Monthly Archives: August 2011

Pillar covered by colourful advertising bills

A merry linkspamming band (1st September, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker

Quick hit: Death Threats and Hate Crimes, Attacks On Women Bloggers Escalating

[Trigger warning for harassment, threatening violence against women]

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker

A few years ago, a wonderful woman and prominent tech blogger named Kathy Sierra was driven offline because the the readers of a hate website called MeanKids decided SHE had to die. In a substantial media circus, it was determined that the primary reason the MeanKids site targeted her was because she was too nice. It annoyed them. They threatened to kill her. They posted pictures of her with a noose. They said they were waiting for her at her next conference.

She stopped blogging. Eventually she got rid of her Twitter account. She cancelled speaking engagements because she was afraid she would be murdered. It seems that as soon as a woman is popular enough to be noticed, someone decides it’s time to play dirty. (In the midst of the media attention, they took the opportunity to post obscene and harassing photoshopped pictures of Robert Scoble’s wife at the same time.)

These people think that if they scare the women of our community enough, this will stay a secret, and their misogyny and violence can snowball. This seems to be a group attack, and here, their details are FAR more specific than they were in the Kathy Sierra case.

This is being planned, and planned thoroughly.

These people are escalating, and they’re looking for a success. Hate bloggers claim innocence because they are acting within their First Amendment rights. But their mobs look up to them, and the mob mentality that they are stoking is escalating.

I am being stalked. People want to kill me. They want me to be afraid.

These people are planning a hate crime, and they are relying on me hiding in silence to succeed.

Read the rest at Ittybiz: Death Threats and Hate Crimes, Attacks On Women Bloggers Escalating. Maybe some of you are getting hit elsewhere, and you should know that it’s not just you:

He has already started harassing a few of my colleagues and judging by the overwhelmingly positive and inflamed reaction he’s getting from his audience, he’s not going to stop. More women are in his sights. It seems he has a list, and his mob is eager to see whose names are on it.

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style

Wednesday Geek Woman: submissions thread preparing for Ada Lovelace Day!

Our Wednesday Geek Woman series of profiles has been on partial hiatus for half a year or so, but we’d like to have a run of profiles leading up to Ada Lovelace Day on the 7th October. Depending on submission volume it may also run as a regular feature again.

Wednesday Geek Woman is like Ada Lovelace Day only throughout the year. Most of our submissions are by guest posters, and these posts allow you to submit entries to the series.

Submit your profile of a geek woman in (hidden) comments here and selected ones will be posted (perhaps lightly edited) on Wednesdays. Here’s what to include:

  1. Optional: a quick one sentence bio paragraph about yourself, with any links you want. For example: Mary is a humble geek blogger and you can find her at <a href="http://geekfeminism.org/">geekfeminism.org</a&gt; Notes:
    • if this bio line is missing, you will be assumed to want to be anonymous. This applies even if you put a name and URL in the comment field.
    • don’t feel pressured into revealing things about yourself you don’t want to. A pseudonymous, mysterious, vague or simple bio is fine.
  2. Compulsory: two or more parapraphs describing your geek woman, ideally including why you admire her in particular.
  3. Optional: links to her biography, her Wikipedia page, and so on.
  4. Optional: agreement that your post can be used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (posts that have this can be used in the Geek Feminism wiki).

See previous posts for examples.

Here’s a form you could copy and paste into comments:

My bio (one sentence only, optional):

Name or pseudonym of the geek woman I am submitting:

A few words summarising the woman’s geek accomplishments (for example “AI researcher” or “discoverer of supernova” or “engine mechanic”):

My post about this woman (two or more paragraphs):

Links to this woman elsewhere (optional):

[Please delete this line if you don't agree!] I agree to licence my post under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Notes on things we do welcome:

  • a broad definition of ‘geek’: crafters, writers, community organisers, scientists, hackers and creators all welcome
  • profiles submitted by anyone, including men
  • multiple submissions by the same person are fine, so if you’ve submitted before, or you’ve already submitted this time, no problem!
  • famous geek women: no geek woman is too well-known for this series unless we’ve featured her before. If more than one person submits the same woman to this round, their profiles will be combined.
  • living women
  • historical women
  • women who use pseudonyms
  • profiles you’ve published elsewhere (as long as you kept the right to allow us to republish it), for example, an Ada Lovelace Day post you made in previous years. If your piece has appeared at another URL, please give us that URL.

We may not publish your profile if it falls into these categories:

  • there are lots of geek women past and present, so for now we will not be re-posting a woman subject who has already been featured. See previously posted women. (Exception: if the woman was featured as part of a group profile, an individual profile is fine.)
  • profiles of women, especially living women, who don’t have some kind of public profile, which might include things like a public blog, a professional homepage with a professional bio, an academic homepage listing her publications, a Wikipedia page with her biography. It’s fine if she’s not famous, but we don’t want to highlight someone who’d rather not have a Web presence at all.
  • profiles of fictional women
  • per How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day, profiles of women focussed on them being a supportive life-helper to a man geek will not be accepted (collaborative geeking with men of course accepted)
  • this really shouldn’t need to be said, but your post should be about the woman’s geeking, not about her appearance or personal life

Want some inspiration? Check the Geek Feminism wiki for women in science, women in computer science, women in Open Source and other women in geek culture collections.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The performer formerly known as Linkspam (31st August, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

No Ninjas or Rockstars

Finding a healthy work culture

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers.

When interviewing for a job (as the applicant), how do you select for a healthy culture? What unpleasant traits (e.g. narcissism, sexism) do you avoid, and how do you identify them?

We’ve all had terrible jobs and co-workers. Do you have any practical advice for avoiding the poisonous job (and poisonous co-workers) at the interview stage?

Let’s emphasize problems geek women are more likely to encounter: difficulty getting credit for your work, geek-unfriendly management culture, colliding with narcissists/psychopaths/”assholes”, glass ceiling for geeks, women, and/or geek women, sexism in general, etc. If you’re telling your story, don’t forget to include what you think the first warning sign was!

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games PAX Prime 2011 booth

Booth Grandmas at PAX Prime 2011

Apparently game company Good Old Games' booth at PAX prime this year featured booth grandmas passing out cookies. I was worried the PAX coverage would just make me sad that I couldn’t make it this year, but this just made me smile. Nice way to fit your booth staff into your retro-nostalgic theming! Also, cookies are totally awesome swag, and you don’t have to try to fit them into your suitcase on the way home.

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games' PAX Prime 2011 booth

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games' PAX Prime 2011 booth

I got the picture from here, although I don’t know if that’s the original since I’ve seen it elsewhere.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

More is different

This is a guest post by Brianna Laugher. Brianna is a software developer who appreciates significant whitespace. She is also known around the web as pfctdayelise.

I have spent the past weekend in Sydney attending PyCon AU, the second Australian conference for the Python programming language. It’s only the second time this conference has been held, but attendance grew by 50% (from 200 to 300) and to my mind, the programme was noticably better as well. (I might be biased though, as I appeared in it.)

However by far the most cheering aspect to me was the extent to which the organisers made efforts to make it a women-friendly event. They had diversity grants to attract women who would not otherwise be able to attend. They had a code of conduct, announced it each morning, and reiterated it when they informed delegates that they had had to enforce it. They announced a ‘women in Python’ breakfast as part of their schedule. And they invited two women keynotes: Audrey Roy of PyLadies, and GF’s own Mary Gardiner of the Ada Initiative, both organisations that support women in software development, more-or-less broadly.

Their efforts paid off: women’s attendance increased from 10 last year (5%), to 35 this year (11.6%).

It made a visceral difference to my experience: instead of glancing around and finding myself the only woman in a room, this year there was always women in my line of sight. It was so nice to talk to many different women from all over the country and find out how they are using Python. It’s so nice to have conversations where you know for sure that you are ordinary rather than exceptional. I mean literally, being viewed as an exception. It’s so nice to know you can confess all you don’t know, without feeling that you might be [http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Stereotype_threat ruining the reputation of women everywhere].

After there was a lightning talk about the Girl Geek Coffees network, @fphhotchips opined,

While I understand that there are many issues with women in IT/SE, I wonder if so many groups for women results in exclusion.

It’s not clear to me what kind of exclusion @fphhotchips is concerned about. Men missing out on their fair share of geeky conversations with women? That would be disappointing I suppose, although those conversations can happen at any time during the conference. But the flipside is an order of magnitude more important: most women in software developer roles in Australia miss out every single day on the chance to see themselves reflected amongst their peers and their seniors. Reflected in numbers that cannot be reduced to an enumerable number of individuals: that is, the feeling of 10 is different to the feeling of 35. More, as they say, is different.

Maybe once a month, at a “girl geek” event, or once a year at a women-focused event at a conference, can technical women enjoy relief from a mental burden that they may not even consciously realise they are carrying. It is not the world’s hugest burden by any measure, but it exists, and can keep us self-silencing, self-doubting, and generally takes away our energy from changing the world, or at least making the next release deadline.

When the burden is lifted, we can enjoy a brief respite called freedom. Freedom to admit mistakes. Freedom to not have to wonder if someone reacted some particular way because you’re a woman. Freedom to compliment someone on their cute bag without being seen as frivolous or invoking an unwanted reminder to others that you are a woman. Freedom to enjoy the norms of speech that women more commonly (but not exclusively) follow, like turn-taking. Freedom to make a (radical!) feminist comment without hurting anyone’s ego. Freedom to not represent 50% of the population. And I am not even getting into the much heavier burdens that some women bear, with actively hostile workplaces, harassment, the need to conceal aspects of themselves for their own safety.

Freedom to look around and see people like you. For some of us it comes around more often than others. If you see an event for women happening and feel left out, just chill out and remember we’ll soon enough be back to our usual distribution. And remember that we, as presumably you do too, want most of all to not need to hold such events. And when we are more, we will not.

Slave Leias

“Geek girls” and the problem of self-objectification

UPDATE: I have written a better and more developed version of this article as a presentation for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in 2012. You can read the updated version of this article here. (Also, hello WisCon 36 attendees! I wish I was there!)

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

There is a difficult conversation to be had about self-objectifying geeks. (I’m looking at you, slave Leias.) And while feminist geeks have been addressing this issue for a while now, it seems that more mainstream geek culture has caught up with us. Comic-Con actually had a panel this year called “Oh, You Sexy Geek!,” in which they were to discuss the implications of sexy women in geek culture. From the online program:

Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?

I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of. (A little unsurprisingly, the Comic-Con panel was apparently sort of terrible. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

As I’ve argued before, the sexisms that persist in geek communities are not special. They are not separable and inherently different from sexist thoughts and behaviors in the”real world.” They are part and parcel of regular ole sexism, not a special geek dude brand invented outside of patriarchy. So with that in mind, it’s important to remember that the sexualization of women is something that women and men consume and internalize all over the place. Though it does seem to be particularly bad in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy: these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike their male counterparts.

As I said to Amanda Hess last year, being the sexy object is one of the places where geek women can find acceptance in their communities. From the interview:

Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek […], for example, has, in just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don’t have to think of those women as people.

When I was on the “Geek Girls in Popular Culture” panel at ApolloCon, we talked about this nonsense for quite a while, because, as a couple of the panelists pointed out, it seems like a geek woman can only get attention if she’s conventionally beautiful and willing to objectify herself. When geek women choose to self-objectify at geek events, they are not doing so in a vacuum. So while I think it’s possible that some of them are trying to feel empowered in their sexuality, and reclaim their femininity, they cannot escape the fact that this is a culture that embraces female fans almost exclusively as sexy objects. In other words, a feminist can wear high heels, but she shouldn’t lie to herself about what that means.

The problem then, isn’t that women are objectifying themselves. That’s like holding a panel asking if women are liberating themselves or pandering to men for wearing mascara/high heels/Spanx/bras, curling or straightening their hair, or shaving their legs and underarms. Because it’s easy to blame women, right? It’s easy to say that if women don’t want to be objectified, they shouldn’t dress sexy or do the beauty work asked of them.

And it’s easy to get angry at Team Unicorn for so obviously pandering to the male gaze and framing themselves as sex objects for male geeks. It’s easy to hate Olivia Munn and point to her as everything that is wrong with geek women or geek culture. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquitous sexy cosplayers, and blame them for the objectification of women in geek cultures.

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

Slave Leias

A group of slave Leia cosplayers gather at Comic-Con.

The panel at Comic-Con was framed poorly, and perhaps that’s why it turned into a goddamn mess, with panelists suggesting the women criticizing sexy cosplayers were “just jealous,” one panelist arguing the women are all a bunch of bitches, another claiming”I can’t help it that some of the characters I like to cosplay are scantily clad,” and the only male panelist showing up 5 minutes before the panel ended and making an inappropriate sexual joke (synopsis from Feminist Fatale). Well, one of the reasons. Another reason is probably that geek cultures tend to think we’re beyond feminism, and Suzanne Scott claims that the panel

devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to”get over”).

This is unsurprising, if disappointing. Because geek cultures often think of themselves as countercultural, they dont usually believe they are tainted by the sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, ad naseum that infect popular culture. And there are entire blogs that prove that nonsense untrue.

This whole conversation needs to change focus. Individual geeks and cosplayers have their own reasons for dressing as they do or presenting themselves as they do. Those reasons can indeed involve their thinking that dressing as sexy Leia is empowering, for whatever reason. And we shouldnt be dismissing those reasons. But the trend of sexy geek cosplaying, the trend of geek women objectifying and sexualizing themselves, that a whole ‘nother ballgame. We need to be talking about this as a problem of our culture, not a problem that women bring upon themselves.

RELATED UPDATE: I just discovered the Fashionably Geek blog, and what. the. fuck:

Lady Chewbacca costume

Billed as a female Chewbacca costume, but it just looks like another sexy Halloween costume. A conventionally pretty white lady sports a furry bra, mini skirt, and cuffs on her wrists and lower legs.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’m not too comfortable with how much my post (and now the comments) are hyper-focusing on slave Leia cosplayers. This is about sexy cosplayers of all stripes, including ones like the above, which alter a costume to make it sexy. Please keep in mind that we are talking about a large group of cosplayers, not just the slave Leias.

frances_kelsey

Wednesday Geek Woman: Frances Oldham Kelsey, FDA reviewer of thalidomide

In the absence of doctors’ records, it can never be known how many babies died in the U.S. because of thalidomide’s “clinical trials”; Dr. Lenz estimated that in forty percent of cases where there was fetal exposure, the infant died in its first year. Eleven women (or perhaps more) gave birth to thalidomide babies in the U.S., but there may have been many more whose parents never discovered that their children’s malformations were caused by Kevadon. It is unbearable to speculate upon how many more might have been born but for the singular obduracy of Frances Kelsey.

All quotes are from Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and Its Revival as a Vital Medicine, by Trent Stephens and Rock Brynner.

Black and white photograph of Frances Oldham Kelsey

Frances Oldham Kelsey

This is the story of a woman who saved countless lives and protected any number of babies from grievous harm, using nothing but science and her own strength of character.

Born Frances Kathleen Oldham on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, she studied at McGill before moving to the new Pharmacology department at the University of Chicago (which accepted her on the assumption that she was a man.) At Chicago she developed an interest in teratogens and earned her Ph.D. and M.D. She also met and married Dr. F. Ellis Kelsey. When he was appointed special assistant to the surgeon general, the Kelseys moved to Washington, D.C.

Frances Kelsey worked for the AMA reading doctors’ testimonials for various drugs, and she and her colleagues could soon detect among them the well-paid hacks for Big Pharma. It turned out to be excellent training for her appointment in 1960 to the Food and Drug Administration as one of only seven full-time and four part-time physicians reviewing applications to approve new drugs.

A week after she reported for work, the application for thalidomide landed on her desk. Her first assignment! The drug had already been approved in Canada and more than 20 countries in Europe and Africa. Another person might have rubber-stamped it. Kelsey did not.

The first thing Kelsey noticed as she examined the four-volume application from Richardson-Merrell was the names of the doctors – including that of Dr. Ray Nulsen of Cincinnati, Ohio – whose testimonials were included with the application: many were the same hacks she remembered from her time at the AMA… the mere presence of those names did not bode well for the application in Frances Kelsey’s eyes. In fact, as she looked through the application, she found it wanting in many respects.

The chronic toxicity studies had not run for long enough. There wasn’t enough data about absorption and excretion. The animal studies and clinical trials were not detailed enough and there wasn’t enough documentation. What documentation there was, was troubling. Humans responded to thalidomide by lapsing into a deep sleep, but rats did not. Worse, no lethal dose could be found for rats. That made it possible that rats weren’t absorbing the drug at all, while humans were. If that were the case, the animal studies shed no light on possible toxicity to humans.

Despite all this, Kelsey had no grounds for rejecting the application. Instead, she told the company she needed more and better data before she could take any action. In fact, she stalled. She declared the application incomplete and thus ineligible for submission fifty-eight days after it was submitted. That meant it would have to be resubmitted, giving her an extra sixty days to think about it.

You can imagine how much this delighted the pharmaceutical company.

But when Richardson-Merrell pressured her, the medical officer did not budge.

Richardson-Merrell subjected Kelsey to a withering siege of professional aggravation, provocation and intimidation. Altogether she chronicled fifty-one exchanges with the company, when there should have been none.

The company’s scientific officer, Dr. F. Joseph Murray, got her name and phone number (which he shouldn’t have had) and bombarded her with calls. What data did she need? How could the patient instructions be reworded? Could he submit revisions casually, over the phone (thus leaving no paper trail)? How about if he shared data with her privately, rather than in the formal application?

Kelsey rejected the second application as incomplete.

In February, 1961, Kelsey read the first reports of thalidomide causing peripheral neuropathy in the British Medical Journal. She challenged Murray with it. He admitted that Richardson-Merrell had known of the reports, and offered to add a warning to the drug’s packet insert. No dice. Despite the nerve damage issue, Richardson-Merrell wanted to declare the drug safe for use in pregnancy. But, Kelsey argued, if thalidomide could cause nerve damage in adults, how could the company prove that it would not cross the placental barrier and cause even worse damage to a fetus?

Testing this would take years and cost untold money. Richardson-Merrell was disinclined.

Kelsey required the company to resubmit the application six times. Richardson-Merrell tried to go over her head, but she stood her ground.

On November 18, 1961, the first statements came out of Germany about birth defects attributable to thalidomide. On November 29, the drug was removed from the German market.

On March 8, 1962, Richardson-Merrell withdrew its application.

On August 8, President Kennedy gave Frances Oldham Kelsey the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest honour given to a civilian. As well he might. At least 4000 children in Europe were born affected by the drug. Kelsey’s rigour averted a similar tragedy in the USA.

Dr. Kelsey’s contribution,

wrote Senator Carey Kefauver,

flows from a rare combination of factors: a knowledge of medicine, a knowledge of pharmacology, a keen intellect and inquiring mind, the imagination to connect apparently isolated bits of information, and the strength of character to resist strong pressures.

Anyone for a Geek Feminist manifesto?

She became an American hero, gracing the cover of Life magazine, receiving and answering hundreds of letters, and then quietly returning to her job of protecting the public’s health.

In fact, for her next trick, Kelsey helped reform the FDA.

Wikipedia: Frances Oldham Kelsey

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Remorseless husband-stealing no-good linkspams (15th August, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.