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?

Elsewhere

I’ve held off on mentioning this here, although it’s not exactly a secret, that I’m group blogging elsewhere; I wanted to wait until there was something to see at both sites. You can now find me regularly at Geek Feminism (well, possibly only regularly before my child is born), and occasionally at Hoyden About Town. I won’t in general be cross-posting things to puzzling.org, although I might do so occasionally if it’s relevant to my usual topics here. At some point I may set up a feed of my posts in various places in case you are in need of the full Mary experience. Not that I’d suggest skipping the other GF or HAT authors…

University colleges: nurturing a rape culture

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Warning: this post has graphic quotes from and links to mainstream media accounts of rape culture and imagery, and sexual violence.

One of the profoundly disturbing aspects of rape culture discussions—and this won’t surprise readers here—is the way that they reveal the confident assumption that there are rapists, who are evil and other and unresponsive to any form of social control, and then there are the rest of us, who can be exposed to any number of conflicting messages about rape—sexy rape, not-rape rape, that-type-of-girl rape, he’s-such-a-good-fellow rape—and emerge with our anti-rape moral compass intact.

There is no single place in my own experiences that taught me that this is wrong more thoroughly and dramatically than university residential college.

Continue reading “University colleges: nurturing a rape culture”

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.

Quick hit: Ada Yonath

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Per Meli in comments, with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year another women laureate has been named: Ada Yonath, with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”. I didn’t know that the announcements were staggered, my apologises for implying that Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider were the only women laureates. Thanks for the update Meli.

Women in Science has a profile of Yonath, here’s an excerpt:

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degree in biochemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she entered the laboratory of Wolfie Traub at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She earned her Ph.D. for X-ray crystallographic studies of collagen in 1968. After brief postdocs at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, she returned to the Weizmann Institute to establish the country’s first protein crystallography laboratory in Israel.

Despite her expertise in X-ray crystallography, many scientists were skeptical that the technique could be used to determine ribosome structure, only they apparently didn’t express it quite so tactfully.

[…] she was able to count on the support of “a few individuals, including several distinguished scientists and my own group of young and highly motivated students. They encouraged me even when my project met with rigorous skepticism from most prominent scientists all over the world, even when I was called ‘a dreamer,’ ‘crazy’ or the ‘Village Fool.'”

Even her initial successes weren’t immediately recognized by her colleagues:

[…] with the techniques then available, it took Yonath months of trying different solutions and crystallization procedures to get tiny crystals of the larger, or 50S, subunit of the ribosome from a Bacillus bacterium, and more than a year to get the first very fuzzy x-ray crystallographic images. But when she showed colleagues her results at an August 1980 meeting, “everyone laughed at me,” Yonath recalls.

Quick hit: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A couple of days ago Skud linked to the Women in Science introduction to women potentially eligible for Nobel Prizes. Now the awards have been announced and there are two female laureates this year: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider. They, with Jack Szostak, are sharing the Physiology or Medicine prize “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”.

Blackburn is Australian and so has received a lot of Australian press. Here’s an excerpt of a Sydney Morning Herald story:

Professor Blackburn, 60, who now works in San Francisco, pioneered the study of telomeres, caps that protect chromosomes in cells, and is a discoverer of telomerase, an enzyme that does the protecting.

… Professor Blackburn is a vocal advocate of independent scientific thought who fell out with the Bush administration over cloning and stem cells.

She was dropped from George Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 after questioning its bias.

A colleague and friend, Melbourne University’s dean of science, Rob Saint, said Professor Blackburn, who graduated in 1971, chose her career when women were starting to become more involved in the sciences.

“I think she would be representative of a change in that gender balance,” Professor Saint said. “It’s wonderful that here we’re seeing the fruits of opening up the system.

Dr Blackburn’s career path wasn’t easy. Early in her tertiary education, she returned to her birthplace, Hobart, where according to her biography a family friend said: “What’s a nice girl like you doing studying science?”

Her interest had been sparked by a likeable chemistry teacher at Launceston’s Broadland school. There, biographer Catherine Brady said, she used the new chemistry lab to try to make touch powder fireworks.

She completed her schooling at Melbourne University High School, topping the state in three matriculation subjects, before completing a biochemistry masters, and moving on to Cambridge and Yale.

Women in Science has an extensive introduction to the work of both Blackburn and Greider.

Names, glorious names

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Some time back, I wrote:

We [on the LinuxChix lists] 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… There was sexism in computing and in Free Software”¦ probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t.

Now we have our long list of incidents, but I want to highlight another list which I’m happier about, our list of women in FLOSS. Back in the olden days, say 1999 or 2000 or so, LinuxChix tried to make a similar list. The Wayback Machine tells us it got to ten names, and I recall a significant amount of head scratching going into that. Now we have a list of women that is no doubt badly incomplete, probably uncompletable, but nevertheless something like ten times the length.

Today, instead of scratching our heads about what women could possibly deliver a keynote presentation at a technical conference, we started listing women who have done so, and I suspect that list too is fated to remain drastically incomplete no matter how actively it is updated. This is an inexpressibly happy thing for me: too many women to name! Thank you geek feminist flowering of 2008/2009!

Are there recent sources of geek feminist inspiration the Internet has tossed your way? Any treasure troves of women doing things you hadn’t heard about before? (Recall, we define geekdom broadly here, there’s no need to limit yourself to tech.) Who are you a mad fan of right now?

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 linux.conf.au 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 identi.ca, 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?