Don’t mention the war

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Over at Livejournal, angelbob is gathering anecdata:

A friend recently said… that as a woman working in technology, she wouldn’t recommend that other women enter the field. She’s a system administrator… I’m not going to repeat her reasons here. Rather, I’d be very curious whether other women working in technical fields, especially system administration and/or programming, felt the same way. Anybody care to comment?

I find this is a bit of an elephant in the room in “women in technology” discussions, and so I (bravely! like John Tierney, no doubt) want to talk about it. It probably applies to “women in science” discussions and so on, I just don’t follow them as much.

There are women, quite a few in fact, in technology careers who suggest other women don’t enter them. They usually find this is a unpopular opinion in the harming the community direction. Often some of their major critics are other women, especially women who are running recruitment and outreach for the field. The argument generally goes like this: the major thing that will fix sexism in this field is more women! So if we stay silent and take the sexism bad with the geeky good for long enough, sexism will solve itself. By encouraging women to stay out, you are basically furthering sexism in this field. QED.

Let’s pick this apart. First, purely as a practical matter, even in the forthcoming geek feminist utopia, some women will be talented programmers or engineers or mathematicians but will choose to spend most or all of their life in a different field. The human endeavour is not a zero sum game, we have not “lost” someone when she becomes a nurse or a musician.

Second, we don’t want to be denying women’s experiences. If a geek career was hard, unpleasant and not ultimately worth it for her, she should say this, and if it was related to her being a woman, it makes sense to recommend against it for other women. It’s hard to hear this if you are among the women who passionately love their geek work and want to share the good news, but those of us who are more in the advocate line surely do not want to spread the message that if women so much as hear negative experiences about geekdom they’ll all flee. If women’s interest in geekdom comes at the expense of lying to them and denying other women’s negative experiences, then the cause of women in geek careers isn’t worth it. Women can listen to passionate detractors, passionate advocates and people somewhere in between, consider their own experiences, and make up their own minds.

And lastly, women do not in fact bear the responsibility of ending geekdom’s sexism, and even if we did, we couldn’t. It is, in fact, ultimately down to the most powerful people to bear the bulk of the burden for changing the social environment. Having a field become 50 or 75% women has some effect on the stereotype effect, but it is not a magic de-sexist-itising measure.

How about you? If you left a geekdom or a geek career, or are a passionate critic of it (and aren’t we all, since pretty much any criticism is subject to the tone argument) have you been told not to discourage women, or that you are undermining the work of advocate women?

Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Code Anthem’s Don’t Judge a Developer by Open Source (via Meg in the Open Thread) argues that companies that rely on Open Source coding contributions as a hiring criterion are both demanding a lot of their hiree’s free time and are sexist:

Open source is a culture. There are plenty of smart and passionate developers out there who are not part of that culture. And certainly there are plenty of dumb and curmudgeonly developers out there participating in open source…. There are there smarter ways to spend your time. The stereotypical open source developer works for a bumbling corporate during the day, doing dull work (but necessary to make money) and then comes home to work on his passion, OpenOKHRWUJ Framework…

Requiring open source contributions is sexist… Open source is dominated by men even more so than the programming community as a whole… it’s irresponsible to require your new hire developers to come from a male-oriented pool. Alas”¦ “Underrepresentation breeds underrepresentation”.

I have a comment in moderation there in which I say that I think the stereotype is incorrect: that Open Source developers in my experience are either university students or other young people with a lot of free time, or they’re paid Open Source developers. (I know hobbyist Open Source coders with unrelated dev or other full-time jobs too, yes, but not nearly so many and their contributions are for obvious reasons usually not as significant. If nothing else, this group has a really high incidence of typing injuries.)

But that’s a side-note: I think the core point of the post stands. Open Source is very male-dominated, is known for being unpleasantly sexist, and is also a subculture whose norms (even where neutral as regards sexism) don’t fit everyone. Requiring these norms feeds right into the problem talked about in Being Inclusive vs Not Being Exclusive:

People who come from underprivileged minorities are usually very experienced in the art of being excluded. Sometimes it’s overt – “we don’t like your kind” – but many times it’s subtle. They’re told that they’re “not quite right”, or they “don’t have the right look”, or “don’t have the right experience”, or just aren’t told anything. At the same time, they are surrounded by all sorts of imagery and communique about how they don’t quite belong, about how they have to change themselves to fit in, about how they are undesirable. They do not see a lot of examples they can relate to; even the ones that come close tend to stick out for being “Exotic”, being a token. They already have a lot of barriers against them and are already of the mind that they’ll more likely be rejected than accepted.

If you insist on a lot of experience in a particular male-dominated sub-culture as a prerequisite for a job, that reads as “we prefer [a subset of] men, basically, or at least people willing to work hard to minimise all the ways in which they aren’t [part of the subset of] men” even if you didn’t intend it to and even if you didn’t want it to.

Code Anthem isn’t, as far as I can tell, thinking about Open Source paid jobs in that post, but they of course have this problem magnified. It seems vastly reasonable on the face of it: hiring existing Open Source contributors, ideally people from your very own community, means you hire people who are well-versed in the particular mode of development you do, in particular, the use of text-based mediums for communicating among a distributed team. Since Open Source (or more to the point Free Software) projects are at least sometimes associated with particular non-commercial goals and philosophies agreement with those seems desirable. But since most long-term Open Source developers need to be paid for it, it strongly feeds into this cycle of long-term Open Source developers continuing to be male and of a particular kind of culture, and continuing to overtly or subtly signal that that’s who is welcome in Open Source development.

Possible other posts of interest:

  • Terri’s Want more women in open source? Try paying them.
  • Dorothea Salo’s 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.

    It’s good to be an honorary guy, don’t get me wrong. Guys are fun to be around. Guys know stuff. Guys help out other guys. Guys trust other guys. And in my experience, they don’t treat honorary guys any differently from how they treat regular guys. It’s really great to be an honorary guy.

    The only problem is that part of the way that guys distinguish themselves from not-guys is by contrasting themselves with women.

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!

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?