engagement’ refers to plans for a particular day. It just sounds weird to call your six month holiday overseas a ‘prior engagement’.

‘Prior engagement’ is what’s called a ‘polite fiction’: it covers everything from a real prior commitment to your need to wash your hair that night. That is, in the event that you can’t be bothered or just don’t want to, the phrase for this is still “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement.” (Alternative phrases include “I already have plans”.) Almost all explanation beyond that comes across more as “your event sounds dumb” than “I really wanted to come but can’t”.

One geekly explanation for this, if you like, is cognitive load. You care deeply about not liking smoky venues, or not liking events that Boring Dude is at. That’s fine, that’s why you’re allowed to decline invitations and organise your own events which are in fresh air and to which Boring Dude is not invited. There’s no reason to bring it up for a particular event, because that event is already being organised and there’s nothing that can be done about it without the organiser making radical changes, so you’re just adding to her load of things to fret about. If smoky venues and Boring Dude are about to cost the organiser your friendship, you should bring this up separately when a particular event isn’t under discussion.

The only exception to offering generic excuses is when invited to something by intimates who know what you’re doing most days: partners and very best friends. With them, you should be more open. Etiquette by and large is a guide to social relationships, not intimate ones.