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

[Content warning: sexual objectification.]

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solicitation on flipping the script

This is a guest post by April Wright. April is a graduate student in evolutionary biology at the University of Texas at Austin. When she’s not crunching data at her computer, she teaches courses for novice biologists so they can learn some computation. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gaming, running with her dogs and spending time in the kitchen. You can get ahold of her at her website or Twitter.

So I wrote a blog post that went a little bit viral the other day. And a lot of people have asked in the past couple days what can be done to improve the atmosphere at programming meetings. I’ve been chewing on that pretty substantially.

I’ve had a lot of good discussions over the past couple days (help yourself to warm fuzzies here).

Reader bioatmosphere made a very good point in the comments, pulled out below:

The burden to fix things shouldn’t be on you just because you’re experiencing them

She’s right, of course. And that reminded me of this post by Cate Huston, which closes with a section called “Changing the Conversation”. I’ll copy the crucial bit (do read the whole thing, though) below:

Are you doing meaningful work?

Do you feel appreciated?

Do you feel respected?

And I’m going to tack on one more:

Do you feel like you’re part of something?

Because I think that’s what really got me: I felt like I was part of something, then I didn’t. It’s not just being snubbed that hurts, it’s a sense of loss of a community I kinda thought I fit with.

Since I have some ears bent towards me for a bit: People who feel integrated in communities and happy at meetings, what about it? What about these communities and meetings that makes you feel appreciated? Or respected? Or part of something? And what could you do to help someone else feel that?

Get at me via whatever channel preferred. [Mod note: while we normally do not encourage anonymous comments, they are acceptable on this post. Please note that your IP address will be logged, but is only visible to blog administrators.]

A Swiftly Tilting Linkspam

  • Why Silicon Valley needs the coder grrrls of Double Union, the feminist hacker space | Fast Company: “Unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism, which puts the responsibility on women to lean in, the Double Unioneers take a structural approach. It’s the system that needs fixing, not women.”
  • Why can’t Thor be a woman? Geek culture isn’t just for guys | The Guardian (July 16): “‘The burgeoning Thor controversy is part of a network of problems to do with representation in comics, but one aspect in particular weighs heaviest in this context. We, as a western culture, still struggle with androcentrism – the belief that male experience is the norm and that everything else is, at best, a derivation of the norm and, at worst, abnormal.”
  • Men interrupt more than women | Language Log (July 14): “Let’s pause and dwell on this for a sec: In fifteen hours of conversation that included 314 total interruptions, I observed a total of 13 examples of women interrupting male speakers. That is less than once per hour, in a climate where interruptions occur an average of once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds. Does anyone else think this is a big deal?”
  • For women on the Internet, it doesn’t get better | The Daily Dot (July 16): “Between 4Chan, Men’s Rights Activist groups, the Reddit Red Pill community, pick-up artist (PUA) groups, and anti-PUA groups like the one that Elliot Rodger clung to so dearly, the Internet has allowed men to band together more efficiently than ever before to threaten and antagonize women. Every woman with an online presence has a story to share about unwanted contact, sexual harassment, and predatory behavior.”
  • Dropping the F bomb | Geek Feminism (July 8): “Women in tech groups are not necessarily feminist. Some actively work against feminist ideals.”
  • Changing the World with a Breath and a Test | Marlena’s Blog (July 11): “Our mentoring relationship has been the difference between me putting this app in your hands vs. me building another fake twitter cobbled together from web tutorials and stack overflow.  That’s power.  Having someone tell me that, yes, I can do this even if I feel like an idiot, is a machete cutting deep into imposter syndrome.”
  • The problem of Richard Feynman | Galileo’s Pendulum (July 13): “But ‘Sherlock’ is fiction; Feynman was a real person, and those he hurt were no less real people than he was. Sure, it’s easy to abstract them: we don’t know the names of the women he met at bars, the wives of graduate students he emotionally blackmailed into ‘relationships’, the ‘airhead’ female undergraduates in his classes, or the waitresses he pranked just so he could get a self-satisfied story out of it later. We can justify uncomfortably to ourselves that they’re ‘just some women’, but Feynman is Feynman: he’s important symbolically for physics.”
  • Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach | Doing Good Science (July 13): “Science outreach doesn’t just deliver messages about what science knows or about the processes by which that knowledge is built. Science outreach also delivers messages about what kind of people scientists are (and about what kinds of people can be scientists). There is a special danger lurking here if you are doing science outreach by using a hero like Feynman and you are not a member of a group likely to have been hurt by his behavior. You may believe that the net effect of his story casts science and scientists in a way that will draw people in, but it’s possible you are fooling yourself.”
  • What’s the scariest thing in the world? Ask your teenage daughter | Polygon (July 15): More questions to Raven are met with disconcertingly direct answers. I’m shown a side of her life I hadn’t seen before. A world of loneliness and struggle where insults and exclusion are used to devastating effect. Teenage girls have problems that are far more real, and far scarier, than zombies.”
  • Gaymerx2: Internetting while Female Panel | Geeks Out (July 13): “Given the dark reality of the subject matter, this could have easily been a depressing recollection of the ugliest manifestations of human behavior on the internet. Instead, the panel struck an abidingly hopeful note and left quite a few people inspired to collectively work toward an ever-better future in gaming. “
  • Computer scientist and devoted educator Susan B. Horwitz dies | University of Wisconsin-Madison News (July 15): “An expert in programming languages and software engineering, Horwitz had been a member of the UW-Madison faculty for nearly 30 years. Among many professional accomplishments, she championed the encouragement of students who might otherwise overlook opportunities in computing…Particularly during the last decade, Horwitz strove to attract underrepresented students, particularly women and targeted minorities, to computer science and ensure their success. She was a founding member of the Academic Alliance of the National Center for Women and IT, based in Boulder, Colorado.”
  • Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Reality of Being a Woman in Tech | Social Ergonomics (July 11): “This is what is so insidious about the current state of affairs for women in the tech world. Even compliments come with strings attached. You know that even if you’re awesome and can keep up with the best of the best, you are still an outsider. Each compliment that ends with “for a woman”, reinforces the fact that according to all expectations, you’re not supposed to be comfortable with computers and technology.”

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.

Are your lulz low quality? Valerie Aurora is here to help

Warning for mention of sexual assault, and extensive discussion of harassment.

In May, my GF co-blogger and Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora posted Handy tips for my Internet harassers on her blog. They included:

Threatening my job: Unfortunately, I am my own boss. Try emailing one of the Ada Initiative sponsors? Although they might take that as a sign that the Ada Initiative is doing important work and make another donation. Hmmmm. Maybe create a Yelp page for my file systems consulting business and leave bad reviews? Endorse me for CSS on LinkedIn?

Rape and death threats: Run spell check! There’s nothing more jarring than reading an otherwise creative and well-written death threat and then seeing “decapetate.” Also, chain-saws are so last year. Remember, Gmail won’t display images by default. P.S. I happen to know one of the members of Nirvana and your bright idea has already been done.

Why did she do such a thing, and what resulted? Geek Feminism obtained an exclusive tell-all interview.

Q. Have you received any harassment as a result of this post? Was its quality indeed improved?

Sadly, no. Part of the problem is that my friends loved it — I’ve never had so much positive feedback on a post — but they didn’t want to share it with other people online. I like to joke that it’s the ultimate in dark social since people only talk about it offline using vibrations in the air called “sound.” I think that my friends are more afraid of me being harassed than I am.

Q. The post is pretty out there! Why did you put this post up? What point are you trying to make?

“Self-doxxing” myself (thanks, Kate Losse for the term) was inspired in part by how incompetent and bad the online harassment that I’ve received has been. Most people doing online harassment are just trying to impress other online harassers, at the same time that what they are doing is, frankly, totally unimpressive. The reality is, anyone can spend $25 and get another person’s home address and a bunch of other personal information, but we act like it is some kind of amazing act of computer hacking. By showing how bad people are at online harassing, I’m hoping to remove some of the motivation for people to do the harassment, or at least make them spend more time on it before they get the reward of “so cool, bro!”

I was also inspired by Krystal Ball , who ran for U.S. congress in 2010. When her political opponents tried to slut-shame her into quitting her political campaign over “sexy photos” of herself that they published, she turned around and shamed THEM — both her opponent and the media outlets that published the photos. It was glorious, and it hit home for me: if we let the existence of sexy photo of a woman prevent her from serving in political office, then I and every woman born after 1990 were out of luck. Women’s representation in political office would go down.

Q. Should other people do this?

For most people, no, I wouldn’t recommend it. It was okay for me for a lot of reasons: I already went public about sexual abuse in my family, I’m white, I’m my own boss, I don’t have children or a partner, I have skills that are in high demand, I have lots of friends and a huge support network — my emotional, physical, and economic safety is pretty good. Most women have a lot more to lose.

However, I think it is a very good exercise to think about worst cases like this: what if the thing I am most afraid of other people finding out got published all over the Internet? Because a lot of times, that thing actually doesn’t reflect on you – the shame is on the person who did the original act or publicized a private matter. It can be healing to plan what you might do, even if you don’t actually go public with it yourself.

Q. Why won’t you accept my endorsement for CSS on LinkedIn? I taught you everything you know, dammit.

I’d hate to embarrass you by letting anyone else know that you are the source of my mangled <div>’s! [Ed: good point, well made.]

Q. When are you monetising this? How can investors contact you? How big is your Series A and at what valuation?

Actually, that is a great idea. Instead of vetting a political candidate and saying yes or no, you investigate them and then publish everything that might be a problem in a funny blog post.

Or better yet, here is my favorite idea: If I ever run for political office, I’m going to scan in all my embarrassing naked photos, then watermark them with the email addresses of various journalists. Then email them anonymously to said journalists. Then when the photos get published (it’s “news,” someone else would have, etc.), I can expose the specific person who decided that slut-shaming a candidate was “news” and put the shame where it belongs. Sexism-shaming as a service, SSaaS. I’m accepting funding now.

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.