Author Archives: Guest Blogger

About Guest Blogger

Geek Feminism invites guest posts from writers around the 'net on geeky feminist topics. See our guest post page to submit a post.

Proposed guidelines for the ethical use of Twitter data

Background to this article: Twitter is releasing its historical archive of public tweets to selected researchers. See Introducing Twitter Data Grants and Twitter #DataGrants selections.

Scientific American says “A trove of billions of tweets will be a research boon and an ethical dilemma.” Indeed. We’re thus reproducing part of Caitlin M. Rivers and Bryan L. Lewis’s article Ethical research standards in a world of big data for comment.

Proposed guidelines for the ethical use of Twitter data

The objectives, methodologies, and data handling practices of the project are transparent and easily accessible

This information should be published in manuscripts, published on the web for the public to access, and provided to IRB (when relevant). Going forward, collaboration between the research community and Twitter to provide information to users about ongoing research and relevant results may also be beneficial. Transparency regarding uses of Internet data for research purposes is needed for fostering ‘privacy literacy’ so that the users can make informed decisions about participating in Twitter.

Study design and analyses respect the context in which a tweet was sent

A tweet author discussing his mental health, for example, does not do so with the intention of sharing that data with researchers; he does it to communicate with his digital community. Qualitatively analyzing these communications as if they are offered for research consumption does not align with the context in which the tweets were created. Twitter participants can reasonably expect to rely on some anonymity of the crowd to manage privacy.

The anonymity of tweet authors is protected, ensuring that subjects should not be identifiable in any way

To preserve source anonymity, direct quotes or screen names are not publishable, nor are any details that could be used to identify a subject. Any and all information that could be entered into a search engine to trace back to a human source should be protected. A composite of multiple example tweets may instead be used for illustrative purpose. Geolocations in particular should be scaled to a larger geographic area in order to avoid violating the privacy of those tweet authors. The Title 13 of the Data Protection and Privacy Policy, the federal law under which the Census Bureau is regulated, expressly forbids publishing GPS coordinates; researchers should adhere to this guideline as well.

Tweet data are not used to harvest additional information from other sources

Focused collection is also important for preserving anonymity. It is possible to use data collected from Twitter to discern the identities of tweet authors, which can then be used to find and collect additional information from additional sources. For example an author’s username, identifying details provided in tweet texts, or geolocations could all be used to collect data about that individual from other sources like Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, or public records.

Twitter users’ efforts to control their personal data are honored

Researchers may not follow a user on Twitter in order to gain access to a protected account. Doing so would violate that user’s efforts to control his or her personal data.

Researchers work collaboratively with IRB just as they would for any other human subject data collection

There is not currently an expectation that researchers engaging in research using Twitter will interface with their IRB. As discussed above, studies that could be conceived as individual-based should require IRB approval, whereas research designs that use data in aggregate (e.g. counts of keywords) may proceed without explicit consent. In turn, review boards should keep abreast of social network mining methodologies and corresponding ethical considerations in order provide informed guidance to researchers.

Geek Feminism readers: what do you think?

Article source, licencing and citation notes:

This post is an excerpt of Ethical research standards in a world of big data by Caitlin M. Rivers and Bryan L. Lewis as allowed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence. We suggest that anyone quoting or reproducing this article copy from the original source to ensure accuracy.

The original article can be cited as: Rivers CM and Lewis BL (2014) Ethical research standards in a world of big data [v1; ref status: approved with reservations 1, http://f1000r.es/2wq] F1000Research 2014, 3:38 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.3-38.v1)

Drupal for Women Who Just Googled It

This is a guest post from Nikki Bailey. Nikki is a queer feminist lady: barista by day, web developer and feminist bookworm by night. She’s just launched a website for crowdsourcing knowledge about science fiction/fantasy books by women, and things she enjoys while that’s not taking up all her free time include gardening, aikido and Minecraft; you can reach her on Twitter at @kwerey.

Update by Mary, May 24: the site Nikki discusses in this post is at kwerey.com: Kwery, genre fiction by women.

About a month into the new year, during the winter lull at the cafe I work for, I decided to make a website.

Well, no, that wasn’t quite how it worked. I decided I wanted to learn about programming, and when CodeAcademy didn’t really hold my attention, I figured I might have more fun making something myself. Something small but practical: I’d make a site to keep track of books I’d read. That sounded like it’d be simple but useful, and I’d probably be done in a week and I’d be able to put “knows HTML” on my CV.

That plan changed pretty quick. I asked some techy friends on Facebook: One of them recommended WordPress, and then a couple of people mentioned that Drupal was cool at the moment. It’s probably a bit more versatile as a CMS overall, someone reckoned, but it’s difficult to get into – you might want to start with something a bit more simple.

I’ve been hacking stuff into working in Linux for more or less a decade now: the words “it’s not user friendly” lost all effect on me a while back. I took a look at Drupal and found a tool someone had written for it that looked up any ISBN in an open database and populated a form with the results automatically. That was me sold then and there: I went straight to the Very Basic Tutorials page on the Drupal site and started putting together some mysterious thing called a LAMP stack…

Three weeks later I’d got pretty carried away. I moved from learning my way around Drupal to learning about CSS and HTML and version control and PHP arrays. I learned to troubleshoot. I fixed problems – I even nervously published a few patches.

I hadn’t worked this hard since final year exams, or been so excited about what I was learning. I cycled to work daydreaming about UX and faceted searches, came home and filled my Firefox bookmarks with tutorials.

Eventually, I got there. My finished project is this: an online catalogue that stores books with all kinds of metadata: reviews users have added, publication date, genre, and the kind of questions things like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign asks: there’s a field for ‘are there LGBT characters?’ and ‘is there a person of colour as a central character?’. In the end, I made it a catalogue of just books by women, because that’s an axe I’ve got to grind with the science fiction & fantasy community: hardly anyone ever recommends me books by female writers.

The site went live a few weeks ago, and last time I checked in on it, there were all kinds of cool sounding books on it I hadn’t ever heard of: I’ve made a way to find to provide myself with infinite new books to read, and put a resource out there I think could be really useful to people: I was over twenty by the time I read a book about a lesbian character that wasn’t totally depressing, and I’m pretty proud and excited about putting something out there to help marginalised people find themselves in fiction.

I always thought of the phrase ‘web development’ as referring to some kind of very structured skill, with a budget of thousands and probably more than one Gantt chart involved. That changed pretty much as soon as I started googling. Thanks to open source technology and the generosity of geeks with their secrets, it’s taken me under 2 months and £20 to put together a website that’s getting 1000~ unique visitors a day in its first few weeks of life: it’s been an act of creativity and collaboration, and it’s left me really excited about all the cool stuff the internet makes possible.

Thanks for everything, geeks of the internet. I hope this is gonna be the first of many projects you’ll see from me.

GitHub alternatives and replacements?

Promoted from comments to a “Ask a Geek Feminist” post for commenters because we suspect many people have this question:

rmd1023 asks:

So, is there a github replacement out there that hasn’t pissed off a whole lot of women in tech (at least not yet)?
Might be a good market niche, among other things. I’ve dabbled in github but only have a couple of small repositories that are basically personal-only. I’d love to move it over to someplace better.

See the background and also the Culture Offset pledge, to donate the equal of any money paid to GitHub to “culture offset” organisations. Wikipedia has a big list of code hosting sites.

Where are you hosting your code and why?

Note: if you are affiliated with any code hosting site, please disclose it in your comment.

Ally Smells: Boundaries

This is a guest post from Julie Pagano. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and user experience. When she’s not working at her day job, she focuses on championing diversity in tech and building the Pittsburgh tech community. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her army of feminist firebees. This post is crossposted to her blog.

This post frankly discusses issues related to boundary violations. It may be difficult to read. I recommend reviewing the content warnings below before deciding to proceed.

Content warnings: boundary violations, predatory behavior, ableism, *ist language, sexual assault, and possibly others

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these “ally smells” in more detail.

Today I am digging into a pretty sensitive topic: boundaries. This can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. In this post, I am going to focus on boundary violations from people who want to be or claim to be allies. Additional discussions of boundary issues are important, but that’s another post for another day.

Do you push or disrespect their boundaries (e.g. continuing a conversation when asked to stop, touching someone without permission)?

Some of the content of this post may make you upset or angry. I strongly recommend giving yourself some time to sit and think on it. If you want to be a good ally, learning to respect boundaries is critical.

Boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.

Boundaries can be small or huge. Seemingly inconsequential or horrifyingly important. They all matter to the people who set them. They all should be respected, when possible**.

It does not matter if a boundary makes sense to you. It does not matter if it seems inconsequential to you. Boundaries are the prerogative of the person who sets them. You do not know that person’s story, and they are not obligated to justify their boundaries to you. That touch that seems insignificant to you may be uncomfortably intimate for someone else. That interaction that is fine with others may trigger someone’s PTSD. You do not know more about someone than they know about themselves. Trust that they know what they are doing when they set a boundary with you, even if you do not understand why.

When someone sets a boundary with you they are saying “no.” No means no. Do not push people on their boundaries or ask for explanations that are not readily given. Doing these things indicates that you do not respect their boundaries. For many people, saying “no” once, setting a boundary, is difficult enough. Do not put them in a position where they must repeatedly do so. No means no the first time. Pushing them on it suggests a hope that you can wear them down, which is problematic at best and predatory at worst. No means no.

** I say “when possible” here because there will be situations where you cannot avoid violating a boundary (e.g. you trip and accidentally touch someone without permission). However this should be the exception, not the rule. Do not use this language to try to rules lawyer your way around respecting boundaries.

Below are some examples of boundaries. All of the items below have happened to myself or people I know (often repeatedly) from people who claimed to be or wanted to be allies. They are not theoreticals. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Examples: Physical

  • Hugging someone without permission (many people give close friends implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in potentially intimate locations (e.g. small of the back, leg, neck) without permission.
  • Touching someone intimately without permission (many people give their partners implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that form of touch is normal for others (e.g. handshakes, hugs).
  • Touching someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to touch someone when they have asked you to stop.
  • Invading someone’s personal space. A common case is standing very close to someone (appropriate distance may vary by situation and cultural background).
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a physical boundary with you.

Examples: Language (verbal or in text format)

  • Saying sexually suggestive things to or about someone unless you have a relationship where that is considered appropriate.
  • Speaking to someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that type of speech is normal for others (e.g. rape jokes, sexist/racist/ableist/*ist language).
  • Speaking to someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to engage with someone on a specific topic when they have asked you to stop.
  • Continuing to engage with someone when they have asked you to cease contact.
  • Asking someone you do not know very well about sensitive or private information (e.g. genitalia, sexual assault). This includes digging for details when they provide some high level information on a sensitive topic.
  • Using slurs directed at a group that person is a member of.
  • Being verbally abusive and/or threating to someone.
  • Bringing up private information about someone, such as where they live. This can easily be perceived as a threat.
  • Disclosing private information about someone without their permission.
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a language boundary with you.

Examples: Third Parties

  • Sending a third party to speak to someone after they have asked you to stop speaking with them.
  • Contacting someone’s friends and acquaintances to try to get them to speak with you when they have asked you to cease direct contact with them.
  • Encouraging third parties to push boundaries someone has set with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from setting boundaries with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from calling out boundaries you have violated.
  • Attempting to discredit someone to others for setting boundaries with you.
  • Trying to get third parties to make someone feel bad for setting a boundary with you.

Examples: Potentially Subtle Boundaries

  • Interrupting a semi-private conversation between people you do not know well, particularly when they are discussing a sensitive topic. This works in person and online. Yes, they are in a public space, but that doesn’t mean you are invited if you don’t have a context with the people involved.
  • Regularly contacting someone who never engages with you. This is common on places like social networks and email. If you contact someone with great regularity and they never (or almost never) respond to you, there is a good chance you are pushing a boundary, and they are trying to ignore you.
  • Fixating on someone who you do not have a close relationship with (e.g. writing blog posts about them without asking first, regularly mentioning them on social media).
  • Asking someone if they’re talking about you when they say something vague. Most of the time, if someone wanted to call you out specifically, they would have done so. Vagueness is usually intentional and pushing someone to be explicit is often pushing a boundary.
  • Complaining about spaces you are not allowed at or attempting to enter those spaces anyway.

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a huge part of pushing boundaries. Boundaries are often different when power imbalances are involved. When you have a position of power over someone, it is more difficult for them to set clear boundaries with you or reassert those boundaries when they are crossed for fear of repercussions. If you care about respecting the boundaries of others, it is critical for you to pay attention to and be aware of power dynamics. This is especially critical for you to be sensitive to when you are more likely to be in a position of power. As an ally, there is very likely to be a power differential because you are in a privileged position.

Below are some examples of power dynamics. Some power dynamics are obvious and explicit. Others are less clear. They all are important and matter. Predators often prey on more subtle power dynamics because they are easier to get away with. Take the steps to draw a clear distinction between yourself and them by paying closer attention to these dynamics. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Note: many of the examples below mention the potential for harm. The power dynamic exists because you could do those things, even if you think it is clear that you would not.

Examples: Work & School

Do you have an explicit position of power over them codified in your work/school relationship?

  • You are their boss, their boss’s boss, or even higher up the chain of command at their job. You directly have the power to punish or fire them.
  • You are a professor, teacher, or other educator and they are a student. You directly have the power to negatively impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have a position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are their team lead, supervisor, mentor, or something similar at their job. You are not their boss, but you have the ability to negatively impact their work environment. You may be close with their boss (or higher ups) and be able to indirectly impact their chances of being punished or fired.
  • You are a teaching assistant, mentor, or something similar in an academic/educational environment. You cannot directly impact their achievement and performance, but you can negatively impact the environment for them. You may be close with their professor, teacher, or others with more direct power over the student and be able to indirectly impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have an implicit position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are a colleague, peer, or something similar at their job. Your power over them may come from things like seniority at the workplace, more years of experience, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their work environment.
  • You are another student or colleague in an academic/educational environment. Your power over them may come from things like higher achievement, seniority in school, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their academic/educational environment.

Examples: Community

Do you have an explicit position of power?

  • You are a known organizer of a conference, user group, open source project, or other community group. You have the ability to make someone unwelcome at these groups or even explicitly ban them.

Do you have an implicit position of power?

  • You are a speaker at a conference, user group, or other event. You have the ability to use your platform and celebrity to make events uncomfortable or unwelcoming for someone.
  • You are a well known member of a community through work, speaking, open source contributions, or other means. You have the ability to use your celebrity to discredit others or make them uncomfortable.

Examples: Characteristics

Do you have any characteristics that may give you a position of power?

  • Are you much larger and stronger than the other person?
  • Are you a member of a privileged group that has historically oppressed a group the other person is a member of?
  • Are you a member of a group that is in the majority in your work or academic environment while the other person is a member of group that is in the minority?
  • Are you a member of a group that is statistically likely to harm the other person?

Why Is It Important?

You may be asking yourself why are boundaries so critical? Why am I making such a big deal about this? In the opening of this post, I mentioned that boundary violations can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. Boundary violations are a big deal, even when they are small, because they are often a sign of things to come. A symptom of something more sinister than an accident. A red flag.

Am I saying that everyone who violates a boundary is a dangerous predator? No, I am not. Definitely not. Plenty of good people I know and trust have made mistakes with boundaries. I have made mistakes with boundaries. Not all people who violate boundaries are predators, but all predators violate boundaries. It is often impossible for the person on the receiving end of the violation to tell the difference and guessing wrong can have dire consequences.

Predators often start with small boundary violations that might seem inconsequential in isolation. Seeing what they can get away with. Slowly escalating. Others have referred to this as The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation. This is why even small mistakes can be seen as a red flag, particularly if they happen repeatedly.

There’s a popular post titled Schrödinger’s Rapist that explores some of these interactions.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Boundary violations are exhausting, especially for people at an increased risk of being targeted by predators. Dealing with these issues regularly means having to be on guard and evaluate safety most of the time. A constant white noise of evaluating risk and hoping your assessment is correct. Mental energy that could be spent elsewhere if boundaries were not regularly being violated. Allies can take on some of that load by being mindful and avoiding boundary violations.

Boundary violations can reduce comfort and access to certain resources and spaces for people. For example, someone may no longer feel comfortable attending events with someone who has violated their boundaries because they are concerned it will continue or escalate. Someone may lose a mentor who can help them professionally because they push boundaries, and it makes them uncomfortable. There can be very real personal and professional consequences of boundary violations.

Steps to Improve

Remember how I said at the beginning that this post may upset you? Your first step here is to sit with this. Give yourself some time to think on it. Maybe read it a few times. Push past the potential upset you have about this information. If you want to be a good ally, you need to work on respecting boundaries. It is ongoing work that is not necessarily easy, but is very important. This is something I try to work on regularly.

First off, recognize that you are going to fuck up. We all do. Take responsibility for your mistakes. See my post about making mistakes for suggestions on how to respond when called out on pushing or violating boundaries.

Be thoughtful. Be empathetic. If a little part of your brain says “this might be inappropriate” or “this might make someone uncomfortable,” err on the side of not doing that thing. Erring on the side of asking explicit permission is usually going to be better than erring on the side of violating someone’s boundaries. It can be awkward to ask if you’re not used to it, but practice makes perfect and people will appreciate the effort.

Be ok with hearing a “no.” Make it easy for people to tell you “no.” When you are told “no,” respect it. If possible, learn to pay attention to more subtle boundary setting from people who may have difficulty explicitly saying a clear “no.” If not possible to pick up on these cues, be clear with people that you need more explicit feedback. If someone’s boundaries are in conflict with your own boundaries, state your boundaries and, if possible, work with them to find a compromise that is amenable to both of you. If it’s not possible for you to respect someone’s stated boundaries, avoid them.

Lastly, if you have a problem with violating boundaries, decrease your access to situations where you are likely to violate them. It is your responsibility to decrease the problem, not of those on the receiving end to try to avoid it. If you find yourself regularly violating boundaries, get help. Consider getting help from a friend with a better understanding of boundaries. If you think it is a serious problem related to mental health concerns (e.g. addiction, social anxiety, being non-neurotypical), consider getting help from a mental health professional. They are trained to assist with these sorts of things and help you work on it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is committing yourself to improvement, so you do not harm others.

On being geeky, disabled, and also kinda smokin’

This is a guest post by Cecily Kane. a writer, business professional, and sci-fi and fantasy geek. She blogs at Manic Pixie Dream Worlds , where she reviews books, talks speculative fiction, and rants regarding intersectional feminism, sometimes even coherently.

I am a geek, and a writer, and was born with a mild disability — thumb hypoplasia, type II/III.

Effectively, on my right hand, I have five fingers and no thumb. I possess a digit that looks quite thumb-like but has no thenar muscles, no flexor tendons, and an undeveloped joint — in short, it is devoid of all of the manual characteristics that make our species more highly evolved than other mammals.

There are many jokes in my household about my primate status. I make most of them.

I am also right-handed. This makes life awkward at times.

I began to disclose my disability regularly about a year ago, with the new knowledge that birth defects which limit one’s physical functions are, in fact, disabilities. Medical professionals are always curious; this defect only occurs in about 1 out of every 100,000 live births, so meeting me is often their only opportunity to see it. This curiosity does not bother me. I compare myself and my gimpy hand to Nemo and his flappy fin.

When I disclose this disability to men who are not in the medical profession, however, I almost invariably get the exact same response:

“Well, you don’t look disabled. You’re very pretty.”

Given that most of the men in my social circles are other writers, you would think the existence of a writer who is physically unable to write longhand would merit a mention, that there is something more to discuss here than my aesthetic qualities.

You would even think, perhaps, that there’s a smidge of a heroine’s story in there, a narrative of someone who overcomes a serious roadblock in order to pursue her dreams and do what she loves, a protagonist who has a dragon to slay daily.

You would think that authors would pick up on this.

They don’t.

I realize there is some confusion about the difference between a disfiguring disability and one like mine, one that limits my body’s functionality but is invisible unless one knows to look for it. Not that disfiguring disabilities make someone unattractive; I grew up with a beauty pageant queen who was born with half a left arm and half a hand. But it’s easy to see how these well-intentioned dudes who say this exact same thing are trying to reassure me that I’m, you know, bangable or whatever.

For me, it’s brain-jarring. Level of physical ability and level of physical attractiveness are not in the same registers. A dude thinking I am good-looking — well, that’s nice to hear, especially on a day I’m feeling bloated, or when the humidity levels make my hair do strange and awkward things.

But it’s not a consolation for an inability to hold a coffee cup without discomfort, perform common household repairs, use sharp tools safely, write longhand…

And given that this aspect of my life typically arises during discussions of  writing  with other writers , this response — “You don’t look disabled. You’re pretty” — clearly manifests the male gaze, and derails the nature of the conversation:

I transform from subject, writer , to object, she whom  the writer finds pretty .

And it’s not like this agency-removing comment comes from the mouths of unapologetically sexist douchecannons that I’d be better off not knowing. It comes from colleagues, friends, a boss I had once who added “intelligent” to the mix, since I’d just found him a rather substantial tax credit for hiring the disabled. Several of them are even male feminists and allies. However, I’m pretty sure it’d take an entire Women’s Studies 101 class to give any of these dudes the beginning of a clue about why “You’re pretty” is a head-spinning non sequitur and not, despite its good intentions, an appropriate response to a disability disclosure.

And so my response to these guys is, likewise, always the same. I smile and say:

“Thank you.”

Quick hit: FOSS Outreach Program for Women internships

This guest post is from the Outreach Program for Women (OPW), and is edited from their outreach materials.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is software that gives the user the freedom to use, copy, study, change, and improve it. FOSS contributors believe that this is the best way to develop software because it benefits society, creates a fun collaborative community around a project, and allows anyone to make innovative changes that reach many people.

In an effort to improve the gender diversity in FOSS, a number of organizations are offering Outreach Program for Women internships through a program organized by the GNOME Foundation. These internships are open to women (cis and trans) and genderqueer. The internships have the same structure, the same stipend and similar program dates. The application deadline for the Outreach Program for Women is March 19 and the program dates are May 19 to August 18. Unlike in Google Summer of Code, participants do not need to be students and non-coding projects are available. In addition to coding, projects include such tasks as graphic design, user experience design, documentation, bug triage and community engagement. Internships are typically remote and available worldwide. The stipend is $5500 (USD).

More information on the May to August 2014 round of OPW is available, including a list of participating organizations such as GNOME, Linux kernel, Wikimedia and OpenStack, and application instructions. Remember, applications close March 19, and you need to have made a contribution to a participating project before the application deadline.

In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at sheldon-hess.org/coral and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

nina de jesus is a digital projects librarian on Mississauga land. Interests include digital preservation, information ethics, and long walks on the beach. nina conducts experiments on her life as performance art in an attempt to resist, challenge, and inspire discourse on #libtechwomen. This post originally appeared on nina’s blog.

The basic notion of the filter bubble is that personalization on the internet (with google search, facebook, etc) creates this individualized spaces where we only see things we already agree with, stuff that confirms our points of view, rather than stuff that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.

The first and most glaring problem with this idea is that it wholly makes this into a technological problem when it is a social problem.

On the whole, we actually know this. Idioms like “birds of a feather flock together” suggest that we have a very basic, folk understanding that people tend to stick with other people who are like them. This is something that holds true in pretty much every social arena that you care to pick. From the moment we are born, we already exist in a filter bubble. A bubble that is determined by many factors outside of our control: race, gender, class, geography, etc.

Eli Pariser mentions that he is from Maine. Which is one of the least racially diverse states in the US, with 95% of the people in the 2010 US Census reporting that they are white. The fact that he is able to posit filter bubbles as a predominantly technological problem while growing up in one of the most racially segregated and homogenous states in America is… well. Exactly how my point is proven.

The thing is. Say he successfully solves the technological problem. How will this, in anyway, deal with the fact that his home state’s demographics precludes most of the white inhabitants from ever actually encountering a person of colour in real life? Where, arguably, it is far more critical that we don’t have filter bubbles so that we can experience the humanity of other people, rather than just being exposed to facts/articles/whatever.

This also explains why his solution won’t work. As the recent piece about polarization on Twitter demonstrates… Most people don’t bother seeking out stuff that disagrees with them. This is stark on a site like Twitter, where your timeline is still chronological feed, rather than one decided by relevance. You can follow people you don’t agree with, see what they post, etc. But most of us don’t bother. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon and no amount of tech whatever will change it either.

Second. Only the most privileged of people are truly able to exist within a filter bubble.

The other main part of his notion of the bubble is that it is good for ‘democracy’ and ‘responsible citizenship’ for people to be exposed to contrary view points that make them uncomfortable or challenge them.

The fact that, in his narrative, he has to describe how he used the internet, as a youth, to seek out these contrary viewpoints demonstrates, more than anything, the amount of privilege he has as a (presumably) straight, white, cis d00d.

This is a problem I often find with people who are similarly privileged.

Existing in the world as a marginalized person means that there is never a filter bubble. You don’t get protection like this.

And it doesn’t deal with the biggest culprit of filtering: the public education system. This is something particularly relevant given that it is February, Black History month. The solitary month every year where Black people get to show up in history. And we also know that every single time this month comes around, white people complain and ask why they can’t have all twelve months for white history (re: white mythology).

Then we can talk about the media in Canada. About how most of the books I read in or out of school had white men/boys as protagonists. Or how most TV shows, movies, etc. and so on likewise not only have white men/boys as protagonists, but also very much serve to emphasize this point of view as default, normal, unmarked.

I have literally spent my entire life listening to, learning about, being exposed to ideas, thoughts, worldviews that make me uncomfortable and that I do not agree with.

Instead of having to expend effort to find stuff that disagrees with me, I’m always on an eternal search for information that agrees with me. As soon as I was able to access the internet, visit the library on my own, have any amount of agency and control over the information I consumed, I have been seeking things that let me know that I am a human being. That I (and people like me) actually exist. That we live, breath, have adventures, have a history, that we have fun, that we are sad — just that we are human. That we exist.

Last, what are, precisely, the viewpoints that disagree with me or make me uncomfortable?

On the first pass, I’d say it is probably the points of view of the people who shout things like “ft” “chk” or “t**y” at me when I’m moving around and existing in public space (so happy that these people are excersing their good democratic citizenship by treating me to their challenging viewpoints in public!).

What does this mean for the internet?

Maybe it means reading sensationalized and dehumanizing stories about the death of a trans Latina, Lorena Escalera from notorious liberal/left media news rag, the New York Times.

Maybe it means reading an imperialist post when I’m just trying to learn about Ruby.

Or perhaps seeing something about how because some men are sexual predators, trans women deserve no public protection or acccommodatons.

Does it mean that I should spend my time reading the content at stormwatch or Fox News?

Or maybe it could mean that the internet is one of the very few places I have any real amount of control to filter out these points of view so that I can find people who agree with me. People I can build community with. People I can rant to/with. Find support for things that most of the world refuses to support me for.

Because, at the end of the day, I do, in fact have to live in the real world. The world where (this was me yesterday at Ryerson) I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a gender neutral washroom (and another 10 waiting for it to be unoccupied) because using either gendered washroom makes me uncomfortable and feel very unsafe. The world where if I want to regularly watch TV shows with PoC, I have to watch them in languages I don’t understand. Where I get stared at all the time in public — which does nothing to help my agoraphobia. Basically the world where — almnost my entire life — I’ve felt unsafe in most public spaces.

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

Sexist or Insensitive? Either way – It’s just lazy, and it is keeping women from taking part.

This post is by a guest blogger who wishes to remain anonymous.

I recently received an invitation to attend a guest lecture in my research institute entitled: “Tits struggling to keep up (with climate change)”. Is this funny? Is it a clever pun? Is it sexist? Is it insensitive?

I have seen many cases of scientists trying to make their topics more inviting with a ‘sexy’ title to a paper or talk, and, if followed through properly, it can be a very effective way of engaging an audience who might otherwise be bored by the topic. This example, however, does not qualify in my mind as an effective tool for communication. Instead, I would say that this is exactly the kind of lazy title-tweaking that makes up some of the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the higher education research environment.

I call this lazy for two reasons: first, because it cashes in on the sexist structures which are widespread in our society, and the assumption that simply linking an idea to female sexual organs will be enough to make it interesting to the masses; second, because in order for a ‘sexy’ title to be truly effective, it needs to be placed in the context of a larger theme within the paper or talk, which will continue to highlight the ‘fun’ side of the research while presenting the relevant data. I hardly think that the presentation is peppered with pictures of the breasts of aging women instead of birds.

Recently it was mentioned to me by (male) senior members of staff that the institute is trying to encourage women to enter and remain in research. So, a female colleague and I discussed the sexist/insensitive attitude of the title and decided to comment. The institute’s response? “There is no pun.”

Now, I find this hard to believe, considering the construction of the sentence. If there were no pun, the use of parenthesis would be unnecessary. However, it is just barely possible that the scientist in question has a poor understanding of parenthetical usage. It is also possible that the title was meant as a joke, which we were meant to find mildly amusing, and enticing enough to attend the lecture.

In the end, it doesn’t matter; whether the title was meant as an ‘inoffensive’ joke, or was simply insensitive, these are the small pin-pricks that jab at female scientists on a daily basis. To be reminded that your worth as a human being, in a societal context, is still largely based on your appearance and adherence to strict sexual and social norms, despite your ground-breaking research, and to have this happen while you are at work, and to be expected to laugh at this reminder, rather than mention how unwelcome it is, is not acceptable. It is this laziness and this insensitivity that subtly reminds women of ‘their place’ in even the most prestigious labs and universities.

Guestblog: user avatars and the unmarked state

This is an anonymous guestblog entry by a cultural critic, fullstack developer, and kdrama enthusiast living in North America. Geek Feminism has mildly edited and retitled it.

“what I want (well, one of many things)”

Recently I saw a news bit about an upcoming convention for, I think it was, women game-writers. There was, of course, the inevitable bit about how women don’t need their own gaming convention, and leaving out the menz, and the usual.[…]

I’m all for safe space, but now I want one in my industry. Someplace where I could post this, and know I’m talking to people who won’t act like I’m seeing things, or practically pat me on the head with the patronizing, or tell me it’s not a big deal (or that it doesn’t bother them so naturally it shouldn’t bother me) and I should get over it, or whatever. But since I can’t find that locally, it’s all y’all instead who get to share my pain. I mean, this shit really is insidious.

user-business-boss.png, user-business.png, user-female.png, user.png

user-business-boss.png, user-business.png, user-female.png, user.png

Note the icon titles. GEE, THANKS FOR CLEARING THAT UP FOR ME.