Author Archives: skud

Know a woman of vision? Nominate her!

The Anita Borg institute is one of my favourite organisations out there for women in the tech field. Among their many activities, they have an annual award for Women of Vision, who have made a significant contribution to technology as innovators, leaders, or in creating social impact.

Last year’s award winners were Yuqing Gao, Senior Manager, IBM Research, IBM, for Innovation; Jan Cuny, Program Director, National Science Foundation, for Social Impact; and Mitchell Baker, Chairperson, Mozilla, for Leadership.

Nominations for the 2010 award have been extended til December 18th. If you know a woman who’s made a significant contribution to technology this year, visit the Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision website and nominate her!

ObTwilight

Mary just excluded a Twilight critique from a recent linkspam because, quote, “if we start linking to that we’ll never stop”. She has a point. And yet, there is a lot of interesting geeky feminist critique of Twilight out there. Many of you have probably already seen this mashup of Twilight with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example:

So, while we don’t much relish the idea of becoming the All Twilight All The Time channel, we figured it was worth offering an opportunity for geek feminist discussion of Twilight, or for links to such discussion elsewhere. This is that thread. Enjoy!

Questioning the merit of meritocracy.

In certain communities (I’m looking at you, open source), it’s common to describe the way the community functions as a “meritocracy”. The idea is that the community is led by those who demonstrate ability and skill, and in software projects, that usually means the people who write the code. Meritocracy is often espoused as being fair, in that anyone is theoretically able to rise to the top: all they have to do is demonstrate their ability.

For instance, in Jono Bacon’s recent book The Art of Community, he says:

The magic of meritocracies is that the playing field is level for everyone. Those who work hard and show a recurring commitment to the community are rewarded. Those who think that driving a car with a blue neon light underneath it will impress us are going to be sadly disappointed.

Few would argue that a meritocracy is a bad thing. Its fundamental basis is in rewarding hard work. This concept largely maps to the general life lessons that we are all raised with: work hard and you reap the rewards of your efforts.

I don’t mean to pick on Jono here, because his is only one description of meritocracy that I’ve seen. Others include PHP, Apache, and Eclipse.

But something about Jono’s description of meritocracy really jumped out for me: “the life lessons that we are all raised with.” I was lucky — let’s call it what it is and say privileged — because I did receive that message, largely through my schooling at a private, girls-only school. But it came long with other messages, from my family and society at large, like “people won’t like it if you’re too clever” and “ambition is so unattractive” and “don’t put yourself forward, dear.”

Noirin Shirley describes the situation in a blog post from 2006, FLOSSPOLS, Sexism, and Why Meritocracy Really Isn’t:

On the surface, [meritocracy is] a completely fair, non-sexist, open concept. Anyone can get in, anyone can progress, as long as they’re good enough.

That’s very, very rarely true. Generally, at best, a meritocracy turns very quickly into a merit-and-confidence/pushiness-ocracy. Good work doesn’t win you influence — good work that’s pushed in others’ faces, or at the very least, good work of which others are regularly reminded — wins you influence. And that’s where women fall down.

In short: meritocracy benefits not only those with skill and ability, but with the self-confidence to demonstrate their skill publicly and demand recognition for it. And self-confidence is highly gendered.

Noirin also writes about unconscious bias in judging merit:

The final problem with meritocracy is that even after all the noises of “it’s all about the quality of contributionsâ€, women very often aren’t judged on the same basis as men. This is one of the few areas that FLOSSPOLS have looked at where both men and women perceive there to be a problem. People listen or pay attention to women, or don’t, based on the fact that they’re female — not based on the merit or otherwise of their contributions.

This reminds me of the practice of blind auditions, where it was found that women have greater success rates in auditioning for orchestral roles when they are placed behind a screen that prevents the listener from perceiving the musician’s gender. We know that unconscious sexism plays a part in how merit is judged in other “meritocracies”; it would be naive to think that the situation is different in software development.

So when I hear someone say that their project is a meritocracy (especially if they say it as if it’s necessarily a good thing), I tend to assume that they are 1) naive, and 2) probably have a bunch of unexamined, unconscious sexism going on.

So I guess this is the part where I offer suggestions for improvement.

First up, I’d like to see projects expand the definition of merit. A pure “meritocracy” based on coding skill will lead to crappy documentation, ugly UIs, and poor community dynamics. Watch How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People and consider whether a poisonous person who writes good code has merit or not. Then consider any steps to seniority or leadership that are based on “merit”. Do you judge nothing but code, or do you also include other skills, including “plays well with others”, in your reviews of people’s merit?

Accept that some of your contributors will have lower “merit”, but may still be valuable, perhaps by taking on easy tasks so that more senior contributors have time to work on harder ones, or perhaps as senior contributors in training. Don’t expect people to come in with a high level of skill and ability from day one, and be prepared to accept contributions that are less than perfect. Denise Paolucci’s Teaching People to Fish is a good read on this subject for project leaders, and Angie Byron’s A diary of two developers describes a similar situation from the contributor’s perspective, showing how imperfect contributions quickly iterated can lead to a more active, collaborative community than a single perfect patch.

Finally, don’t require pushiness along with ability. To what extent do people need to put themselves forward to progress in seniority? Could you offer commit bits or leadership roles to people who haven’t asked for them, if you think they’ll do a good job? And consider “pulling” instead: ask people how their patch is progressing, and offer to review it privately. Make yourself available via a back-channel such as instant messenger and ping contributors from time to time to give them an opportunity to talk without appearing pushy.

Quick hit: open source leadership survey

Yesterday at ApacheCon I met Yeliz Eseryel, a researcher from Groningen University who’s looking into leadership in open source projects. If you’re involved in any open source project and have a few minutes to spare, please take her survey.

The survey asks you to pick any one project you know of, and talk about the leadership of it. If you pick a project with women in leadership roles, please comment below and let us know about it. If they’re not already on the GF wiki’s list of women in free and open source software, please add them. (Yes, anyone can edit!)

You can find out more about Yeliz and her group’s research at floss.syr.edu. I noticed this on the page:

NOTE: Want to have us do research on Open Source that can contribute back to your community? Email me at yeliz2002@gmail.com and suggest areas (or questions) of Open Source that we should study. YOUR input is important.

I’ll point her at this list of research ideas from a couple of months back. If you’ve got any others please let her know!

Two more women-learning-python things

First up, via Nat at O’Reilly Radar, I found a link to Julie Learns Python, where Julie Steele is blogging her experiences learning the programming language.

She’s meeting regularly with a group who are working through an introductory Python book together, and her most recent post describes a recent programming effort, her trials and failures and eventual success, and what she came to realise:

The point is: it’s in me. I wasn’t sure that is was, and now I know—it is.

And what, exactly, is “it� It is the bug. It is the combination of native curiosity and stubbornness that made me play around with the code and take some wild guesses instead of running straight to Google (or choosing to stay within the bounds of the exercise). That might sound like a small thing, but I know it is not. I was determined to make the program do what I wanted it to do, I came up with a few guesses as to how to do that, and I kept trying different things until I succeeded (and then I felt thrilled).

As much as I have to learn, I know now that I really am hooked. And that I’ll get there.

Elsewhere, on Dreamwidth1, Elz, one of the lead programmers on the OTW’s Archive Of Our Own2, decided that there were some gaps in her education that she wanted to fill, and is drawing together a group who will study MIT’s Open Courseware Introduction to Computer Science over the next few months.

The course teaches basic CS concepts using the Python programming language, and doesn’t require any previous programming experience.

The community’s at intro-to-cs.dreamwidth.org. You’ll need a Dreamwidth account to join and post, but anyone’s welcome to follow along without signing up. If you want a DW invite code, let me know in comments — I’ve got a heap still to give away! I’ve signed up, because I’m sure my education’s got a lot of the same gaps.

I love hearing about women teaching themselves programming. Got any other links or stories like that to share?

Notes:

PyArkansas women’s code sprint

Here’s a quick signal boost for an event that GloriaW’s organising as part of the PyArkansas unconference:

Join us for two nights and one day of Python fun and folly at PyArkansas 2009. If you cannot make the day sessions, be sure to join us for at least one night of discussion and geek-walks through the basics, web apps, and back end application development. Your level of experience does not matter if your intent is in the right place. Bring questions, code, ideas, anything related that you wish to share, along with a laptop if you have one. This promises to be a weekend of geeky fun.

Where: Hendrix College, Conway Arkansas, as part of PyArkansas 2009

When: Friday and Saturday nights, Nov 13th and 14th, from 6PM until we get kicked out.

What: We’ll do the bash shell, Python basics, and advanced code sprint work for whomever feels like it.

Whom: Women with anything from zero programming experience, to expert level.

Why: Because it’s great fun.

If you’re interested in learning to program, Python’s a great language for it. If you’re already a Python programmer then this is a fantastic opportunity to share your skills with others and learn a few new tricks too.

Open thread: everyone sing along now!

So, on the mailing list all the GF bloggers use, we’ve been saying “who’s going to do the open thread?” for days now and nobody’s done it. I said if nobody stepped up, I’d post this:

I guess it goes without saying that nobody else posted the open thread, huh?

If you’re reading this Monday morning at the office, you might want to use headphones. Visuals are SFW though.

I dare you not to sing along or get earwormed. Personally, I think it’s the 21st century answer to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman.

Anyway, when you’re done with the ‘tubes, tell us what else is on your mind! Open threads are when you can revisit old topics, bring up new ones, or say whatever the hell you want.

MikeeUSA’s code, now available on geekfeminism.org

Trigger warning: some linked pages contain hate speech and threats of violence against women.

While I completely support SourceForge’s decision to remove MikeeUSA‘s code for violation of their Terms of Service, I can’t help kinda feeling sorry for the guy, because apparently he didn’t have any other copies.

Let’s face it, he’s not a very experienced developer, and he can’t be expected to understand advanced topics like, oh, keeping backups, especially since he spends so much time on his activism, which no doubt distracts him from real coding.

Good thing us feminists are here to help him out. It just so happens that we had a copy of some of the code that was deleted, so we’ve forked it under the terms of the GPL, and made it available at:

http://code.geekfeminism.org/mikeeusa/

[2014 edit: Leigh got tired of running that server so she stopped hosting it. You can see an old snapshot on archive.org, in the unlikely event that you give a shit.]

It’s a Mercurial repository, and you can either browse it over the web, or clone it using your favourite Mercurial client. I know distributed version control can be a bit daunting for newbie developers, but perhaps Mikee can find a friend to help him out with it.

But we didn’t just post his code as-is. We’ve improved it! As a Perl developer and veteran CPAN contributor, I was able to make a start at cleaning up the worst bits of his slots game, though I must admit that my work was slowed down by the urge to send almost every line of it to TheDailyWTF.

$htmlsave =~ s/./__________THISISAPERIOD__________/g;
$htmlsave =~ s/W//g;
$htmlsave =~ s/__________THISISAPERIOD__________/./g;

And we also improved his Crossfire maps, especially one set in Russia which we switched to Ponyland, where you help the Pony Liberation Army free Ponyland from the trolls. Everyone loves ponies, right?

We think you’ll especially enjoy the new textures we’ve added:

Ponies - a vast improvement!

They might not improve playability, but from what we’ve heard, there wasn’t much playability to start with.

As Free Software developers, we honour the Four Software Freedoms, and gladly recognise Mikee’s right to run these programs, study and learn from them, redistribute copies, and even modify them — provided, of course, that attribution is given to the geekfeminism.org developers.

ETA: Comments on this post are now closed — yes, early — as we seem to have reached the point of nothing new being added to the discussion.

“We’ve got your back.”

That’s what we like to hear. And since our PSA last week about MikeeUSA, we’ve been really pleased to see people coming out of the woodwork to say, in effect, “OMGWTF!” and “NOT COOL.”

It’s funny… when I wrote that post, I was cringing in anticipation. After the last couple of contentious things I’d written, I was sure that I was going to get a flood of posts telling me how I was over-reacting, how raising these issues was harming the open source community, or that I should focus on the positive. I hit “post” with some trepidation, then left the office almost shaking.

I kept checking the comments throughout the evening, and even woke up in the middle of the night expecting a storm of invective. And there wasn’t one. Around twelve hours after the post, I cautiously said on IRC, “maybe there won’t be a backlash this time,” and then wanted to retract the words in case it was some kind of jinx.

Instead, what we got was support. Twitter and Identi.ca were buzzing with retweets/redents of people spreading the PSA, and the comments here on GF — even from people who said they usually disagreed with feminist goals — were 100% supportive. You know how we have a comment policy here that says we will delete stuff that’s blatantly anti-feminist? Well, this was the first contentious post we’ve ever had where we didn’t delete a single comment.

So, thanks. It’s good to know that there are some things just so vile that nobody in our community will tolerate them. It’s good to know that we can visit almost any open source blog this week without having to be confronted by Mikee’s hateful comments, because they’ve been sent to the bit bucket. And it’s good to know that at least some of the women (and men) who were targetted by Mikee’s hate speech over the last week or so knew how to handle it, and knew they weren’t alone, because we got the word out.

Thanks for having our backs.

But let’s stop for a moment and think about why that’s such a big deal. It’s a big deal because it’s unusual. Most of the time, backlash, not support, is the strongest response.

Next time round, I’d like to ask everyone to remember that every little incident in our community occurs in a context of institutionalised sexism that ranges from the odd thoughtless joke to… well, to Mikee and beyond. And it’s the little things, repeated over and over and excused just as often, that serve to reinforce the feeling that we don’t quite belong, and that the majority of the community might not back us up, might even attack us, if the shit hits the fan.

Please don’t let this happen.

We need to know you’ve got our backs. Even for the little stuff. Even when it’s a community leader. Even when you aren’t quite sure why it’s a big deal. Especially those times. Because it’s the security of knowing that someone’s got our backs that lets us speak about the big stuff without shame or fear. And it’s only that security that lets us feel safe to give all our energy and focus to what we came here for in the first place: free and open source software.

National Coming Out Day: LGBTQ geeks

In the US and many other countries, today is National Coming Out Day. I thought this might be a good chance to talk about the experiences of LGBTQ geeks and how they intersect with the experiences of female geeks.

  • LGBTQ geeks, like women, are a minority in geek communities. AdamW mentioned it the other week in this post:

    My personal experience is as an even more unusual minority in F/OSS than being a woman — I’m gay. (I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t really make a point of it, so some people probably don’t know). I can’t even recall anyone _else_ openly gay in the F/OSS community at all — I’m sure there are a few, but it’s a very very small number.

    I’m not sure whether or not gay men are less common than women in F/OSS — it seems unlikely to me — but they are certainly a less visible minority, since guessing based on physical appearance or name will get you approximately nowhere. And gay men (as well as lesbians and other non-straight folks) are subject to homophobia in geek culture: insults like “faggot” are common in gaming, on IRC, etc. In that much, there is a similarity between the two groups, both of which are marginalised and excluded to some extent.

  • I guess it should go without saying that the set of female geeks and the set of non-straight geeks overlap, but sometimes people seem to forget or ignore that. We see this when people suggest that adding beefcake to porny presentations would make women happy, or that women should be pleased when men comment on their appearance or sexual desirability. Being asked if you’re at an event with your boyfriend gains a whole new level of wrongness. And efforts to appeal to women in technology, gaming, etc, often assume heterosexuality and gender-normativity, featuring boys, dating, weddings (opposite sex only), and traditional families. Queer women, in these situations, can feel even more uncomfortable than straight women do.
  • And then there are times when female geekdom interacts with queer geekdom and weirdness ensues. I had an experience at a convention, where a man was getting in my personal space, touching me, and so on — nothing terrible, just putting his hand on my shoulder and being over-friendly. When I asked him not to, he said, “Oh, it’s OK — I’m gay!” When people have (or lack) different kinds of privilege, the negotiation around it can get incredibly complicated. Does being gay exempt this guy from facing his male privilege?
  • I’m not highly qualified to speak for transgendered/genderqueer/intersex geeks, but there are another set of issues that come along with that. Rachel guest-posted yesterday about one aspect her her experience as a trans geek, and I hope we’ll be able to have more discussion on related topics going forward.

Like many other feminists, intersectionality is something I’m just starting to come to grips with. How about you? Do you have stories of being an LGBTQ geek, or of how LGBTQ issues intersect with feminism in geek communities?