Nick change administrivia

Way back in high school, I sat in a maths classroom in front of a information sheet about historical women mathematicians. (Only six of them? I asked, but my maths teacher was used to better trolls than I.) But when I first got online and had to choose a nick, I tended to choose ‘Hypatia’.

For various reasons, I’ve been really inconsistent about using it over about the past five years, and it’s become increasingly associated with the much more consistent Leigh Honeywell. Which was all right for a while too but now Leigh and I have more overlapping online circles, and much as I’d like to issue a challenge to a duel over something some day, I just don’t think this is that issue or Leigh my fated opponent.

‘puzzlement’ was originally the name Jeff Waugh gave my long running online diary, but I’ve been using it first on Livejournal, later on identi.ca and Twitter and other sites, on and off since 2004. It’s the closest thing I have to a real nick. Since this change is therefore largely complete, I’m changing my IRC nick and usernames on nick-using sites that will let me change to ‘puzzlement’, or, where I have to, some closely related variant. On blogs where I write or comment as ‘Mary’ I will largely keep doing so.

Women and geek prestige

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. I have some comments on this one at the bottom, but not a real answer.

I’ve seen various mention of trying to increase the respect given for non-coding activities, such as documentation and testing, which seem have a better gender ratio than coding, as a way of increasing acknowledged female involvement in FLOSS. But, while we definitely should give more recognition to non-coding involvement, it seems to me that allocation of respect / recognition simply does naturally concentrate on that which has the longest and steepest learning curves (just as I guess that in running there’s a hierarchy of jogger – runner – marathon runner – hypermarathon runner), and that this route will risk perpetuating a division into “womens’ work” and “men’s work”, with the traditional difference in public valuation. Is this a risk? Is it happening? And if so, what can we do about it?

And likewise, I get a similar impression about scripting vs compiled languages — that, statistically, women (more so than men) tend to prefer languages like python, rather than the languages that they’re implemented in (typically C). Is this a real divide? And does it have risks of getting more female involvement in FLOSS but in a way that some [male geeks] will dismiss as “not the real thing”?

Something I think is worth considering about this question is whether or not the hierarchy the questioner gives is objective. I’d argue that it largely isn’t. The learning curve for coding can be long and steep, yes. But consider documentation, for example. Writing well is a really difficult skill. It’s sometimes not as obvious that you’re acquiring it, precisely because it’s such a very long process and it involves doing a lot of reading and practising other forms of communication as well. A baseline level of skill in writing is also more common than a baseline level of skill in coding, but a high level of skill is no easier”Š”””ŠI’d actually guess much harder at the very extremes”Š”””Što achieve.So we need to be very wary of accepting this hierarchy at face value, both because it buys into the existing undervaluation of certain skills and because it risks continuing a nasty pattern: “if women can do it, it must be easier than we thought, let’s look for something currently mostly done by men and value that instead.”

That said, coding is fun and useful. (Well, for me. But that’s enough!) So is nuclear physics, pure mathematics, electrical engineering, hard SF and many other “male” halves of the gender binary fractal. So we don’t want to cede those to men.

For more of my own thoughts on this, see “Girl stuff” in Free Software, a post from last year from the point-of-view of deciding what to work on as a woman. What do you think? Where’s the balance between creating and properly valuing roles more suited for women’s existing socialisation and more women entering male-dominated and currently highly valued roles?

But women are an advanced social skill…

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This post is following on from Melissa’s post, and particularly inspired by a comment in moderation, which I am not sure whether she will approve or not, which defends “hardcore geeks” (presumed to never be women themselves, I gather) behaviour towards women on the basis of “INCREDIBLY limited socialization”.

This is all quite genuinely mystifying to me. Admittedly I’m relying on extensive anecdata rather than surveys, but self-identified geeks mostly go through a stage as teenagers and sometimes beyond, and often quite a hurtful stage, of at best social difficulties and at worst cruel bullying and social isolation. Many only find their people at university or cons or other places with a high geek density.

But this doesn’t translate to a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women that we are required to assume that all geek men are at least eighteen years behind their chronological age in exposure to women. It’s true that groups of women and mixed-gender groups have their own social norms. In fact women geeks can find these difficult to navigate too and some prefer for a while, or always, the social norms of male geek groups to those of women non-geeks (at the same time often encountering problems being a woman in said group as well). Admittedly my sample is biased because by definition I’m not friends with any geek who doesn’t have women friends, but after high school geeks seem to me to have roughly the same social success that others have, where “social success” is approximated by “has a social circle of the desired number of people, who you enjoy spending time with”. Possibly with different types of people, but similar numbers of them.

(Speaking of social success, a geeky tangent: Scott L. Feld’s Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do, see Satoshi Kanazawa’s write-up in Psychology Today if you don’t have access, although beware the horrible subtitle.)

But even though I see lots of men geeks who are enough of a social success to make them happy, I find this notion of interacting with women being a graduate-level social skill to be quite seriously brought up by some of these same geeks. Even middle-aged men geeks who are in long-term heterosexual relationships or who have long-time women colleagues and collaborators. They maintain that the entry-level of dealing with women in general should not be close to their own skills, but a very very low bar in which outright sexual harassment ought to be treated as a forgivable faux pas and an opportunity for a gentle teaching moment, rather than a very justified cause of anger.

There are several related things going on. One is that geek culture is not as uninfluenced by other cultures as some geeks would like to argue. Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation. The second is that, as a consequence of many geekdoms being male dominated, they attract men who prefer not to interact with women, or at least not to interact with us in their leisure time. (To be clear here: I am not saying that all men geeks in a male dominated geekdom are there to get away from women. I’m saying that a subset of them are, and that they have a reason to push against including women.) I also notice an unfortunate tendency to believe that men are solely socialised by women: if a man, through no fault of his own, has ended up in a men-only social pocket, then it’s basically Lord of the Flies until a kind woman makes up for the failings of women past and helps him out.

There do seem to be a number of men who genuinely and sincerely believe that the single most acceptable way to interact with any woman is to be sure to inform her that they approve of her appearance, or, less often, her general civilising influence, and who get a horrible shock when someone is angry with them for it. But much of the rest of the “don’t expect too much of geeks when it comes to social decencies!” rhetoric seems self-serving and disingenuous.

Note: discussions of geeks and social skills can attract blanket statements about the skills of geeks with autism spectrum disorders. I haven’t addressed that in this post because I am neurotypical and have no especial expertise about autism spectrum disorders. I welcome informed comment on it here, but uninformed blanket statements won’t be approved; if you don’t know anything much about ASDs don’t make it up.

Ada Lovelace Day: from my subscriptions

Here’s a big assorted hunk of tasty soft-centered Ada Lovelace Day goodness, brought to you care of the ridiculously large list of weblogs I poll:

How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I’ve seen a couple of ways of observing Ada Lovelace Day that seem to be missing the point a little. Here’s what it would be great if Ada Lovelace Day ended with: the end of invisibility of women in science and technology. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of us. And yet, when people are asked to name prominent scientists and technologists, many are capable of coming up with a list entirely of men’s names, and even when asked especially for women’s names some people draw a blank. A blank. From hundreds of thousands of possibilities.

There are a few examples of posts that don’t help with this, and which in fact contribute to the invisibility of women by suggesting that the author couldn’t think of even one specific woman and the work that she does:

  • a general non-specific celebration of women: “I want to salute all women in science and technology! Yeah!”;
  • doing no more than naming a woman and highlighting her as a woman you’ve heard of in science or technology; no hint of what she does or why you admire or remember her in particular; or
  • highlighting a woman or several women for facilitating your own work in tech with their non-technical activities. The most obvious example is “thanks to my significant other, for allowing me to spend time on technical hobbies.” It’s absolutely good to acknowledge the shoulders your own work stands on, but it doesn’t advance the goal of ending the invisibility problem if you choose to use Ada Lovelace Day to do it.

Ada Lovelace Day is about women’s own work in science and technology. Contribute to women’s visibility with specific names and with examples of work you admire deeply or use every day or can’t imagine how to do in such an elegant way as she did.

Let’s spin this around! Commenters, which woman in science or technology is more visible to you today as a result of someone else’s Ada Lovelace Day entry? Did you discover a new heroine? Or find that someone’s achievements were twice as big as you’d ever heard? Link us up!

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Betty Allan

This is much more of a quick post than my post about Skud, but a call to highlight Australian women pioneers in science and technology reminded me of idly flicking through a CSIRO internal publication a year or two back and discovering Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan.

The CSIRO is Australia’s government research organisation. Allan was CSIRO’s first statistician. John Field has written a lot about her at CSIRO’s first statistician, Miss Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan:

… The first of these [early biometricians at CSIR, the first three of whom where women] was Frances Elizabeth Allan. On return from Rothamsted, she took up duty with CSIR on 29 September 1930, seventy-five years ago.

Over the next decade she championed and demonstrated the usefulness of biometrics – the application of statistics to biology, often now called biostatistics – throughout the organisation and beyond. Her work was highly valued; she devoted her energies to helping other researchers rather than establishing her own scientific reputation. She is remembered by those who knew her as kind-hearted, considerate and easy to work with.

Allan’s marriage and therefore, by law, her retirement, occurred at more or less the same time as the formal establishment of a Biometrics Section in CSIR, forerunner to the present-day CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences. Allan’s legacy is a CSIRO Division which employs scores of statisticians from Australia and overseas. These people are working on problems and conducting research with an impact that Betty Allan would certainly be proud of.

It’s already easy to forget that women were required to retire from many jobs upon marriage as a matter of law until well within many people’s living memory (mine, for a small number of women in Australia). It was still the case at the time of the publication of The Female Eunuch, and, in Australia, it was occasionally required until the passing of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Act in 1986.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Kirrily Robert

This is a profile of a woman in technology for Ada Lovelace Day, 24th March. Everyone is invited today to profile a woman in technology or science.

Skud (two photos)
Creative Commons License
Skud (Two photos) by Kirrily Robert, Erica Olsen, Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

I’ve run across Kirrily Robert in any number of capacities. Originally it was in 2001, presenting at linux.conf.au about the work of her then employer, e-smith. She and I and several other people went to a LinuxChix BoF. We’ve only met one other time in person, I think, and she performed the essential service of introducing me to Ackland Street St Kilda and mentioning that there are very rummy rum balls to be had there. (Very large ones too, it turns out, about the size of a fist. Don’t buy two.)

I admire Skud for her generalist interests and her leadership. In a decade or so of following her blogs and occasionally contributing to her projects, there’s been Perl hacking, Perl community, fandom, social media, geek feminism, geek etiquette, Freebase…

One of Skud’s specialties is seizing expertise by the throat. She writes and talks about whatever is interesting her constantly, learning and teaching at the same time and thereby making herself central to the community around it. I also admire her embrace of generalisation: of focussing on breadth as well as depth.

It’s hard to write about generalists without making it sound like a second prize, so I want to address that specifically. Firstly, I don’t think depth versus breadth of interests is a zero sum game. Certainly there’s a trade-off at some point, but I think geek culture creates a quite artificial separation between the intense take-all intense interest and expertise and those other people in second place, with their shallow fiddling around. (I suspect geeks have inherited this from academia.) The people I know achieving the most at the moment are all in some way generalists and Skud is at the forefront. Skud is an uber-geek. There’s nothing she’s interested in that she’s not geeky about. If I ever want to unashamedly get my teeth into Perl, Freebase, knitting, Age of Sail fandom, or historical household arts, I know where to go.

I’ve obviously been closely involved in the Geek Feminism project, which is why I’m choosing to write about Skud this year. No other person in technology has influenced my life and time so much recently. Skud’s big success in founding this was that she took the intense reaction to her OSCON keynote and built upon it. Considering the amount of venom around both the general topic of feminism and specifically feminist claims that geekdom’s individualist utopia might still be systemically difficult for women, it’s really really hard not to throw a stone and then run and hide for a few years. And I’m really really pleased that someone didn’t, and I think this is typical of Skud: she creates, builds and unifies. Watch and learn!

Quick hit: Battle of the Opens

A quick link for you: people interested in Free Software and similar intellectual property sharing and re-mixing movements would probably enjoy reading Dorothea Salo’s Battle of the Opens, talking about open source, open access (to research literature) and many other related movements. I think, in general, that Open Access and Free Culture and so on are far more aware of the software movement than the software movement is aware of any of the movements it partly inspired.

Here’s an excerpt about open access:

What is being made open? The academic literature: specifically, the peer-reviewed journal literature which is not written for royalties or any other direct monetary reward to its authors. (While open-access advocates happily cheer for open access to books and other research media, the different money-flows in these areas mean they are not a focus of the movement.) Open-access literature is in opposition to literature which is not available to be read unless a subscription, per-article, or other fee is paid by the reader or the reader’s proxy (e.g. a library).

What legal regimes are implicated? Copyright, again. Typical practice for the academic article is that its author(s) transfer their copyright in its entirety to the journal publisher, allowing the publisher to control reuse.

Addressing tokenism

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This question came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions.

How do you determine if a person has been invited to participate (conference speaker, lead a workshop, blog, etc.) as a token of diversity rather than on their merits?

And, if it is tokenism, what would you do?

I’m going to talk about being a token woman in this post, because that’s what I feel familiar with, hopefully commenters can share their thoughts on being a token representative of other (or multiple) groups.

First, a wee bit of 101. The response to this kind of discussion is sometimes: “Wait, you want more women. But we shouldn’t be selecting women just because they’re women. Feminism is hard, eleventy one 1!11!!1 I quit!”

Yeah, feminism is hard. That’s why we’re still here and frankly expect to be for a long time. Yes, we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation. And this may be a hard thing to do: much harder than having a criteria for a single event that says “at least three women speakers, please, this year for sure.” Likewise for diversity in general. You do this the hard way: organically. You should be striving for diversity everywhere, not just in venues where people are likely to notice and criticise your lack of diversity. You shouldn’t be having to select a woman speaker just because she’s a woman: if there are women in your geekdom at all, there should be women in your candidate pool and then you select some of them as part of your usual process.

Of course, that means keeping in mind that it’s harder to select women even when you have access to women candidates, because essentially everyone (so, me, you) has a set of biases about women that influence how we see individual women. Try and consciously correct for these biases. As an example: she seems inexperienced as an speaker. But on the other hand, we regularly select men on no more evidence than the fact that they asked, don’t we? Are we applying the same standards to women?

As regards bias, once you have your selection pool, at the time of selection, there are various approaches. Blinding the selection process is very effective: if you can hide names, appearances, and everything else that you can aside from the person’s proposal or skill, this is something of the gold standard approach. This is famously true for orchestral auditions. Otherwise, all you can do is try and be very conscious about your choices and remember that you have inherited biases towards privileged groups, and towards people like yourself, from your surroundings.

On to the question itself: someone appears to be a token women. What to do about it?

This is complicated precisely because tokenism isn’t a binary thing, token or not-a-token. When in a sufficient numerical minority particularly, as women are in a lot of geekdoms, I think it’s unlikely that no attention at all was paid to a woman’s gender and its effect on gender balance and diversity when she was selected for a role. It might have come up explicitly in the selection, it might have occurred to individuals privately, it might have influenced them subconsciously, but to some extent she was likely chosen as partly “the person who can best do this task” and partly as “a woman”.

I think there are some indicative but not definitive signs of problematic tokenisation. They include:

  • being the only woman selected among many men;
  • being part of a repeating pattern in which a single woman or the same number of women are selected time after time (eg, a few too many tech conferences currently seem to have a pattern of having exactly one woman selected to give one of the keynotes year after year); and
  • being selected to represent the female side of however the local gender binary fractal divides the space, especially where this is a repeated pattern.

The question doesn’t specify about what to do if you think you yourself are a token, or if you think someone else is. I’ll answer the easier part first: if you think someone else is.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to point this out with respect to an individual woman. Tokenism is a double-bind: tokenism should be challenged, but ‘token’ is a very damaging and hurtful label to apply to someone and this is regularly used as a weapon against women. Calling someone a token woman is a good way of dismissing her and giving other people ammunition to dismiss both her and other women who are in a numerical minority. (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

It’s pretty rare for a woman to be explicitly identified as a token by the people who selected her as one, in these situations where diversity is being genuinely sought. (In the case where people feel diversity is being forced upon them, they often take it out on the tokenised person.) Generally they realise that “we selected Mary to be our woman speaker this year, that’s an infinite improvement on last year” is an admission that their approach to diversity is fairly shallow.

So you don’t often know for sure, and speculating on an individual woman’s selection as a token is a problem in and of itself. Instead, the system needs to be redesigned at a lower level. This is very much a place in which allies in positions of power need to do work. Work hard on having access to diversity through your networks. The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process. Claire Light wrote about doing this as a fulltime job in Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!. Allowing for the number of hours you have available, this is how you should be approaching your geek network when you have power over other people’s prominence. You should be seeking to tunnel for hidden gold all the time, not just keeping to the same old (male, etc) names. It shouldn’t just be your events that are diverse, it should be your personal network. Also have a look at Skud’s ten tips for getting more women speakers and think about analogies in all situations where you are choosing to make someone prominent.

If you do the above, you won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to make sure you have one single woman to desperately avoid looking undiverse.

What if you think you yourself are a token? I don’t think that you have an obligation to challenge what’s going on: requiring that women who’ve been put in a difficult spot do all the work of changing assumptions and practices is a bad approach. We all should, and the more powerful should be addressing their own privileges in proportion to their power. You might decide that the best thing to do is keep your head down this time.

But let’s say that in this instance, you want to challenge the tokenism of your selection. There are a bunch of options:

  • refuse with a reason. Say that you believe you’re only being included in order to have a woman speaker or prize recipient or whatever. Probably this is only going to happen when you have been somehow informed that you’ve been selected explicitly and only as a token, not in the far more common case where you aren’t sure or you’re partly a token.
  • if you’re been included in a way that is below your capabilities: you could either point this out and refuse, or demand a role commensurate with your status and abilities. For example, if you believe your expertise and speaking skills merit keynote slots, ask for them when being offered normal speaking slots.
  • if you feel your offer has been too feminised, ask to change it. For example: “I haven’t done game artwork for the last few years, I’m much more familiar with game design state-of-the-art. I would rather run a workshop on that and I notice that there isn’t one in the program.”
  • use your prominence to promote other women, or other people who you believe aren’t getting enough exposure. Invite them to your workshop, suggest them as alternative speakers, suggest that a journalist speak to them instead, and so on.
  • try and leverage your token slot into a role with power. Ask to be on the organising or selection committee next year. Then you can try and make a more organic approach to diversity right from the start.

If you’re worried you’re a token, it’s also worth keeping in mind that women are trained to underestimate their own worth and significance. Don’t neglect to consider the possibility that your work is just as good as or quite likely better than the required level for the role you’ve been offered. You also do not need to be The Universe’s Single Leading Expert on anything in order to publicly opine, teach or lead it. The fact that you can think of someone who would be better does not mean that you are not suitable. Tokenism exists, but it does not mean that everything you are offered is unearned or depriving someone more worthy.

For commenters: have you been tokenised? Were you able to tell for sure? Did you decide to do anything about it, and if so, what? Have you any experience of the explicit and deliberate tokenisation of someone else?

And again, this post focused on women being tokenised, but have you been included as a token member of another group, or at the intersection of more than one? Do you have any thoughts specific to that?