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.