Tag Archives: diversity

Linkspam is the mind-killer (1 July 2014)

Facebook’s emotion study and research ethics:

  • Facebook Manipulated 689,003 Users’ Emotions For Science | Kashmir Hill at Forbes (June 28): “Facebook’s data scientists manipulated the News Feeds of 689,003 users, removing either all of the positive posts or all of the negative posts to see how it affected their moods. If there was a week in January 2012 where you were only seeing photos of dead dogs or incredibly cute babies, you may have been part of the study. Now that the experiment is public, people’s mood about the study itself would best be described as ‘disturbed.’”
  • Facebook unethical experiment : It made news feeds happier or sadder to manipulate people’s emotions. | Katy Waldman at Slate (June 28): “Facebook’s methodology raises serious ethical questions… ‘If you are exposing people to something that causes changes in psychological status, that’s experimentation,’ says James Grimmelmann, a professor of technology and the law at the University of Maryland. ‘This is the kind of thing that would require informed consent.’”
  • Facebook and Engineering the Public | Zeynep Tufecki at Medium (June 29): “I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as ‘the world we live in’. That is the key strength of independent academia: we can speak up in spite of corporate or government interests.”
  • Did Facebook and PNAS violate human research protections in an unethical experiment? | David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine (June 30): “As tempting of a resource as Facebook’s huge amounts of data might be to social scientists interested in studying online social networks, social scientists need to remember that Facebook’s primary goal is to sell advertising, and therefore any collaboration they strike up with Facebook information scientists will be designed to help Facebook accomplish that goal. That might make it legal for Facebook to dodge human subjects protection guidelines, but it certainly doesn’t make it ethical.”

Spammy spam:

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.

Please mind the linkspam (25 June 2014)

  • Applications for MotherCoders Fall 2014 Opens! | Tina Lee at mothercoders (June 20): “We are committed to creating a more dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economy by on-ramping moms to careers in technology. Those who are interested in being considered for our Fall 2014 session must complete this survey by midnight on Sunday, July 13, 2014.”
  • ‘Cards Against Humanity’ Co-Creator Publicly Apologizes for Transphobic Card | Jessica Roy at Fusion (June 18): “”We were writing jokes for ourselves and we weren’t really thinking about how it would affect other people,” Temkin [a creator of the game] said. “But when you have something that starts to be part of pop culture, you can’t help but see how it makes people feel and feel some sense of responsibility for that.” [...] “We talk about the idea of ‘punching up, not punching down’ all the time,” Temkin said. “It’s something that we stand behind: making fun of those power structures, because they’re already powerful.””
  • Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity | Eric Brown at International Business Times (June 17): “In the end, the problem rests on the shoulders of both Unicode and third parties. Third parties have the option of illustrating emoji however they wish, but universally stick to white as a default. Unicode, meanwhile, has the option of introducing more characters that would push Apple and Twitter to move beyond its majority-white character base. At this point, both need to take responsibility and introduce more inclusive emoji.”
  • Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of the super fibre Kevlar, dies at 90 | The Guardian (June 21): “Stephanie Kwolek, the American chemist who invented the super-strong fibre Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests, has died at age 90.”
  • Editor’s blog: I am sexist | Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer (Jun 19)[warning for discussion of violence against women] “It’s really hard to talk about sexism (in games or otherwise) when a large proportion of your audience hasn’t realised it is sexist, whether subtly or profoundly. [...] I don’t think they come from a place of actual misogyny. I think they are just a byproduct of the kind of casual ignorance I have personally embodied for pretty much all of my sexist life. [...]  I am writing this because I hope that if I stand up and admit that I am sexist, have always been sexist and will probably always have to rebel against this bit of programming in my head whenever it is triggered, one or two people will realise that they can relate to what I’m saying, and that will give them a bit of courage to try to do something about it as well.”
  • Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? | sarah Kendzior at Vitae (June 16): “Pregnant graduate students pose a problem to an academic culture that values “fit” above all else. While pregnancy may feel to the pregnant like bodily subservience, it is often viewed in academia as an unwelcome declaration of autonomy.”
  • Lake Scene | Manfeels Park (June 18): [comic]
  • What the Internet’s Most Infamous Trolls Tell Us About Online Feminism | Fruzsina Eördögh at Motherbaord (June 20): “The 4chan ruse ended last Friday [...] but not before a silver lining had revealed itself: Feminists of color had very publicly become such an integral part of the feminist movement that trolls thought they were the vehicle to end all feminism online.”
  • Inside the Mirrortocracy | Carlos Bueno (June 2014): “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.”
  • Major Ed-Tech Event Overhauls Code of Conduct After Troubling Accusations | Benjamin Herold at Education Week (June 19)[warning for discussion of harassment and rape] “The policy changes made by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, focus on explicitly outlining unacceptable and harassing behaviors, clearly delineating protocols for addressing such behaviors when they occur, and identifying specific consequences for violations. Such guidelines have been adopted in recent years by other conferences and events in the broader U.S. technology sector, where problems of sexism and sexual harassment have been widely reported and documented.” This article takes a perhaps sceptical tone at times, but is interesting as an examination of a particular field in the technology industry.

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.

Note: this linkspam title has been changed; we apologize for having missed the racist history of the song we used for the week’s punny title.

The Curious Incident of the Linkspam in the Night-time (18 June 2014)

Story telling in games, movies, and books:

Spam!

  • San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War | danah boyd at Medium (May 13): “San Francisco is in the middle of a class war. It’s not the first or last city to have heart-wrenching inequality tear at its fabric, challenge its values, test its support structures. But what’s jaw-dropping to me is how openly, defensively, and critically technology folks demean those who are struggling. The tech industry has a sickening obsession with meritocracy. Far too many geeks and entrepreneurs worship at the altar of zeros and ones, believing that outputs can be boiled down to a simple equation based on inputs.”
  • The growing gap between millennial men and women’s wages | Suzanne McGee at The Guardian (June 12): “The bank didn’t set out to study the gender pay gap or anything specific: they just wanted to figure out how to better pitch their products and services to millennials, who are a big and potentially profitable new market. En route to that goal, surveying more than 1,600 millennials, Wells Fargo stumbled over some data that no one expected – least of all Karen Wimbish, director of retail retirement at the bank.”
  • Managing Silicon Spoons | Anonymous Author (June 9): “If your employee chooses to reveal to you that they live with a chronic condition or have a disability, the only thing you should ask is what reasonable accommodation they would like to receive to do their job.”
  • Why We had a Code of Conduct  | Brad Colbow at Medium (June 11): “How [we] usually work is we group up, discuss the problem, and usually come to a consensus before taking action. The day of the conference there isn’t time to do that. Having the policy in place was one less thing we had to worry about. It was just good planning.”
  • [Warning for discussion of sexual assault and trauma] Notallmen/Yesallwomen, secondary trauma and relearning everything for the sake of not killing each other | Sarah at All the things, all mixed up (May 29): “If you are a man who is becoming upset/depressed/overwhelmed/hopeless/defensive when you listen to the women in the world/your life talk about their experiences, you need to talk about it.  With another man.”
  • We Can Finally Talk About Sexism in Tech – So Let’s Be Honest | Divya Manian at Time (May 31): “it finally seems to me as if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. For the longest time, discrimination-racial or otherwise – was something we didn’t acknowledge at all.”
  • LG_T | Isaac Z. Schlueter at blog.izs.me (June 11):”My home is technology.  This is My Culture, rotten though it can be at times. As a privileged and visible person in it, I feel obligated to try to make it a little better in the ways I can.  That’s why I’ve decided to publicly tell this story, so that my presence can add weight to the claim that bisexual men exist.”

Calls for Participation:

  • Diverse Inclusive Open Source Workshop 2014 | Ohio LinuxFest 2014: “If you want Free and Open Source Software communities to become more diverse and inclusive, and want to meet others who are working toward the same goal, then come to the Diverse Inclusive Open Source workshop! The workshop is accepting submissions for short talks, artwork, videos, and more. The deadline for proposals is July 26, 2014.”
  • “Women are too hard to animate” jam | NoorStudios at itch.io (June 12): “Women are too hard to animate, or so they (Ubisoft) say. So anyone up for the challenge? Any game with female lead qualifies, even a game you made before.” Submissions due by 30 June.

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.

Quick hit: Google publishes their EEO-1 diversity data

As promised earlier this month, Google’s diversity data is now up on their blog.

They write:

We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues. Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.

Their numbers — globally — are 70% male, 30% female (this seems to add up to 100%, which suggests that either Google or the EEO-1 process need to review their gender categories), dropping to 17% female among their technical employees. We’ve tabulated some data at the Geek Feminism wiki. You can compare with female-male breakdowns from some other companies (many quite small) at We Can Do Better.

Google’s US workforce is also 2% Black, way below US national figures of 13% nationwide and 3% Hispanic against 17% nationwide. (Nationwide figures from US Census numbers dated from 2012 and rounded to the nearest whole number to have the same precision as the Google figures.)

What do you think? Is disclosure a meaningful action here? Are you surprised by Google’s figures? Do you think the rest of the tech industry will or should follow?

The linkspam instinct (24 May 2014)

Announcements etc:

  • Long Hidden, a Kickstarter-funded anthology of spec fic centering marginalised characters, is now available for purchase.
  • Registration for Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing (June 13–15 at MIT) is open.
  • Model View Culture’s Queer issue is out! Individual articles will be scattered over the spam over the next week, but check out the whole thing.
  • FOSS4G — a conference for open source geospatial software, to be held in Portland Oregon in September — is dedicating 50% of their travel grants funding for women and minority attendees. Applications close May 30. They’re also looking for donations to the travel fund; you can donate when you register for the event.

Gender diversity data and tech companies:

Spam!

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.

Model View Culture banner

Model View Culture: where tech intersects with social and cultural lenses

If you’ve been following our linkspams recently, you’ve probably noticed the density of links to Model View Culture, an independent media platform covering technology, culture and diversity. MVC has brought us Frances Hocutt’s story of unwillingly leaning out of her science career. Suey Park’s defense of Twitter Feminism and Kate Losse’s exploration of sexualisation and gendered labour as a pervasive force in tech. They’ve also published no less than four Geek Feminism contributors: Ashe Dryden, Leigh Honeywell, Liz Henry and Tim Chevalier, with more to come! If you’re a linkspam lover, you might be following their Blameful Post Mortem (“Everything that’s wrong with the tech industry this week, and who’s to blame”), including the weekly Hacker News fail feature.

I’m excited to see MVC emerge as part of the geek activist landscape, it’s part of the huge changes since 2009, when here at geekfeminism.org we talked about being the site at the time that was willing to use the f-word (“feminist”, although “fuck” complies with our comments policy also) in geekdom. Now we’re part of a crowd.  And MVC is publishing amazing writing.

The founders of MVC are: Amelia Greenhall, product leader, data scientist and user experience designer/developer with extensive experience in feminist community organization and literary publishing; and Shanley Kane, cultural critic, organizer, writer and feminist with over five years of experience working in the technology industry across academic, startup and open source communities. I interviewed Amelia and Shanley about MVC, its publisher Feminist Tech Collective, and their place in geek diversity activism.

What is Model View Culture?

Amelia and Shanley: We are a media company focused on tech, culture and diversity. We publish online issues with original articles, critique, analysis, news, commentary and sometimes political cartoons. They come out every three weeks. In addition, we publish a Quarterly print edition, locally-printed books with new Model View Culture content that gets sent to subscribers four times a year. We’re also working on building a community events program — our next event is in San Francisco for the launch of our first Quarterly. We also want to develop a podcast where we interview technologists, and talk about current events, news and trends. We’ve been pretty busy since we launched two months ago, but that is coming soon.

How do you see MVC as complementing and adding to existing diversity-in-tech projects and activism?

We are just one of many such programs — we identify very strongly particularly with the Bay Area community of technologists focusing on issues around diversity and social justice. We are also increasingly making connections with complementary tech communities and projects around the world, which is very exciting.

Existing organizations and projects like Geek Feminism, Double Union and other feminist hackerspaces, DiversiTech, Lesbians Who Tech, Trans*H4CK, LOL Oakland Maker Space and many independent activists are doing critical work right now across many different axes. We think that a diversity of tactics and focus areas is essential — we need people working within corporate structures and outside of them; on specific communities and across broader groups; in online and in-person spaces. We strive to highlight much of this organization from a media perspective, and provide a platform for the type of thought, analysis and critique that is inherent in it.

What is unique about Model View Culture in terms of its approach?

Our specific focus on producing high quality, critical writing and analysis that comes directly from technologists, activists, artists and writers in the field is fairly unique in the space. From an editorial perspective, we concentrate largely on where tech intersects with various social and cultural lenses — i.e., how feminism relates to quantified self; how social media reflects power dynamics; the politics of digital spaces; the implications of access around hardware hacking; the role of culture in management, etc. Especially compared to mainstream media, we strive to be unique in providing tech coverage that is critical, that is socially and politically conscious, and that is invested in the health and progress of the community.

Does Feminist Technology Collective have any plans or ambitions beyond MVC that you can tell us about?

Right now, Model View Culture is our number one focus. However, we founded Feminist Technology Collective with the goal of building and funding community infrastructure for underserved communities in tech – both creators and consumers. We think there is a huge market – multiple markets – that aren’t being addressed by the mainstream technology industry. That’s a giant opportunity — social, technological and financial — for new kinds of businesses, including ours. So, we hope in the future to grow larger and create other products in those spaces.

What communities and perspectives are underrepresented in MVC at the moment and what plans do you have to include them?

Right now, Model View Culture is fairly focused on the United States tech industry, and it is also fairly Silicon Valley-centric. We are a very small company, so working in a certain context makes sense – we live and work in the Bay Area, but have had writers from many areas of the US as well as a few pieces by authors in Canada, France, and the UK. In the future, perhaps once we get to the point where we can add additional staff, we would love to have more coverage of events, trends, and critique from other areas of the world. As for other perspectives and communities, we always love to hear from our readers about what they would like to see more of and about!

What’s MVC’s biggest success to date?

Our third online issue was focused on the theme “Lean Out,” in response to the pervasive brand and ideology of “Lean In” within the tech industry. We had articles on choosing to quit STEM and how to support people who do leave, on the impact of Lean In on our relationships, on feminist quantified self, and other topics. It was our most successful issue to date – we think that the theme itself really resonated with a lot of people in a time of growing skepticism around the messages that dominant tech culture is telling us about workplace advancement and the progress of underrepresented and marginalized groups in the industry. For example, with over 56% of women in the field leaving the industry due to discrimination and other endemic issues, there’s a lot of questions about why we should be “leaning in” to corporations. We are also proud of the work that just came out in our Mythology issue — our authors really did an exceptional job critiquing myths, tropes and stereotypes within the industry. We learned a great deal from them and it seems the community is learning a lot from them as well!

How do you run Model View Culture from an editorial perspective?

Every few weeks, we announce a new issue theme. Often, we will proactively solicit work based on the theme from people we know are doing amazing things in tech; and we also accept submissions — anyone can email us an idea or pitch. If it’s a fit for us and we have space, it’s a great way to meet, work with and showcase the work of people we haven’t necessarily ever met before. This is important because tech is a huge community and there is no way to know everything that’s going on or that’s relevant. Most of our authors are not professional writers, which is also something unique about our publication. We love how it ends up being much more authentic and approachable than so much writing about tech, and we work closely with authors to help bring their work to fruition. It’s also a core value of our company that we pay our contributors. If people are interested, they are welcome to submit ideas to us.

Model View Culture’s latest online issue is Mythology. If you want to support Model View Culture and its writers and staff, subscription sales for 2014 are now open.

Increasing diversity in tech

This is a guest post by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and conference organizer living in Madison, WI. She is passionate about increasing diversity within the tech community.

As a queer woman programmer, it’s not difficulty to see the lack of diversity in the tech industry. In the past 12 years I’ve worked with only one other woman and have never worked with any people of color. Conferences and other events are sadly not much better. I’ve experienced my fair share of discrimination and harassment and have worked on raising awareness around these all of these issues because they are connected.

Historically, I’ve spoken about the intersection of the tech industry and social justice; I’ve educated those with power and privilege in our communities about intersectionality, discrimination, and bias. I’d spent the majority of my time attempting to help people understand the issues affecting marginalized people within the industry, but I was growing fatigued of progress that felt like a small drop in the bucket. One-on-one and 101 education require a lot of patience and time; I needed a way to scale up my efforts.

It wasn’t until last fall when a Ruby conference was cancelled after its homogeneity that I decided to do more about it. I decided to shift my focus slightly to community and conference organizers, businesses and hiring managers, while remaining accessible to the community as a whole. This would allow me to connect with people that have the amount of power to begin enacting change immediately and influencing the people below them. It’s like a pyramid scheme, but for good instead of evil!

What followed were months of various projects, including a month’s worth of google hangouts with conference organizers that resulted in one of my more popular resources on increasing diversity at conferences. Following that, I began contacting every new programming or design conference I came across and offered to do hangouts with them to talk about things like codes of conduct, inclusive language in their marketing materials, accessible venues, t-shirts for people of all genders and body types, as well as offering scholarships. The next project was a series of about 100 interviews with businesses, hiring managers, and marginalized people to find out why companies in our industry aren’t as diverse as they should be. What I’d expected to be a blog post turned into a full length book that provides a toolkit for businesses to change their culture, outreach, and hiring processes to prepare for and increase lasting diversity. The book is currently in progress and will be released soon.

Meanwhile, I was still writing and speaking online quite a bit about what could be done to increase diversity through attraction, access, and retention. I worked to highlight the efforts of organizations that taught girls, women, people of color, and other marginalized people how to program. I spoke with people about their frustrations and connected them to people that could help them change their communities. I directed attention and donations toward the work that non-profits like the Ada Initiative and NCWiT were doing.

By this point, conferences had started reaching out to me asking if I would be interested in speaking, so I started doing that as well. Before I knew it, more and more of my time was being dedicated toward education and outreach work and less toward my paying client work. Since many conferences can’t afford to cover travel expenses for speakers, I was in a tight spot. I wanted to continue the speaking I was doing; after all, many people won’t seek out this information on their own if they don’t believe it affects them. I found that meeting people where they were at, giving them both scientific research and anecdotes I’d heard from my hundreds of interviews and my own personal experiences were what was helping to shift the attitudes of a lot of people. Being able to have these conversations with them face-to-face made it more accessible for them to ask questions they wouldn’t have otherwise. But if I was doing far less client work, how could I afford all of this travel?

Recently a conference organizer suggested I put together an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for travel. The money would also allow me to create a
resource site that could help people continue to learn about the issues and what they and organizations they belong to can do to encourage positive change.

Near immediately I began receiving donations and being contacted about what I do. While the majority of feedback has been positive, thoughtful, and energizing, I’ve also experienced a fair share of the negative. I’ve received death and rape threats, harassment both on my campaign as well as on my blog, and comments about my appearance and worth. It’s sad to feel that this is to be expected from anyone engaging in this movement, but I know this is a symptom of a problem we’re trying to solve.

Overall, I’ve been overwhelmed with the response I’ve gotten. People have been donating for some of my silly perks, like choosing my hair color for a month or a personalized vine mini-movie on a topic of their choosing. I raised the amount I was asking for within 12 hours and doubled that within 36. People began asking if I had stretch goals and I had to think bigger than I thought I’d have to. Some friends and I came up with the idea of putting together a video series on different aspects of diversity in tech. Our larger goal is to raise enough to put on a diversity summit that would bring together activists, educators, businesses, conference organizers, and other community members to find ways to integrate our efforts better and make the movement more visible.

I would love to see the campaign reach this larger stretch goal; I’ve been a conference organizer for 10 years and it would be great to have an event that could contribute so much to the progress of equality in the industry.

If you or your organization are interested in contributing, you can do so on indiegogo.

Lastly, I’d like to continue this work through the employment of a company within the industry. I’m still searching for a company that is as passionate about this as I am. A good fit that would allow me to write, speak, and teach about the importance of diversity, as well as offering me time to work on open source software and helping more marginalized people to contribute to OSS as well. You can contact me about opportunities at ashedryden@gmail.com.

Tech confidence vs. tech competence

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

Content notes: sexism, abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Answer: a lot.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

David Notkin

Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

This is a guest post by Debbie Notkin, who is the chair of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award motherboard, a co-organizer of WisCon, and a science fiction and fantasy editor and reviewer. She is also the writer (with Laurie Toby Edison) of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and (with Laurie Toby Edison and Richard F. Dutcher) of Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. She blogs at Body Impolitic and on Dreamwidth.

No marginalized group can move forward without allies, and all of us have the opportunity to be allies as well as need allies. So it behooves us to look at what high-integrity, committed ally work looks like. And that’s why I want to tell you about my brother.

When David Notkin’s son Akiva was about two years old, he was fascinated by all games played with balls. (At 15, he still is.) We were on a family vacation together when David and I walked with the toddler past a ping-pong table, and Akiva instantly wanted to see what was up. I asked David why he thought Akiva was so much more interested in balls and ball games than his older sister Emma. David said, “I don’t know. We treated them exactly the same; it must just be something about him.” Having heard this from dozens of parents over the years, and rarely finding a productive response, I just let it go.

Years later, unprompted (if I recall correctly), David told me that he was no longer sure that was true. He had started to spend time with and pay attention to the serious feminists who advocate for more women in technology and the STEM fields, and he had done some listening and some reading. He said, “I think it’s perfectly possible that we responded to Akiva’s interest in balls differently than we would have if it had been Emma.” I had, and still have, very little experience with anyone changing their mind on these topics.

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville differentiates between what she calls the “Fixed State Ally Model” and the “Process Model,”

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

The kind of shift that David made about his son’s interest in ball games is as good a step into the Process Model as any.

In this flash talk, given at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Summit in Chicago in May of 2012, we see more commitment to process in ally work.

In this talk, David says nothing about what women want, how to bring women into the field, or really anything about anyone except David. Instead, he describes the reasons to take another step on an ally’s journey, and advocates a way for teachers and professors to take that step, by voluntarily stepping into a learning situation where they are in the minority. As he says in the opening frame, he’s in a room full of brilliant women. As he doesn’t say, he knows he has nothing to tell them about being female, or being female in the computer science world, or anything else about their lives. What he can share is his own efforts to understand what it’s like to be marginalized, without taking on the mantle of the marginalized.

The NCWIT talk came in a deceptively optimistic period for David; he had spent the end of 2010 and virtually all of 2011 in cancer treatment, and his scans were clean … until June. In February of 2013, a few months after David’s cancer had spread and he had been given a terminal diagnosis, his department held a celebration event for him. Notkinfest was a splendor of tie-dye, laughter, and professional and personal commemoration. I hadn’t really followed his trajectory as an ally and mentor to women and people of color, and I was amazed at how many of the speakers talked about his role in making space for marginalized groups.

Anne Condon, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia told a longer story about Mary Lou Soffa, (Department of Computer Science, University of Michigan), who couldn’t be there. Dr. Condon said,

Mary Lou is a very prestigious researcher in compilers and software engineering, and probably the most outspoken person I know. Once a senior officer from a very prominent computing organization proudly unveiled a video about opportunities in computer science. Now in this video, all of the people profiled were white males, except for one little girl.

Mary Lou in true fashion stood up and she did not mince words as she told this senior official what she thought of that video. When she was done, there was total silence in the room. And then one voice spoke up, questioned the choice of profiles in that video and spoke to the importance of diversity as part of the vision of this organization.

And that person was David Notkin.

The speaker list at Notkinfest, aside from Dr. Condon, included somewhat of a Who’s Who in increasing diversity in computer science, including:

  • Martha Pollack, soon to be Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, as well as Professor of Information and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, who has received the Sarah Goddard Power Award in recognition of her efforts to increase the representation of and climate for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
  • Tapan Parikh, Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the TR35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2007. (check out his TedX talk on representing your ethnic background).
  • Carla Ellis, member and past co-chair of CRA-W, CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research , past co-chair of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT. On her web page, Ellis says: “In my retirement, I will be pursuing two passions: (1) advocating for green computing and the role of computing in creating a sustainable society and (2) encouraging the participation of women in computing.”

Notkinfest was David’s next-to-last professional appearance. Here’s what he said at the open reception:

It’s important to remember that I’m a privileged guy. Debbie and – our parents, Isabell and Herbert, were children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and they were raised in the Depression and taught us the value of education and how to benefit from it.

Mom, especially, taught us the value of each and every person on earth. I still wake up and – You know, we have bad days, we have bad days, but we have plenty to eat and we have a substantive education, and we have to figure out how to give more back. Because anybody who thinks that we’re just here because we’re smart forgets that we’re also privileged, and we have to extend that farther. So we’ve got to educate and help every generation and we all have to keep it up in lots of ways.

When I spoke at his funeral, not three months after Notkinfest, the main thing I did was repeat that plea.

Structure and Justice

A few months ago, I attended a talk at Mozilla by Ted Nyman (of Github) titled “Scaling Happiness”. The video is freely available.

Nyman argued that companies with minimal formal structure are better for workers (specifically, better at maximizing workers’ happiness) than more traditional companies. Whenever someone asks whether something is “better”, I ask “better for whom?” Whose happiness was Nyman talking about? He didn’t say, but when I think about happiness, I ask what’s best for women, for people in GRSMs (gender, romantic and sexual minorities), for disabled people, and for people of color, since not too many people seem to think about what’s best for people in these groups. (For the record, I’m in the second and third of those groups, though I’m usually not perceived that way in one case, and often not perceived that way in the other.) Happiness for the dominant cadre in the software industry — that of people who have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and who lack visible disabilities — is not the same as happiness for everybody.

I don’t mean to say that happiness is a zero-sum game, that when abled white cis men are happy, that inherently takes away some of the limited pool of happiness from disabled trans women of color. Rather, part of the problem is that people who have privilege perceive happiness as a zero-sum game; part of their happiness comes from seeing themselves as better than others.

I think most people in the tech industry or in open-source or free culture communities know what I’m talking about when I say “structurelessness”. Perhaps you work at a “flat” company that encourages employees to make up wacky job titles to put on their business cards, calls everybody a “team member”, or renders everyone uncertain about who their boss is. Or maybe you’ve only worked at more structured, hierarchal organizations: ones with managers, a complicated organizational chart, ranks, and hierarchy. You probably know the distinction even if you’ve only been on one side of it.

Does structurelessness eliminate competition, abuses of power, and status hierarchies, or does it just drive them underground? To break down the question, let’s look at a few ideas about structurelessness, some of which are from Nyman’s talk and others are just things I keep hearing from people in the free/open-source software and culture world.

  • Authenticity: people are happier when they are able to be who they really are at work.
  • Informality: people are happier when they’re able to be informal at work, such as by wearing T-shirts with holes in them or saying “fuck” a lot.
  • Conduct: formal mechanisms for guiding behavior aren’t that important, since in a healthy organization, people will just be nice to each other.
  • Leadership: people whose job it is to manage aren’t necessary when people can just manage each other.
  • Accountability: formal goals and performance metrics just get in the way of getting a job done.

As a nod to structurelessness, I’ll take on these points in no particular order.

Hierarchies

First, why would a feminist argue in favor of structure when structure so often means hierarchy, and hierarchy is deeply entwined with oppression?

It’s true, I’m not a big fan of hierarchies. Maybe they can be used for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of that in reality. At the same time, though, it’s also a fallacy to think that simply declaring we’re not going to have hierarchies makes hierarchy go away. Jo Freeman wrote about this in the ’70s, in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Based on her experiences in feminist organizing, she found that groups of people (like feminist consciousness-raising groups) that declared they weren’t going to have a formal structure devolved into unofficial hierarchies, which were much harder to challenge and hold accountable.

Authenticity

Do you trust people to see you for who you are? I mean the question in two senses: (1) Do you believe that it’s even possible for you to communicate who you are to others without a great deal of effort, and (2) Do you trust others, as a general rule, enough to assume they will behave cordially towards you once they know who you are?

In his talk, Nyman talked about how in typical companies, many relationships are inauthentic. That is, people don’t act towards each other in the ways that they would in the absence of a rigid, externally imposed set of relationships. At least stereotypically, people don’t behave towards their bosses, or to their subordinates at work, the way they behave with their friends. He argued that people are happier when they can present themselves authentically and have authentic relationships, and that a less structured organization fosters such relationships.

If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.

Moreover, being your authentic self in front of somebody else requires trust, and outsiders have very good reasons not to trust insiders. For me, part of what I mean when I say I lack a certain amount of privilege is that every day at work, I make calculations about who is safe to interact with and who is unsafe. Of course, there are degrees of safety and it’s not a binary choice. For example, every time someone uses “crazy” as a pejorative — suggesting that what I am is also a label to insult an idea with — that decrements their “safety” score inside my head. Almost everyone uses this word in this way — even I still do, given that I’m not free of internalized ableism — which is why I say it’s not a binary property. If my company became totally flat and got rid of all structures, processes, and goals, I wouldn’t be able to have authentic interactions just because of that. I’d still have this calculus of safety I have to apply all the time.

And what about when who you are makes people uncomfortable? If you’re queer, trans, kinky, poly, disabled, you probably either have spent a lot of time trying to blend in, or you have stories about when people become uncomfortable upon realizing some aspect of who you really are, and having to comfort them. (Or both!)

To take a completely different example, do you really want to encourage people to be “who they really are” when who they really are is a harassing creep? Maybe having to be a bit inauthentic at work serves an equalizing function, like a uniform. If you know what the rules are, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to follow them and less likely that you’ll be cast out for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed.

Informality and isolation

Usually, no one tells little kids on the playground who to play with and who not to play with. But even very little kids start forming hierarchies of exclusion when left to their own devices. Vivian Paley’s work, as documented in her book “You Can’t Say ‘You Can’t Play’” showed both that in groups of kindergarteners, leaders emerged who got to decide which kids got to play and which kids got excluded; and that a teacher could change that by imposing the simple rule that “you can’t say ‘you can’t play’”. And increasing the amount of inclusion in the group made the kids in it feel more accepted, on the whole. An advocate of structureless organizations might argue that Ms. Paley should have just let her pupils be their authentic selves and form their own social alliances. But at least according to Paley’s account, imposing the rules made the kids happier — contrary to Nyman’s claims about structurelessness and happiness.

Now, perhaps kids are just different from adults. I also don’t think it’s necessarily human nature to form hierarchies in the absence of formal rules. Fundamentally, I don’t care whether that’s because of nature or nurture. No matter what combination of nature or nurture it is, as human beings we have the latitude to choose what we will value. Personally, I value inclusion, and while I can’t prove logically to somebody else that this is something they should value too, I think there’s plenty of evidence that inclusion and the overall happiness of people in a group correlate. And, as Paley’s kindergarteners show, inclusion does not necessarily naturally arise from structurelessness.

Mentorship

Isolation is closely related to an insidious way in which people who believe themselves to be good can perpetuate oppression: the withholding of mentorship. In another context, that of law schools, Pamela J. Smith wrote about how even when Black women gain admission as law students, informal social barriers to the development of mentoring relationships with faculty members are a form of discrimination that is difficult to challenge (“Failing to Mentor Sapphire: The Actionability of Blocking Black Women from Initiating Mentoring Relationships”, reprinted in Critical Race Feminism, Adrien Katherine Wing ed.)

Informal mentoring between apparent peers is mediated by social power dynamics as well. In her book Leaving The Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts wrote about the importance of tacit knowledge in determining whether Ph.D students succeed or fail. Many graduate programs are quite structureless in a day-to-day way; despite having a clear hierarchy (tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenured instructors, postdocs, grad students), new graduate students must navigate a system with very little formal structure in order to learn the unwritten rules of the game. The difference between being a popular person and an unpopular one in grad student social groups can be the difference between academic success and failure. Would fewer grad students drop out because of isolation if there was a more formal process for initiating beginning students?

In my personal experience as someone who, earlier in my life, didn’t resemble most of my colleagues, lack of mentorship is a major structural barrier to success both as an academic computer scientist and as a software engineer. And I think lack of structure translates into lack of mechanisms to encourage formal mentoring relationships — something that has a disparate impact on women, people in gender, romantic, and sexual minorities, people of color, disabled people, and everybody else who may not feel comfortable approaching someone of higher social status to ask for support.

Likewise, people with disabilities that affect how they process tacit social cues — such as people who are on the autism spectrum — may have a much easier time contributing harmoniously when the rules are made clear than when they must access all resources by guessing at a system of unwritten rules. Since ability to write software isn’t contingent on being neurotypical, barriers to entry for neurodiverse people mean excluding a portion of the talent pool for no particular reason.

When a marginalized person joins an organization, in the absence of structure, isolation and lack of mentorship can combine to render them powerless and unable to ask for — or perhaps even express — what it is that they need. In such a situation, it’s easy for that person to then be labeled “unproductive” by the very community that has, without even knowing it, made it impossible for that person to learn and grow. Formal structures are one way to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of whether senior folks in the organization find them initially easy to relate to or identity with.

Codes of conduct and diversity expectations

I don’t know how a structureless organization would maintain or enforce a code of conduct. Maybe in such an organization, everyone just likes each other so much that it’s not necessary to have one. But codes of conduct aren’t needed because people aren’t nice or because they don’t like each other; they’re needed because different people have different expectations about what kind of behavior is appropriate in which contexts. It doesn’t seem to me like getting rid of formal structure solves that problem.

Codes of conduct are just one way to help a group become or remain diverse, by ensuring a safe environment for everyone and providing mechanisms to address breaches of that safety. Without formal structures, how does a company make and keep itself diverse? While the practice of affirmative action is often inaccurately derided as “quotas”, a few tech companies do go as far as to institute numerical quotas for hiring women. I would suspect that such a practice, and even more flexible affirmative action concepts, would conflict with informality. But how does a structureless organization avoid devolving simply into hiring friends?

In general, how do you make sure that an organization without structure doesn’t default to recreating the same power hierarchies that exist in its underlying society? I asked this question during the question and answer period at Nyman’s talk, but it got a little lost in translation. Nyman’s answer amounted to “we won’t hire racist or sexist people”. But that’s not good enough. Everyone raised in a white supremacist society has unconscious racism, and everyone raised in a patriarchy has unconscious sexism. It’s obviously inadequate to dismiss the possibility of recreating systematic oppression “because most of us are good ethical people”. Nyman himself admitted that Github is getting less diverse.

Leadership

Unless it literally consists of a collection of people, each working alone — in which case you’d wonder what makes it an organization — in an organization without people formally titled “manager”, people will have to step up to manage each other at least sometimes and to some extent. How do you take initiative and assert power — in the absence of a structure that makes that power legitimate — when you’re already culturally oppressed and disempowered? If nobody is a manager, who will be most successful in, say, asking that their team institute a “run regression tests before committing code” policy: a tall, white, able-bodied, cis man; a short, Latina, disabled, cis woman; or a fat, Black, genderqueer person? When is it possible for people to really treat each other as equals, and when do they infer hierarchies when not given a formal hierarchy to look to?

What about when you’ve been punished in the past for trying to regulate others’ behavior instead of “knowing your place”? If you’re perceived as female, knowing that girls who assert power get called “bossy” and women who assert power get called worse, but also knowing that your leadership skills will eventually be called into question if you don’t assert power, structurelessness starts looking like a double bind.

Accountability

Without goals and performance metrics, how do people get held accountable? I don’t just mean accountability for delivering on the promises one makes as part of doing one’s job. How about, for example, not finding a subtle way to fire somebody for discriminatory reasons and make it look like it was performance-related?

In his talk, Nyman acknowledged that more “formal” processes are necessary for handling harassment: he acknowledged, “you can’t just go to anyone” if you’ve been harassed. But what else, falling short of “harassment” as such, might require a formal process?

Summing up

I’ve been pretty negative about structureless organizations. But there might be positives. Are they more open than more traditional companies to people with less formal education, or whose biographies are otherwise non-traditional? (I don’t know.) Do they make it harder for entrenched managers to retain power by virtue of seniority? (Again, I don’t know.)

To be fair, there isn’t just one set of processes that could arise when an organization sets aside formal structure. The majority could end up ruling most of the time. Or an organization could make decisions based on consensus. Or it could be cloyingly called a “do-ocracy”, in which decisions get made by whoever has enough time and energy to implement the consequences of the decision. I still think there’s the risk of majority rule, though, and the problem with that is that decisions about basic rights, respect and dignity can’t and shouldn’t be made by a majority. Where do basic rights, respect, and dignity come into this discussion? The number of occupations that are at least potentially a route into the middle class, at least theoretically available to anyone who has acquired a certain skill set that is possible for anyone dedicated to acquire, is steadily decreasing. If you’re in a social class such that you need money to live, learning how to program isn’t a bad way to go. But that will only continue to be true if tech company jobs are open to any qualified candidate, without the hidden price tag of humiliation based on one’s race, gender, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

Majority rule is, then, a problem because majorities often opt to keep minorities in their place for the benefit of the majority. And yes, a group made up of entirely people who see themselves as good and ethical can and will deny basic rights, respect and dignity to people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and other axes of oppression. The world might be different someday, but we can’t get there by pretending we are there.

Your thoughts, readers?

Thanks to Geek Feminism bloggers Sumana, Mary and Jessamyn for their comments.