If it’s really good, men made it

I feel odd blogging about a movie I haven’t seen, I want to get that out of the way. But a lot of women I trust are telling me that the movie The Social Network (a dramatisation of the founding of Facebook, script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by David Fincher) is infuriatingly sexist. Men made Facebook entirely, apparently, and women granted them sexual favours for it. As is the natural order! (See the Melissa Silverstein and Laurie Penny links in our last spam for this.)

(If you want to discuss The Social Network in particular, rather than the rest of this post, which is about geek women’s invisibility in general, I’ve set up a discussion thread for the movie.)

The erasure of women geeks from geek history is going to continue and snowball, most likely, because here are some of the factors that play into it:

  1. what geeks do is hard! you can tell, because women don’t do it!
  2. you might have heard geeks are not that high up the masculine status chart! you are wrong! because there’s no women doing it and that makes it Man Stuff! which is hard, see 1! (also wot Restructure! said)
  3. s things become important in retrospect, they become men’s work.

On that last point, there was a related discussion in Australia last year about the recent history of rock music. Triple J, a youth music radio station which is part of the government funded ABC network, ran a “Hottest 100 of All Time” poll for songs its listeners like best. Triple J’s airplay is generally “alternative” and in the late 1990s (when I listened most) featured women artists such as PJ Harvey, Courtney Love of Hole, Shirley Manson of Garbage, Liz Phair and Veruca Salt.

There was some leadup criticism about the voting website:

Divided into decades, starting with the 1960s, each page shows between 9 and 15 album covers, with an accompanying note about musicians or bands that influenced the direction of rock and pop. The section on the 60s mentions the Supremes as one of the groups on the Stax/Motown label, and Janis Joplin as appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. Then the 2000s section mentions the White Stripes. NO other female artists or groups that include women are mentioned.

And although the website was merely a memory jogger and did not restrict listener voting, it turned out it was a harbringer of what the listeners voted for. The top 100 songs contained two female vocalists, both appearing in one-offs as vocalists with Massive Attack (with songwriting credits). There were also five bands with female members. This became a big deal: Triple J was quick to defend itself by noting that it was a listener poll. One of the most interesting pieces of commentary went to air on Triple J’s own coverage, from Catherine Strong, whose PhD research was into changing memories of music (thanks to Lauredhel for this transcript):

Catherine Strong: “What happened with grunge – it’s very interesting, that in the early 1990s, grunge was seen as being a very female-friendly type of music. There were lots of women involved in the grunge. So you had bands like Hole, and L7, and Babes in Toyland. There was also the associated riot grrl movement that was happening at the same time, so bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. At the time, these bands were quite successful: commercially successful, and they were critically acclaimed, they were talked about as being fantastic. There was a lot of celebration in the press of “Women in Rock”, “Isn’t it fantastic to see women in rock?” But then if you look at the media coverage over time, when people talk about grunge over time, the women don’t get talked about anymore. So on the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death for instance, there were lots of magazines that came out talking about “Let’s look back at grunge”, “what was important about grunge”, “why was grunge such a great thing?”, and the women are hardly mentioned at all. So again you can see the public record leaves the women out – they just disappear, they fall out over time, as people write about it, and think about it looking back.

And the thing in rock that I think is particularly interesting, is that periodically, women are rediscovered. So every five years or so you’ll find that there’s something that will turn up in the media saying “Hey, it’s great! Women are making inroads into rock for the first time!”, when it’s not the first time. So every time those stories come up, I think we as a society, or people who like rock, feel as though progress is being made; but what’s actually happened is we’re just going round and round in circles. Women are being discovered, then they’re being forgotten, then they’re being discovered again, and they’re being forgotten again, and it’s just going round and round like that.”

And here it is, happening with geek history. To avoid one obvious strawman: no, I am not claiming that there was a woman who was more important to the story of Facebook than Mark Zuckerberg! I’m claiming that the movie is part of this pattern in geek history:

  1. when we look back on geek history, things women worked on, and women who were involved in men’s projects will slowly vanish from the story as part of a pattern of making what geeks do important and hard and real
  2. there will continue to be active resistance to women being visible as geeks because the presence of women takes away status points in the masculinity hierarchy and/or that geekdom is a men’s space for men who don’t want to be around women (I keep meaning to find the explicit comments I’ve seen on LWN to this effect, if the lazyweb helps I won’t object)
  3. perhaps most worryingly of all, every few years there will be a brief spotlight on women geeks, everyone will conclude “hooray they’re/we’re here, we’ve been seen, this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of the battle, thank goodness for that” and then a few years later we’ll do it all again (see an example of “but women geeks are new” here).

What do you think? How many rounds of the geek women visibility battle have you been present for? (I’ve been around for at least two major ones, I think.)

20 thoughts on “If it’s really good, men made it

  1. Lesley Hall

    O dear o dear yes, I have noticed this historically in so many fields of arts and science: once something becomes Important and Recognised and a path to career progression and a regular salary and so forth, not only is there an influx of men into the field, they then create a patriarchal genealogy of how it got there, erasing the women’s lineal contributions.

  2. Virginia

    I think people should stop calling it “a great movie, but sexist” and just go for “a sexist movie.” Call it what it is.

  3. Donna

    Yep. I think you’re spot on.

    Not to mention that ‘girl stuff’ is generally devalued or un-recognised.

    In our own space… it was a woman, Christine Peterson who coined the phrase ‘Open Source’ but it’s two men who generally get all the credit.

    The question you don’t ask or answer… is why? Why is this case?

    I remember the JJJ women in rock travesty. I posted on this too http://kattekrab.net/hottest-100-songs-sung-women. Reading through comment threads at the time I noted the fact that women didn’t vote for women in the contest either… Why does this happen – why do we fade into the wallpaper?

    Is it a lack of shameless self-promotion? Is it a complex mix of factors? I dunno. However, I don’t think it’s a conscious conspiracy and I do think we women are somehow complicit.

    Ada Lovelace Day is a great initiative – we should embrace and extend it. Perhaps in the lead up to next year do some serious research into computing herstory and uncover untold stories.

    Numbers of women in computer science courses are falling in western countries. Why? Enrollment numbers overall have been falling, but attracting significantly less women. Which leads me to conclude that something is wrong with computer science.
    Two years ago, Randall Stross wrote, What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science? in the New York Times.

    Let’s remember this isn’t limited to the rock music scene and geekdom, but also to science, art, literature, politics and history in general. There have always been women in positions of power, influence and leadership – but their stories have not always been told.

    Fran Allen and Barb Liskov weren’t the first women deserving enough to win a Turing award, they were just the first women to win one.

  4. Mackenzie

    Ooooh like all those people who are *shocked* to hear Grace Hopper did anything other than pull a moth from a relay. You know, like inventing the compiler.

    1. Carla Schroder

      Being clean is women’s work, so it was natural for Admiral Hopper to clean the moth out of the relay. A male admiral would have made a subordinate do it.

  5. hn

    In “geekdom” it’s even worse than in science or music, the two geek history books I located on my shelf (Geeks Bearing Gifts, Masterminds of Programming) don’t mention any women at all [iirc] (the latter of course is just interviews with the engineers of popular languages, who all happen to be male, not necessarily their fault).

    Is there a handy list of women’s geeky achievements? (and not current entrepreneurs, being CEO of eBay doesn’t really help technological advancement…) Because I usually start uhmming after mentioning Lady Ada, Grace Hopper and Marie Curie.

    1. Mary Post author

      Have a look at various bits of the Geek Feminism wiki, for example:

      http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_women_in_FLOSS

      http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_women-dominated_projects_in_FLOSS

      http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_women_in_Computer_Science (super incomplete, Fran Allen and Barb Liskov aren’t filled in!)

      Look also for Ada Lovelace Day 2009 and 2010 writeups, the 2010 list is at http://findingada.com/list/ and this blog’s posts are at http://geekfeminism.org/tag/ada-lovelace-day/

      Ada Lovelace Day is specifically designed to make sure we have more names to hand when people ask about women geeks.

  6. Laurie Penny

    Hey you guys! Great post, but you got my name wrong! Penny, not Petty (Lori Petty is Tank Girl, and I’m not that cool).

    1. Mary Post author

      I’m so sorry! *fixes all the things*

      (I know what happened actually: I was writing this too soon after reading a Pratchett novel with a “Petty” surname.)

  7. G

    Yes, we do have to fight the same battles over and over again. So many of these issues like ‘how many women in open source’ and the misogynist BS that they stir up are issues I thought we had settled back in the 70’s. I expect Hopper’s generation thought they had been settled in the 40’s and were shocked to find their progress reversed in the 50’s.

  8. Eivind Kjørstad

    For added bonus, pay attention to that subset of geeks who go

    a) There’s no women in technology – ‘cos its too hard for ‘em

    and simultaneously:

    b) It’s not true that male geeks are generally losers on the dating-front, infact there’s plenty of women in technology.

    Met atleast 3 guys who managed to argue both – without seeing the contradiction.

  9. Kea

    Well, I’m in my 40s (an unemployed female Theoretical Physicist) and definitely feeling pretty invisible right now. With regard to the Women Geek Debut, I think we’re talking long wavelengths here. After all, the Powers That Be don’t want anyone actually remembering the last time the groundhog popped up. In my field, we’ve been through a few cycles of “oh, how cute, some women do Real Physics – but of course there aren’t many of them! Hah, freaks!” and we’re still some way off getting to an actual “oh, they’re here” phase.

  10. KevinL

    The only geeky field I’ve encountered that appears to feature women in key roles is modern astronomy as reported by _Astronomy_ magazine. They have a section every month highlighting the work of various individual researchers including background about how/why that scientist got interested in those problems that often is “I’ve always been interested in space since I was a young boy/girl”. I’ve been subscribed for a couple years and they have done a very good job showing a wide variety of people all over the world being interested. That said – most (all?) of their regular columnists are men.

  11. John

    Another largely forgotten female scientist is Rosalind Franklin; her male colleages Crick and Watson are much more famous, although it seems she deserves equal credit.

    1. Sean

      Wow, I’d never even heard of her, and yet I’m quite familiar with Watson and Crick. Yeesh.

  12. K00kyKelly

    This is what prevents women from hitting the tipping point in so many fields. There have always been women contributing, yet somehow each group and their colleagues feel they are the first beyond a few pioneers. How do we break the cycle? Can we increase the number of women mentoring other women? What other options exist for letting girls know our real contributions through history? How can we counteract white male as the default?

  13. Meg

    I’m reading Revolutionary Backlash right now, and it makes this point. Apparently there was a whole genre of books starting in the 14th century that talked about female historical figures, and were pretty popular. Of course, they were popular then because those female historical figures had been generally ignored in all non-female-specific histories.

    I think it’s part of the same dynamic that makes people ask “why are there no women in computer science?” or “why aren’t there any women qualified to present?” It is why affirmative action can’t ever make up the differences in opportunities. There is so much mental resistance to the idea that women were innovators, were central, were historic, that people just forget they heard those stories or forget there was a woman involved at all. When it comes time to tell the important stories to someone else, gender never comes up.

    (This is one thing that pisses me off about “post-racial” and “post-feminist” approaches. If you don’t mention that the person in your story is a woman, you’ve turned them into a man. If you don’t mention a race, you’ve turned them white. I heard the story about “bugs” being actual bugs 10 years before I discovered that all the programmers then were women. I had studied Turing in college five years before I discovered he was gay. If I hadn’t met )

    Now when I talk about the invention of LISP, I make sure to mention that MIT only had 158 women enrolled in the entire college at the time. I got a funny look the first time I did this, and I clarified that the total lack of women in it’s early history required an explanation, as opposed to Fortran, Cobol and Smalltalk (though not if you read it’s Wikipedia page). Turned out no one seemed to think there was anything odd, because they had no idea that there were women involved in those other languages! I decided that it was an important point to make, that the absence of women should be as note-worthy as their presence.

    Until we succeed in shifting the center away from straight, white men, this will continue to happen. Until every story about a man mentions his gender, and every story about a white person mentions their race, we will continue to receive a sanitized, erased version of history from those who came before.

    1. Eivind

      Agreed. Allthough it’s a little of both: It’s true, that women gets written out of history, because when the “default assumption” is that important people are men, then anyone who’s not explicitly named tends to get considered male.

      But, offcourse, it’s *also* true that there genuinely where less women — if that wasn’t the case, then I don’t think the “default assumption” would’ve arisen in the first place.

      In other words, humanity really did (and still do!) waste a considerable fraction of their talent – for every Einstein, we could’ve had a Curie, instead, we wasted a huge fraction of that talent. I consider this to be among the great tragedies of humanity. (aside: how many people would even guess that the only physicist to win the nobel prize *twice* was a woman)

      That the talents that -wheren’t- wasted, is then retroactively made invisible, just adds insult to injury.

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