Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Series of Unfortunate Linkspams (11 July 2014)

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites. You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so). Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

How will our Code of Conduct improve our harassment handling?

Warning for mentions of self-harm.

This is an edited version of an email I wrote to other Geek Feminism bloggers following adoption of the Geek Feminism Code of Conduct and during the drafting of Mary’s postmortem, in response to some concerns that we have not in fact improved anything over our previous ad hoc processes, particularly in cases where there are fears a harasser will threaten or commit self-harm in response to any consequences for their harassment.

Here are the differences I believe our Code of Conduct will make to handling harassment incidents in our community:

We’re removing harasser leverage.

Not strictly Code of Conduct, but code-adjacent: we’ve been working to eliminate single points of failure in our social and technical infrastructure, and are getting an established ethic in place of treating those as a problem both for logistical and for potential harassment/abuse reasons.

Our formal reporting process allows us to respond faster.

Previously, knowledge about the harasser had to work its way through back-channels. Relevant decision makers could go unaware of the situation for months, and the victim’s privacy was reliant the discretion of an expanding group of people.

Now, there is a clear reporting process that allows people with concerns to reach the people empowered to act on those concerns all at once, in confidence.

A Code of Conduct focuses the conversation on the specific incident in question.

Without a Code and anti-abuse team in place, any harassment situation is a conflict over what is and isn’t acceptable in the community. At least one person — the harasser — thinks what they’re doing is cool. Getting them to stop isn’t just about enforcing community standards — it’s also about establishing them.

With a Code in place, everyone has agreed ahead of time that these are the rules. Whether the harasser personally feels that it’s okay to — say — hug people without consent, they are bound by a harassment policy that forbids it. It takes the conflict out of the realm of values and concepts — “is it okay to hug people without consent?” — and into the realm of facts — “is this person hugging people without consent?”

A public Code of Conduct will help hold us accountable.

Another way that Codes of Conduct make communities safer is that public commitments help hold organizations accountable to their values. We have made a public commitment not to tolerate harassment, and to do whatever we need to do to prevent it — including removing people. That, again, takes the question away from general community values and into the specifics of the particular case in front of us.

None of us want someone to go hurt themselves, but none of us want harassers around, either. We’ve now publicly stated that the latter is our first priority in harassment cases. That moves the conversation from “is it okay to remove someone if they might hurt themselves?” to “is there any way to mitigate the risk that this person we have to remove might hurt themselves?”

That public commitment is also going to help inoculate us against second-guessing in other cases — like if we have to remove a beloved member of the community, or someone who we feel bad for because they are socially awkward, have no other support network, are going through a rough time, etc. I’m not saying it’s going to eliminate all difficulty or make us completely heartless to a person’s circumstances. But we’ve now put up our community’s reputation as collateral, which is going to provide a strong incentive to stick to our stated principles.

Our investigating process protects victims from the harasser and their friends.

Anyone who’s been part of a community that had to vote or consense on removing somebody knows that those discussions can flirt with community-wrecking disaster. If we didn’t have a process and I had to tell all the bloggers that, say, Liz was harassing me (she’s not, but if she was), fear of the ensuing drama would be a strong incentive against coming forward. I would be inclined to keep it to back-channels until I was confident I had enough support to get her removed and not get blamed for being mean to her/starting drama.

The anti-abuse team is empowered to keep my report in confidence and act on it — without me having to publicly name my harasser and potentially endure the whole community debating my safety in front of me (and my harasser).  That would make me feel more comfortable coming forward sooner.

There’s still a possibility that people might choose to leave the community over an anti-abuse decision, or debate it in their own spaces. But the decision will get made without a lengthy and potentially hurtful public discussion, and we’re not going to have it rehashed in GF spaces after the fact. Victims of harassment do not have to fear that their safety or integrity will be a subject of public discussion or debate within GF.

The Anti-Abuse Team can move faster than the community as a whole

Related to the above: the Anti-Abuse Team is going to be able to move faster because we’ve already explicitly been empowered to make the decision, and can do so without having to engage the entire community in a very difficult and probably painful discussion.

The new process protects those who have to interact with a harasser outside of GF.

If Alice has to work with Barb and Barb is expelled for harassment, whatever Alice’s personal opinions on the matter, she can honestly say that she wasn’t involved in the decision (if Alice is on the anti-abuse team, she can recuse herself from Barb’s case). If Barb holds it against Alice anyway, then the fact that a formal process was followed gives Alice a much more credible way to describe the problem if she chooses to take it up with her supervisor, or the leadership of another community.

It also takes Alice out of the conflict between Barb and Geek Feminism so that it’s not an interpersonal conflict between two employees/community members (which is likely to be perceived as the fault of both parties), but rather a conflict between Barb and a third party (Geek Feminism) that Barb is unprofessionally/inappropriately bringing into the workplace or into the other community.


 

At the end of the day, our process is only as good as the people who implement it, and it won’t solve everything. But it can make it easier and safer for victims to come forward, and improve the speed and quality of our responses. It will also help protect both victims and the community from some of the pain and ugliness that poor harassment handling can cause.

The mayor of linkspam street (8 July 2014)

  • Who Died and Made You Khaleesi? Privilege, White Saviors, and the Elusive Male Feminist Who Doesn’t Suck | The Daily Beast: “Becoming one of the good guys should hurt. It should be painful. It should involve seeing uncomfortable and ugly things about yourself that you’d rather not see. It should involve changing your behavior in ways that you’d honestly rather not do.”
  • Science Magazine and my thoughts on good journalistic practice | Erin C. McKiernan: “First, after conversations with several other sources quoted in the piece, it became clear that the author had contacted them and given them the opportunity to correct any errors or clarify their views. I would have appreciated being afforded the same opportunity. The detail has not escaped me that every other source besides myself quoted in the piece is male.  If as a journalist, contacting all your male sources and not your female ones doesn’t look like discrimination to you, then you might want to reexamine your definition.”
  • BioWare announces the first exclusively gay character in ‘Dragon Age’: “Dorian, introduced on the Dragon Age: Inquisition website on Friday, is written as a gay character and will be a romance option exclusively for male protagonists”
  • Ride like a girl — Medium: Nice analogy, all the more poignant considering that the Victorian English bicycle was by and large a feminist technology.
  • Why We Should Care How Straight Allies Benefit From Their Support | The Society Pages: “We would suggest that something similar is happening with straight male allies. We all participate in defining the work of equality as not their work by over-thanking them, just like housework is defined as not men’s work. By lauding recognition on these ‘brave’ men in positions of power (racial, sexual, gendered, and in some cases classed) we are saying to them and to each other: This is not your job, so thank you for ‘helping out’ with equality.”
  • Stop Erasing Women from Tech History — The Message | Medium: “Part of the reason the Tinder co-founders tried to erase Wolfe is they believed a “girl founder” both “devalued” the company and made Tinder “look like a joke.” The irony is, Wolfe might have been the reason early users trusted Tinder enough to sign up.”
  • Feminist Point of View: A Geek Feminism Retrospective: HTML slides from Skud’s presentation on GF history at Open Source Bridge.
  • Power, abuse, fandom | No Award: [CW: Sexual abuse, child abuse, victim grooming] “It’s part of the nature of the internet that we can’t control what happens to something after it’s posted…  But I think it’s worth coming back to this issue again and reconsidering it in light of recent revelations and current knowledge about the way child abusers operate.  We need to consider our current status quo and the opportunities it creates for abuse.  Otherwise, in another twenty years, we’re just going to have more of these terrible revelations.”
  • New startup aims to help one million girls get their geek on | iTWire: “The Girl Geek Academy website went online yesterday and explains “Our mission is to increase the number of women with technology skills. The current internet was primarily built by men and we want to know what the internet would look like if there were more women building it.”
  • Organizational Anti-Patterns | hypatia dot ca: “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about organizational behavior, partly as a result of taking this cool Coursera class last year. (I wrote papers! Voluntarily!)  A couple of things keep coming up that I haven’t seen articulated elsewhere very much. So I wrote them down.”
  • follow up | Honour Your Inner Magpie: “But the other day, I asked for a copy of my report from last year. I was told WisCon doesn’t have one. There aren’t words for how sick that made me feel. WisCon needs to do better.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Dropping the F bomb

One thing I talked about in the history of Geek Feminism that I presented at Open Source Bridge the other week was that, as far as I know, GF was the first group in the tech side of geekdom (tech industry, free and open source software, etc) to use the word “feminist”. In SFF fandom, this had been going on for years, for instance with the explicitly feminist SF con WisCon, but in the tech world we mostly had groups for women which did not use the F word in their names or in any visible materials explaining what they did.

I’ve found myself having a lot of conversations lately about feminist identification in these fields. They usually go like this:

A friend or acquaintance: You should meet Q. She’s organising this great group for women in tech!
Me: Oh cool. Is she feminist?
AFAQ: What do you mean? Of course she is! I just told you she does work with women in tech.

I sometimes question myself on this, wondering whether I’m splitting hairs, but in fact this is based on several experiences I’ve had where “women in tech” groups have been anti-feminist.

Here’s an example, from the early days of GF.

I had started the wiki in 2008, and in 2009 I was very interested in some nascent women-led open source projects, which led me to keynote O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention that year. Around this time, I used to hang around in the IRC channel associated with the women’s group for a certain open source project. I used that open source software, followed the project’s progress, had made friends with other women in the community at open source conferences, and considered myself a member of their community, so it seemed pretty natural for me to hang with their women’s group on IRC.

It felt good, at first, to be in a group of tech women who had similar experiences to me. Yet, when I started to talk about feminist issues — mentioning sexism in the wider open source or tech community, for instance — I was shut down. I was essentially asked to leave the channel and go somewhere else if I wanted to talk about that stuff. Better yet, it was the project’s male community manager — men were allowed in this channel — who took it upon himself to push me out of that space, and who still continues to this day to shut down feminist discussion in communities that he leads.

Around the same time, another women in tech group — still operating, but they have taken down the post, so I won’t link them — posted the following on their public blog:

When people hear about [our women in tech group], it usually invokes images of oppressed Femi-Nazis that can’t cut it and need to grow a pair, but to them I say, “really?”

Not long before, the same group had posted an article distancing themselves from women who they deemed to be ugly nerds. They talked at length about how great it was to be a woman in the tech field — they weren’t like those women in tech, no, they were attractive and flirty and fun, and they didn’t spend all day buried in code, they did sexy things like design and marketing. I’m probably mis-paraphrasing because, again, they’ve taken down the posts in question, but the general gist was that this “women in tech” group was not for women like me — feminist, technical, and probably not pretty enough by their standards.

Women in tech groups are not necessarily feminist. Some actively work against feminist ideals.

Apart from those blatant examples of anti-feminist women’s groups, there are others that choose to be “apolitical”, effectively supporting the status quo. There are many examples of women in tech events and groups that unquestioningly support oppression along many axes. I’ve seen women’s events sponsored by organisations that are known for their anti-women policies. I’ve attended high profile women in tech events which habitually privilege male speakers as keynoters and on panels, rather than finding equally qualified women. I’ve attended women’s events that made gender-essentialist assumptions about my sexuality, gender expression, skills and interests that have made me very uncomfortable. And I’ve seen more cases than I can count of women’s organisations which focus on the good things — encouragement! empowerment! celebration! — while papering over the very real problems that exist in the tech field.

These groups generally don’t use the word “feminist” anywhere in their name or in their publicity materials, and for good reason: they don’t want to get into politics, because to do so would be to have to examine their own privilege and understand their own problems. And then, they’d have a lot more trouble finding sponsors — most of whom are large corporations with an investment in the status quo. That’s hard. I get it. And often they do some good work despite this, so I don’t want to be totally down on them. But I would also rather spend my attention and time with groups that do choose to struggle with the tough stuff.

What about the organisations which are feminist, but don’t say so? Maybe there are a bunch of women’s groups and events out there that have a good solid understanding of feminist principles, act on them to the best of their abilities, and are open to discussion and improvement where possible. The problem is, I have no way of knowing which they are. That’s why I have to ask, “are they feminist?”

Apart from that, all I can do is look at the group’s actions, and try to glean what I can from them. Do their public communications show a wide range of women involved — by age, ethnicity, ability, appearance, etc? Do their events support people from a range of backgrounds? Do they use the word “girls” or other infantilising or sexualising words for women, without any apparent sense of irony? How much prominence does their organisation give to men? Do they accept sponsorship from companies with anti-women policies or behaviours? Do they have a code of conduct for their events, showing that they recognise the existence of harassment and other such problems?

This is a lot of work. Usually too much for me to bother with. And so, in shorthand, I ask: “are they feminist?” If a person or organisation identifies themselves as feminist, then at least we can start out with some degree of shared understanding — or at least I hope we can (there are enough variations in feminism that that’s not always true, but at least it gives an opening for comparing stances, and an increased likelihood that we’ll share some language for discussing them.)

If not, then my experience has shown that, at best, we’ll have a mismatch of ideals and may not get along all that well. Or perhaps I’ll be called names and told to take my ideals elsewhere. Or worse. There’s no way to tell.

Identifying as feminist isn’t like waving a magic wand, meaning you’ll never do anything sexist or oppressive, but it’s a start, an expression of intent. I wish more women’s groups would do it.

Feminist Point of View – my slides from Open Source Bridge

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at Open Source Bridge entitled Feminist Point of View: A Geek Feminist Retrospective. The presentation was a review of the 6 years of the Geek Feminism wiki and blog, and the lessons we’ve learned from doing this.

I said I’d post the slides here on the blog, so — with apologies for the delay, mostly due to travel and jetlag and all that stuff — here they are.

Thanks to all the GF contributors who contributed to the talk, and to all those who came along.

Can geekiness be decoupled from whiteness?

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

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

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

Nerds, Rules, and Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unbundling Geekiness

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

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

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

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

Girl with a Pearl Linkspam (4 July 2014)

The Mary Sue merger was a popular Linkspam topic this week:

  • What Happened to The Mary Sue? | The Lobster Dance: “Here’s a hint: if you’re changing jobs to work at a supposedly feminist site about geek women, maybe 1. don’t tweet sexist bullshit, 2. don’t mansplain to commenters, 3. don’t assume the initial criticism was about your status or that it was ad hominem. You chose to write rude comments in response to questions about the new About page. You and the new and old staff members chose to publicly tweet about how you were being “attacked” by scary feminists. You chose to retweet the tweets of others regarding this. 
  • Will The Mary Sue Become a Mary Sue? | BlogHer: “The Mary Sue was safe, and they made us believe they cared. They represented our voices and provided a safe place for people to express their opinions. It’s not feeling that way anymore. Is The Mary Sue becoming an idealized version of its former self?”
  • The Gary Stu, or Why I’m Not Subscribing to The Mary Sue Anymore — Challenge by Geek: “Since the merger on June 13, the site has gotten worse. While the number of stories covered on a given day has gone up, the quality of the writing and the feminism found in those perspectives has plummeted… What happened? Well, male writers took up the pieces that really should have had women’s voices. “

Allegations of bad behavior in tech:

Model View Culture continues to impress:

Additional linkspams (it’s been a busy week!):

  • Mutant & Proud: Understanding The Queerness Of The X-Men: “In the third of three essays examining the parallels between fictional mutants and real life LGBT people, I’ll look at how the mutations themselves — and the identity struggles of many X-Men characters — served to underline the essential queerness of mutants.”
  • Anger as a Tool in Social Justice Movements : Life as I Know It: “Here’s an idea: not only is anger not harmful to social justice, it is the reason social justice movements happen in the first place.”
  • The Ping-Pong Theory of Tech Sexism — Matter — Medium: A comic about one woman’s experience with sexism in tech.
  • Trouble » Def Con, Jeff Moss, and Sexism: “The reason that there aren’t more women and girls in our field is staring at you in the mirror”.
  • Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being the First | The American Prospect: “Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born rebels who knew from the beginning that they wanted to storm the gates. What’s refreshing about Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space is that Lynn Sherr paints an evenhanded portrait of Ride as an iconic American whose accomplishments are inseparable from the second-wave feminist moment in which she reached them.”
  • Hearthstone tournament explains why women aren’t allowed to play | PC Gamer: “It’s a bizarre statement, attempting to defend a seemingly indefensible decision. E-sports can be recognised as a “legitimate sport” while still staying true to the differences that exist. Hearthstone is not a game that requires any division by gender—to do so is a completely arbitrary decision that smacks of a desperation to be taken seriously.”
  • Abuse by Reddit: Proxy Recruitment in Tech: [CW: Emotional abuse, harassment] “Believing victims, and believing the marginalized, are feminist acts. This is as true for online abuse as it is for domestic abuse. So let’s believe the victims of online abuse. And when their harassers choose to incite further harassment, let’s call that behavior what it is.”
  • Facebook: Unethical, untrustworthy, and now downright harmful | ZDNet: “It’s not going to get any better when people take a look at the tool Facebook used to do its experiments — a tool so woefully wrong for the job that no one, including Facebook, will ever know what Facebook actually did to its users’ emotional health.”
  • “Why are these people following me?” Leadership for the introverted, uncertain, and astonished | Frances Hocutt: “I was honored to give the final keynote at last week’s Open Source Bridge 2014. My talk was titled “‘Why are these people following me?’: Leadership for the introverted, uncertain, and astonished”. It is the story of how I learned and claimed my leadership skills–because leading and conveying authenticity are both learnable skills.”
  • Feigned Shock and Faux Enlightenment | ashe dryden: “The diversity in tech movement is stronger, larger, and louder than I believe it’s ever been. Articles in industry publications as well as global magazines and newspapers, blog posts, conference talks, podcasts, and large-scale twitter discussions continually highlight the rampant abuse, harassment, and bias that marginalized people in tech face. And yet each time these incidents surface, the industry and surrounding publications feign shock.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Cookie of the week*: men defending feminist space at PyCon

Cookie of the Week* is an occasional series highlighting action in the geek community to fight sexism, in order to show that fighting sexism is possible and happening.

This week’s winners, several men attending this year’s North American PyCon, we know of thanks to a guest post from Lisa Hewus Fresh. Lisa is a Python programmer living the good life in beautiful Portland, Oregon. You can follow her on Twitter @bugZPDX.

feminist hacker lounge at PyCon 2014

Liz Henry’s photo of several visitors to the feminist space at PyCon 2014, licensed CC BY-ND

For context: throughout the conference, open spaces were available for hacking and discussion. Geek feminists of all genders hung out in one of them, a feminist hacker space — a “a great place to go relax, decompress, and hang out with friends” and to “always find other women to hang with”. This year’s North American PyCon also featured 1/3 talks by women, a charity auction to benefit PyLadies, a talk by Naomi Ceder discussing her experiences as she transitioned from male to female while staying involved in the Python community, and a keynote by Python founder Guido van Rossum in which he chose to balance the playing field by only taking questions from women. In general, I believe women and feminism were more consistently visible at PyCon 2014 than at any previous North American PyCon.

Lisa’s story (Warning: contains one quoted ableist slur):

PyCon 2014 in Montréal was a first for me. As a person new to programming, Python, and even Portland, Oregon, I didn’t really know anyone in the community — famous or not. The point is that I didn’t personally know anyone involved in the discussion I am about to recount.

Six or seven of us PyCon attendees were sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt, late one night, discussing a multitude of subjects, such as which text editor is best, how best to name a Git repo, what talks we attended, and so on. I just happened to be the only female in the group and was really enjoying the friendly banter. Someone accurately described it as like being in IRC, but in person.

At some point, a couple of additional men wandered in and came over to our group. One of the men was really angry, and was saying how horrible PyCon was now and how much better it was before. He said that next year he was going to have a “Brospace” right next to the feminist space because “It’s just not right. Women have ruined PyCon!” He then looked at me and said, “No offense.” I’ve been in plenty of misogynistic situations, and as the only female in a group of unknown men I chose to keep my mouth shut and avoid danger.

Everyone else just sat there as well and let him talk a bit more. He went on about how Guido van Rossum, the inventor of Python, “doesn’t give a fuck about anything! Well, he cares about PSF [the Python Software Foundation] but nothing else!” and how unfair he thought these women are making things for men. One of the men in our group said something like, “Well, when you have been excluded from something for years, then you can complain, but you don’t know what that feels like because this environment has always been yours.” The guy responded, “Yeah OK but this is TOO much! Now they just want to take over the whole thing and push us men out!”

He went on to rant about someone who was banned from PyCon for two years. I am not clear on who this is or why they were banned, but the same member of our group firmly said, “Rules are rules. We all know what they are ahead of time and he violated the rules.” The angry man replied, “But he’s done SO much for this community! Yeah, what he did was stupid and wrong, but TWO years?!” The man in our group said, “So? The rules apply to everyone and it’s strictly against the rules so it doesn’t matter if he is a great guy and did a lot for Python and open source.­ That doesn’t give him permission to break the rules.”

The angry guy, who was getting angrier, started talking about a tweet that someone, who was in or near the feminist space, allegedly sent. He claimed that the content of the tweet berated a male who mistakenly entered the feminist space where he didn’t belong. How could this person be so mean to this poor man and exclude him? At this point, another man who had been lounging back on the couch, quietly typing on his laptop yet listening to every word, very calmly said to the angry guy, “Yeah, I guess that wasn’t very nice. But one instance doesn’t really concern me. Imagine if it were hundreds of instances of this type of behavior. This would be a problem and I’d be really concerned.”

I could see the pieces fall into place for the angry man as he realized that he was upset about the very thing that marginalized groups have been upset about for years.

Everyone was silent and then not­so­angry­anymore­man said, “I guess you are right. I’ve been thinking about this the wrong way. I’m going to go to bed before I say anything else that’s stupid.” And he left. Slayed with logic!

I was so incredibly proud of this group of men I didn’t know. My mind was completely blown that the conversation went the way it did. Thank you Honza Kral and Asheesh Laroia for being awesome. I didn’t know you then but I’m sure glad I know you now.

Thank you for the story, Lisa! I’d like to highlight a few things that I especially like about this story:

  • Men speaking up and using their privilege to argue with sexist speech, helping out when a woman chose to protect her own safety by remaining silent
  • The allies stood up for the conference’s code of conduct, late at night while in a hotel lobby technically outside the conference venue
  • So much better than that PyCon thing last year
  • They changed that guy’s mind! It can happen!

So, here’s that cookie:

Does anyone else have any cookies to spare this week?

* Disclaimer: cookies may not be baked weekly! This offer does not commit Geek Feminism, its bloggers, affiliates, sponsors, commenters or fans to a posting schedule.

Attack of the purse snatchers: gender and bag policies in U.S. comic book stores

This is a guest post by Kathryn Hemmann. Kathryn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University, where she teaches classes on Japanese literature, cinema, and popular culture. When she’s not reading comics, drawing comics, or writing about comics, she plays video games, thus enjoying a well-rounded lifestyle. Kathryn has a blog called Contemporary Japanese Literature, on which she posts feminist reviews of Japanese fiction in translation. Her favorite Sailor Scout is Sailor Mercury.

It was 2006, and I had recently moved to Philadelphia for a graduate program. A child of the South, to me the landscape of a large Northeastern city was both frightening and exciting. I was especially looking forward to my first trip to a comic book shop. The store I chose for my first outing was a block or two away from Philadelphia’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, the relative safety of which made me feel less anxious about venturing into the unknown. When I entered the store, I breathed in the perfume of old paper and glossy covers and felt at home – until I took a few more steps, at which point one of the clerks said something that shocked me enough to stop me in my tracks.

Fast forward to 2014. Now, as an early career academic, I travel all over the country for professional conferences and job interviews. In April I found myself in Seattle, a city known for its thriving independent comics culture and home to cutting-edge comics publishers such as Fantagraphics Books and Northwest Press. I decided to take advantage of my time in the Emerald City by visiting a comic store about a five minute walk away from the original Starbucks on Pike Place. I’ve been to comic book shops all around the world during the past eight years, and I was no longer nervous about entering a store I’d never visited before. I walked to the counter, eager to chat with the clerk about local microcomics – but then she said something that made me like a stupid kid all over again.

What could a clerk at a comic book store possibly say to a new female customer to make her feel as alien and unwelcome as possible? Would it be some sort of overtly sexist slur, or an inappropriate comment about her appearance? Or could it perhaps be something as presumably innocuous as:

“I’m going to need to take your bag before you go any further.”

The idea behind this policy, which I have encountered in comic book stores all across the United States, is presumably that store management has either personally witnessed or heard secondhand accounts of enough incidences of theft to employ a safeguard measure involving neither expensive surveillance technology nor paper-damaging anti-theft strips and stickers. Still, I can’t help but think that the stereotype of comic book theft at play here – little kids with grubby fingers sneaking a comic book out of a neighborhood corner store – is out of touch with contemporary cultures of online piracy and the collector’s market for pristine first editions.

When I’ve pressed clerks about this policy, most memorably at a store on a trendy street in New York’s East Village that wanted to confiscate a clutch purse not much bigger than my forearm, they’ve almost unanimously responded that they enforce it with everyone, and that it can’t possibly be sexist, as men have to surrender their bags as well.

Costumer Emily Finke’s essay Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture, posted on i09 roughly a year ago, acted as a catalyst for online debates on the topic of sexist attitudes women encounter in geek cultures centered around comic books in the United States. Heated discussions referencing the mythical “fake geek girl” have been popping up on various internet forums since the meme slithered out of 4chan in 2010, but the past year has seen numerous testimonies, confessions, and rants on relatively mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr.

To give an example, this past February Noelle Stevenson, creator of Lumberjanes and the webcomic Nimona, posted a comic on her personal Tumblr explaining why she had stopped going into comic books stores. Her post received over eighty thousand notes, generating responses both on her blog and on other Tumblr blogs. Some of these responses openly denounced her, while others encouraged women to visit comic book stores even if they shared Stevenson’s misgivings. In response to continued discussion of how best to reform misogynistic attitudes prevalent in U.S. comic book culture, The Mary Sue website recently launched a new column titled Pull It Together, which offers recommendations on feminist-friendly titles for conscientious comic buyers to add to personal pull lists at comic book stores. An entire Tumblr is devoted to Safe Spaces for Comics Fans, and male comics professionals such as journalist Sean Kleefeld are sharing stories of the subtle harassment women experience at comics conventions and inside comic book stores.

I’ve been following all this talk of gender, clothing, costuming, and sexist attitudes, waiting for someone to bring up the obvious, namely, the bag confiscation policy enforced by comic book stores in the United States. Claiming that this policy is not sexist because it applies to both male and female customers (and presumably people who identify as neither or somewhere in between) is a textbook illustration in false equivalence. Not only is it ridiculous and outdated, but it’s also insulting and contributes to the discomfort many female bloggers and social media users have reported feeling in comic book stores.

Of course, not all women carry purses. Still, mainstream women’s fashion makes it difficult for someone dressed in women’s clothing to keep the necessary accoutrements of daily life (such as wallets, cell phones, keys, glasses, bus tokens, subway pass cards, and so on) on her person without the aid of some sort of purse or briefcase. It’s one thing for a man to surrender a backpack or laptop case; he’s more than likely got his keys and wallet and cell phone in the pockets of his pants or jacket. It’s another thing entirely for a woman to give up her purse or shoulder bag, which – to add insult to injury – generally isn’t even large to put a comic book in without folding it, which would defeat the purpose of going through the trouble of stealing it in the first place. There are only three other situations I can think of in which an individual is asked to surrender her wallet and cell phone to a complete stranger: airport security checkpoints, courthouse security checkpoints, and prison. The last time I checked, no one perceived any of these situations as particularly pleasant.

Aside from the false equivalence between the purses (and other personal articles) carried by women and those carried by men, another troubling aspect of bag confiscation policies has to do with the extreme discomfort they can engender. As the recent Daily Show segment The Fault in Our Schools aptly illustrates, many young women learn to go about “their whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace” and other threats, especially in spaces they perceive to be occupied primarily by men. One of the best self-defense tactics is being able to make a quick exit, and it’s always good to be able to call (or pretend to call) someone or to brandish pepper spray if that doesn’t work. I would like to assume that comic book stores are not prime locations for assault, sexual or otherwise, but it’s still nice to be able to leave an uncomfortable environment without having to ask for your bag, often from the people who have made you feel uncomfortable in the first place by pointedly ignoring you or making snide and judgmental comments about your presence.

By taking a woman’s bag, a comic book store is essentially taking away her freedom to escape from harassment, as well as her sense of security. On top of this, she has just given her wallet and cell phone – and her sense of identity and agency along with them – to someone who has demonstrated distrust and antagonism by asking for them. How could she possibly feel completely comfortable browsing or engaging with the staff and other patrons?

Not every comic book shop in the United States maintains a bag confiscation policy, but enough do that I have collected a fair amount of experiences of being hurt and upset upon entering a previously unvisited store in a previously unvisited part of the country. After spending the past month in Tokyo, where women (and men!) carry not just purses and shoulder bags but rolling suitcases into comic shops without the staff batting an eye, I have decided that I am done with comic book stories in the U.S. If the staff of the offending stores think that I don’t need to my purse on me to feel comfortable buying comics, they’re absolutely correct – I don’t need a purse to buy comics online.

Code of Conduct timeline and postmortem

Last week, Geek Feminism announced we’ve adopted a Code of Conduct.

As Annalee said in that announcement, this comes long after adoption of codes in other communities, especially events:

You’ve been promoting Codes of Conduct for years. Why didn’t you adopt one of your own sooner?

We dropped the ball in a big way here. We’ve known for at least two years that we needed a Code of Conduct internally. We’re sorry for the inexcusable delay.

We thought it would be useful to other communities to discuss how this happened.

Timeline

May 2008: Skud founded the Geek Feminism wiki, two and a half years before anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct began to be promoted by geek feminists.

August 2009: Skud founded the Geek Feminism blog, more than one year before anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct began to be promoted by geek feminists. At the time of launch. the blog had a strong comment policy which remains in essentially the same form (albeit expanded since). We weren’t the first by a long way to have such a policy (in fact it was based fairly closely on that of Hoyden About Town) but this was at the time unusual among the technical blogs and forums that many of the original bloggers frequented.

November 2010: Warning for assault Nóirín Plunkett was assaulted at ApacheCon. Within the month, Valerie Aurora had released a draft anti-harassment policy for events and finalised it for events to adopt. This is the policy that is now maintained on the wiki.

I have not found any discussion of Geek Feminism adopting such a policy internally at this time, which isn’t surprising considering it was envisaged as being for in-person events.

Early 2011: there were person-to-person complaints within the Geek Feminism community that an individual within it is harassing people when Geek Feminism contributors meet up in person (as sometimes happens at conferences we attend and similar).

January 2012: AdaCamp Melbourne (the first event I know of run by Geek Feminism community members that occurred after the development of the event anti-harassment policy) has an anti-harassment policy.

July 2012: Blogger Nice Girl reported harassment at OSCON by attendees identifying as geek feminists and using terminology from our wiki. (We do not know the identities of these people.) In August, Skud wrote on the blog:

We are taking a few different steps to address the specific concerns raised. One is that we are reviewing our wiki pages to make sure that we have information on slut-shaming and that it is appropriately cross-linked with articles about sexualised environments at geek events to help reinforce/educate people that criticising an individual woman’s choice of clothing is very different from criticising (for instance) a business that uses booth babes as a marketing device.

The second thing is that we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF. This is a work in progress, especially since GF is (as mentioned) a loose affiliation with no official membership, and because we may be asked to deal with harassment that occurs outside our own spaces. However, if someone is harassing another person under GF’s name or in a way associated with GF, then we want to provide a private way for people to contact us, and respond appropriately.

On the same day, Skud wrote the first version of the wiki’s Slut shaming page.

At around this time, Skud founded Growstuff, reducing her available volunteer time; her participation in the blog and other Geek Feminism activities dropped drastically over the next few months.

July/August 2012: Emails about the harassment by a Geek Feminism member discussed earlier began to circulate among Geek Feminism bloggers, presumably with our awareness of internal harassment risks heightened by the public and private discussions of Nice Girl’s reports. More than one person reported feeling unsafe and no longer recommending our backchannels as safe spaces. Skud first became aware of these reports at this time.

Given the seriousness of a known harasser operating in a community central to anti-harassment policy promotion, it didn’t seem appropriate to wait for a policy and response group as mooted by Skud to be in place and instead Valerie Aurora spearheaded a letter asking this person to leave the community, which was signed by several others including myself. The person left our community.

After this, I cannot find any further internal discussion of an anti-harassment policy for approximately another year.

April 2013: Recognising her lack of availability for volunteering due to work commitments, Skud formally announced she was stepping down as a Geek Feminism administrator. There was a discussion about handing over various technical responsibilities but not (that I can find) about the anti-harassment status.

July 2013: I sent an email to the blogger backchannel reminding them that an anti-harassment policy is still to be developed. There was a short and inconclusive discussion.

October 2013: Annalee produced an early draft policy document with many unresolved questions, particularly who the policy was intended to apply to, and how reports would be resolved. Comments on the document were made by several community members.

November 2013: Rick Scott began to formalise existing editorial practice on the wiki in the Editorial guidelines page, which was revised over a few months by a small group of wiki editors. It is intended more to communicate norms to newcomers and onlookers than to protect wiki editors from each other.

January 2014: Discussion had died down on Annalee’s draft. I sent an email with some open questions but no one including myself follows up before May.

May 2014: Annalee produced a new draft anti-harassment policy and circulated it for discussion. Skud, Tim, Valerie and myself all commented and edited substantially. Annalee asked for consensus on adopting it, Valerie suggests she JFDI, and I ended up proposing a timeline through to late June for circulating it more widely, giving people time to familiarise themselves, appointing the Anti-Abuse team, and then making the document public.

June 2014: The Anti-Abuse Team was appointed after an internal feedback process. Annalee announced our Code of Conduct publicly. I made our policy made available for reuse and promoted adoption by other communities.

Post mortem

Things we did right

Skud established best practices (particularly the comment policy) at the time our community was founded.

When it became clear that harassment in our community was a periodic problem, we acknowledged publicly that we had not put best practices into place (a anti-harassment policy) and began discussing one suitable to our community.

We returned to the issue periodically without further external prompting or known (to me) incidents of harassment and eventually got a policy in place. In the process, we hope we have developed a new best-practice policy for communities to use so that others do not have to go through this process.

Our new policy has a pretty sophisticated description of various types of harassment, based on a wide variety of personal experiences and reports of harassment received by those of us who do anti-harassment action or advising in other communities. It is better adapted for a long-lived community than the event policy is, by, eg, considering incidents of harassment in the past and in other communities. It has a more explicitly feminist stance in, eg, stating that it centres the concerns of marginalised people, and that tone-policing will not be regarded as harassment.

Things we did wrong

Various individual members of the community were slow to recognise harassment in our community based on first-hand reports from victims.

We were very slow at responding to the known need for a policy, especially for a group which was among the leaders in advocating that in-person events adopt policies. Even on the most generous reading of this timeline, there was explicit discussion of an internal anti-harassment policy in August 2012, at the time Skud discussed Nice Girl’s harassment, meaning that nearly two years passed between us explicitly committing to it existing and it being put in place. We seem to have been caught in a common problem here: we had no active need for the policy (that I know of personally), and so we did not push ahead with it.

Less central members of our community report that they wondered why we didn’t have a code of conduct, but did not feel empowered to ask about it.

Where to from here?

It is far better to have clear documentation concerning safety in particular, and common problems in general, before they are needed. We hope our reusable policy gets adopted by other communities or assists them in drafting their own, to avoid some of the slowness involved in starting from scratch.

Skud reviewed our community structure and documentation in the lead-up to her Open Source Bridge talk and found various inadequacies. She and Annalee have each raised the issue of reviewing our community’s processes,. We would need to look at questions such as:

  • are we following best practices in anti-harassment, anti-abuse and establishing safer spaces?
  • is our group unusually reliant on certain individuals and if so (it usually is so in any community), how can we share knowledge and resources so that there are less single points of failure?
  • is our documentation sufficient for a newcomer to the community?

Does anyone have pointers to similar review processes in other groups? That would be really handy.

Skud suggests that in addition, with important projects like a code of conduct, a relatively structureless group like ours explicitly appoint people to the project, so that they feel empowered to act on it. We particularly need to be alert to Warnock’s dilemma (does silence signify consent, ignorance, lack of understanding, lack of interest or contempt?) in discussing changes to our community. We also need to be alert to hidden hierarchies, to, eg, the sense that nothing can go ahead without approval from, say, Skud as founder or myself as the most frequent poster.

Annalee suggests that we need to improve our institutional memory with documentation like that above, together with internal private documentation where it is impossible to make things public. This helps identify when things were done for a very good reason, versus having emerged essentially by accident, versus never having been done at all by anyone. We also need to clarify (probably continuously) about whether we are a JFDI community, or whether projects must have people appointed to them, or other.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Annalee, Maco, Skud, Valerie and one of the linkspammers for their review of this post. Except where explicitly attributed, all opinions herein should be taken to be mine, informed by discussion with others in Geek Feminism but not necessarily co-signed by them.