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

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)

Of course, I’m reacting to this comment as a man—as a man who has life experience that most men don’t have, which is to say, 26 years of having most or all people I met assume that I was a girl or woman (and I was studying or working in computer science for 12 of those years). Still, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman, and I can’t claim to represent women’s perspectives (and there is no single “women’s perspective”, but rather, as many different women’s perspectives as there are women). Lindsey Kuper, a Ph.D student at Indiana University studying programming languages, who attended ICFP but not the Haskell Symposium, commented on another part of Swierstra’s comment (audible in the video), which was that women “usually leave programming to us”:

You know what hurts about that sentence? The word “they” and the word “us”. Usually, I like to think that when PL people speak of “us”, that I’m included in that “us”. But apparently there are PL people for whom “us” doesn’t mean “PL people”, but rather, “PL guys”.

@lindsey on Twitter

Chris Martens, a Ph.D student at Carnegie Mellon who studies connections between proof theory and programming languages, was repelled enough by Swierstra’s comments (and their apparent acceptability in the community) to comment that she’s avoiding any future involvement with the Haskell community:

thank you, haskell community; i’ll be over here programming in languages too ignored to earn your shitheaded sexism.

@chrisamaphone on Twitter

A female computer science professor and recent Ph.D graduate who prefers to remain anonymous wrote:

It is NOT our job as female CS grad students to be attractive. Our job is to do research and we should be taken seriously in that. We are not bait, we are people.

And in a comment on my original post, Dreamwidth user megpie71 wrote:

Or, of course, they could be getting me and women like me – the plain ones. The wallpaper women. The women who have their feet stepped on by the men trying to talk to their “pretty friend”. The ones who weren’t and aren’t pursued, and who have largely dropped out of the beauty race because it’s no fun putting in the hard yards to try and reach the finish line when you know you’re not going to even get any kudos for participation.

Because, let’s face it, trying to meet the criteria for “attractiveness” in this society is an exhausting exercise. If I were to be attempting it, it would take every single minute of my conscious day (and I’d probably be having trouble sleeping as well). It wouldn’t leave much room for the hard intellectual yakka of actually doing programming, because I’d be attempting to deal with an ever-shifting set of goalposts, and that is hard work in and of itself. Plus, of course, I’d be doing it on a microscopic calorie load, because the major determinant for “attractive” in this society appears to be “thin” (and I don’t have the body type or the metabolism for thin). Which would, of course, make intellectual work even more difficult.

I gave up on attempting to look pretty, or attractive, or anything like that years ago. Instead, I work on being valued for the thing I know I have going for me – I’m intelligent and I can turn that intelligence to things like programming. I’m good at intellectual stuff. If I were a guy, that would count. It would be worthy of respect on its own. But of course, because I’m female, that doesn’t count if I’m not also an appropriate object for the male gaze. Instead, I just fade into the wallpaper.

I think megpie71’s comments in particular demonstrate how many women feel when even the slightest suggestion is aired that they exist in their professional communities to be attractive, to provide visual pleasure for heterosexual men. Certainly, not all women are the same, and many women might not find Swierstra’s remarks to be sexist (just as some men did find them to be sexist). Comments that discourage women’s participation in general aren’t necessarily repellent to every individual woman.

Swierstra’s remarks were also potentially alienating to any non-heterosexual men who were present, as they reflected an assumption that he was speaking to an audience of people who found women, and only women, “attractive”. Finally, there is a tacit understanding when one talks about “attractive” women that one is talking about women who have cissexual bodies, are thin, aren’t disabled, and are in a particular, narrow age range. Apparently, so the thinking goes, if you’re a woman and not all of those descriptors apply to you, maybe you shouldn’t think about learning Haskell, as your presence wouldn’t make the Haskell Symposium more attractive (to heterosexual men).

One of the boys

For any women in the Haskell Symposium audience, Prof. Swierstra’s audience might have been an example of a “grunch”. A page on the Geek Feminism Wiki defines a grunch as one of those little moments that just causes all of your illusions of being seen as an equal to fall apart. A moment like that makes you seriously question whether people actually see you as an equal, or they’re just pretending to in order to be polite.

I once experienced a grunch that changed my life, and it happened at another Haskell event. I was an enthusiastic Haskell programmer for years. I always loved Haskell because I could write concise and elegant programs in it. Haskell had better support for abstraction than any other language I knew of, and the concept of levels of abstraction was always one of the things I found really exciting about computer science. Because Haskell is a pure functional language, you can think about your programs and predict what they will do based on logic and math, as opposed to in a language like C, where the ability to mutate implicit state (with an assignment statement) means that seemingly simple programming constructs can be very complicated to understand.

A secondary reason why I liked Haskell was the community. I learned Haskell in a pretty unusual community: an undergraduate research program at a (historically) women’s college, in which both the (six) students and the (two) faculty mentors were exactly evenly balanced, gender-wise. In that program, I started the research—on type-based deforestation—that became my senior thesis and later my master’s thesis. When I attended the International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP) for the first time, while still an undergrad, I discovered a bigger community. I kept attending ICFP, most years, and began to have a sense that for a few days each year, I could be around people who thought the way I did, and who would accept me as someone who had something to contribute, regardless of what I looked like. The Haskell Symposium (which was called the Haskell Workshop the first time I attended, in 2000) is usually co-located with ICFP. The second ICFP and Haskell Workshop I attended, in 2002, changed my life: I was a second-year Ph.D student at UC Berkeley, and a professor there had told me that functional programming research was dead. I was disheartened, having wanted to work on it. Being at ICFP showed me that not only were there people still interested in functional programming, but also, some of them might be able to show the way to places where I could actually work on it.

A bit later, Shae Erisson invited me to join the #haskell IRC channel on Freenode, where I became a regular for a while. I loved the way that the community—the overlapping groups that would hang out on the IRC channel and at academic conferences—combined intense intellectual work with humor. It didn’t seem to matter who you were, for the most part, as long as you had something to bring to the conversation (or even if you just wanted to lurk and learn). That was different from other subfields of computer science: for example, at Berkeley, the experience of some of the women in the Ph.D program showed that in systems research, for example, women weren’t so likely to be treated as equals.

Until 2007 (for much of the time I was in the Haskell community) most people perceived me as a woman. Actually, I identified as genderqueer at that time and preferred gender-neutral pronouns, but I rarely mentioned it since it seemed to be a one-way ticket to social isolation. The moment that sparked my decision to transition socially, and to say to the world that I was male, actually happened at a Haskell event. At the first Haskell Hackathon at Oxford in January 2007, I was the only person present (in a group of 20) who didn’t appear to be a cis man. Then, as at other times in the past when I’d been around functional programming people at ICFP or other such events, I felt like I was being treated like “one of the boys”, and for me, that was a good thing. As a general rule, many women in tech find that the more they are seen as a professional equal, the less they are seen as women. If I’d been a woman, I might have resented this trade-off. But since I knew I wasn’t a woman, I didn’t mind if the more I showed myself to be a Haskeller, the less I was seen as a woman. There was no downside to that for me. On the second day of the Hackathon, I remember looking around the room and thinking to myself that even though I was the only woman-like person in the room, no one had made an issue out of that. It just didn’t matter. I thought that was great.

And then, most of us went to dinner together. When we were ordering food, the waiter asked if we’d like any wine to share. Everybody looked around, not knowing what to say. Sensing a leadership vacuum, I said, “We’ll have the house red.” As the waiter was leaving, an older guy said something like, “Just leave it to the only woman here to be decisive.” I’d already been somewhat annoyed with this guy (who had many stories about his father, a famous computer scientist, which stories seemed to overshadow anything he had to say about his own work), and when he said that, it was as if all of those pleasant thoughts about my gender not mattering just shattered. On the plane on the way home, I realized that I couldn’t stop people, one after the other, from assuming I was a woman, but I could change how I presented to make it clear that I’m not one. I voiced myself as a trans man three months later, and that was the best decision I’ve ever made. Of course, it’s not like sexism caused me to decide to present as male so that I could get male privilege—I’ve always been male, and experiencing sexist remarks just forced the thunk (to use some functional programming jargon that refers to causing a delayed computation to execute). I realized that while many women also get frustrated by men who make stereotypical comments about their gender, I was experiencing frustration both for that reason and because I wasn’t a woman.

This year’s Haskell Symposium incident brought to mind my experience from 2007. But because for the most part, when I was in the Haskell community I felt like my perceived gender didn’t matter, I find this year’s incident particularly disappointing.

Social code(s), social norms

Here’s what I found really disappointing: When I watched the video, what I heard after Prof. Swierstra’s comment was laughter. No one called him out; the discussion moved on. I might be wrong here, but the laughter didn’t sound like the nervous laughter of people who have recognized that they’ve just heard something terrible, but don’t know quite what to do about it (though I’m sure that was the reaction of some attendees). It sounded like the laughter of people who were amused by a joke.

It would have taken just one person to speak up at that moment and say, “That was sexist and it’s not acceptable here.” (That person would probably have to be a senior faculty member or researcher, someone of equal rank to Prof. Swierstra; challenging a male, senior researcher is not something a female grad student (or maybe even a male grad student) should be expected to do.) But nobody did. And that’s what really disappoints me. People say things like what Prof. Swierstra said because they are socially rewarded for it: they can get a few cheap laughs. Remarking on women’s supposed attractiveness can also be a badge of membership in a high-status group (heterosexual men). Take the reward away, and the comments and actions that exclude go away too.

Naomi Ceder commented that in her experience, it was unusual for men to call out other men on sexism. I have rarely seen it myself in face-to-face interactions, though in responses to my blog post on Twitter and Reddit (which I’ll get to) a number of men did actually call out men who were defending Swierstra for his sexist remark and the room for laughing. I’m encouraged by these comments, but still, it is depressing that when people perceived as women call out sexism, they’re often not taken seriously, and men seem to have prior restraint placed on them by social norms about masculinity. I’d be interested in comments (from people of all genders) about whether or not you’ve witnessed a pattern of men calling out other men on sexism, or not doing so.

We live in a patriarchal society, and that affects every subculture within the society except those in which people take active effort to undo the norms that make being sexist the easiest, most natural thing to do. But I thought of the people who attend the Haskell Symposium as a more thoughtful group of people than the baseline, even though it’s a group that’s overwhelmingly male-dominated. I expected more from them than the objectification of women, and more of a response to objectification than laughing along with it. I used to feel like I belonged in that community. But now, even if I wanted to go back, I’m not sure if I could. As someone who’s usually perceived to be a cis man, I could potentially have influence, could use my male privilege for good. Still, I don’t feel like a community that makes somebody feel like it’s acceptable to say that women would add “attractiveness” to a professional meeting is a community that I belong in.

Backlash

The earlier version of this post was linked to on the Haskell subreddit on Reddit (/r/haskell). Since Reddit comment threads are not a safe space for people in marginalized groups and there is generally little to no moderation to maintain community standards, there were many comments taken straight out of the playbooks of derailing and silencing (including, inexplicably, a detour into rape apologism). There were also quite a few comments that I found positive and encouraging, in which men did encourage other men to educate themselves and to listen to the experiences of people who aren’t cis men. Keeping those warnings in mind, you can read the Reddit comment thread.

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that sparked over 250 comments on Reddit before. If nothing else, the sheer number of comments is a sign that sexism is a topic the Haskell community cares about. When I write about sexism in a way that will get the attention of tech people, I always worry that I’m being boring. Being boring is the worst thing you can be in tech circles, and in my mind I always have the picture of a stereotypical nerd saying that other people’s feelings aren’t nearly interesting as mathematical abstractions are. But clearly, my post wasn’t boring to the people who commented on /r/haskell. While they had many other posts to choose from, all with more technical content, they chose to discuss my post.

As well, it is encouraging that a few guys who are quite well-known and respected in the Haskell community—Conor McBride, a computer science professor known for his work on the Epigram programming language who gives legendary research talks, and Bryan O’Sullivan, a co-author of Real World Haskell—made anti-sexist comments and received positive feedback (upvotes) for them. In contrast, none of the guys making blatantly sexist comments are well-known and well-respected in the community, as far as I know.

Despite that, there were a lot of comments that I found discouraging. Most of the patterns in the comments are pretty standard, and in fact, many of the themes I wrote about in “A Problem With Equality” and its sub-essays occured as well. A few other patterns are worth noticing. One is the disregard of the work that it takes for women to deal with a seemingly endless barrage of sexist remarks, each one perhaps minor on its own, but cumulatively building to cause stress and despair. Many comments on Reddit said things like “you just shouldn’t be so sensitive”. Or they said that listeners should understand that people like Prof. Swierstra would never want to exclude women from the Haskell community, and that nobody else in the room would want that either. It’s taken to be the job of the people in the marginalized group (women) to give men the benefit of the doubt, rather than it being men’s job to be inclusive. This is an example of how power and privilege operate to redistribute emotional work, or emotional labor, onto those who are already most overburdened—a pattern I wrote about a little over a year ago in my essay “Emotional Labor Day”. In a patriarchal society, emotional work tends to fall to women, and this situation is no exception. It takes work to disregard an environment in which people telling you that you don’t belong seem to be pervasive. It takes effort to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of these people saying one thing and doing another. So when a guy says “get over it” or “don’t be so sensitive”, he’s really demanding that women (and possibly also other people who lack either cis or male privilege or both) do work for him so he doesn’t have to. In one comment in the Reddit thread, a guy was called out for saying something “creepy”; his response was to say that anyone reading his comments should assume that everything he’s saying isn’t meant to be creepy. This is an example of an arrant sense of entitlement to have others do one’s emotional work: he is saying that he is unwilling to do the work of not sounding creepy (or of educating himself so that he can communicate non-creepily), so instead of one person writing non-creepily once and for all, he requires that every person who reads his writing repeat the work of finding a non-creepy interpretation and of silencing their inner “creepiness” alarms.

Another question (and I’ve been told this one would be worth making more explicit) is: “Who do you identify with?” When reading an account of remarks like those made by Prof. Swierstra, you have two options: you can identify with Prof. Swierstra, and take issue at the characterization of his words as sexist, or you can identify with women and other people who might be harmed and excluded by sexist remarks. (Actually, you have a third option as well: you can try to take both perspectives and balance them in your mind.) In the negative comments on Reddit, I overwhelmingly saw guys identifying with Prof. Swierstra, because apparently they saw themselves as people who were likely to say something harmful (without meaning to) and be criticized for it. They did not see themselves as people who could potentially feel like they didn’t belong in a community, because their sense of belonging was unconditional.
That led to them attempting to re-center the discussion on how men feel about having their sexist comments called out as sexism, and center it away from how women feel about being excluded. I can only conclude that these guys don’t think it’s worth empathizing with women, don’t think it’s worth putting in a moment of effort to try to take a woman’s perspective. For me, that raises the question of why they don’t think it’s worth putting in the effort to empathize with women, especially given that many of them expect women to empathize with them by giving men the benefit of the doubt and always assuming they mean well. When someone demands that you participate in such an unequal relationship, in which their feelings matter but yours do not, it’s hard to believe that they consider you to be a professional peer or even a human being of equal value.

There’s a certain irony here: men like some of the Reddit commenters are being extremely sensitive about accusations of sexism (not even aimed at themselves!), while simultaneously demanding that women should change themselves to be “less sensitive”. One commenter went so far as to demand that I apologize to Prof. Swierstra. I’m not sure what I would be apologizing for (having a reaction? having a perspective that doesn’t align with the dominant one of cis hetero men?) Since we have no idea about how Prof. Swierstra himself felt about my post (perhaps his response would be “why yes, I was wrong, and wasn’t thinking”), another guy stepping in on his behalf to demand an apology for criticism of an idea is sensitive in the extreme.

Concern trolling is a problematic pattern of communication that also happened in the Reddit thread. For me, this comment is a particularly good example:

There is a disturbingly large number of people who consider the whole program of changing social norms regarding sex and gender to be nothing more than a “political correctness brigade” that feeds peoples’ need to feel self-righteous while not actually accomplishing anything good, and the last thing that you want to do is to provide fodder for them.

— Reddit user gcross

Reading this comment, I’m left wondering whether the commenter is numbered in this “disturbingly large number of people” or not. Concern trolling can be an exploitive way to discuss sensitive issues because it allows a person to bring ideas into the debate without taking responsibility for them. It’s an unfair way to argue because the person doing the concern trolling is hiding their real views, and is declining to take risks and be vulnerable by stating their real opinions or beliefs as such. It’s always easy to evade responsibility for changing your own thinking and your own behavior by claiming that someone else might not want to change. But the only person you’re responsible for is you. And concern trolling is attention-stealing: it drains time and energy that people in the marginalized group might spend on other things (since now they feel they have to argue with imaginary people), and it also takes up time that the concern troll themself, who claims to be an ally, might have spent actually educating people who are ignorant rather than on lecturing the marginalized group on how to do their activism. It was depressing for me to see this kind of manipulation and dissembling coming from people in the Haskell community.

Finally, there’s the theme of intent. I find it inordinately peculiar that people devoted to a programming language with a very expressive static type system—one that exists so programmers can make their intent very, very clear, not just in their own minds, but in the programs they write—would justify what’s (at best) sloppy communication by appealing to intent. The purpose of an expressive type system is so that the programmer’s intent doesn’t have to remain, imprecisely, inside the programmer’s brain. She can state that intent if the language she is programming in has tools to let her do it; once it’s stated, the compiler can check assumptions and the code becomes easier for other programmers to understand. In Haskell, those tools take the form of a rich type system.

When you’re writing Haskell code, the typechecker will often reject your program. Non-novice programmers know that it doesn’t do much good to yell at the computer and say that you really meant to write a well-typed program (you can do that, but the computer won’t listen). Rather, they look at the error messages and change their programs so that the typechecker will accept them. Just as compiler error messages aren’t always clear, when you say something harmful, people who hear those words don’t always give understandable feedback on what you should say in the future. Understanding compiler error messages requires effort and willingness to learn, and so does understanding the experiences of people who’ve had experiences you haven’t had. This analogy isn’t perfect; people aren’t code, and compilers don’t feel hurt or angry when you give them malformed input (though you might feel that way when you see the error messages). I just think that when your intent is good, it’s worth expressing yourself clearly so that other people know what their intent is. Just as you can’t expect a compiler to turn a nonsense program into the progra m you meant to write, you can’t expect other people to do all the work of discovering your intent.

My post was also linked to on Hacker News; I haven’t read this thread, since Hacker News discussions involving gender are usually so toxic. Be forewarned.

Speaking out

What keeps women out of the Haskell community isn’t just comments like those of Prof. Swierstra. More so, it’s the unwillingness of men in the community to say something: not a single person in the Haskell Symposium audience spoke up. Most guys probably wouldn’t say in public that women should join the community because they’re attractive. They seem to feel powerless to do anything about the state of affairs, and yet, they have power: they can let men who make these comments know that sexism isn’t okay. Women can’t do this work every time: not only would it not be fair, they wouldn’t be taken as seriously, and would suffer more harmful consequences in their careers if they spoke out. How much a man can afford do about it depends on his social rank, of course: it would be unreasonable to expect even a male grad student to criticize, say, his own advisor if that would get him fired. (I did it once and got kicked out of grad school as a result, but I don’t expect everyone to make that sacrifice.) Still, it seems reasonable to expect grad students to let other grad students know when they’re being sexist, and over time, grad students grow up and attain positions of greater power, gaining the privilege to set examples in a bigger way.

I’m writing on the Geek Feminism blog, but since I know that allies are likely to be reading too, The Geek Feminism Wiki’s “Resources for allies” page is one resource that can help; the wiki also has a page of good sexism comebacks. Some comebacks that might have helped in this situation are: “I don’t think that sounds as funny as you want it to sound”; “Who let you think it would be okay to say something like that?”; “Excuse me? / “I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to say. Could you state it more plainly?”; and (if used by the moderator) “We’re done” and “That was sexist, and that is not acceptable here.” Of course, there are others. The most important thing men can do as allies is to listen to women, and people who are perceived as women, in their communities.

Countering sexism requires courage and (in Samuel Delany’s words) moral stamina. It is work that largely needs to be done by men, since men who tacitly believe that women aren’t quite human are hardly going to listen to women’s opinions on the subject. A prerequisite for men to do this work is for them to believe that women belong in their communities, that women are more than just attractive bodies, and that their communities will benefit from the inclusion of women—benefit in ways that are not about aesthetics. Whether from within or without, I hope that the Haskell community will include more men who have this courage and who believe these principles—whether or not the presence of those men makes the community more attractive.


Thanks to Ashley, Adam Foltzer, and the Geek Feminism crew for their comments on this essay.

One thought on “Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

Comments are closed.