Ada Lovelace Day: from my subscriptions

Here’s a big assorted hunk of tasty soft-centered Ada Lovelace Day goodness, brought to you care of the ridiculously large list of weblogs I poll:

How to talk about Sally Warhaft and Robert Manne

There’s a lot of talk in various places about Sally Warhaft leaving her position as editor of The Monthly. I don’t have a novel substantive opinion on this: I’m a The Monthly subscriber (and I’ve therefore enjoyed Warhaft’s work), but not a writer or a left-wing socialite or a media insider. Wikipedia has a little summary of the actual story. That said, I have a helpful guide to talking about Sally Warhaft and Robert Manne (or Morry Schwartz) in the same text.

  • If you refer to Robert Manne as ‘Manne’, then Sally Warhaft is referred to as ‘Warhaft’, not ‘Sally’, because otherwise you come across as treating Sally Warhaft as if she was an intimate of yours and Manne as a professional when you’re presumably wanting to comment on her professional editorial work.
  • If you refer to Sally Warhaft as ‘Ms. Warhaft’ then Robert Manne must be ‘Mr. Manne’, not just ‘Manne’. Otherwise it sounds like you’re making a big deal out of Warhaft being a woman, which doesn’t seem to be a factor in the story, and even if it was, that’s not the way to make that point.
  • If you refer to Robert Manne with his academic title, ‘Professor Manne’, you should refer to Sally Warhaft with hers, ‘Doctor (or Dr) Warhaft’. I can at least squint and see the argument for this one: Manne has an academic position and Warhaft doesn’t, but it’s not as though her The Monthly position is totally divorced from her academic background either.
  • If you’re going to comment on Sally Warhaft’s physical presence, say, by coming out with something like she’s a whip-smart, willowy beauty, which makes her a great front for a lively mag, then here’s your line for Robert Manne: he’s a whip-smart, potent steed, which makes him a great front for a lively magazine.

Ada Lovelace Day wrap 3: new discoveries, among other things

Lest you worry that I am counting my posts before they’re hatched, a final Ada Lovelace Day 2009 wrap-up post. As should be evident from the many posts I’ve made, I hugely enjoyed this initiative. I especially enjoyed stories of women who barely or never knew their inspiration nevertheless gaining a lot from just knowing that someone else was out there.

I originally intended this final Ada Lovelace Day wrap post to be about five new women I had discovered through browsing the blog entries. But eventually it became five posts that spoke to me most, from outside my usual Internet haunts. You get two new discoveries, one rediscovery, one blast from the past, and one crack in the techno-utopia.

Number one comes in under the I should have heard of her category: Roberta Williams, Sierra On-line co-founder, and the brains behind the King’s Quest games among others, including Phantasmagoria. All games I never got to play, because I spent the latter half of high school reading about computer games in year-old gamer magazines rather than playing them. (We had a 486 my parents bought in 1993, when it was already past its prime, so from 1995 to about 2000 I was distinctly un-game-enabled. This explains the weekend long binges of Diablo II in 2000 though.) Williams was profiled in many places, see Happy Ada Lovelace Day at The Chaliceblog and Women in Tech: R. Williams for two profiles.

Number two is Shirley Jackson, theoretical and materials physicist, advised during her undergraduate years that colored girls should learn a trade, now president of Rensselaer Institute of Technology after a career spanning MIT and Bell Labs among other places. As with Karen Spärck Jones, one of the best profiles is by someone who has interviewed her, see a lab of their own.

Jackson was understandably reluctant to dwell too much on the pain and injustices of the past in our interview, and I hated having to even ask such questions — basically amounting to, “So, um, what’s it like to be black, and a woman, at MIT in the 1960s?” (Answer: not a hell of a lot of fun!) In a fair and just world, this would simply not be relevant; but we do not live in a fair and just world. So I asked those questions — awkward, embarrassed, stymied by white liberal guilt, and resenting the questions on her behalf — and Jackson graciously answered, choosing her words carefully, gently setting the neophyte science writer straight on a few things about life as the ultimate “Other” in physics.

Honestly, I was impressed by her lack of bitterness. It had to have been lonely, not to mention discouraging. One of her professors actually advised her that “colored girls should learn a trade.” Jackson didn’t take that advice, but she did acquire some measure of perspective by volunteering (in her copious spare time — not!) at Boston City Hospital’s pediatrics unit, to better “understand what real trouble is.” And she kept at her studies, because “If I give up, what have I done but allow the other guy to win?”

There’s another profile at Ada Lovelace Day: Dr. Shirley Jackson.

Number three is a woman whose name I knew. My eleventh year high school mathematics classroom was about 75% girls, of about twenty of us perhaps in the 3 Unit class. (A twelfth year extension to that, 4 Unit, was offered to a subset of the class: six of us, four girls and two boys, which meant we took extra classes in the mornings as well as the 3 Unit classes. I was more than a full year too young for that class, but I was put in it partly just because I could and partly because my own year wasn’t going to have the numbers for me to take a 4 Unit offering.) My teacher was used to having majority girl classrooms at the high ability end of high school mathematics (he never did really understand why), and tried to encourage us by having a poster on the back wall of well-known female mathematicians (of whom I recall three: Hypatia of Alexandria, Sophie Germain and Emmy Noether).

I was making up for being the baby of the class and the top of it by also trying for the trifecta: also being the most obnoxious person in it. I was sadly unobnoxious, for a fifteen-year-old, but I claimed it was hardly inspiring to know that in all of mathematical history there had been six women mathematicians. But I survived and live to tell, or at least link to, the tale of Emmy Noether, by Laura: Of honorary men. I was struck by this post touching briefly on several interesting issues: Noether’s being proved to be important because famous men thought well of her, the emphasis on her ‘eccentricities’ which probably aren’t terribly striking when you evaluate her by mathematical social standards and not early twentieth century female ones, and Laura’s friend failing to understand that ‘practically a man’ is not a unmixed compliment.

For the fourth post, a woman I know of intimately, in fact, but she gets a mention here because I had come close to forgetting her. John Gunders wrote about Isaac Asimov’s fictional creation, Susan Calvin: Ada Lovelace Day: Susan Calvin. In my rather extensive but admittedly not completionist teenage survey of Asimov’s fiction I read a lot of the Susan Calvin/US Robotics stories. The authorial treatment of her gender is irritating even when it’s not as explicit as in the Liar! story Gunders talks about, irritating enough that I could have cogently critiqued it at fourteen. But in some ways, it was useful. It’s more than a little annoying that Calvin is not really particularly happy, and that the author treated this as the price of admission for her career, but nevertheless, the fact that given the (not entirely false, but artificially stark) choice, she had gone ahead and chosen her work every time, was educational.

The final post I wanted to highlight is not about an individual woman in technology at all, it’s about the use of technology by abusers. Ada Lovelace day – empower the women!:

In a recent survey of 479 [domestic violence] victims aged 15-74, 25% of those had their browser history monitored. 24% had been repeatedly threatened, insulted or harassed by email. 18% had their email monitored. Did you see those numbers? At least 1 in 4 victims had technology used against them as a tool to continue abusive patterns.

I asked around and searched around after this and indeed anecdotally domestic violence survivors I’m acquainted with have often had their technology use monitored and used against them (or been suspected/abused for wanting to use it at all). I am not surprised, as such, but it was something that I was privileged to have not regularly thought about. (My previous contact with it has mostly been around the issue of the strong norm of using one’s legal name when interacting with the Free Software community. The number of people — I think all of them are women — who have major hesitations about this norm due to wishing not to be traced by a former stalker or abuser, is around about ten, and of course that’s just people who have become comfortable enough to reveal this in forums I read.)

There are several guides around the web to using computing resources safely when wanting to discuss or planning to escape an abusive relationship: 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].

Ada Lovelace Day wrap: the usual suspects

I use the usual suspects here in the sense of folks in my feed reader. Over the next couple of days I am going to look around more of the posts and pick out a set of favourites, focusing on women I’ve never heard of. In the meantime, here’s the closer to home wrap.

I was profiled in a couple of places: by Jacinta Richardson in Ada Lovelace Day (with several others as described below), by Julie Gibson, the founder of Sydney LinuxChix, in Mary’s Random Curiosity and in one private post.

Here’s profiles pulled from my feeds, hopefully you find something and/or someone new.

Seen on Free Software planets (undoubtedly incomplete):

On girl stuff

In both of my recent talks involving women and Free Software the audience has latched onto something I didn’t expect. At OSDC it was the GNOME finding that they only got women applying for their summer of code projects once they created special ones for women. I think I expected people to have heard about that already, but they hadn’t. (GNOME had zero applications from women for Google Summer of Code, and some hundreds for the Women’s Summer Outreach variant.) There were probably a couple of things going on there aside from women responding to a specific invitation — in particular, computer science academics at some universities getting excited about being able to give their women students a specific invitation — but clearly invitations are part of what’s going on.

There is a karmic debt to do some work already incurred by giving these talks, but since the work I do isn’t Free Software and wouldn’t be generally useful if I released it as such (I know a lot of people say this about their work, but I try and predict word usage based on the opinion of the document, this really is quite niche software) and I had a reasonable idea for a variant on this kind of talk, I gave a second one anyway, at the LinuxChix miniconf. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and happened to use women as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others. (I intend to make the slides available, but since I quoted the subjects extensively and directly, it will require gathering permission and then a bit of work editing them.)

As I noted previously this talk was a failure all up, because the wrong audience turned up for it. But 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) 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, by the way, 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 if you are sincerely of the belief that one is not programmed to a frightening and unavoidable extent by one’s social context we’re working from very different premises and don’t have a lot to say to each other.) 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 she has chosen and also the aforementioned loop 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 on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said — paraphrased — that 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 they want to code, or do something else they are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which they are good at but in which they’d have competitors, they should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty.

I had a brief, but related conversation with Jeff Waugh at the Professional Delegates Networking Session — an attempt to formally recreate the Indian diner breakthrough environment —  at which he commented that he continued to find the invitation culture (the same one I discussed in my OSDC talk) of women in Free Software mystifying and frustrating. (Not his exact words, if you have better adjectives Jeff let me know.) I took that one somewhere else: specifically to invitation cultures outside Anglo culture and then to honorific use in the Korean language, but when considering the question of women I think this is intertwined with the be selfish thing: women are 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. Take a look at where you’re standing on that one occasionally.