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?

“Girl stuff” in Free Software

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This is an edited repost of a blog entry of mine from February 2009.

In January 2009 I gave a talk at the LinuxChix miniconf held as part of linux.conf.au 2009. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and used women developers and community leaders as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) email interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others.

One thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually for wider society) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated of course, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status of her boy stuff role and also the aforementioned vicious cycle where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian food on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said”Š”””Šparaphrased”Š”””Šthat she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty. However women are justifiably reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Where do you like to stand on that?