Author Archives: Tim Chevalier

About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

It has been zero days since the last sexist incident in tech

[Content warning: sexual objectification.]

Obie Fernandez is the author of The Rails Way, the editor of Addison-Wesley’s Professional Ruby Series, and a co-founder and CTO of Javelin, a startup that builds “tools and services to help you change your world”.

Fernandez also, apparently, can’t talk about technology without reminding everybody that he has, on some occasion or another, had sex. Despite being a CTO, he also apparently doesn’t know that the Internet doesn’t have an erase button — which goes to show you that extremely poor judgment doesn’t stop you from getting copious VC funding for your company, if you’re male.


A screenshot of a tweet from Obie Fernandez, which he later deleted

Fernandez’s Twitter bio declares, “Author, Programmer, Dad”. Usually (certainly not always, I’m aware!) being a dad implies that you have had sex at least once. But it’s so important for Fernandez to remind us that he has had sex — with people of multiple ages — that he also has to inject tortured sexual analogies into what could have been a perfectly benign programming language flame war.

At 8:36 PM tonight (in my time zone, anyway, Fernandez tweeted, “still not sure exactly what I’m supposed to apologize for other than being a bit crass about 20-year old people.”

By 9:11 PM, Fernandez had evidently thought about it deeply and carefully enough to issue a retraction. I guess the “lean startup” approach is so powerful that its adherents can go from sneering at their critics (including a risible attempt to backjustify his sexism with an appeal to pansexuality — folks, we’ve been over that already) to heartfelt apology in less than 40 minutes. (I fear that his apology may not be entirely heartfelt, though, as he quickly moved on to declaring that he’s “not a sexist” and attempting to pay for his blunder by citing all the women he hires.)

Readers of this blog are aware that one asshat in tech would have little effect on his own, if he were indeed an isolated case. They are equally aware that Fernandez is no anomaly of asshaberdashery. I think the hapless Fernandez is providing us with a valuable lesson: the message to “not feed the trolls” is a dangerous one. While any given individual absolutely can and should disengage with trolls when necessary to protect their physical and mental health, engaging with them can have value. Judging from his Twitter avatar, Mr. Fernandez is at least 30 years old. That makes 30 years or more in which not a single person in his life has told him that the world generally does not need to know that he has done a sex. Perhaps his demeanor makes them afraid to challenge him. Perhaps they don’t think it’s worth the time. Who knows? But at one point in his life, one presumes that he was impressionable — one knows that he’s impressionable, since nobody acts like he does unless they get rewarded for it. Rewarded with laughs, with buddy-buddy slaps on the back from fellow bros, with congratulations on how delightfully politically incorrect he is, with 1.5 million dollars of venture capital money from the likes of Mark Suster, Eric Ries, and 500 Startups.

Back when I was first dabbling in Usenet in the mid-1990s, it was conventional wisdom that trolls were usually children sitting at a computer in their mothers’ basements. That, in other words, they had no real power other than the ability to rustle a few jimmies for a moment. It’s 2014 now, and some of those children have grown up and become technology executives — people with hiring and firing power, with a lot of control over a big part of the economy. If the adults in the room had spent a bit more time trying to socialize those children (because clearly, they weren’t getting it from their parents) and less time stating their troll-starving prowess, perhaps we would be able to attend a conference without hearing about some guy’s crotch.

Postscript: On Twitter, Matt Adereth pointed out this 2005 blog post from Fernandez:

I didn’t particularly like Ruby the first time I met her. I thought she was interesting, but a few months later (to my surprise) something changed. I started seeing her appealing qualities. My friends really spoke highly of Ruby, so we started spending time together. The love affair began in February 2005 and about a month later, things started getting pretty bad with my wife, Java. Even when I was doing Java, I couldn’t stop thinking of Ruby and how much better she is for me.

So it looks like Mr. Fernandez has been unnecessarily sexualizing technical discussions for fun and profit for quite some time. As Adereth observed, it also looks like Fernandez’s use of the “who said I was talking about women?” derailing tactic is entirely disingenuous.

Can geekiness be decoupled from whiteness?

As a fledgling nerd in my teens and early twenties, grammar pedantry was an important part of geek identity for me. At the time, I thought that being a geek had a lot to do with knowing facts and rules, and with making sure that other people knew you knew those facts and rules. I thought that people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other clearly without rigid adherence to grammatical rules, a thought that may have been influenced by the predominance of text-based, online communication in my social life at the time.

The text: Let's eat grandma! Let's eat, Grandma! Punctuation saves lives, juxtaposed with an image of an older woman
The image shames people for where they place commas and suggests sarcastically that a punctuation error could result in misunderstanding of a suggestion to have a meal as a suggestion to practice cannibalism.

If Facebook had existed at the time, I would have been sharing this image, and others like it, with the best of them. I was sure that correct use of punctuation and adherence to the grammatical rules of standard American English was an essential step along the way to achieving truth, justice, and the American Way. Though I wasn’t sure exactly how. It definitely seemed a lot easier to teach people how to use commas correctly than to teach them how to take another’s point of view (something I wasn’t very good at myself at the time), and like the drunk looking for their keys underneath the lamppost because that’s where it’s easier to see, I ran with it.

Nerds, Rules, and Race

A few years ago, Graydon Hoare mentioned Mary Bucholtz’s article “The Whiteness of Nerds” (PDF link) to me. As a recovering grad student, I don’t read a lot of scholarly articles anymore, but this one has stayed with me. Perhaps that’s because the first time I read it, felt embarrassed. I felt that I had been read. By this point, I suppose I had let go of some of my attachment to grammar pedantry, but I still felt that it was just a bit of harmless fun. I realized that without being consciously aware of it, I had been using devotion to formal rules as a way to perform my whiteness — something that I would certainly have denied I was doing had someone accused me of such.

Bucholtz argues, in short, that geek culture (among American youths) is a subculture defined, essentially, by being whiter than white:

“This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language.”

Bucholtz is not saying that there are no nerds of color — just that nerd culture, among the teenagers she studied, was defined by hyper-devotion to a certain set of white cultural norms (which some youths of color are perfectly happy to adopt, just as some white youths perform an identification with hip-hop culture).

If we accept her analysis of nerd culture, though, it’s clear that it excludes some people more than others. Adopting hyper-whiteness is an easier sell for people who are already white than for people who are potentially shrugging off their family of origin’s culture in order to do so. If it’s assumed that a young person has to perform the cultural markers of nerd culture in order to be accepted as someone who belongs in a science class or in a hackerspace, then it’s harder for youths of color to feel that they belong in those spaces than it is for white youths. That’s true even though obsessing about grammar has little to do with, say, building robots.

In my own youth, I would have said that I liked nitpicking about grammar because it was fun, probably, and because I wanted to communicate “correctly” (perhaps the word I would have used then) so that I could be understood. But was I harping over it for the intrinsic pleasure of it, or because it was a way for me to feel better than other people?

I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. It’s true that many kids who are academically gifted and/or interested in science, math and engineering experience bullying and even abuse, even those who are otherwise (racially, gender-wise, and economically) privileged. It’s also true that some of the same people grow up to abuse their power over others in major ways, as most of the previous posts on this blog show. As a child, I thought that someday, someone was going to show up and stop my mother from abusing me and that that would be made possible by the fact that it was against the rules to hit children. I think that’s part of how I got so interested in formal systems of rules like grammar — eventually leading me to pursue programming language theory as a field of study, which is about using formal systems of rules to make computers do things. I suspect many nerds had a similar experience to mine.

But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.

Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe that their aptitude for compliance to formal systems of rules is the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”

“Mrs. Smith is a wonderful linguist. Give her a few hours with a grammar and she’ll know everything except the pronunciation.” — Graham Greene, The Comedians

In Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in Haiti in the 1950s, Mrs. Smith — an American who is in the country to proselytize for vegetarianism (not realizing that in the country she’s visiting, nobody can afford to eat meat) — believes that all she needs to do to speak the language of the natives, wherever she’s going, is to memorize the language’s grammatical rules. Not only does she not (apparently) realize the difference between Haitian Creole and Parisian French, she doesn’t seem to know (or doesn’t care) about idioms, slang, or culture. If she really is a wonderful linguist, perhaps she has a native ability to pick up on connotations, which she’s discounting due to her belief that adherence to rules is what makes her successful.

In general, it’s possible that some grammar pedantry is motivated by a sincere belief that if others just learned how to speak and write standard English, they’d be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. But success doesn’t automatically grant insight into the reasons for your success. Maybe understanding rules is secondary to a more holistic sort of talent. Maybe you’re ignoring white privilege, class privilege, and other unearned advantages as reasons for your success, and others won’t enjoy the same outcome just by learning to be good at grammar.

Maybe it’s especially tempting for programmers to play the prescriptivist-grammar game. By nature, programming languages are prescriptive: for programs to make sense at all, a language has to have a formal grammar, a formal mathematical description of what strings of characters are acceptable programs. If there was a formal grammar for English, it would say, for example, that “The cat sat on the mat.” is a valid sentence, and “Mat cat on the sat.” is not. But there isn’t one; English is defined by what its speakers find acceptable, just as every other human language is. Different speakers may disagree on what sentences are acceptable, so linguists can outline many different dialects of English — all of which are mutually understandable, but which have different grammatical rules. There is no correct dialect of English, any more than any given breed of dog is the correct dog.

Programming consists largely of making details explicit — because you’re talking to a not-very-bright computer — that most other humans would be able to fill in from context. Context is why most of the grammar memes that people share are very shallow: no English speaker would actually sincerely confuse “Let’s eat Grandma!” with “Let’s eat, Grandma”, because of contextual knowledge: mostly the contextual knowledge that humans don’t treat each other as food and so the first sentence is very unlikely to be intended, but also the contextual knowledge that we’re talking to Grandma and have been talking about preparing dinner (or, I suppose, the knowledge that we have survived a plane crash and are stranded with no other food sources). If punctuation really was a life-and-death matter any appreciable portion of the time, the human race would be in deep trouble — on the whole, we’re much better at spoken language, and written language is a relatively recent and rare development.

But I think programmers have a good reason to value breaking rules, because that’s what programmers do whenever they are being truly creative or innovative (sometimes known as “disruption”). Hacking — both the kind sometimes known as “cracking” and the legal kind — are about breaking rules. In spoken language, grammatical rules are often (if not always) developed ex-post-facto. It’s probably more fun to study how people actually use language and discover how it always has internal structure than it is to harp on compliance with one particular set of rules for one particular dialect.

Bucholtz argues that nerds are considered “uncool” by virtue of being too white, surprisingly, since white people are the dominant cultural group in the region she was studying. She made that observation in 2001, though. Now, in 2014, “nerd” has come to mean “rich and high status” (at least if you’re male), much more than it means “unpopular and ignored”. We hear people talk about the revenge of the nerds, but are we really talking about the revenge of the hyper-white? Nerds often see themselves as rebelling against an oppressive mainstream culture; is it contradictory to resist oppression by defining oneself as “other” to the oppressor culture… by outdoing the oppressor at their own game?

Bucholtz addresses this question by arguing that while “cool” white youths walk a delicate balance between actng “too black” and “too white”, “nerdy” white youths resolve this tension by squarely aiming for “too white”. I don’t think she would say that the “cool” white kids are anti-racist, just that in defining themselves in opposition to the cool kids’ appropriation of Black American culture, nerds run the risk of behaving so as to devalue and stigmatize the culture being appropriated, intentionally or not.

Moreover, we know that cultural appropriation isn’t a respectful act; are the “hyper-white nerds” actually the anti-racist ones because they refrain from appropriating African-American culture? And does it matter whether we’re talking about youth culture (in which intellectualism can often go unappreciated) or adult culture (where intellectualism pays well)? I’d welcome any thoughts on these questions.

Unbundling Geekiness

What am I really doing if I click “Share” on that “Let’s eat Grandma!” image? I’m marking myself as discerning and educated, and I don’t even have to spell out to anyone that by doing those things, I’m shoring up my whiteness — the culture already did the work for me of convincing everyone that if you’re formally educated, you must be white; that if you aren’t, you must be poor; and then if you’re a person of color and formally educated, you must want to be white. I’m also marking myself as someone who has enough spare time and emotional resources to care a lot about something that has no bearing on my survival.

Incidentally, I’m also marking myself as someone whose neurology does not make it unusually difficult to process written language. There are similar memes I can share that would also mark me as someone who is not visually impaired and thus does not use a screen reader that would make it impossible for me to spell-check text for correct use of homophones. An example of the latter would be a meme that makes fun of someone who writes “fare” instead of “fair”, when the only way to avoid making such a typographical error is to have the ability to see the screen. In “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement”, Melissa A. Fabello explores these points and more as she argues that social justice advocates should reject grammar snobbery. I agree, and also think that geeks — regardless of whether they also identify as being in “the movement” — should do the same, as it’s ultimately counterproductive for us too.

Geek identity doesn’t have to mean pedantry, about grammar or even about more substantive matters. The Hacker School Rules call out a more general phenomenon: the “well-actually”. The rules define a “well-actually” as a correction motivated by “grandstanding, not truth-seeking”. Grammar pedantry is almost always in the former category: it would be truth-seeking if it was about asking what unclear language means, but it’s usually targeted at language whose meaning is quite clear. I think that what the Hacker School document calls “grandstanding” is often about power dynamics and about who is favored and disfavored under systems of rigid rules. But rules are to serve values, not the other way around; I think geekiness has the potential to be anti-racist if we use our systems of rules in the service of values like love and justice, rather than letting ourselves be used by those systems.

Thanks to Chung-Chieh Shan and Naomi Ceder, as well as Geek Feminism bloggers Mary and Shiny for their comments on drafts.

Quick hit: Girls just don’t wanna have fun at conferences

Over at The Spandrel Shop, Prof-Like Substance writes about women’s experiences with harassment at academic conferences:

So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you’re out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.

This is ground we’ve covered before at Geek Feminism, of course. But I thought the comment thread on this post was, for once, worth reading. I especially liked the following comment from user EMoon, replying to a persistent concern troll asking for rules to tell “oblivious” men when to hit on women (so they don’t have to think about it for themselves):

You want a rule? Here’s the rule. Don’t do it. Never hit on women at a conference of any kind, or in a workplace of any kind, or at any function associated in any way with work, or at any function not associated in any way with work. Don’t make suggestive comments on their appearance, either to them or to other men with the intent that they will overhear. Don’t wink at them. Don’t stare at their bodies. Don’t stand too close. Don’t touch. Don’t pat them, hug them, drape an arm around their shoulders, or–should you necessarily be in a picture with them (an award ceremony or the like) decide to put an arm around them with that excuse. Don’t follow them around. Never hang around in the hotel hall outside their rooms, or outside the women’s toilet. Don’t do it. ANY of it. And don’t think it’s not noticed if you do.

Quick hit: #NotJustHello

Today, Mikki Kendall — who you’ll remember from a previous Wednesday Geek Woman feature — started the #NotJustHello hashtag to talk about how women experience street harassment, in ways that go far beyond an unknown man saying “hello”. In just a few hours, there have already been a lot of great conversations not just about specific experiences of harassment, but about boundaries and the difference between flirtation and harassment.

Inspired by some of the responses to the hashtag, which echo responses that I’ve seen every time women share their experiences being harassed, I created a new Geek Feminism Wiki page, I can’t believe that happens, about the repeating pattern of men responding to these accounts in ways that reflect a need to prove that they are surprised it ever happens.

Quick hit: What Open Source Means to Me

Nick Desaulniers is collecting brief statements from people who do open-source about what it means to them, as a text file extended via Github pull requests. You can add your own by forking the repository and submitting a pull request. I’d love to see more additions from people in communities that are marginalized in open-source development (and in tech generally).

What’s wrong with assuming that programmers are male?

Cross-posted to my dreamwidth.org blog

This is an expanded version of a comment I wrote to a woman who doesn’t work in software and was wondering what was wrong with using “he” as a default pronoun to refer to a programmer whose identity is unknown, since after all, most programmers are male.

Okay, suppose I was a woman, and somebody said this to me. The ‘he’ would be one more tiny reminder, to me, that everyone in my field assumes that people like me don’t do computer science. That would make me feel just a tiny bit more discouraged and, maybe, eventually I would look for a different field, one where I don’t have to prove I belong.

So when somebody makes this choice — “most programmers are male, so I’ll use ‘he'” — their language ceases to just describe reality. It creates reality, by reminding me that I don’t belong. The ‘he’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not saying that hypothetical female me, or any woman, would change careers over one dodgy pronoun. It’s the cumulative effect of many microaggressions that has a disparate impact on women in a male-dominated field.

In software, we literally use programming languages to make things happen, so I am constantly disappointed when other people in my field fail to understand how their language doesn’t just describe reality, but also constructs it. In general, the structure of the English language (and other natural languages in which “he” is often used to refer to a generic person) creates a reality in which people are men, and men are people. A man can appear wherever a person is expected, but a woman cannot appear wherever a generic person is expected; women are second-class. Just as if a particular programming language is too awkward to write code in, we can fork it and modify its syntax and semantics, or even create a new language, we do not have to accept this aspect of English. We can choose to use language in a way that reflects what we believe, instead of using it to uphold traditions we find repugnant.

A related example is when somebody uses “guys” to refer to a group of programmers: either in the second person (“hi guys, I have a question”) or the third (“oh, the compiler guys at Apple will fix that”). I think this usage implies even more strongly that women ought to be glad to be misgendered, since using “ladies” to address a mixed group would always seem bizarre and, in some circles, would be taken as very insulting.

It costs nothing to say “folks”, “y’all”, “engineers”, or “team” instead of guys. And yet, some people vociferously defend their usage of “guys” in this manner. The benefits of using a gender-neutral collective noun are, through ripple effects, potentially huge. Every time a woman or genderqueer person (especially one who’s just starting out) hears someone acknowledge that they know that not all programmers are guys, it’s a microprogression: a tiny bit of encouragement. I can’t think of what the benefits of continuing to use guys might be, unless you think it’s beneficial to continue driving women out of your field.

Margaret Burnett once described what it’s like to be a woman studying computer science something like this: “Imagine you walk into a classroom and everybody else is three and a half feet tall. You’re the only one who’s six feet tall. Would you feel like you ought to be there?” Using “he” or “guys” to refer to programmers of unknown gender creates that same kind of space online — a space where everybody else is three and a half feet tall and you’re not, and you’re suddenly reminded of that. It takes a place that was inclusive and — for no particularly good reason — makes some people uncomfortable just being there at all.

Especially when talking in a public forum online, you usually don’t know who your entire audience is, and you usually don’t know if — at this specific moment — you could be the difference between reminding someone of the extra work they have to do (just because of their gender) to prove that they’re accepted and respected as a programmer, and reminding them that they are just as likely to be a good programmer as anyone else is.

Quick hit: Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop, January 2014

I don’t have the hard data at hand, but my impression of the field of computer science that I did my graduate work in and continue to apply in my career — programming languages — is that it’s unusually homogeneous, even for computer science. I’ve written before on this blog about some of the consequences of gender inequality in programming languages research; things are not much less dire with respect to racial and cultural diversity.

One upcoming opportunity to get help with getting started in the field, for both graduate students and serious undergraduate students, is the Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop (PLMW). In 2014, PLMW will be co-located with POPL (the ACM SIGPLAN-SIGACT Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages), in San Diego, California, USA in January. The deadline to register for PLMW is December 10, and the ACM is making some funding available for students to attend PLMW and POPL, including travel costs.

POPL is probably the most prestigious conference on programming language theory, and I can say from experience that many (if not most) of the talks at POPL tend to be not exactly geared to a novice audience. When I attended POPL 2008 in San Francisco, one of the custodians at the hotel where the conference was taking place asked me, out of the blue, “What’s this conference about? With most conferences that happen here, I can figure out what they’re talking about, but with this one I have no idea.”

So attending PLMW looks like a great opportunity to be reminded that you’re not the only one who doesn’t already know everything. I just wish it had existed back in the early 2000s when I could have benefited a lot from it!

Poster explaining the GNOME OPW program

Upcoming open source opportunity: GNOME Outreach Program for Women

Poster summarizing the GNOME OPW program and showing a robot superimposed over a globe and some silhouettes of people

A big initiative for those interested in getting involved in open source is happening right now: the GNOME Outreach Program for Women (OPW). OPW is accepting applications from now until November 11, 2013 for the program that begins December 10, 2013 and ends March 10, 2014.

If you’re interested in getting involved in open source, but don’t know where to begin, consider applying for OPW. OPW internships are paid, full-time, and allow you to work from home (there is also funding for potential travel to visit your sponsoring organization for a short period of time). OPW is inclusive: all women, including cis women and trans women; as well as anybody who was assigned female at birth; and anybody who identifies as genderqueer, genderfree, or genderfluid (regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth) are encouraged to apply. OPW is open to students and non-students alike (as long as you’re 18 years old or older as of December 10, 2013) and is open to people with any level of computing or software experience, so long as they’re relative newcomers to open-source development.

As the OPW page explains, “The internships offered are not limited to coding, but include user experience design, graphic design, documentation, web development, marketing, translation and other types of tasks needed to sustain a FOSS project.”

Not that I’m biased or anything, but since I work for Mozilla, I’d like to call attention to our OPW projects. Several other organizations are participating as well — Debian, Fedora, GNOME, the Linux Kernel, OpenStack, Wikimedia, and Xen — and if you’re involved with one or more of those, you’re welcome to toot your project’s horn in the comments!

This is the third time that Mozilla is participating in OPW, but the first time that Mozilla Research is participating. Because I work for Mozilla Research, on Rust, I’m excited that we’re accepting one intern each for Rust (a new systems programming language; most of the internships focus on libraries and tools for it) and Servo (a prototype parallel Web browser engine implemented in Rust), both of which are projects that are under the umbrella of Mozilla Research. A third Mozilla opportunity is to work on community building with Larissa Shapiro, Mozilla’s Head of Contributor Development. For the full scoop on all of these projects, see Mozilla’s OPW page for December 2013. I’m coordinating Mozilla’s involvement with OPW, as well as coordinating mentorship for the Rust projects; Lars Bergstrom is coordinating the Servo projects.

If you’re not sure whether you should apply to OPW, then you’re probably somebody who should apply. But as the OPW page says, the application process is collaborative, so it’s a good idea to talk over email with the coordinator for the project you’re interested in to find out more about what they’re looking for in applicants. As always, it’s best to show that you’ve done your homework and ask specific, focused questions so as to help the potential mentor help you.

If you’re not in the OPW audience, you can still help! Please advertise these programs to students and women who might not otherwise see them. You can put up posters where people who are marginalized in open-source communities will see them; help encourage people who are enthusiastic about one of the projects but might be too nervous to submit an application; and help connect the same people directly to projects whenever you can.

I shamelessly ripped off portions of this post from Terri’s OPW/GSOC post from back in April.

Tone policing: a tool for protecting male power

By now, many of you have probably read Sarah Sharp’s blog post about civility in the Linux kernel community as well as her followup post about it. As an experiment, Sharp decided to allow unmoderated comments on her original post, which has 284 comments as of this writing.

I’m not going to go re-read all of those comments, because I would rather remove my own appendix with a rusty spork. Rather, I just want to make one observation. Again, I’m not going to back up this observation by reference to specific comments, since they are terrible.

A frequent response when people point out that Linus Torvalds (or another prominent open-source leader known for abrasiveness) is rude to people is, “Yeah, well, he’s a jerk, but he gets things done.”

Now, there’s certainly no denying that GNU/Linux is a successful project. However, it would be a logical error to conclude from its success that it’s inconceivable that the same project could have been more successful if its members — and especially leaders — were committed to treating each other with respect.

For example, there’s reason to believe that verbal abuse is more likely to turn off women contributors than men. This is certainly not universal (there are plenty of women who are happy to respond to rudeness in kind, as well as shy and sensitive men). I also don’t believe it’s due to any sort of deep biological truth; more so due to the ways that men and women are often trained into different communication patterns, and rewarded for conforming. When I say “women”, by the way, that includes all women, because even women who weren’t assigned female at birth frequently know which social messages are meant for them, and internalize them starting from an early age. And if you are driving away roughly half the population from your project, you’re driving away half of all potential contributors for no particular reason.

I am certainly not the first to make this observation. However, so far I haven’t seen anyone point out that besides discouraging women from participating, equating abusiveness with leadership effectively ensures that women cannot attain positions of power.

Why? Well, if you believe that “jerks get things done”, it’s easy to go from that to believing that if you’re not a jerk, you must not be interested in “getting things done”; you must be someone who wastes precious time on social niceties. So if you believe that, you won’t recognize someone who is not at least occasionally rude and abrasive as a potential leader.

And, I argue, you won’t recognize a woman as a potential leader. Not because women can’t or don’t want to be rude — rather, because women are likely to already have been conditioned to be nice, and even if they haven’t, a hypothetical woman who led a major open-source project would never get away with being rude to people the way Linus is.

You might ask: how do you know? And in my opinion, all the evidence you need is contained in the comments on Sarah Sharp’s blog post. Sharp made a quite polite request; in return, she received numerous comments accusing her of rudeness, and of threatening what commenters say as a man’s right to be “frank and honest” (without stopping to consider the feelings of others). Some commenters seized upon the fact that Sharp’s post to the Linux kernel mailing list contained the word “fuck”, and scolded her for using a swear word while simultaneously defending Linus & company’s right to swear at people.

If you still need evidence that there’s a double standard, there it is. I think what’s happening here is that whatever men do gets defined as being effective, by definition, because they are men. It’s a little bit like how women frequently get describe as “emotional”, but this (often pejorative) label is rarely applied to men who are raging out, because apparently anger isn’t an emotion. (Thanks to Brenda Fine for originally pointing this out to me.) When a guy yells at his team members, he’s “being a leader”, “getting stuff done”, not wasting time with trivialities like being nice. But when a woman suggests that the whole team would be better off without the yelling, she’s “being oversensitive”, “reading too much into it”, wanting to stop everyone from ever saying “fuck” again. She can’t possibly be saying it because she has the best interests of the project in mind — because by definition, women are off-topic.

So that’s why the belief that “jerks get things done” is dangerous (and, in my opinion, false): it defines what leadership means so as to indirectly block women from being leaders. Because a nice polite woman can’t been seen as “a jerk, but she gets things done”; while a woman who swore and insulted people the way Linus does would be socially frozen out for violating gender norms. No matter what a woman’s communication style is, someone will focus on style and use that to ignore the substance of what she is saying.

What do you think?

  • Are you a “frank and honest” woman? If so, do you think you’d be treated differently if others perceived you as male?
  • Are you a guy who doesn’t want to be rude or confrontational, and if so, do you feel like you’ve paid a price for that?
  • Are you a woman who’s tried to become more frank and honest, and had that backfire?
  • Are you a guy who feels like you’ve gotten away with verbal abuse that a woman wouldn’t have been able to get away with?
  • If you’re genderqueer, what set(s) of conduct standards do you feel people apply to you?
  • If you’re trans, have you found that changing what gender others perceive you as made them more or less tolerant of your behavior (and did your behavior actually change?)

When who you are is off-topic

During Open Source Bridge last month, I went to a talk by Brandon Harris about the Wikipedia community. The focus of the talk was going to be on reasons why the number of people contributing to Wikipedia is declining. During the talk, I was reminded of why I don’t participate in Wikipedia anymore.

There’s a Geek Feminism Wiki page about what happened when I was nominated to be a Wikipedia admin in 2006. Until now, I haven’t mentioned in public that Catamorphism is me (though it’s easy enough to guess, since I still use that username on some other sites, and it’s also part of my primary email address).

In short, though, I’d been contributing frequently to Wikipedia a little less than a year at the time. Someone noticed my work and nominated me to be an administrator on the site. Admins have the power to use rollback (reverting an unhelpful edit with one click), as well as a few other rights and responsibilities. As is the usual process, a page — called an RfA (request for adminship) — was put up where people could either vote for, or against, me being an admin.

For a while, I was receiving almost all “Yes” votes. Then, somebody who apparently had an axe to grind made the claim, as part of their “No” vote, that I “made every discussion about [my] gender”. This person never substantiated their claim. As far as I can gather, it was based on the fact that during one talk page discussion, I asked somebody to use the pronouns I preferred at the time (they/them/their) when referring to me. After that point, I started receiving primarily “No” votes, and those people who gave reasons for their votes mainly said that they thought I would be a bad administrator because I would continue to make every discussion about my gender.

One of the primary values of Wikipedia is supposed to be substantiating every factual claim with a citation to a reliable source. None of the “no” voters asked for citations before deciding that the original claim — that I derailed every discussion to make it about my gender — was correct. They just believed the person who originally made the claim. I can only gather from this the “citation needed” label gets applied selectively on Wikipedia, and that unsourced claims that jibe with the existing beliefs of editors are less likely to be challenged.

Bizarrely, part of the RfA discussion devolved into various people debating what my “real” gender was. At the time I identified as genderqueer, but they were convinced that I must have some “true” gender that was different from that. Based solely on this picture of me, which I displayed on my Wikipedia user page at the time, some parties were vehemently convinced that I must “really” be male, while others were just as convinced that I must “really” be female. The picture was taken when I was 24 years old, before I started supplementing exogenous testosterone. I found it amusing that some people were absolutely convinced that they were looking at a man, when the only thing that made me a man at the time was invisible (and in fact, that’s still true, since the only thing that makes any of us the sexes we are is invisible — inside our heads). It illustrates the constructed nature of the sex binary. But I digress.

The RfA took an even weirder turn when the person who’d originally nominated me — a man using the handle of “Erik the Rude”, changed his vote from “yes” to “no” and announced he’d only nominated me to humiliate me, because he hated “bulldykes”. What follows was one of the only occasions when I’ve experienced serious harassment online because of my gender. A user of the hate site called Encyclopedia Dramatica (now rebranded as the warmer, friendlier site “Oh, Internet”) created an article about me that was solely based on the transphobic comments I received during my RfA. Because its title was my username — Catamorphism — and because Encyclopedia Dramatica had high page-rank at the time, the attack page was one of the first hits when someone searched for my username. “Catamorphism” is a technical term used in my field, so chances were good that potential colleagues or employers — just looking for information on a technical term used in the narrow professional field I work in — they would find a page with a picture of me and someone calling me a “bulldyke”. There’s nothing wrong with being a bulldyke, but it’s not a term that describes or ever has described me; if people are going to hate me, I’d prefer they hate me for who I am rather than what I’m not.

In the end, the “no” votes outweighed the “yes” votes — and again, I emphasize that the only real concern raised by the “no” voters was the unsubstantiated claim that I derailed unrelated discussions to talk about my gender — and I was denied adminship. I decided I didn’t particularly want to expend effort to contribute to a site that would have welcomed me as an admin if I was a binary-gendered person. I didn’t want to work with people who called it “disruption” to request that others use my preferred pronouns to refer to me, but didn’t consider it rude to misgender somebody. So I stopped editing.

Although I created a new account eventually and I still edit once in a while, I avoid editing that is potentially factually contentious. I just don’t have the energy to argue with aggressive people anymore. What’s more, I don’t have the energy to explain, over and over, that cissexual and heterosexual people’s points of view are not automatically more neutral and objective than the points of view of trans and queer people. I used to believe in the concept of “NPOV” (neutral point of view) that is one of the governing principles of Wikipedia, but I don’t anymore. The old saying is that history is written by the winners. Likewise, in practice, a neutral point of view seems to mean the particular point of view of whatever political groups have the biggest cognitive and emotional weapons. As a concrete example, I repeatedly ran into resistance and even ridicule when editing articles about trans people that used the phrasing “was born female” or “was born male”, to use the phrasing “was assigned female at birth” or “was assigned male at birth” instead. While the latter phrasing makes fewer assumptions, editors insisted that it was “POV” to say that people are assigned a sex at birth, but “neutral” to say that someone who may never have affirmed himself as female was born female. I can’t conceive of “NPOV” as being anything but a tool of domination anymore. Rather than striving for neutrality (which doesn’t exist), I would rather strive to mark opinions as opinions and provide citations for facts. I think it’s easier to distort the truth in an atmosphere of false neutrality than it is to do the same in an environment where it’s the norm to acknowledge your biases and the social position from which you speak.

Because of my experience, I found it hard to listen to the Q&A section of the talk, because what seemed missing to me was an acknowledgment of the fundamental brokenness that resulted in a group of cis people deciding to exclude me from volunteering in a certain role solely because I asserted myself as genderqueer. On the whole, though, I appreciated the non-technical talks I went to at Open Source Bridge because the presence of those talks made the conference feel like a place where nothing was off-topic.

When I first started reading Usenet newsgroups in 1995, one thing that was drilled into me by all the documentation I read was that you had to be on-topic. If you posted an off-topic post, you were wasting hundreds or thousands’ of people’s time, which was the worst thing you could do. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy online fora better when they’re community-based rather than topic-based. In 2006, though, being rejected as an admin felt like such a slap in the face largely because of the shame of being off-topic. Though it was baseless, I was being accused of bringing up something that wasn’t relevant, and of course, as someone who wasn’t unambiguously recognized as a white cis man, I wasn’t allowed to decide what was relevant; other people got that privilege.

I guess that’s why it was so gut-wrenching for me to be voted down. Later on, I experienced retaliation for reporting harassment that forced me to leave the graduate program I was in, and at the job I went to next, was threatened because I spoke out in favor of having a code of conduct that reflected awareness of power dynamics. Despite not putting my education or job in jeopardy, the Wikipedia incident was more painful for me than my experiences at either Portland State or Mozilla, because of the shame of being off-topic, and perhaps also because of the misunderstandings that lay at the heart of the RfA discussion. I was never heard in the Wikipedia discussion, and any attempts to make myself heard just elicited more refusal to listen.

I no longer seek out places where I’m required to stay on-topic, though, because I want to be my entire self wherever I am, as much as I can. Staying on-topic feels like having to leave part of myself at the door — whatever parts of myself the group I’m in doesn’t like very much. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” I appreciated Open Source Bridge because it felt like a broader acknowledgment that even programmers don’t live single-issue lives. At the conference, I went to talks on impostor syndrome, empathy, labor ethics, depression, and other topics that weren’t just about how to do thing X with software package Y. It made me feel like caring about the human side of computing didn’t make me a less qualified software professional, and like all of a sudden, it was the norm to have and acknowledge feelings rather than something that made me marginal. There were other little things about the conference that made me feel like I was the norm for once, too, like the all-vegetarian and mostly-vegan food at breakfast and lunch, and the “Intersectional Feminism Fuck Yeah!” stickers on the swag table. Going to the conference brought back a little bit of what my experience with Wikipedia erased: belief that there is a place for me in open-source culture and that what I have to contribute will be better because of — not worse because of — the ways in which I’ve experienced marginalization.