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?