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?

Babies, boobs and rooms full of geek men

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

My six week old son has just rolled up his first D&D character, charisma stat 20:

Thrilled
Image by Andrew Bennetts, all rights reserved

Just kidding. I’m actually pretty wary of identifying children of geeks as geeks themselves. They’ll tell us what they are when they’re ready, right?

Now that I have my cute kid pic out of the way, what I did want to discuss though is mothering and geeking. Fathering and geeking seems pretty routine in my circles: lots of the Free Software Planets (blog sites) are full of announcements of newborns, pictures of kids shot by photo geeks, and so on. Parenting is not secretive in my geekdom, at least.

Of the mothers here, though, do you feel the same way? Do you feel able to talk about your kids to the same extent that your male geek buddies do? Do you feel comfortable caring for kids in geeky spaces? How about breastfeeding in public among geeks, if you do (did) it? Do you wish there were more kids+carers friendly geek events? (I sure wish there were more daytime events now!) If you have a geeky co-parent (or more than one) do you switch your geek time back and forth, or does the whole family geek together, or are you doing a lot of kid-time while the other adults geek out? Do you feel like you’re a closet geek mother or are you loud and proud? Alternatively, is geekdom your respite from mothering or simply an adult time for you?

Note: since I shared a cute kid pic, I can only say that you’re welcome to do the same in comments… fair’s fair!

Who you speak to and where you are: why it matters

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this post discusses intimate partner violence and rape. Please place a trigger warning on links to this post.

If you are currently at risk of violence, here are some links for viewing when you’re on a safer computer: National Network to End Domestic Violence: Internet and Computer Safety [USA], Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Internet Safety [USA] and Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria: Tip Sheet: Technology Safety Planning [Australia].

Cross-posted to Hoyden About Town.

Abusive relationship and spousal rape survivor and blogger “Harriet Jacobs” at Fugitivus is angry and scared today:

I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.

There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.

You know who my third most frequent contact is?

My abusive ex-husband.

Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.

My other most frequent contacts? Other friends of [my ex-husband]’s.

Oh, also, people who email my ANONYMOUS blog account, which gets forwarded to my personal account. They are frequent contacts as well. Most of them, they are nice people. Some of them are probably nice but a little unbalanced and scary. A minority of them ”” but the minority that emails me the most, thus becoming FREQUENT ”” are psychotic men who think I deserve to be raped because I keep a blog about how I do not deserve to be raped, and this apparently causes the Hulk rage.

There’s lots of other comment today on Google’s Buzz automatically assuming that your frequent email contacts should be your Buzz contacts, and making the connection with them public:

There will quite possibly be more by the time I’ve finished writing this post, let alone by the time you read it. But having to fight this battle on a site-by-site, service-by-service basis is disgusting. For a number of groups of people, including people who are the targets of a violent obsession among others, information about who they are in contact with, where they live and what they’re interested in has life-threatening implications. For a larger number of people it has non-life-threatening but potentially serious implications for their job, for example, or their continuing loving relationship with their family. Sometimes people are in frequent contact with people who have power over them, and/or who hate them. Why aren’t privacy policies centring that possibility, and working out the implications for the rest of us later?

Note: as I hope you anticipate, attempts to victim-blame along the lines of “people who are very vulnerable shouldn’t use technology unless they 100% understand the current and all possible future privacy implications” not welcome.

Update 13th February: Fugitivus has had a response from Google making it clear that protected items in Reader were not shared despite appearances, and stating some changes that are being made in Reader and Buzz in relation to issues she raised.

Quick hit: the gender binary fractal in geekdom

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Unless you’ve been inexplicably failing to click on every link in our linkspams (you didn’t know that would be on the exam?… sorry), you read a fair bit of Sociological Images already. However, they get a Quick Hit because their recent post The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary: Or Blue vs. Turquoise continues on a theme I discussed in one of my earliest posts here, “Girl stuff” in Free Software.

Lisa Wade writes thus:

The gender binary-that is, the rule that everything (oh animals, jobs, food, kleenex, housework, sound, games, deordorant, love and sex, candy, vitamins, etc) gets split into male and female-is fractal. That means that, for every male or female version of something (say sports versus dance), there is a further gendered split that can be made. If we take sports, we might divide it into the masculine football and the feminine swimming. If we take swimming, we could probably divide it down further. Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

This strongly resonates with me. It doesn’t mean that I think this is how things should work, but I think it’s often part of how they do work. Do you find this in your geekdoms of choice? How does it split up your geekdom? Have you seen your area of the fractal shift over time and do you have any theories about why; for example, did the arrival of more women or more men make something more feminine or masculine? How explicit is it? (In Free Software it can be very explicit and essentialist. “Women are good at words and other people, so documentation is more feminine. Women are bad at maths”Š”””Šwhich is basically the same thing as computer programming right?”Š”””Šand at isolated work, so coding is more masculine. QED.”)

Update: Just a note that the question is not precisely “where do the women cluster in your geekdom?” (although that’s interesting too), but “which parts of your geekdom are considered more suitable for women/more womanly/less manly?”

Menstrual geeking: getting started

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I was surfing around on Vagina Dentata which I stumble across periodically (most recently in our last linkspam) but have not quite got to feed-reader-adding yet. This is poor form I admit”Š”””ŠI’ll go right off and add it after writing this”Š”””Šbut does mean that I can enjoy a number of posts at once. Today I spent some time on periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S. and Time to talk periods and thought other folks of the menstruating kind and/or the geeky kind might enjoy a bit of related geekery.

My official menstrual cycle education essentially boiled down to, if I recall correctly, that there was a time when one bled, a longer time when one didn’t and that at some point during the longer time ovulation occurred. And there were was certain amount of practical information regarding pads and tampons, which largely came down to a few diagrams and “beware Toxic Shock Syndrome”. Only in my mid-twenties, looking only to fill, I think, idle geek time, I found out about the follicular phase and the luteal phase, about fertilisation taking place in the Fallopian tubes and implantation occurring only around a week later, about the fairly short lifespan of the ovum and the fairly large corpus luteum cysts that ovulating women develop each cycle. (I had an early ultrasound of my current pregnancy, while the cyst was still presumably secreting progesterone, and it was a fairly big black circle on my ovary.) As best I understand, and I’m very much a layperson when it comes to the science of menstruation, Wikipedia’s article on the menstrual cycle is a good place to start reading for your menstrual geeking initiation.

I learned this when on the recommendation of another woman geek I picked up Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It’s a Fertility Awareness guide, about using a combination of basal body temperature, cervical mucus and cervical position to identify fertile times in your menstrual cycle in order to either get pregnant or avoid it. (This is not necessarily a religiously inspired practice, and it’s more effective as a contraceptive than you’d expect: much of the dubious reputation of cycle-based methods of contraception comes from use of strictly calendar based methods. Fertility Awareness requires a fairly good working knowledge of the signs and the use of either barrier methods or abstinence at fertile times though, with failure modes you can imagine.) I can’t get as excited about the idea of taking my temperature every morning of my fertile life as Weschler can, and I’ve never charted a cycle to the extent that would satisfy a Fertility Awareness educator, but I have tracked my temperature through a couple of cycles in order to observe the basic signs. I’d recommend this book if you’d like to do some serious observing of your menstrual cycle from, as it were, the outside.

Vagina Dentata also has a promising pointer to the re: Cycling blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle research, and you might be interested in (note: photos of cervixes at link… as you’d expect) the Beautiful Cervix photos taken throughout various people’s cycles.

If you have a geeky interest in menstruation and related things, what are the coolest facts you know, and what are your favourite sources of info?

Someone is going to make a bingo card about my notes to commenters some day, aren’t they? Today’s note is: remember that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

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.

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?