Author Archives: Guest Blogger

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

Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.

First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.

Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:

The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.

Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:

Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?

Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.

However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.

Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.

I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.

I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.

You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.

Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:

These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.

It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.

I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.

I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.

However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!

Three red flags in a stiff breeze

I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community

This is a guest post by Julie. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and cares passionately about diversity. She co-organizes and teaches classes for the Pittsburgh chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that helps teach women how to code. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her Roomba-powered cat army. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear her screaming the catchphrase, “my technology will be intersectional or it will be BULLSHIT!” (inspired by the awesome @redlightvoices)

This post originally appeared on Julie’s Tumblr.

I have been feeling some burnout this year as a programmer. It’s not coming from my job, which I enjoy and is a great balance of challenging and supportive. No, it’s the rest of it. The community. The part that in theory is optional, but in reality helps build the relationships and knowledge that can be critical to one’s development and career.

It’s not just me. I see this in other programmers, both in person and online. There’s a whole group of us just barely making it. Regularly running on fumes, refueling just enough to stave off the burnout for another week. Every now and again, I see one leave the community (and sometimes programming altogether) because they ran out of energy.

This week, I think I finally figured out what it is. I noticed the symptoms – what some might refer to as “red flags.” I think we’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

How did we get here? Why is it this bad? Why are we staying?

There’s always been the microaggressions. I didn’t always notice them, but eventually they accumulated enough that I was buried. I couldn’t ignore them any more. Recently, a new symptom finally hit the point where I couldn’t pretend it isn’t there. Gaslighting (or at least something very akin to it).

Gaslighting is a symptom of emotional abuse, so it was a disturbing discovery. Out of curiosity, I looked up other symptoms of emotional abuse. An upsettingly long list of them were all too easy to identify with. Fuck.

Am I imagining things? Am I being hyperbolic? Have I finally lost it?

Blaming yourself and thinking you’re crazy is one of the symptoms of emotional abuse. The whole point of gaslighting is to convince the victim and those around them that the victim is irrational and making things up. Scary part is that it makes it hard to speak out and tell others what’s going on. You probably won’t believe me.

Do they belittle your accomplishments, your aspirations, your plans or even who you are? Do they have unrealistic expectations?

We’re often accused of whining on the internet, of not doing enough. How dare we ask for diversity unless we’re willing to fix it? Our attemps to do so are never enough.

Many work for free trying to help, missing out on the income they so desperately need to live and thrive, but it’s not enough. Many try to help with the pipeline problem by teaching, but it’s not enough. Others provide support and mentorship, but it’s not enough. Others help with outreach, but it’s not enough. We speak at conferences, but not enough of them, even though the travel and expenses can be quite costly.

On top of this, we have to be great programmers – average just won’t do. We’re expected to do ALL THE THINGS, but even when we try, we are belittled. We can seemingly never do enough to get an equal seat at the table.

A guy suggests doing something many have been doing for years and receives support and accolates.

Do they constantly correct or chastise you because your behavior is “inappropriate?”

If we had a dollar for every time someone told us our behavior was inappropriate, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this. We’d be so rich we’d never have to work again. We could buy our own private island and sail away. Sadly, nobody pays us for this. They just ignore our comments and chastise us for saying things in a way that many others get away with.

“If only you were nicer.” “This isn’t how you talk to your ‘allies’.” “Stop being a bitch.”

Do they continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect your valid requests? Do they try to turn everyone against you?

Just recently, friends and I had someone in a position of power ignore our boundaries. Despite requests to the contrary, this person insisted on attempting to talk about something I had explicitly made off limits. Going so far as telling mutual acquaintances about the situation in an attempt to get their assistance in forcing the discussion. Going so far as telling others the story in an attempt to paint us in a negative light.

It didn’t stop when we asked for it to. My understanding is it only eventually stopped because a male friend asked. Our boundaries don’t count until someone else asserts them for us.

Do you feel helpless, like you’re trapped in the relationship? Do they limit your access to work, money or material resources?

As I said before, the community is theoretically optional. However, the reality is that it can be critical for networking, learning, finding resources, and attaining jobs. Many feel obligated to stay for our careers – terrified of speaking up for fear of retribution. Most feel they don’t have the skills to leave and find a job in a different field. They’re trapped in this emotionally abusive relationship. Leaving would mean giving up their livelihood.

Do they have trouble apologizing? When you complain do they say that “it was just a joke” and that you are too sensitive? Do they treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see? Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not going to elaborate on all these for the sake of brevity and my tired brain.

Are they physically abusive?

Sometimes, yes. The community often protects physical abusers and sexual assaulters in our communities. The information is often hard to find because part of the emotional abuse is feeling unsafe discussing it.

Why am I so tired all the time? How much longer can I do this? What’s the price I’ll have to pay?

I am making the hard decision to remove myself from as much of the situation as I can. I plan to focus my time and efforts largely on my awesome job and my work on Girl Develop It. I’d love to speak a few times next year, but I will be limiting myself to conferences that are committed to encouraging diversity and include policies that create a safe space. I’ll be avoiding ones that continually include toxic people and behaviors.

I’m not advocating this as the right decision for everyone in this situation. It’s just what I feel is needed right now for me. My only recommendations are to find the support you need and make sure to prioritize self care.

I’m sad I have to pull back, to do less, but my health and sanity is more important than networking and my cred with the community. This is the price, and it is too high.

Comments are moderated on this post. If this angers you, you’re part of the problem. If you’re sad about what you read and have the energy, please try to shape the community into a space that looks different. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Note: As I’ve indicated on twitter, this is not a criticism of the conference I was at this weekend – the timing is unfortunate. The organizers hosted a lovely conference, and I was honored to speak at it. They did an awesome job at having a great diverse lineup (my fave is still the 11 year old young woman who loves ruby and dancing) and a code of conduct.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

Trans*H4ck 1.0 – Trans* coders make (their own) history

This is a guest post by Naomi Ceder, who has been active in the Linux and Python communities since… well… for a long time. She has taught programming and Python online, in high schools, at Linux Fests, and in the Chicago Python Workshop, and is the author of The Quick Python Book, 2nd ed. from Manning Publications. She is vastly relieved to have finally transitioned to female after half a lifetime stuck “undercover as a man”. She speaks and blogs both about Python and about her experiences with gender transition in the tech community.

In mid-September of 2013 in a small art gallery in Oakland, something wildly improbable (to say the least) happened. Some 40 people – trans*, gender variant, queer, cisgender – came together for Trans*H4ck, the very first hackathon dedicated to helping the trans* community. Hackathons for various causes are common enough these days, but for many of us Trans*H4ck was truly special – in spite of trans* people being relatively common (if you can use the word “common” for us at all) in the tech community, there had never before been a hackathon devoted to trans* issues. Not one.

[Author's note: trans* is used with the intention of including gender variant and gender queer. I know that's not ideal, but it does make things less cumbersome to type and read.]

A banner with the text "Trans*H4CK Oakland"

TransHack banner

On the evening of September 13, under the leadership and vision of Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler (one of the inaugural Trans 100) that changed. The first evening was spent getting acquainted with the some of the issues and with each other. Janet Mock, Sarah Prager (of Quist App), and Micha Cardenas spoke via Google hangouts and Kortney briefly recapped some of the all too depressing statistics relating to being trans* – high rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, and suicide and low rates of income, access to health care, and basic human rights.

We all introduced ourselves and spoke of our backgrounds, our goals for the hackathon, and, yes, our preferred pronouns. It was clearly the first time some of the cisgender folks had ever been asked that particular question.

By the end of the evening teams had formed and work continued on through the night and into the next day, when things paused at noon for a panel discussing being trans* in tech, featuring Enne Walker, Dana McCallum, Naomi Ceder (me), Jack Aponte, and Nadia Morris and moderated by Fresh! White. The discussion ranged from using open source projects and GitHub to build a professional portfolio to finding a champion at work to how to take care of yourself in the face of the inevitable stress.

After the panel, the hacking resumed and the teams sprinted towards a submission deadline of noon on Sunday, with the demos and judging to follow.

The judging and exhibition took place at the New Parkway, which is a cross between a theater and the coolest family room ever. The judges were Monica “The Transgriot” Roberts, Erin Armstrong, and Benji Delgadillo. Even having seen the projects in development I found the presentations impressive, and ones I’m looking forward to using as they gain traction. The winners were:

In first place, Trans*ResourceUS, an ambitious effort by the largest team. Trans*ResourceUS is a user editable database of services for trans* people – giving location aware listings for health care, mental health, social, restrooms, employment and housing resources. Right now the submitter is the only one allowed to enter ratings on things like accessibility and trans friendliness, but that is slated to change. One very cool thing about this service is that it is also accessible via SMS on a flip phone, so even users with limited resources can take advantage.

The second place winner was Dottify.me, a social micro survey site. Here the idea is that to collect any reliable information on trans* people it needs to be both very easy to interact with and preserve anonymity as much as possible. Dottify.me does this by collecting only a zip code for now and the displaying that zip code as a pin placed at a random spot in the zip code on a map. Future enhancements are planned.

Third place went to the Trans Health Access Wiki, a wiki to collect information on how to take the fullest advantage of the health coverages available and mandated for trans* people, state by state. While it is starting with California, Oregon and Vermont, the creator (a one-woman team at the hackathon) is already working on expanding it.

A couple of the other very cool projects created at Trans*H4ck were Know Your Transgender Rights an interactive map of trans* rights in all 50 states and ClothesR4ck (still in development) a clothing exchange aimed at helping people get quality used clothing to trans* people going through transition who might not be able to afford it.

What Trans*H4ck means to us

The apps and content marshaled during Trans*h4ck were pretty amazing for such a small group of people in just a little more than 36 hours. That all of the efforts were so immediately useful speaks both to the developers’ vision and skills as well as to the lack of digital resources for the the trans* community. Those few teams in those few hours have probably advanced trans* friendly resources by years.

But the outstanding thing about Trans*H4ck to those of us who were there was not the applications, as useful as they are, so much as the community spirit of the weekend. Even though we were from all across the gender spectrum, of different ages and backgrounds, and even (gasp!) preferred different programming languages, there was a true sense of cooperation instead of competition, and an atmosphere of acceptance, support, and affirmation.

For many of us it was a rare respite from feeling different and alone and a special chance to stand together as a community and take action to help our own. For all of us it was a precious moment of unity and, corny as it may sound, joy.

So was Trans*H4ck a success? As one hacker put it, “we did, we can, and we will make history.” Indeed.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

This is what a community of trans* hackers looks like.

For more information on Trans*H4ck, see the Trans*H4ck home page or look on Twitter or Facebook for the #transh4ck hashtag or contact the author.

To my daughter’s high school programming teacher

This is a guest post / cross-post from Rikki Endsley who tweets as @rikkiends and is community manager for USENIX in addition to being a tech writer. See also the original post for other comments and the follow-up: What could possibly go wrong?

Trigger Warning: mentions of threats violence and rape

Dear sir,

I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic? Seriously??) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. And, actually, my daughter had no specific complaints about you as a teacher. I, on the other hand, have plenty of feedback for you.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know … kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter’s junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I’d be thrilled, but she did it anyway.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assigments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

My September 8, 2010 post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping up on the post. Sure, the sandwich comments were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: “The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place.” Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started…

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends — female developers — and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I’d encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she’d get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I’ve ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I’m no teacher, so forgive me if you think I’m out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I’ve spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn’t mean to create a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit students to take your class. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn’t have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I’m adding this to my “parenting win” page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on? Have you asked current students to spread the word and tell their friends to try your class?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it’s not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don’t be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I’m still scratching my head on this one. The reason I mention your choice is that it doesn’t help you make a good first impression on new programmers. I have no idea what my teen learned in your class because she wasn’t excited about it. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man — how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don’t know what you were doing during class, but you weren’t paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don’t count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it’s ugly. Best case, she’ll get shunned by classmates or colleagues. And hopefully she won’t read any online comments…ever. But it can get much worse, with the vulgar emails and phone calls, and home addresses posted online, and threats of violence. Sadly, this isn’t rare; this happens all the time, from high school on up into our careers. Don’t believe me? That’s because you aren’t paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter’s counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter’s unpleasant experience in your brogramming class. Did you expect me to call you? Believe me, I wanted to, but I also respected my daughter’s request to let her handle the situation. And see number 5. Had I told you how class was going for my daughter, her situation would not have improved, and might have gotten even worse.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don’t have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I’m a single mother working in tech publishing — believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.

I always told my daughter that high school isn’t real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, my daughter learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

EDIT: Rikki has posted this update:
As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn’t see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. “Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks,” she said. “He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn’t tell you. And I gave up after that,” she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher’s attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he’d think about it, and that’s when he reported the situation to the principal. “And a couple days later I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears.” Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. “Well, I’m sorry that crap happened … to both of us,” she said. I am, too.

Chelsea Manning and the Media

This is a guest post from Megan, who regularly tweets as @megahbite and blogs at A Megahbite of Feminism

When Chelsea Manning came out to the world as a woman on the 21st of August, it was of little surprise to those who have closely followed her case. She expressed her struggle with her gender identity to Adrian Lamo in the leaked chat logs from 2010, had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder by an army psychologist and had created several social media profiles under the name “Breanna” before her arrest.

Many in the online trans community had taken to using gender neutral (singular “they”) or feminine pronouns to refer to her, but there was little coverage outside of a few small blog posts by supporters. Even the majority of LGBT publications ignored the signs and referred to her as a cis gay man.

What may have come as a surprise to her supporters, however, was the blatant disregard the majority of media publications had for her clearly expressed wishes. Today News, the publication that originally broke the news, led with a story repeatedly calling Chelsea “him” and “Bradley”. Few news organisations showed any respect to begin with, The Guardian being a notable exception and many have stuck to their guns, making statements about “legal names” and her not having started transition yet.

This is blatant cissexism (the belief that the gender identity of trans people is inferior to cis people’s unquestioned gender identity); there is not any one point at which a trans woman “becomes” a woman, beyond her declaration as such. It’s a confusing concept for the majority of people who like black and white boundaries, but one that the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health all agree with. Gender identity is an intrinsic part of most people’s psyches, though like many things about their bodies, people don’t notice it unless something is wrong. It’s as immutable as sexuality (which, as most accept, can be fluid but not something changeable by external influence).

Unfortunately for the trans community, this is nothing new; trans victims of crime (mainly trans women of colour) are often misgendered and misnamed in media reports, to the extent that GLAAD has a specific publication dedicated to respectful reporting on them. This usually goes ignored.

Organisations like Wikipedia have unfortunately used Chelsea’s resigned admittance about the state of media reporting on trans people to justify misnaming her. The Wikipedia situation is horrific, with the (as far as is known) entirely cis administrators putting the convenience of the masses ahead of the identity of a trans person. Given the ability for redirects from one article title to another, even the excuse around “Bradley” being the more well-known name seems tenuous. People searching for “Bradley Manning” were originally being redirected to “Chelsea Manning” with an explanation of her identity in the article. There seems little potential for confusion there. Further details and analysis on the admins’ decision can be found here.

What Chelsea Manning’s case has brought to the forefront is the utter lack of respect for trans identities in the media and indeed in wider society. Her high profile has highlighted things that have tragically gone ignored when they mainly affected people of colour. Things like reporting, access to medical treatment in prison, the high incarceration rate and misguided policies around which gender prison trans people are put in. If we want this to change, we need more voice in support of not only Chelsea but incarcerated trans women of colour like [CeCe McDonald](http://supportcece.wordpress.com/) and others around the world.

Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

This is a guest post by Abigail Brady. It originally appeared on August 22, 2013 on her blog. Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003. This piece is under CC-BY-ND.

Private Manning’s announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who’d read the chat logs. Admittedly, the name she’s picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she’d previously identified as Breanna. Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough. Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides. Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans. But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn’t socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns). But, also, it was not clear that’d she’d be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited. Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn’t mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn’t move any articles. Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We’d had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowskis – where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not – although what’s worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop). Eventually Lana did let it be known – the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB. Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by “transition”, anyway? Well, as I use it here, that’s the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns. People who aren’t trans (“cis people”, if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that “she” is really “he” until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people’s genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery. You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning’s statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don’t even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that’s another issue). I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it. But to what exactly? There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn’t acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I’ll discount that one).

The first is that you should use “old” pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards. The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography. The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right. How would we phrase “[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage”? One of these things is in the present; the other in the past. We can’t be switching pronouns within a sentence, that’s what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

“Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example “man/woman”, “waiter/waitress”, “chairman/chairwoman”), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person’s latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person’s life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time).” (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that. So, our manual of style backs me, I’ve got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page. I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been. There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I’ve been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!) A lot of this has been supportive of my decision. But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I’m not even allowed to block them because technically they haven’t done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.) Instead, we’re supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like “ooh, but it’s just a matter of the facts” like we hadn’t considered facts before or something. I kept it up for a while, but it’s draining. Instead, I’ll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day. It’s not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning’s genitals are none of your business. Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world. I have been watching twitter. Twitter thinks what we did was awesome. I’ve been watching “Manning” and “Wikipedia” all afternoon and it’s been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea’s chromosomes? Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something? The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this. No, you can’t point out that it only applies in cases where there is a “question” and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at “Bradley” and the pronouns as “he”. I don’t expect to persuade you that you’re wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy? What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It’s easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia’s openness has advantages as well. It’s precisely because anyone can edit that I’m able to do so, and that the article was moved at all. Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back. Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount. And ultimately, I probably don’t need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we’ve thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it’s not going anywhere.

Editor’s note: Manning’s announcement that she is a woman was quoted by The Nation, among other sources. The chat logs that Abigail refers to were published by Wired. Other background reading includes Manning’s Wikipedia article and talk page (content warning for cissexism, misgendering, and transphobia, particularly on the talk page). Abigail mentioned Lana Wachowski‘s and Laura Jane Grace‘s Wikipedia articles as well. Since the writing of this post, the Wikipedia discussion has taken a more cissexist turn.

Tech confidence vs. tech competence

This is a guest post from Alex, who is a volcanologist in their spare time. When not messing about with rocks in their underground lairlab, they can often be found shouting about trans (especially genderqueer) rights, earlier diagnosis of endometriosis, and books with dragons in.

Content notes: sexism, abuse

My dad was among the first cohorts to graduate in Computer Science at a prestigious university back when the course was introduced. Every single person I’ve been involved with long-term – and some of my major interests along the way – has been a computer scientist. Over the course of my life, I’ve frequently chosen to hang out with programmers; in my early-to-mid teens, I spent a slightly worrying amount of time on Netnews (yes, as distinct from Usenet). I grew up in the Silicon Fen. I half-joke that I was brought up by the Internet; I’ve just graduated with an MSci in physical sciences from a similarly prestigious institution.

And it wasn’t until 2012 that I first wrote code.[1]

Hello, everybody. My name’s kaberett, and I’m a Dreamwidth volunteer.

Code. It’s used in my field: it’s a vital component of modelling. I’ve spent my life surrounded by coders and design architects, by people whose reaction to “nothing exists that does what I want” is “okay, I’ll build one, then”; whose reaction to “I’m bored” is “what can I make?” And still: it was 2012 before I wrote any code.

Sadly, I think there’s a pretty obvious first-order explanation for this: I was assigned female at birth, and socialised accordingly. I spent my childhood being torn down by my computer-programmer father for “not having learned [that] yet,” or for answering questions “too slowly” at dinner, or being told I’d “never get a job if…” or being yelled at about how valuable his time-that-I-was-wasting was.

Does this mean I think all programmers are like him? No. Did it mean I was too scared to use the (theoretically) best resource available for me to learn from? Yep! And it landed me with a whole bunch of other issues. Asking for help with maths was right out – and so, really, was asking for help with anything. I’d acquired the conviction that I’d be belittled and torn to shreds, and that any information I did get would have more to do with building up my “instructor”‘s ego than my own knowledge base.

That experience is what I’m bringing to the table here. That, and a whole lot of reading, about the issues with diversity in FLOSS culture – and some more first-hand experience, this time with a place that is, by all accounts, doing it right.

And here’s what I suggest: in terms of getting high-quality code written by a diverse community, line-for-line my gut says that tech confidence is much more important than (perceived) tech competence.

Let’s pause a moment, while I define my terms. I use (perceived) tech competence to mean, broadly, the (perceived) ability to identify and fix a problem (without use of external resources). I use tech confidence to signify the belief that this is something that one can do – or learn to do, if one doesn’t know how to yet: it’s about trusting yourself to be able to figure it out, and trusting your community to help you rather than deride you if you ask questions.[2]

And that, right there, is where we stumble straight back into the issue of the meritocracy: the idea that a competitive environment – in terms of number of lines of code written, or features rolled out, or bugs squashed – is more important than one that values every contribution and every contributor.

Meritocracies are inherently broken, and competitiveness – while sometimes healthy – also erects an enormous barrier to beginning volunteers and coders. An ivory-towered culture of enthroned experts – one that enforces the idea that you must have a high level of technical knowledge to be worth talking or listening to – makes many people afraid to ask questions. This in turn makes learning slower and knowledge transmission harder, and leaves the group more likely to land in a situation where the only person who understands how to do what Sam does is, well, Sam. And that’s a problem – when Sam becomes ill, or they take a holiday, or they decide they don’t want to be involved any more, or sometimes they die. This is something that’s seen over and over again in, for example, the field of graptolite studies.


Let’s take a diversion, actually. Graptolites are an enormously important extinct species, most a couple of inches long at the outside, and they more-or-less resemble saws. Their diversity and steady morphological evolution – and the fact that they were found in all oceans on the planet – makes them superb for establishing relative ages of sedimentary rocks in the geological record. Problem is, there’s hundreds of species of the little sods, differing in such minutiae as how many thecae (saw teeth) they have per centimetre, the percentage overlap between thecae, the extent of curvature… which is all fascinating, except for the fact that the most recent illustrated catalogue of known species? Was published, as a serial, in 1901. (Want to know about some awesome scientists, incidentally? Look up Gertrude Lillian Elles and Ethel Mary Reader, née Wood.)

Do you know how many species have been reclassified since 1901?

Answer: a lot.

And so your best bet for identifying a particular graptolite is, if you’ve got one, to hunt down your local expert and get /them/ to do it for you.

And then, in the way of all flesh, they die – and you find yourself waiting for the next generation of experts to develop their eyes, because none of them write any of this down.


One of the things I’m spending a lot of my volunteer time on at the moment is encouraging Dreamwidth’s new volunteers (affectionately referred to as “babydevs”). This means, in practice, that I’m spending a lot of time writing documentation: how to do things that Everyone Knows, so that there isn’t the entry barrier of perceived “wasting senior devs’ time with trivialities”; so that we get consistency of explanation; so that we are more welcoming.


As I’ve said, pretty much my entire experience of volunteer work in the FLOSS world is at Dreamwidth, where I’ve been encouraged, throughout, to get started, to ask questions, and to seek help. Dreamwidth values my broader contributions to the project just as much as it values any code: I’m valued as much for tagging our incoming suggestions for features, adding to our volunteer wiki, putting together lists of easy-to-tackle bugs (“babydev bait”), and for end-user support, as I am for what coding I do. And that’s important: I got embedded in the volunteer culture well before I started trying to learn new skills, and the encouragement and support I got for that made me believe that I’d have the same level of encouragement and support if I attempted to branch out. It’s not just me this helps, or people who are new to coding: we also make space for people who already can code, but haven’t yet found time to contribute to any project due to other obligations. We’re always working on making public records of this: for example, our wiki entry on Things Real Dreamwidth Programmers Do is a relatively recent invention.

And all of this is crucial, not just to my own personal growth (which – obviously – I’m very grateful for!), but to Dreamwidth’s success as a FLOSS project. It is not focussing, first and foremost, on tech competence: instead, we work towards fostering tech confidence, through creating a culture where babydevs know that senior devs have their backs; a culture where people feel able to ask questions of the broader community, in public as well as in private; a culture where people learn how to test and debug and Not Give Up; a culture where our co-founders own their mistakes, and do so publicly, so that nobody has to feel alone. When people get discouraged, we give them pep talks. We remind people that it’s okay to learn visibly, instead of having to pretend to be entirely competent all of the time. Everyone can learn from the mistake that anyone makes – and mistakes are caught soon after they happen, so consequences can be minimised.

This is in stark contrast to communities where tech competence is valued above all else: where people feel they have to hide their mistakes. In such settings we routinely observe low volunteering rates from people in marginalised groups, with low retention from beginning volunteers, because people are too scared to ask for help or too scared to admit that they don’t know how things work. This isn’t unique to FLOSS cultures, of course – I’ve just finished a degree at a university regularly ranked in the top 5 globally, and I am appalled by the way in which this institution pushes people towards poorer understanding through militating against asking “basic” questions. It’s a habit that leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings lead to bugs, and it’s generally an all-round disaster, in which nobody wins.

So: please, if you want to promote diversity in your volunteer base, consider fostering an atmosphere conducive to tech confidence. It makes spaces more pleasant to occupy, and it produces real tech competence. Looking at things this way round? Well, I can’t see any losers.

[1] That’s not quite true – when I was 12 I spent a fair bit of time messing around with basic HTML and CSS to individualise Neopets profiles. But: it wasn’t standards-compliant; I wasn’t learning the languages as a whole, or even really their grammar; and it was a very structured sandboxed environment, where even very basic efforts were encouraged.

[2] Compare and contrast with the Perl virtues of laziness, impatience and hubris – except that “confidence” has the negative connotations of “arrogance”, because we are, in many cases, taught that it is bad and wrong to be able to accurately assess our capabilities and state them clearly – and it is especially wrong to reassess our abilities in the light of new information.

The protections of statehood and hacker armies

This is a guest post by Sky Croeser. It originally appeared on her blog.

Lately, I’ve seen quite a few claims that hackers are persecuted minority floating through my streams. It’s not hard to believe, when we’ve seen the effects that the aggressive prosecution of Aaron Swartz had, that one of the hackers who helped to bring attention to the Steubenville rape case could end up with more jail time than the rapists, Barrett Brown remains in prison, Matthew Keys was threatened with 25 years in prison for aiding hackers, and more. Weev, one of the hackers currently imprisoned, has written a short essay comparing hackers to other persecuted minorities, including Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

In response to this persecution, weev writes:

Hackers need statehood. For self-preservation against ethnocidal states, for control of our destinies and for the liberties of billions. No nation now protects Internet speech, privacy, and commerce rights. If but a single well-armed nation did, those rights would be a VPN or SSH session away for the whole planet. General computation and the free Internet are as important advents in human rights as the abolition of slavery. Let our electronic freedoms not sway in the shifting whims of dying governments.

I’ve also seen this argument bouncing around Twitter a bit, the idea that hackers need statehood.

Obviously, what is being talked about here is not citizenship alone: most hackers already have that, unless they are stateless for other reasons. This also seems to move beyond a call for existing states to provide better protections for hackers (or cease their attacks) – this is not an appeal to Iceland or one of the other states which are currently being seen as potential havens for leakers, hackers, torrenters, etc. It’s a call for hackers to get a state of their own, and one with a powerful army.

I want to start by discussing this within the standard narrative around the liberal democratic state, which is based on the assumption that states are the legitimate protectors and upholders of human rights. What would it mean to have a state that was somehow ‘for hackers’ (rather than just be a state that protected human rights generally, including those of hackers)? The liberal democratic state, as an ideal (leaving alone the reality for now), doesn’t allow a whole society to be set up almost entirely to support one class of people. Who will be part of the army that protects hackers’ rights? Who will produce food? And more importantly, how will the political system retain protection hackers’ rights while simultaneously being based on democratic participation by all citizens? Given geek communities’ frequently-poor record on misogyny and racism* (including weev’s harassment of Kathy Sierra, who nevertheless supports attempts to free him), would a ‘hacker state’ really be a beacon of freedom and liberty for all? Israel, unfortunately, gives us a very good idea what a state might look like if it was set up primarily to protect a persecuted group, and how well the rights of those not in that group might be protected.

Even without the problems associated with trying to jam ‘statehood for hackers’ into the model of the ideal liberal democratic state, it’s worth questioning the assumption that the best way to build safe, just, communities is through the state. States are, unfortunately, frequently responsible for precisely the persecution we’re seeing today – as well as for attacks on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, massive rates of incarceration for marginalised communities (including people of colour in the US and Aboriginal people in Australia), and other such issues. In seeking an alternative, community-based attempts to build secure systems may be more useful than calling for a ‘hacker state’ (for more on this, read my post on Anarchism Today, and particularly the references to Rossdale’s work).

Calls for hackers to gain a statehood of their own is only one step up from the libertarian streak which runs through many tech communities. They fail to connect the struggles of hackers with those of other communities, fail to understand that the persecution hackers face is only a microcosm of broader problems, that other communities have suffered this and more for generations. There are, thankfully, people within geek communities who connect their struggles with those of others, who see themselves as embedded within broader systems. A better world for hackers can only come as part of a better world for others, including more marginalised groups.

___________

* I also remember reading other stories about more overt racism in tech communities (not necessarily hacker communities), but I’m having trouble finding them at the moment. Jamelle Boui’s article, linked above, is an excellent summary of some of the more subtle structures that exclude people of colour from tech (and other) communities. If you have recommendations for people writing from an excellent, informed, perspective on race and tech communities, please feel free to share in the links. I also don’t have a very good idea how well geeky communities do on other issues, like ableism and homophobia, so feel free to share links (including positive stories of awesomeness).

Origin Stories

Here, at yatima’s request, is Geek Feminism Wiki’s own Bess Sadler‘s response to our current Book Club read, Coding Freedom. Normal Book Club posts will resume shortly!

The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from are the mechanism by which we continuously re-create our current understanding of reality. This is what makes origin stories so powerful: the shaping of the first part of the story determines the possibilities of the next chapter. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in her book “Writing a Woman’s Life,” argues eloquently and convincingly that the narratives of biographies and autobiographies, especially the stories we tell about women’s lives, have suppressed the truth in order to make the “written life” conform to society’s expectations of what life should be. “Writing a Woman’s Life” has been deeply influential on me in understanding my own life’s path, on a par with Virginia Woolf’s famous exploration of an imaginary sister for William Shakespeare in “A Room of One’s Own.” Judith Shakespeare’s reality is far removed from her brother’s, for ‘while William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending.’

I am currently reading “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.” It is a much needed ethnography of the F/OSS movement, and I’ve already ordered a stack of copies to give as gifts, but the lack of discussion about women in F/OSS is already bothering me. The first chapter of the book is devoted to “The Life of a Free Software Hacker,” and it attempts (although the author is careful to add a disclaimer about the inherent impossibility of writing about a “typical” life) to describe the sequence of life events that lead many people to the F/OSS movement. The author does recognize the gender skew in her sample population; Eschewing more gender-inclusive pronouns, Coleman instead qualifies her interviews with the statement “I use ‘he’ because most hackers are male.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but skimming ahead and checking the index, this seems to be the end of any discussion of women within the free software community. In the spirit of Carolyn Heilbrun and Virginia Woolf, then, here is my auto-ethnography of how I became involved in F/OSS. I think it offers some interesting contrasts to the narrative offered in “Coding Freedom.”

“He taught himself how to program [at a young age] in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (‘look, look our little Fred is sooo smart’)”

She was exposed to BASIC and LOGO via experimental programs at her elementary school. She loved it and did well at the exercises in class. However, she did not have a computer to play with at home, nor anyone outside the classroom with whom to discuss what she had learned. Some of the boys in the class were constantly pushing the envelope (having skipped ahead by practicing at home) and her teachers tended to spend more time with them. She concluded, based on the evidence available to her, that she just wasn’t as good at this as they were.

“Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world”

Not having a computer until she was almost in college, she was excluded from the BBS culture she heard the boys in class discussing. Although the boys in her honors classes were in some ways her friends and allies, in other ways being a socially awkward female made her feel like the only person who was more stigmatized than the socially awkward males surrounding her. She read science fiction avidly, and had a few male friends who shared this passion, but she was not permitted to attend their after school activities. Reasons for this included parental (“good girls don’t go over to boy’s houses”) and peer (“adding girls would ruin our D&D group”). She did not have much in common with other girls her age and was not interested in their activities. She spent most of her time in libraries and bookstores.

“Many hackers did not awaken to a consciousness of their ‘hacker nature’ in a moment of joyful epiphany but instead acquired it imperceptibly. In some cases, certain books, texts, movies and place of interaction sparked this association.”

Every day after school she would join her younger sister in watching a worn out VCR cassette of “Sneakers.” She loved the power the characters in the movie wielded, and how idealistic they were. She loved that there was a woman in the movie who was as smart as all the men and sometimes had to explain math to them. She would reflect on their shared obsession with this movie many years later when her sister became a well respected security expert for the telecommunications industry.

When exposed to the free software movement, it “seemed to describe his personal experiences with technology in a sophisticated yet accessible language”

When exposed to the free software movement as a teenager, via conversations at a radical bookstore about how we might imagine a more just society, it was couched in language like “liberating the means of production.” F/OSS as a system of production seemed to challenge in an immediate and concrete way the assumption that we must be alienated from our own labor. “The external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.” (Marx and Engels as quoted in “Coding Freedom”, p. 15)

“As he grew older and more financially independent (thanks to lucrative information technology jobs as a programmer or system administrator that gave him the financial freedom, the ‘free time’, to code for volunteer projects) [...] he consistently interacted with other geeks at work”

In high school and college, financial independence was on her mind. She had been raised around culturally conservative and religious women who were financially dependent on men. She knew that the cruel things she heard about women like her, her weight, her lack of grace, her inability to engage with the sphere of traditional womanhood, were said out of love and concern, because snaring and keeping a husband was the only way many people around her could imagine that a woman could live comfortably. She had never been interested in the trappings of femininity, nor particularly eager to join a traditional marriage. She had seen many women forced to choose between staying with an abusive man or living in poverty, and she was determined never to have to make such a choice. She really liked her part-time job in the bookstore, and thought that if she learned how to run the computer inventory system the bookstore might give her a full-time job and she’d be able to support herself, so she sat down and taught herself database administration from a book during her night shifts.

“The conference is culturally significant because it allows hackers to collectively enact, make visible, and subsequently celebrate many elements of their quotidian technological lifeworld” (p. 28) and “most everyone arrives on an equal footing, ready to contribute their part” (p. 48)

During college she entered the phase during which a larval hacker typically “drink[s] himself silly with information” (p. 26), absorbing as much knowledge and skills as she could. Aided in this by women-run technology groups like “Grrls with Modems,” she embraced geek culture whole-heartedly. She loved the spirit of F/OSS conferences, and if the language was sometimes exclusionary, or if some of the men there seemed to be threatened by her presence, she tried not to let it distract her from what was great there. She encountered a new problem, though: She was no longer sexually invisible. She grew very tired of being the only woman at many of the events she attended, and she grew VERY tired of being seen more as a sexual prospect than as a peer. A few times men got angry and even threatening with her for rejecting their advances, and she did not react to this well. It seemed to actually make her sick, although she could not understand why or how. She had not yet heard the phrase “post traumatic stress disorder.” She knew she had been raped at age 12 by a camp counsellor and at age 17 by one of her high school teachers, but she did not yet have the ability to call this rape, except in her innermost secret thoughts, and she was sure it had not really affected her. She created a public persona guaranteed to avoid the issue, adopting masculine clothing, refusing to shave her legs, and adorning herself with the regalia of the gay rights movement. Now when she faced harassment it was more often couched in the language of homophobia, which at least gave her a community to call on for support.

“Developers who were self-employed or working in a small tech company that had few or no managers powered everything on free software, crediting the success of the company to solid technology as well as the money saved on software”

She has had a relatively successful upward career trajectory managing technology for bookstores, libraries, and human rights agencies, none of whom had much money but all of whom embraced the “the moral message of software freedom” (p. 38).  She became a DBA, then a unix sys admin, then a software developer. She contributed to, and later helped to start, open source software projects that focused on the problems confronting cultural institutions. She also decided that if F/OSS was going to be truly revolutionary it was going to need to be more inclusive, and she started trying to find ways to make it a more welcoming place for women and gender minorities.

Summer Blockbuster Feminism: Iron Man 3 vs. Star Trek Into Darkness

This is a guest post by Rebecca Deatsman. Rebecca is a naturalist and environmental educator by day, but in her free time she’s also a lifelong sci-fi fan who spends large chunks of time over-analyzing fictional characters with her friends. She blogs about nature and wildlife at Rebecca in the Woods and can be found on Twitter as @rdeatsman.

Warning: Spoilers for both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.

You can draw a straight line from me as a little kid cheering on Princess Leia when she picked up a blaster and took charge of her own rescue to me as an adult circling the May release dates of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness on my calendar. I’ve always been a geek, and my view of geekdom has always been colored by my gender. When both of my current favorite fandoms (Star Trek I’ve loved in all its incarnations for as long as I can remember, Marvel I really discovered with the release of the original Iron Man film) scheduled new movies to come out within two weeks of each other, I was excited, but I also braced myself for the possibility of once again seeing female characters get the short end of the character development stick. Over the years as I’ve become more and more interested in feminism and privilege, I’ve started turning an increasingly critical eye on how these franchises portray non-male and non-white characters, and I’ve had to come to terms with how to love something while acknowledging its flaws. A previous post here on Geek Feminism discussed a major problem with race and Into Darkness’s villain, but today I want to focus on the ladies.

Although Star Trek has varied a lot over its long history, passing through the hands of many writers, producers, and directors, overall it has always been about a vision of humanity’s future in which discrimination is a thing of the past and all people are equal and empowered. On the other hand, comic books, the source material for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are known for depicting scantily-clad women in anatomically unlikely poses. If you tried to guess based on this history which franchise’s new release this spring managed to pass the Bechdel test and portray its female characters as competent human beings, though, you would guess wrong. Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness each contain one established female character (Pepper Potts and Uhura) and one new one* (Maya Hansen and Carol Marcus), but their approach to these characters is vastly different.

The trailers for both movies included a shot of a woman in her underwear (black, of course). However, when you see these moments in context, they feel completely different. Pepper Potts has apparently been stripped to her underwear during the Extremis experimentation her captors subjected her to, but the shot that appears in the trailer is from the moment when Pepper—Pepper, not Tony Stark!—delivers the final killing blow to the movie’s villain, turning the damage that Killian and AIM were trying to inflict on her into a strength. Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus, on the other hand, strips for no apparent reason other than to pander to the fanboys in the audience. Why does she randomly change clothes in a shuttle in the middle of a scene? While Kirk, whom she barely knows, is standing right there? It’s gratuitous and, frankly, annoying. For a woman who’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist, Carol seems to spend most of her time running, screaming, and undressing.

How these women approach their relationships, which still often define female characters, also highlights the difference between the two films. Uhura chooses the most inappropriate, unprofessional moment possible, the middle of a dangerous mission to the Klingon homeworld, to start a conversation with Spock about their relationship, and persists even after her commanding officer gently points out that this isn’t a good time. Yes, reboot Uhura gets more lines, more plot, than the Uhura of the original series did, but her storyline revolves almost exclusively around her romantic relationship with a fellow officer.

What about Iron Man 3, then? If any two women have ever seemed set up to have a catty conversation about a guy, it’s Pepper and Maya—Pepper, the current serious girlfriend, and Maya, the old one-night stand. Instead, the movie neatly subverts your expectations by having them not go there at all; as Laura Hudson put it in her piece for Wired (link below), “There’s a bit of a record scratch where you expect the stereotypical claws to come out—and they don’t.” Pepper is secure in her relationship and is already fully aware of Tony’s history with women before they got together, so she’s not thrown at all by Maya. Instead, the two immediately move on to more important business, specifically the current crisis involving Killian, AIM, and the Mandarin, and the film passes the Bechdel test with flair. (If you’re wondering, Into Darkness does not pass, with Uhura and Carol not exchanging so much as a single line of dialogue about anything, much less something other than a man.)

I walked out of Iron Man 3 feeling pleasantly surprised about its strong women, but a genre move that depicts women as professional, capable adults should not be a surprise. It should be the norm. This sort of thing matters, because there is another generation of little girls discovering sci-fi and superheroes just like I did, and they need moments of their own like the one where Princess Leia picks up a blaster and reveals herself to be a total badass. Fictional those these worlds are, their stories teach us that it’s important to live by our principles even when it’s hard, that teamwork and courage and creativity can save the day, and that even misfits can be heroes. Women and girls need these stories just as much as anyone else. And we need to see ourselves in them.

More on the women of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness:

*Before someone corrects me in the comments, I know neither of these characters is technically “new”; Maya Hansen appeared in the Extremis storyline of the Iron Man comic books, and Carol Marcus was a character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, in both cases, this was their first introduction in this particular movie universe.